Baer: Can Trump, Toomey & current events reignite democracy?

On his call with reporters Tuesday, Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) said Trump has "had a couple of stumbles" but praised the president's direction on tax reform.

Perhaps you’ve noticed (I know I have) upticks in interest in public affairs.

I mean beyond 2016’s bump in U.S. and Pennsylvania voter turnout, or last month’s Women’s March on Washington or street protests over President Trump’s (maybe) travel ban.

There are online efforts urging citizens to contact members of Congress to oppose Trump’s agenda and cabinet picks.

There is plain old individual outreach such as experienced by Sen. Pat Toomey, slammed with contacts, protests, and petitions, as I addressed last week and Monday.

There’s also increased outreach to media. In my case, far more email and calls from readers than any time since Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign.

Now, as then, reaction ranges from substantive to uncivil.

But what’s striking is a focus on policy, especially repeal of Obamacare. And not just national policy; I’m hearing about state issues such as spending, pensions, and gerrymandering.

It seems Trump’s election, based on disaffection with government and politics generally, triggered new interest in government and politics generally.

This, if issue-driven and not just sore-loser partisan anger or personal attack, is welcome and healthy.

But is it sustainable or impactful or just a flash in a political pan?

Columbia University political science professor Justin Phillips studies relationships between voters and government and how elected bodies react to citizens. He agrees there’s an activism bump.

“It seems to be true,” he tells me. “The question is whether it’s only one slice of the population, such as the political left, or something more broadly driven.”

He acknowledges issues in heavy play – Obamacare and the travel ban – can impact people of all ideologies; and, for many, Obamacare’s about pocketbooks.

He and others note current anti-policy outbursts are comparable to anti-tax-and-spend Tea Party efforts in 2009-10, which led to Republicans wresting the House from Democrats in the midterm election after Obama took office.

And maybe, he says, Republicans learned lessons from those days, which could explain apparent softening in a rush to repeal Obamacare. Which means activism can work.

But Marc Meredith, a Penn professor of political science, calls the current clamor reflexive.

“Losing motivates people,” he says, “It’s a great catalyst. And especially after such an unusual way of losing: so many votes but no power.”

Meredith says it’s “too early to tell” whether protest voices can be sustained but, “You can’t take back state houses or add seats to Congress just by mobilizing urban voters.”

Allow me a few thoughts.

I think it’s more than urban voters. I think it’s more now than before the election because so many thought Trump wouldn‘t win.

I think disconnects between government and citizens (and the fact too few pay any attention) is at the root of much of what divides us.

I think and have written we live in an ungovernable time at the whim of politicians in both parties who’ve sold democracy to the highest bidders.

Too harsh?

Consider what Founding Father John Adams wrote while building the framework of our republic: Representative assemblies “should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large.” Think we’ve got that?

Look at Congress. Set aside egregious underrepresentation of women and every race but white. Focus on financials.

Less than 10 percent of American households have a net worth of $1 million. In Congress, 51 percent of members, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, have a net worth of $1 million or more.

How attuned do you think they are to most folks’ needs or priorities?

I hope activism continues and grows. I think it’s a way to diminish disconnects.

Especially since, if you haven’t heard, the White House comments line is closed.    

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