Last night, Doug and I attended a town hall meeting in Moss Point, Mississippi, hosted by Democrat Gene Taylor, the U.S. Representative for the 4th District of Mississippi. The 4th District, which covers the southeast quarter of the state, is one of the most conservative districts in the Unites States to be represented by a Democrat. In 2008, the 4th District voted for Republican John McCain by 67%, a margin matched by only one other split-ballot district, Texas’s 17th (CQ Politics). Not surprisingly, Gene Taylor is considered one of the most conservative Democratic congressmen.
The town hall was an interesting experience. Arriving in Moss Point, we found Highway 613 lined with parked pickup trucks up to half a mile away from the conference center. People we passed told us that the venue was full and we wouldn’t be able to get in. However, we stood in line; while we waited, we debated a lady who was passing around a petition to require voter ID at the polls. Eventually, enough space opened up for us to get some standing room in view of the meeting.
The meeting (covered in the Sun Herald and on WLOX, with footage) was certainly tense. The crowd was predominantly, although not entirely, conservative. Outside, I saw at least one “Obama Show Us Your Birth Certificate” poster, as well as a variety of “Don’t Tread on Me” and “Down With Socialism” slogans. Many people were angry, and there was a lot of shouting and booing, particularly at the beginning. However, Congressman Taylor handled the meeting fairly well, and people even calmed down somewhat at the end. (He appeased them by repeating how he is conservative, supports the military, loves America, etc).
There were some good liberal voices who spoke — a doctor, a NAACP representative, and others who made good arguments. But it was a very conservative crowd and most of the anger was coming from that side. So what are people getting worked up about?
First, health care reform. Obviously. There is a lot of concern, both rational and irrational, about the government’s involvement in health care. The rational argument seems to be that private insurance can’t compete with government insurance funded by taxpayers, and that we need to fund our existing obligations, such as Medicare, before we create new obligations that will balloon the national debt. The less rational part includes a worrying lack of compassion for vulnerable members of the population; one lady was booed for pointing out that people who lose their jobs have a hard time affording health insurance. It also includes some confused statements of the “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” genre.
Second, “rights”. This is a confusing but persistent apprehension. It seems to be related to things like government involvement in health care, higher taxes, and gun control. At least, that is my best interpretation of vague statements such as, “Those of us who live in rural Mississippi are afraid that our rights our getting taken away” (a statement that was widely applauded by the crown but never satisfyingly explained).
Third, immigration. The topic was brought up fairly briefly, but it drew a scary amount of anger from the crowd (as in, “We need troops on the border to shoot them as they come over” scary). It’s disappointing, but not surprising, that Mississippians can’t be more tolerant and accepting of the people who have, among other things, contributed immensely to the rebuilding effort after Katrina.
Fourth, Democrats. Many of the folks at the meeting didn’t think very highly of people like Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer. Gene Taylor got grilled pretty heavily about why he’s a member of the Democratic party. I suspect there’s a high level of cognitive dissonance among conservatives who know three things absolutely: They Like Gene Taylor, Gene Taylor Is A Democrat, and Democrats Are Evil. It’s actually quite amusing. Is it possible that not all three of those things are 100% true?
So, the meeting was interesting as far as hearing opinions from the conservative side of the population. Gene Taylor’s positions are disappointing, considering his party; he’s staunchly pro-gun, anti-immigration, and so forth. But he seemed intelligent and had some good ideas about increasing competition in the health insurance industry, improving wind insurance, and guaranteeing benefits to military veterans. We need more political debates like this with our representatives and other politicians.