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National Politics|By Amy Walter, September 4, 2013

Before Syria took center stage this weekend, the media attention on Congress had been focused on what Members learned while home for August recess. Given the large number of important issues Congress will have to confront this fall – immigration, health care, the debt ceiling, sequestration, etc. – it would make sense to hear what regular Americans have been telling their local representatives about those issues over the summer recess.

However, if you think that you’ll find those “regular” people at a congressional town hall meeting, you are sorely mistaken.

First, very few incumbents even participate in town hall meetings. A Democratic source tracking vulnerable GOP incumbents found that just two of the seventeen Republicans who sit in districts won by Obama in 2012 held August town hall meetings.  Few vulnerable Democratic incumbents held town hall events this August either.

You don’t have to look much beyond the Democrats disastrous health care town halls of 2009 to understand why many members of Congress are just saying “no thanks” to the open forums.  Members of Congress don’t like the idea of being heckled back home and having video of that confrontation running on a continuous cable TV loop.  

The summer shout fests of four years ago proved to be an early warning signal for Democrats about the wave that would sweep them out in 2010. But outside groups also saw how effective these public venues were for getting media attention for their own agendas and priorities. As such, the modern town hall is attended not by everyday people but by activists armed with video cameras and pre-ordained national agendas. Their job isn’t to seek out consensus. It is to shame or support the incumbent, and it’s that behavior that discourages even the most committed constituent to attend.

Moreover, many of those who show up at these events represent the fringiest of the fringe, and their number one priority is to carry the member of Congress to the edge with them. At town hall events this summer, ABC News reported, two GOP members of Congress - Rep. Kerry Bentivolio (MI) and Blake Farenthold (TX) -  expressed support for impeaching President Obama. Although Bentivolio and Farenthold are on the more, um, exotic end of the congressional spectrum, they did not initiate the impeachment talk. “In both cases,” reported ABC, “constituents brought up the possibility of impeachment to their congressional representatives.”

More importantly, few of these forums are held to get a real pulse of the community. Many incumbents hold them simply to have their own views reinforced.

Groups like Heritage Action haven’t let the lack of public town halls deter them. Instead, they simply created their own. This August, the group embarked on a nine-city “Defund Obmacare Town Hall Tour” to give conservative activists an opportunity to “learn how your voice, when added to the growing chorus of conservatives across the country, can make the all difference.”

This kind of self-fulfilling behavior, however, makes it even harder to get to consensus in Congress. Lilliana Mason of the Political Science Department of Stony Brook University finds that while Americans have not become any more extreme on issue positions over the last 30 years – Americans actually agree more than they disagree on most issues – the level of partisanship, activism and anger at the other party has increased significantly.

“The relative moderation of American issue positions has done nothing to stop us from behaving as if we disagree,” writes Mason in the journal American Behavioral Scientist. “As we have sorted into ideologically consistent parties, this new alignment has created a rancorous political atmosphere, unhinged from our issue attitudes.”

Using data from the American National Election Studies (ANES) from the years 1972-2004, Mason finds that, voters aren’t becoming more extreme in their views. They are, however, become more extreme in their behavior.

For example, 1992 marked the highest level of “issue position extremity,” while 2004 marked one of the lowest levels of “issue position extremity.”   The term “issue positions extremity” is the measurement Mason used to gauge how strongly divided voters are on four political issues: abortion; government services vs. spending; government’s role in health insurance; and aid to minorities/blacks.

Yet, despite the fact that Americans were not as polarized on issues in 2004, that year also marked the highest amount of anger toward a candidate or president of the other party. In fact, writes Mason, “between 2000 and 2004, when anger shows a remarkable rise of 60% for the outgroup [opposite party] candidate and 40% for the outgroup president, average issue position extremity decreases by 6%” In other words, says Mason, “it is not that we are angry because we disagree so strongly about important issues; instead we are angry, at least partially, because of team spirit.”

This is not to say that Democrats and Republicans don’t have honest disagreements about policy. They do.  However, Mason argues that disagreement in policy is not strong enough to justify the level of anger and antipathy expressed by our current electorate.

This brings us back to the issue of town halls and our current congressional gridlock.  “Did anything happen in August that will change the fall?,” said one GOP strategist heavily involved in House contests.  “No I don’t think so. I think the cycle of moving from crisis to crisis will continue.”

The only way to combat crisis is with compromise. But we live in a world where it’s almost impossible for a member of Congress to have a reasoned debate with a constituent at a town forum. Or educate his/her community on provisions of important policy. The merits of policy are less important than the color of the jersey worn by the person/group proposing the policy (i.e., background checks for gun owners). So, don’t mistake a town hall for a barometer of public sentiment. They are, however, a symbol of our current political system where, as Mason concludes, we “behave as if we strongly disagree, even when we do not.”