In his last words to the U.S Senate in 1852, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts defined political courage in the crackle and spark of turbulent times:
“I shall stand by the Union … with absolute disregard for personal consequences. What are personal consequences … in comparison with the good or evil which may befall a great country in crisis like this? … Let the consequences be what they will … No man can suffer too much, and no man can fall too soon, if he suffer or if he fall in defense of the liberties and Constitution of this country.”
Webster demonstrated the backbone to stand in the face of heated criticism and at political risk, all for the sake of the republic.
Webster’s contemporary successors in the Senate operate differently. Many, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, have canceled or failed to show at town hall meetings or restricted themselves to invitation-only gatherings.
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Rubio’s excuse? He’s not interested in being part of a media circus. “They are not town halls anymore,” Rubio told a Miami television station. “What these groups really want is for me to schedule a public forum; they then organize three, four five, six hundred liberal activists in two counties, or wherever I am in the state.”
That may be true. But in our political process, few things are more important than the right of citizens to hold elected officials accountable — at every level.
Rubio and others who have decided not to face their constituents seem to have overlooked that principle.
While most of the current elusive lawmakers are Republicans, Democrats in times past have taken pains to avoid angry voters. The New York Times reported in 2010 that only a handful of the 255 House Democrats then serving held town meetings. “That was no scheduling accident,” the Times observed.
America is entering a new age of activism. That’s welcome. However, there is also an increasing coarseness in our political discourse — from politicians and constituents — that’s unhealthy for democracy. Both deserve a fair hearing.
Last weekend, U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican who has conducted more town halls than any other congressman — 100-plus each year since his election in 1978 — told NPR’s Scott Simon that while such gatherings can be uncomfortable, they are “important to me because I’ll be able to hear what my constituents have to say, but I will also have to explain to somebody who disagrees with me why I am taking the position I am.
“And I think having an explanation is a matter of respect when I fall on the other side than someone who is speaking to me would vote.”
Sensenbrenner also notes that many of his town hall gatherings have given him ideas that led to legislation. They make a difference.
Town hall meetings also allow citizens to get help with issues that affect them and their families personally. It may be Uncle Joe’s long-overdue Purple Heart or trouble with Aunt Rose’s Social Security benefits. Every longstanding member of Congress understands that a big part of the job is taking care of constituents.
A common complaint about candidates in election seasons is that they are “out of touch” with the folks at home. Those who evade their constituents fuel that notion and deprive themselves of a chance to understand — and be understood by — those they serve.
Paraphrasing Harper Lee’s fictional lawyer, Atticus Finch, we cannot understand those who differ from us until we walk in their shoes. That includes hearing their voices, considering their views. For our elected leaders and for activists, the lessons are simple.
It’s a matter of responsibility.
It’s a matter of respect.
Our democracy depends on both.
Paul South is a board member of Common Cause Florida.