- - Tuesday, February 28, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Rep. Dave Brat represents the 7th Congressional District of Virginia, but the real “brats” in his district are the liberal activists who disrupted his town hall the other day, spoiling it for constituents left and right, Democrats and Republicans, who were to have a rational discussion of issues important to them.

Such boorish behavior has been increasing at town halls across the country since President Trump and the 115th Congress took office last month. These agitators have little actual interest in discussion of public policy. They’re interested only in face time with television cameras. “You’re left in a tough quandary,” says Mr. Brat, a Republican. “I do want to talk to all of my constituents, but I want to have civil discourse.” The left-wing protest machine, he says, is “drowning out and ruining the opportunity for everyone else.”

It’s not just in Virginia. Hecklers at a town hall last week in Metairie, La., a suburb of New Orleans, even heckled the opening prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, a Republican, says the protesters in his state and elsewhere “are preying on public town halls to wreak havoc and threaten public safety.” Many of his Republican colleagues are substituting telephone conference calls “until the threat of violence recedes.”

The hecklers insist they’re following the early playbook of the Tea Party, which did in fact disrupt Democratic town halls in 2009 and 2010, trying, without success, to prevent passage of Obamacare. But those town halls rarely descended into abuse and threats of violence. Chants of “kill the bill” were mild compared to the torrents of unimaginative profanity and familiar vulgarity heard at town halls this year. The Tea Party was a bottom-up, spontaneous uprising without central orchestration, and with no sugar daddy such as the embittered leftist billionaire George Soros. It’s the difference between grass roots and “Astroturf” activism.

There’s lots for Democrats to differ with President Trump and the Congress about, and some of those shouted down are Democrats as well as Republicans. The hooligans want to shut up everybody. Democrats as well as Republicans must speak out against such abuse of free speech, making room for those who actually want to “speak truth to power,” as the cliche has it.

Responsible elected Democratic state and local officials must join their Republican counterparts in denouncing what Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, a Republican, calls “political thuggery.” The silence of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Charles Schumer, Nancy Pelosi and the like, including the usually noisy pundit class, is deafening.

Democratic Party officials are eager to harness grass-roots energy to their hopes in next year’s midterm congressional elections. Fair enough. But they must be careful lest what they harness is a mob that will hurt everybody. They should take heed of the warning by Ted Wheeler, the Democratic mayor of Portland, Ore., where violent protests have been running sporadically since New Year’s Day.

“I support the constitutional right to assembly and free speech,” Mayor Wheeler says, but with “some common-sense boundaries.” No violence, no vandalism. “That isn’t good for democracy.” Nor for the political interests of his party, or anyone else.

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