Angry, Disruptive Mobs Signifying Nothing

When South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint declared last month that he and his fellow Republicans could “break” President Obama by derailing health care reform, this was the moment he had in mind.

With the House now on its summer recess and the Senate soon to follow, a carefully orchestrated campaign to ambush the town hall meetings and other public forums that congressional representatives hold in their home districts is underway. The idea is to  draw media attention with dramatic footage of everyday people demanding the defeat of “Obama-care” and create the appearance of a popular uprising.

By mid-day Monday, the first full day of the House recess, there were already reports that two House Democrats—Texas’ Lloyd Doggett and Pennsylvania’s Patrick Murphy—had been confronted by angry mobs. Not surprisingly, this resulted in far more prominent and extensive press coverage than their district events typically receive. Many, many similar stories across the country are inevitable over the next few weeks.

Beware, though: it really doesn’t mean much. There are two factors that should prompt skepticism about the significance of these protests.

The first is their top-down nature. Many of the same lobbyist-administered conservative groups that pushed this spring’s “tea parties” are now directing their energy toward town hall meetings. A revealing memo from a Web site run by one of these groups, Freedom Works, advised protesters to “rattle” the targeted congressman and to interrupt him with shouting — derailing the meeting, in other words.

These groups are getting a boost, as usual, from conservative media outlets. Mike Huckabee, for instance, used his Fox News show this past weekend to warn viewers that Congress is “hell-bent” on a government takeover of the health care system. Then, he urged viewers to show up at their representative’s town hall meeting (“if they dare have one”) and to try gently—or not so gently—to remind them who the boss really is.”

Mr. Huckabee’s claim of an impending government takeover is ludicrous. But it illustrates what’s behind this new wave of protests: misinformation presented by a powerful media outlets and lobbyist-run groups that is intended to prey on the worst fears of the conservative base of the Republican Party. These are not spontaneous uprisings by concerned everyday citizens; they are coordinated mobilizations of committed activists.

There’s a simpler reason, though, to dismiss these protests: this kind of mobilization is a notoriously misleading indicator of where mass opinion actually is.

It’s understandable how this happens. The typical town hall meeting for a member of Congress attracts a few dozen people. Some come to listen, most just to air their pet grievances. Generally speaking, they are listless and uneventful affairs, ignored by television and summarized by the local newspaper in a few halfhearted paragraphs.

So if dozens of town hall meetings this month are suddenly overwhelmed by irate health care protesters, the media will be tempted to conclude that “something is happening” out there—especially since the press has already decided that the top political story for August will be the public’s reaction to health care.

But just consider how faulty this kind of logic has proven this decade.

In 2000, Ralph Nader staged a series of “super-rallies” across the country, filling up 15,000-seat arenas with supporters who actually paid to attend—dwarfing the turnout for the free events that Al Gore and George W. Bush were staging.

Was it evidence that the masses were rising up? Nope. Mr. Nader, for all the noise, finished with a scant 2.7 percent of the vote. Looking at his rallies, you would have sworn his campaign was a mass movement. It wasn’t.

Or how about Howard Dean’s “Sleepless Summer” tour in 2003, when large and ecstatic crowds from coast to coast heralded the former Vermont governor’s arrival as the Democratic presidential front-runner? He ended up winning just one inconsequential primary (Vermont—after he’d dropped out). His rallies were impressive, but they showed only how committed his core supporters were; they said little about the size of his bandwagon.

The same is undoubtedly true of the new G.O.P. protest campaign. The party’s hardened base has been mobilized. This says a lot about their passion. And nothing about where the rest of the country stands.

Angry, Disruptive Mobs Signifying Nothing