Hey, Politicians: You Work for Us

Last month my local town council voted to prohibit the playing of recorded messages from residents at its meetings. The disgruntled or enthusiastic can still show up and speak, of course, and they can write letters galore, but gone are the days when you could send your voice in your stead.

I have no particular problem with the new rule. But it got me thinking. To hear elected officials tell it, one of the major headaches of public office is dealing with an often furious public. The Tea Party summer of 2009, this story notes, was too “traumatic”: “Gone are the packed, freewheeling town halls of the past, where voters stood up at microphones and pelted elected officials with questions on just about anything.” And even when there are meetings, says another report, congressional offices are doing their best “to conceal when and where the meetings take place.”

It’s easy to understand why politicians at all levels are so frustrated. A Florida county commissioner told me not long ago about his experience being berated in the supermarket aisle by a constituent who was angry about some vote. A friend who’s an elected official complains of being constantly targeted by well-bankrolled critics. It must get exhausting. Everybody seems to be angry. In opinion polls, respect for government institutions is at historic lows.

No doubt there are lots of complicated reasons for this collapse. I suspect, though, that the biggest is simple: By and large, we don’t trust the government and we don’t feel that we hold much influence over it.

This sense of exclusion is as old as America. If you read through the colonists’ complaints in the Declaration of Independence, few carry true revolutionary import. To understand the document’s moving spirit, skip over the self-evident rights and the list of the Crown’s many wrongs until you come to this:

“In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.”

See the point? The problem isn’t that the British have adopted bad policies; it’s that the colonists’ petitions have been ignored and, in some cases, answered “by repeated injury.”

Movements such as the Tea Party and Occupy, whatever their differences over policy, share a sense that the government apparatus doesn’t really listen to the people by whose consent it supposedly exists. Low voter turnout and the widespread sense of disillusionment, I suspect, are both related to the sense that repeated petitions are repeatedly ignored.

It does no good to assert that people have more influence over government than they realize. For democracy to succeed, the people must actually believe it. But there are actually good reasons for the widespread certainty among voters that their ability to influence policy is small.

I remember an incident from the early 1990s, when I was trying to send a fax to an influential senator regarding a pending vote. My assistant called the senator’s office, which refused to give out his fax number, directing her to call his special comment line instead. We conferred, and she tried again, this time identifying herself as the assistant to a professor at Yale Law School — and she got the number without a murmur. Not long after, I happened to run into a friend who was a prominent Washington lawyer. I told him the story, and he laughed and said I should have called him instead: He had every private fax number on Capitol Hill.

The most striking part of the story to me is that I didn’t live in the senator’s state. I wasn’t a constituent. But from what my assistant and I later pieced together, when she called the first time, his office thought I was. So that was the firewall. Professors and lawyers could get to him; constituents couldn’t. (And my fax did get through: The senator called me back to discuss the issue.)

Elected officials from all points on the spectrum too often see public disagreement as a problem to be managed, not as a signal from those who — in the stories we tell ourselves about America — hold the actual reins of authority. That’s wrong. The health of our democracy should be measured by our response to dissent. “Those who attack existing customs, habits, traditions, and authorities,” writes the constitutional theorist Steven Shiffrin, “stand at the center of the First Amendment, and not its periphery.”

I think this is exactly right. I have argued that elected officials should spend more time, not less, among their constituents. Local leaders can’t help encountering worried voters; those in Washington, alas, go to extraordinary lengths to insulate themselves.

That’s a problem.

So although I understand why my local town council decided to ban recorded messages at its meetings, it’s important to be careful. I wish that more of my fellow citizens would express their dissent cordially and respectfully. On the other hand, the more our elected officials try to shield themselves from dissenters, the less the nation will live in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.

So let’s bring back those crazy, noisome town halls. Every government official, from president to postmaster, from member of Congress to member of the zoning board, needs to remember that these rude, unruly constituents are their employers. Most of us have worked for mean-spirited and nasty bosses at some point in our careers. Employees who can’t stand their bosses are always free to quit and get another job.


Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University.