“Do your job! Do your job!”
Nearly 1,300 people jumped to their feet as the chorus crescendoed into a mixture of yelling, whooping, and screeching. Bright red posters with large, black thumbs-down flew into the air. Standing in the back of the large auditorium at Raritan Valley Community College, at my first of four town halls as a volunteer and later intern of Representative Leonard Lance (R-NJ), I was stunned by this emotional display and gazed at veteran volunteers to see if they shared my astonishment.
Glenn Mortimer is one of these veterans, who by his estimation has been to around half of Congressman Lance’s 44 town halls. A member of Leonard Lance’s staff since Lance was elected to represent New Jersey’s Seventh Congressional District in 2008, he pointed out that passionate and emotional political displays at Lance’s town halls are nothing new to the Congressman and his office.
“The current progressive groups at town halls mirror those who came to town halls in 2009–2010 that were a part of the Tea Party,” Mortimer says.
Bobbi Goodman, another veteran of the Congressman’s team since his election in 2008, seconded this notion.“Town halls have always been a vehicle for the Congressman to reach his constituency,” Goodman reflects. “Attendance may depend on current issues and the seasons, but the premise of a town hall is the same, regardless of those in attendance.”
Mortimer and Goodman are of course referring to the rise of the Tea Party in 2009–2010. This was a grassroots political movement that, though an ideological polar opposite, shared many similarities with the progressive movement of 2017. They both rely on a return of political and economic power to people who have “been left behind” by the federal government. However, despite a similarity in style and overall goals, there are profound differences.A major difference, according to Mortimer, is that progressive groups seem “better organized and less ideological than the Tea Party.”
A well-known central tenet of the progressive movement is a redistribution of wealth and resources as a means to achieve economic and social equality; but, progressives appear to struggle to find a coherent, detailed message beyond this broad manifesto.
I tried to eliminate my very broad understanding of progressivism by reaching out to some of my many friends who identify as progressives, or support certain progressive positions; but, afterwards the large umbrella of progressivism seemed even larger and even more ambiguously defined. Senior Mikaela Tajo says progressives help people fight “for the respect and recognition that they haven’t received before.” Junior Christian Martin highlighted frustration with the “sickening influence of money in politics.” Senior Nina Halberstadter mentioned that the progressive movement is about giving “each individual the freedom to do what he/she wants to do and the power to achieve what he/she wants to achieve.” Junior Justin Rizzi proposed that the movement is about “trying to find solutions.” Senior Caitlin Bourke added that progressivism fights “for those who are unable to fight for themselves.” Sophomore Matthew Skolar perhaps weaved together an even larger bigger quilt of viewpoints: “progressivism is a movement that tries to incorporate all so it represents the ever changing landscape of the land we call America”. Only one mentioned a concrete policy proposal, demonstrating a lack of substantive ideas that is a common criticism by liberals and conservatives alike.
Also, instead of sitting down and paying attention to the Congressman’s answers on a myriad of issues, interrupting, jeering and catcalling ruled the day at my town halls. This was a theme at many town halls across the nation. In their article “Five takeaways from the Republican town halls” by Tom Lobianco, CNN referenced raucous crowds at events by Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Representatives Tom Reed (R-NY) and David Brat (R-VA). The New York Times article published the same day “At Town Halls, Doses of Fury and a Bottle of Tums” added Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Representatives Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Dennis Ross (R-FL). The anger Lance experienced is clearly not confined to just Central New Jersey, and it is extremely counterproductive to the progressive movement as a whole. It plays right into the narrative of liberals and conservatives alike that the current progressive movement is nothing more than an agitator and obstructionist incapable of responding to critics and formulating actual policy proposals, an Occupy Wall Street in 2017 if you will.
But despite this, controversies that divide our country have a way of negating the need for ideological coherence. For me, standing at that boisterous town hall of 1,300, the issue was health care, specifically the American Health Care Act. The fact that the Congressman opposed this bill and was one of only 20 Republicans to vote against the final version did little to engender support from his progressive opposition at this and subsequent town halls. During our interview, Mortimer and I fondly recalled the standard opening to a phone call from a constituent that we heard countless times: “I appreciate the Congressman’s opposition to the AHCA, but…”
The health care debate and other dividing issues initially promoted an exponential increase in attendance at Congressman Leonard Lance’s town halls. As of July 2017, I have been to four town halls, with the last one having the lowest attendance of the four — around 400-500 people. All but one featured substantial protests outside the event. According to Mortimer, this is a drastic change from his earlier town halls, even during the height of the Tea Party movement.
“Town halls used to be in city halls with 30 to 40 people. One hundred used to be a big number,” he said.
Other changes have occurred too. People used to be able to sign in at the event and none were ever turned away due to a town hall selling out. Now, constituents must sign up online and enter their zip code to prove that they are in the congressman’s district before being able to receive a ticket due to high demand from in and out of the district. Holding town halls also now appears to be a requirement, even though they are often confrontational and controversial. Goodman shocked me when she mentioned that her previous boss, Congressman Lance’s predecessor Mike Ferguson, never held a town hall during his eight years of service. It was a different time and representatives can thank progressives for the change.
This all begs a question central to the progressive movement and its drive for change on full display at that town hall: Can this emotional momentum last, or is it doomed to subside into failure or apathy? While the Tea Party achieved significant political and electoral gains, the movement ebbed as the 2012 presidential election approached, culminating in the reelection of Barack Obama. Even in the short-term, I have seen a nearly 75 percent reduction in attendance at Congressman Lance’s town halls in just four months later, indicating that the movement, despite gaining strength politically and socially, may be fizzling out. Whether the future of progressive resistance at town halls will be indifference to repetition and slowly fading into oblivion, or initiative to grow as an effective movement, we shall all see very soon … at town halls.