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Does screaming at town halls accomplish anything?

People who think they’re winning hearts and minds will violate social norms in order to get attention for their cause - while actually driving more of the public to oppose them.

Republican Sen. Joni Ernst holds a town hall

Republican Sen. Joni Ernst holds a town hall meeting in Fort Dodge, Iowa, Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. Photo Credit: AP / Rodney White

I spent part of last week following a congressman around the sun-baked precincts of West Texas. I watched Will Hurd meet with constituents, deliver his stump speech, and wax lyrical about the Dairy Queen Blizzard.

I listened to voters tell me how much they admired Hurd, a moderate Republican in the only competitive district in Texas. I also watched the folks who don’t admire Hurd stand up and heckle to interrupt his stump speech. I wondered: “Why are you doing this?”

I had spoken with a couple of them before the event, so the answer should have been easy. They were nice people - middle-aged, middle-class and passionate about politics. One of them was a lifelong Democrat, another a former Republican who parted ways with the GOP after the Tea Party began to rise. Both were Democratic precinct chairs. I heard their issues, which were about what you’d expect: health care, Planned Parenthood, immigration and the man sitting in the Oval Office. Given my criticisms of the Republican health-care efforts, and my own qualms about Trump’s presidency, I found it easy to sympathize.

But understanding someone’s goals doesn’t necessarily mean you understand the tactics they’ve chosen to reach them. I might sympathize, but not everyone there did. And the more aggressive their questioning got, the less sympathy there seemed to be for their views.

The town hall was being held in a Dairy Queen southwest of San Antonio; the crowd was largely white, and judging from their reaction to the repeated interruptions, largely conservative. There were rolled eyes; there were people calling “You asked your question.” The audience began to murmur as the back-and-forth wore on. The next day, at a coffee shop in Castroville, more protesters arrived, and the heckling got more intense. So did the reaction. The crowd in Castroville seemed to be more liberal, more sympathetic to the protesters - but nonetheless, a soft-spoken man who had recently moved to Castroville turned around, laid a finger over his lips, and issued a fierce “hush!”

These San Antonio suburbs are quiet, polite places; it seems unlikely that these tactics changed anyone’s mind. Nor did they provide new information to Hurd, who addressed his interlocutors by name and was clearly familiar with their stance on the issues. Which brings us back to the question I asked above: What is the purpose of these tactics?

That’s a question that I find myself asking a lot these days. These demonstrations and other ones involving breaking windows and setting fires certainly carry a message. And because it’s showy, it’s more likely to end up on the evening news (or in a Bloomberg View column). Unfortunately, it’s no good getting publicity for your message if the result is people hating the message and the messenger.

I don’t mean to suggest that interrupting a congressman is somehow morally equivalent to breaking windows and setting fires. Vigorous debate is a proud part of our democratic tradition, and those Democratic precinct captains had every right to confront their representative with their disagreements.

But what this tactic does have in common with more extreme forms of protest is that interrupting violates a social norm. It’s on the other end of that spectrum from breaking windows and setting fires. But it’s still a violation, however minor, and norm violations make other people uncomfortable.

So all norm-breaking protests, no matter how mild, run the risk of hurting your cause more than they help. It’s possible that there’s a silent majority for your view, who will be heartened by hearing spoken what they’ve been thinking for a long time. But it’s just as likely that your audience disagrees with you, and more likely that they just don’t care very much either way. Those people are going to be somewhere between irritated and outraged by your display, no matter how justified it is.

This is Human Nature 101. So why do we see so many of these risky displays? Well, for one thing, while such tactics are lousy ways to recruit people to your cause, they are terrific ways to build solidarity among the people who already agree with you (which is why the Tea Party - which ultimately mobilized a groundswell of existing sentiment against the stimulus and Obamacare, did so well by asking angry questions at town halls).

To state the obvious, people like feeling powerful. They are more likely to stay involved with a movement that gives them opportunities to feel powerful. Why did white supremacists organize a demonstration in Charlottesville? To look and feel powerful. Why did the counterprotesters organize en masse in response? To look and feel more powerful.

The more transgressive an action is, the more powerful it feels. Asking a question and then politely sitting down after the representative gives you a suitably mild answer is neither noticeable nor particularly empowering. Publicly arguing with the congressman, on the other hand, feels like noble battle. Shutting down a highway is more powerful still, especially if you can get away with it without getting arrested. And setting fires or breaking windows, well, you can practically hear the war-movie soundtrack running through your head. (In our minds, we always play the good guys.)

And yet, as I’ve already noted, these tactics backfire unless you’ve already got a critical mass of support. If you still need to build support, then resorting to them loses you more than you gain. The Dairy Queen where I watched the heckling did not seem to be the right venue. And there’s really never a good venue for vandalism.

Of course, the people who choose those tactics might argue that persuasion is the wrong goal, and it’s worth the cost in public opinion to make a powerful statement. But at the end of the day you can’t get much done in any society, least of all a democratic one, unless your neighbors are somewhat willing to go along. Moreover, the protesters may not even be making that sort of semi-rational cost-benefit analysis. A recent paper suggests that protesters often choose these tactics because they actually think they help mobilize voters to their side. It’s all too easy to confuse visibility with effectiveness.

With protest getting more frequent, and less polite, it may be that this confusion is becoming more widespread and bipartisan. There could be any number of reasons for this, but one possibility is that as the memory of the 1960s fades, people are simply forgetting why the left abandoned these tactics in the first place.

If I’m right, then we can look forward to a period of angrier protest, and increasing factionalism. People who think they’re winning hearts and minds will violate social norms in order to get attention for their cause - while actually driving more of the public to oppose them. Eventually, someone will probably notice it’s not working. But in the meantime, we can expect a lot less politeness and a lot more shouting.

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She is the author of “The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”

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