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A Crossroads for the Future of Presidential Campaigning

A quest for security could erode the personal relationships between elected leaders and the people they serve, writes Brennan Center Fellow Walter Shapiro.

January 27, 2021
crossroads for the future of presidential campaigning
Spencer Platt/Getty

It has long been a glory of American democracy how small and intimate most presidential campaigns are at the beginning.

Fourteen months ago, Joe Biden spoke to about 125 voters in a high-school cafeteria in Knoxville, Iowa without any visible security presence. After his stump speech, Biden answered questions for 40 minutes before meeting with individual Iowans to hear their stories and — this being Biden — to exchange hugs and sometimes tears. 

That, of course, was a world where no one could imagine the pandemic — let alone a thuggish mob, egged on by a defeated president, invading the Capitol to prevent the counting of the electoral votes.

I worry that one of the major lasting effects of the American carnage on January 6 will be the permanent destruction of the personal relationships between our elected leaders and the people they serve. This rupture extends far beyond the presidency to also include Congress, which until now has the most accessible branch of the federal government.

So many things may never be the same after January 6.

In a nation of armed militias and crazed QAnon adherents, I sadly accept the immediate need for a Washington with chain-link fencing and a visible National Guard presence. But I also know that almost no aspect of security is temporary — and with each horrible incident, the barriers separating citizens from their government become more ironclad. 

Until now, the Capitol complex has remained somewhat immune from the security mania that locked down Washington after the September 11, 2001 attacks. When Congress has been in session, the halls of the Senate and House office buildings have often become a pageant of democracy. There was something wondrous to pass in the corridors within seconds of each other a delegation of realtors from Iowa and a group of Orthodox Jewish rabbis from Brooklyn.

Maybe an element of that openness will endure on Capitol Hill, but I wonder.

What is even more endangered is the congressional town meeting where a legislator in his or her district answers questions from constituents in a publicly announced forum. Having covered many of these traditional events over the years, I always thought that they resembled Norman Rockwell’s 1943 painting, “Freedom of Speech.” While I recall impassioned debates in high school gymnasiums over the Iraq War, most of these town meetings tended to be non-controversial with updates on Medicare prescription drug plans and concerned talk about the zebra mussels invading the Great Lakes. 

All this began to change with the Tea Party movement in 2010 as militant conservatives ambushed Democratic House members whenever they tried to meet voters in their districts. The shooting of Gabby Giffords in 2011 at an analogous “Congress on Your Corner” event in Tucson tragically underscored the growing risks to safety. With Donald Trump’s election, as the Associated Press reported, “Republicans who benefited from rowdy town halls six years ago…to win seats in Congress are learning a hard lesson this week as they return home: The left is happy to return the favor.”

The solution, particularly favored by Republicans in Congress, was the tele-town hall in which voters could call into a toll-free number and a congressional aide would then read aloud chosen questions. Needless to say, the resulting questions tended to be as cloying as a Fox News interview of Donald Trump. In short, these tele-town halls created the illusion of congressional accessibility with none of the risks of actually encountering a dissenting opinion.

Of course, the pandemic has limited all in-person congressional events to Zoom or the equivalent. But any hope of returning to normal access after the pandemic fades seems increasingly less likely. The passions are too deep and the threats are too great. After Rep. Peter Meijer, a freshman Michigan Republican, voted to impeach Trump, he told a local TV station in Grand Rapids, “Our expectation is that there are folks who will try to kill us.” Rep. Ann Kuster, a hitherto non-controversial New Hampshire Democrat, told reporters that she had worn body armor to the inauguration. And just last week, the Federal Election Commission issued an advisory opinion saying that a House member could use campaign funds to upgrade a home security system.

Before long, many members of Congress may well travel around their districts bubble-wrapped in security. Even if this turns out to be somewhat of an alarmist prediction, it is safe to assume that few in Congress will willingly engage in person with those who disagree with them. What will get lost is some of the vibrancy of democracy, as members of Congress will increasingly take refuge in silos of ideological certainty.

I also wonder if the pre-pandemic 2020 Democratic presidential primaries represented the last moments of traditional campaigning in the United States. I teach a political science seminar at Yale on presidential politics and the news media. And as I update my syllabus for the upcoming semester, I wonder if I have, in effect, begun teaching a history course.

The logic for starting the presidential primaries in states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina is that voters in these early primaries serve as a proxy for all Americans in quizzing the candidates and alerting them to their concerns. The system is not perfect (and the choice of opening-gun states is subject to vigorous debate), but the alternative is for presidential candidates to view the United States as almost entirely flyover country.

The kickoff presidential primaries represent the last chance for candidates to get something resembling an unfiltered view of the concerns of ordinary voters. At the same time, these early contests also represent the last time that voters can take the measure of would-be presidents in settings more intimate than a hockey arena or a debate stage.

The months ahead will be a time for repairing and rebuilding the democratic norms that came close to being permanently ruptured during the Trump years. Part of that recovery, especially as it relates to Congress, is to make sure that elected officials feel like representatives rather than an exalted breed of Americans whose superior status is ratified by the security that accompanies them everywhere. This is, admittedly, a difficult task in an age of domestic terrorism. But it is important that in the quest for security such a foundational part of American democracy should not be lost.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center.