Sound Off! Facing Constituents Comes with Territory By Luke Perry
The threats Congresswoman Claudia Tenney shared this week with Utica’s Observer Dispatch are troubling and should be condemned wholeheartedly. Congresswoman Tenney and all elected officials should not be subject to violence or threats of violence. The children of public servants, including her son, are not public figures, and should be considered off limits from public commentary.
The shooting in Virginia not only illuminates the challenges of security facing public servants, but also the fragility of American democracy. Political Scientists have documented how political violence is a sign of eroding democracy. People are more supportive of political violence if they doubt elections make office holders pay attention to them.
Our elections have faced unprecedented scrutiny after Russian sabotage and a historically unpopular president, legally elected by a minority of people, whose Cabinet members, family members, and now the president himself, are under investigation by the Special Counsel. Republicans and Democrats can agree these are challenging times.
I teach my students that politics at its core is actually a good thing by providing an established process for resolving conflict peacefully, which is infinitely preferable to violence. Not shooting people you politically disagree with is obviously good. Less obvious is how speech matters too, and how our community and society would benefit if citizens in and out of public office spent more time deeply listening to opposing viewpoints and less time demonizing them.
Listening can’t occur without genuine two way communication. I also tell my students that politics is so contentious because it draws on deeply held values that many don’t want to have questioned or criticized. The health of democracy requires this, particularly of elected office holders, whose primary function is representing their constituents.
Town hall meetings are an indispensable part of a representative’s job, one that dates back to 1633 when the town of Dorchester, Massachusetts, agreed to meet weekly “without resistance” to pursue “the general good.” I have seen firsthand, and heard from others, how Congresswoman Tenney generously gives her time to small groups of constituents, diligently speaking with everyone and directly answering questions. Phoning it in, and not doing town halls, is undemocratic.
Like all elected representatives, Congresswoman Tenney makes personal and political calculations. Politically, she is likely concerned about criticism of her vote for the American Health Care Act. President Trump recently described the bill as “mean,” after previously lauding its signing, while only 20 percent of Americans, and less than half of Republicans, support it.
Personally, Congresswoman Tenney has proven capable of assuming risks to do her job better. Since taking office Ms. Tenney visited Afghanistan and Iraq in one trip, and Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan, in another. The U.S. State Department advises citizens against visiting these countries for security reasons. Afghanistan and Iraq are active war zones, while Americans in Lebanon face “threats of terrorism, armed clashes, kidnapping, and outbreaks of violence.
If Congresswoman Tenney can visit with foreign leaders there, she can meet with constituents here. Strengthening democracy should be a priority for us all. Replenishing this system so many have struggled for is the best way to move beyond these challenging times.
Luke Perry (@PolSciLukePerry) is Professor of Government at Utica College. His column Sound Off! critiques various aspects of American politics.