Recently, Republican lawmakers have returned to their home districts to attend town hall meetings. Videos of audiences chanting, shouting, holding up signs, and asking aggressive questions have led politicians to make a simple claim: These protests are not “organic” – but an artificial, “paid” movement that does not represent the constituencies lawmakers serve. For examples of this claim, see comments by Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, as well as the clever side-stepping of Tom Cotton (R-AR). Similar claims have been made about protests that occurred the weekend after the Inauguration and the initial Trump travel ban.
As political rhetoric, I think these claims are first-rate. They are somewhat unoriginal, because Democrats came out with similar claims during the rise of the Tea Party. That doesn’t mean Republicans are wrong. Sweeping claims like these are difficult to disprove. But it is helpful to try lay out its assumptions. Here is a set of things you might believe to concur with Chaffetz, Spicer and others:
- Democratic donors have lots of cash on hand to spend after a high stakes presidential election.
- They would rather spend it now than during the 2018 Congressional or 2020 President races.
- There are is a large, cheap labor pool waiting to be paid to show up to town hall meetings and other events.
- There is a national network of local political operatives prepared to dispense payment to the people in this category.
- These operatives can verify attendance, so that they avoiding paying people who did not show up or protest. Or:
- These operatives don’t care whether the people they pay show up or not.
- Democratic donors think that angry town hall crowds or protests will “shell-shock” Republican legislators into changing positions. Or:
- Are spiteful enough to spend their money, knowing it will do nothing, just to put Republicans through a little misery. Or:
- Think that protests and angry town halls will sway public opinion in their favor.
- None of the paid protestors break rank and tell a reporter. All remain sworn to secrecy after receiving payment.
It’s possible that all of the above is true. But a simpler explanation for angry town halls seems far more likely. The first month of unified Republican control of Congress and the Presidency has created a lot of uncertainty for constituents. Congress and the President have sent mixed signals about what they intend to do about healthcare policy. The President has mismanaged the roll-out of a new immigration policy. Media organizations publish an endless stream of stories about potential policy changes from unnamed sources. It may be that this uncertainty impacts Democratic voters most – so we shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming this is the beginning of some kind of Republican collapse. But brushing off this activism as fake requires some logical leaps.