Friday, July 9, 2010

The Town Hall Rebellion

Reflecting on last summer’s tumultuous Town Hall meetings, Peggy Noonan points to something important (my emphasis):
“Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats saw it coming. But it was a seminal moment, and whatever is coming in November, it started there.

“It was a largely self-generated uprising, and it was marked, wherever it happened, in San Diego or St. Louis, by certain common elements. The visiting senator or representative, gone home to visit the voters, always seemed shocked at the size of the audience and the depth of his constituents' anger. There was usually a voter making a videotape in the back of the hall. There were almost always spirited speeches from voters. There was never, or not once that I saw, a strong and informed response from the congressman. In one way it was like the Iranian revolution: Most people got the earliest and fullest reports of what was happening on the Internet, through YouTube. Voters would take shaky videos on their cellphones and post them when they got home. Suddenly, over a matter of weeks, you could type in "town hall" and you'd get hundreds, and finally thousands, of choices.

“The politicians, every one of them, seemed taken aback—shaken and unprepared.”
The comparison between Iran's Green Revolution and the Town Halls isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. No, the people letting off steam at the Town Halls weren’t, and aren’t going to become, revolutionaries.  And the congressmen they heckled don’t command a militia of thugs eager to club them in the streets. But the Iranian Greens and the Town Hallers had this in common: they both used new technologies to bypass the institutionalized mechanisms designed to process unorganized public opinion into manageable inputs for public decision-making. In Iran those mechanisms are part of the state apparatus; here they’re part of the prevailing two-party system.

That left the Iranian ruling class and the Democratic Party in the similar position of first denying that deafening political dissent was the expression of a genuine grass roots movement, and then, after its reality was impossible to deny, demonizing the movement as an expression of subversive passions. Neither strategy seems to be working very well.  And it left Green Movement’s nominal leadership and the Republican Party in the similar position of having to race to get out in front of a political constituency that it didn’t organize, and therefore couldn’t control. In each case, that’s more a matter of generating the appearance than the reality of effective leadership (think of the Republican leadership’s inability to keep Rand Paul and Sharron Angle from winning their party’s senatorial nominations).

In both the Iranian and the American case, political establishments are going to have to adapt to the fact that they’ve lost their near-monopoly over political organizing.

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