The Effectiveness Of Yelling

[ Posted Tuesday, August 4th, 2009 – 17:19 UTC ]

Is yelling a smart political tactic? That's an abstract sort of question, but it's going to become more and more concrete in the next few weeks, because there appears to be a coordinated effort to use the tactic of shouting everyone down to disrupt "town hall" events by Democratic members of Congress in their home districts during the August recess. My question is whether this tactic is going to be effective or whether it has the possibility of backfiring.

Of course, since the ones doing the yelling are interested not in doing anything constructive, but rather obstructing legislation they don't approve of (healthcare reform), yelling may be more effective than one would normally assume. But the real question is how they will be portrayed in the mainstream media -- as forehead-vein-throbbing lunatics, or as passionate fighters for their cause. Because not a whole lot of people actually show up to town hall meetings with politicians, and most Americans only become aware of such events if the media covers them (such coverage is usually relegated to local media, and is usually pretty boring). But people screaming at politicians may rise to the level of the national media, which means the way the media portray the screamers will be key. And the mainstream media, of late, has not exactly been doing a shining job of separating lunacy from political discourse (see: "birthers"). So it will be interesting to see how this all plays out.

Yelling in politics isn't new, it should be pointed out. Yelling at each other is most likely how what we now call "politics" began in human society. Traces of it still remain, and it appears as a political tactic now and again, from both sides of the aisle. For the most part, America has banished yelling from our hallowed halls of Congress (see: Robert's Rules Of Order). If you want to see how yelling is still part of other countries' political processes, I invite you to check out a session of the British Parliament, which closely resembles nothing more than a kindergarten class hyped up on sugar.

But there's always the peanut gallery in America. Yelling has been relegated to the audience in American politics for some time now. But the core question remains -- is it effective?

Consider the most recognizable practitioners of the art from the left these days -- Code Pink. They show up at hearings and committee meetings, and unfurl banners and cause as much disruption as they can (before they are unceremoniously hustled from the room). But does it do any good? Does it achieve its purpose? The purpose of such demonstrations is really threefold. The first is an attempt to shame the "audience" -- the members of Congress themselves -- into realizing that people care passionately about their issue. The second is to get on the news. And the third, closely dependent upon the second, is to get their message out to the wider audience of the American public. Taking these in reverse order, the third and the second are often achieved. The press cameras love excitement, so they often get their yelling on the news, and the public sees them. But the first objective is almost never met, because the committee members either shrug off (or, worse, laugh off) such protests as just part of the wacky world of Washington.

But that third objective is an interesting one, because the protesters are caught in a Catch-22 situation. The only way they'll get their views onto the mainstream media's radar is to stand up and yell about it in an inappropriate time. That's what makes it a news story in the first place. But at the same time, average Americans usually aren't very impressed with people who are screaming like banshees, no matter what they're screaming about. Meaning that if you yell loud enough to get noticed, your message often gets lost in the volume.

There is also the risk of the media getting bored with the whole game. And when the media gets bored, it either ignores you completely or it begins ridiculing you mercilessly. Neither of which advances the cause, it should be noted. The clearest example of this was a Saturday Night Live sketch last year, which parodied a congressional hearing. After giving a few satirical examples about the way the congressmen were asking questions, the committee chair interrupted and said in the same stentorian tones he had been using, "We now have on the schedule a ten-second interruption from Code Pink." A few protestors stood up and yelled for a few seconds, and then stopped. The chair looked up at them and said the real punchline -- "you still have three seconds left of your time," upon which the protestors thanked him and screamed for three more seconds. This showed how institutionalized and predictable the entire game had become (I should note I did those quotes from memory, they may not be exact).

But perhaps that's not the best example. During the Republican National Convention a few brave souls somehow got into the arena and, at opportune moments, stood up and started yelling. Now, this is truly entering the enemy's camp, and due to the huge audience of fervid Republicans (who had no interest in hearing anything the protesters had to say), they were shouted down immediately. But it did make for some amusing television coverage for those of us forced by our chosen profession to watch the whole thing from beginning to end. The protesters' goals, in this case, were a lot simpler. They really weren't expecting to convince anyone in that hall, they were merely there to disrupt the well-oiled political pageantry taking place. Which, to a small degree, they did accomplish. But in the larger sense, they truly didn't change much of anything. The convention rolled onwards.

But the healthcare reform opponents have quite a different audience, and quite a different venue than either a committee room filled with senators or a political rally filled with tens of thousands of die-hard party supporters. Because their target is the "town hall." And not just any town hall meeting, but ones held by Democrats to explain (and answer questions about) their healthcare reform ideas and plans.

The left is incensed about these disruptions and sneeringly call them "astroturf" (to differentiate between true "grassroots" activism, and corporate-sponsored bought-and-paid-for "fake" grassroots, hence the name). But this ire is largely misplaced, because the media can't follow a storyline that subtle.

Which leads back to the original question -- are these folks yelling going to be effective in changing anything? The answer is murky. Their biggest success would be if the media picks up the storyline: "citizens enraged by Democratic healthcare plans will not be silenced." Or, perhaps, if they force the Democratic politicians to retreat, and cancel future town hall meetings. Mostly, the folks doing the yelling will chalk it up as a success if (1) it stifles the debate so much that any sort of sane conversation is impossible on the merits (or the lack thereof) of the Democratic plans, and (2) if it convinces people who haven't been paying much attention to the debate that there's a huge public distaste for what the Democrats are doing.

Either of these is a distinct possibility at this point. But so is the possibility of backlash. Because nobody likes a bully. And that's exactly what this tactic is attempting to do -- not just stand up and shout your point from the rooftops, but also shout down anyone who disagrees. And that may just be a step too far for the public to warm up to. While the media will doubtlessly run a few stories on the phenomenon, they may tire of it quickly and move on to other distractions. In normal times, at this point the media would turn with scorn on the shouting people and begin portraying them as buffoons.

But (see, again: "birthers") these are not normal times, and the media simply cannot be trusted to filter out lunacy from intelligent debate. It wouldn't surprise me in the least to see a television story soon about "the Flat Earth debate" -- complete with equal time given to both sides of the "controversy" -- just to pump up their ratings a bit.

So I have no idea how it will all play out. Democrats, at this point, seem a little befuddled by the tactic, and seem unsure of quite what to do about it. If they don't counter it in some way soon, the story could grow completely out of proportion. And, while I do not agree with the people shouting, I have to admit that this would be a true accomplishment for them -- much bigger than most people shouting in political arenas manage -- because they would have effectively changed the debate in a clear way that achieves their goal. Even if it caused a backlash among average voters, this may not be immediately apparent to either the media or the politicians themselves. Meaning that, in this particular circumstance, yelling may be a more effective "political theater" tactic than normal.


-- Chris Weigant


21 Comments on “The Effectiveness Of Yelling”

  1. [1] 
    fstanley wrote:

    I think that people should have the right to say their piece however they wish as long as they are not violent. Speaking, shouting, yelling, on a sign, on a t-shirt. It can be anoying if they don't give others a chance to speak and just keep making noise. However, I think we should have more participation in the political process. We need active citizens now more than ever. I get very upset when I see members of congress having citizens removed from the audience even if they are sitting quietly but wearing a t-shirt with a message they [the member of congress] does not like.


  2. [2] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    shouting shamelessly when everyone else wanted to act reasonable is exactly how the nazis took over germany.

  3. [3] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    I disagree with the idea that Democrats are "befuddled." In fact, they spent Tuesday putting exactly the right spin on all this. There's already a new DNC web ad up at HuffPo.

  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:

    It's clear that the GOP took a page from the MoveOn/Daily KOS/Hysterical Left's playbook when it comes to being disruptive in order to score political points.

    It's as annoying when the GOP does it as it was when the Hysterical Left did it.

    However, the Democrats run a real risk in trying to label those that shout out as "kooks" or "fringe".

    That is what the GOP did to the Hysterical Left and it probably cost them elections and the White House.


    "What's good for the goose is NOBODY'S business but the ganders."
    -Mr Furley, THREES COMPANY

    In other words, it was the Left who originated the tactic. Therefore it is somewhat hypocritical for those on the Left to castigate those on the Right for doing the same thing.

    Wouldn't you agree??


  5. [5] 
    akadjian wrote:

    I heard that the "tea party" here in Cincinnati was given instructions to disrupt our Congressman's townhall meeting.

    I posted the "tea party" instructions along with some video of the event here if you're interested:

    Our rep, Congressman Driehaus, did a good job of not getting rattled and making his case. It helped that they set the tone for a civil debate at the start.

    Honestly, I don't think the teabagging interruptions helped the Republican cause.

    What may help their cause, however, is the way our local paper shaped the article. They didn't focus on the tea party folks. Instead, it was more subtly biased.

    All they presented was the Democratic plan and then the harm the Republicans said it would do. No potential benefits like insuring 30 million Americans, reducing the costs on small business, etc. Nothing.

    So when you read the article, you read about the policy and then the harm.

    I have a very polite letter in to the writer and will keep you posted if I get a response.

    Great topically post, Chris!
    - David

  6. [6] 
    nutcase wrote:

    A few years ago Paul Krugman stated that if the president said that the Earth was flat a balanced headline would be, "The shape of the Earth in question."

    I covered "fair and balanced" as part of one chapter in my book. Balanced is not necessarily fair and is frequently antithetical to both fair and true. For reasons of space I won't describe a bunch of applicable illustrations here but you are welcome to come up with your own. It's easy.

    As for the yelling, nypoet22 is correct that the Nazis used that tactic. It definitely has the potential to be dangerous. It is used by people who fail to understand, appreciate or support democracy, something that most Americans consider a fundamental aspect of what America is.

    These people care not what others think or want or need. They are intent on getting their way. They are also the most easily manipulated. They are not Americans in any real sense of that title.

    If everyone agreed, we should not need elections. We could just appoint anyone at random. Democracy addresses the fact that people disagree. If two people disagree, one or both must be wrong. Democracy is an admission that one may be wrong. Democracy gives us the right to be wrong. That is obviously too nuanced for these regressives to comprehend.

    Recognition that you may be wrong should bring restraint in public discourse. The fact that these people are so convinced of their own infallibilty that they feel they have the right to stop others from expressing themselves, is evidence that they believe in dictatorship, as long as the dictator agrees with them.

  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:


    These people care not what others think or want or need. They are intent on getting their way. They are also the most easily manipulated. They are not Americans in any real sense of that title.

    I couldn't have put it better myself..

    As I said, it's a sorry tactic no matter WHICH side of the political spectrum uses it...


  8. [8] 
    nutcase wrote:


    "I couldn't have put it better myself.."

    That's just evidence that I am always right. ;)

  9. [9] 
    akadjian wrote:

    Well said, Michale & nutcase.

  10. [10] 
    Michale wrote:
  11. [11] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    The befuddled Democrats could take a page out of treasury secretary Timothy Geithner's book. When confronted with the yelling of asinine rants - which is the only type of yelling at these town halls that I'm aware of - the presiding Democrat could just say something along the lines of...'That is completely ridiculous!'

  12. [12] 
    Dorkfish wrote:

    Could it simply be that people are actually just pissed? I agree that each party has used "plants" at these type meetings both now and in the past, but really, I find it condecending that this is the explanation coming from the administration. I think that the DNC is really running the risk of increasing the anger. "No one likes a bully", well I think that a lot of American's feel that the bully is in the White House. There has been a drastic "ramming through" of the Obama agenda. Denying that a growing portion of America is angry is not a winning strategy.

  13. [13] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    It has been my very limited experience that people may very well be just "pissed" but that a large portion of this visceral reaction to much of what the Obama administration is doing - particularly on the economic front - is based on simple ignorance and misinformation which I blame entirely on the ineptitude and incompetence of the vast majority of the media - all parts of it.

  14. [14] 
    akadjian wrote:

    Just to add a few thoughts.

    It's interesting how the media is changing. It used to be that people would buy newspapers or watch TV to find out about the latest events.

    I think the Internet is now where many people go for this information. Why wait for TV or the news?

    So ad revenues are down.

    And free ads on Craigslist/Ebay have taken away another major source of revenue.

    Because of these changes, mainstream media is looking for new sources of money and ways to cut costs. I wonder if they see this ideological fight as a new business model- similar to what happened w/ AM radio.

    Content is cheap- it's some talking head saying whatever they feel like. No need for research or investigative reporting.

    It generates interest- whether you agree or disagree.

    And it generates ads from either corporations or advocacy groups wanting airtime for their opinions.

    If it isn't there already, the next step would be to allow groups to directly fund content. Why put out content that you have to pay for, when you can air content that someone is paying you to air?

    Not saying that any of this is good as an objective media is a cornerstone of a democracy. But it seems to be the direction the mainstream media is headed in.

    - David

  15. [15] 
    Michale wrote:

    I can't believe the blatant hypocrisy being displayed here.

    What convenient amnesia ya'all have.. It's groups like MoveOn and CodePink that PERFECTED this kind of outrageous and aggressive behavior.

    And now that the GOP is using the same tactics, ya'all are crying and whining in yer Cheerios...

    If ya'all don't like this kind of behavior, ya'all should have condemned it back when the Hysterical Left was rife with it..

    Ya'all made yer bed, now ya get to lie in it..

    And I, for one, is laughed me arse off... :D


  16. [16] 
    Dorkfish wrote:

    What faction of the media hs misled the public? With the exception of Fox and most of talk radio, the cable news networks and the major networks as well as most newspapers have given this administration a pass unlike we have seen for any president in the age of mass media. Maybe I'm just a simple guy, but I don't think that the government's take over and intrusion into private industry in the name of saving the economy we have ever seen on a scale such as this. The Carter years brought us interest rates over 18%,inflation that was over 13% and unemployment numbers that were stagering. There was no need to seize that moment to interject government on the mass scale that we are currently seeing. It appears to me that history seems to be lost on many of our young Obama supporters. I think that is why we are seeing the older generation coming out in force at these town hall meetings. The economy back then rebounded without the power grab. I don't think that is misinformation. I have a pretty solid understanding of economics and I have yet to see the administration offer much in the way of sustained growth initiatives. While I would agree with you that the media has major issues, I don't think that you are giving enough credit to the intelligence of the American people. Actually, I don't think that the administation is either.

  17. [17] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    You ask which 'faction' of the media has 'misled' the public...

    You can't possibly be serious! I think you missed my point.

    First off, no 'faction' of the media has 'misled' the public...that would give the lot of them too much credit.

    As I wrote above, ALL parts of the media are responsible for MISINFORMING

  18. [18] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    ...the public because they are simply not smart enough to understand any complicated issue.

    For me, this is so not a partisan issue. In my view, the media is neither biased toward being liberal or conservative. The vast majority of the media and blogosphere is inept and incompetent and couldn't understand a complicated issue if their own lives depended on it.

    As for the intelligence of the people...don't get me started!

  19. [19] 
    Michale wrote:

    As for the intelligence of the people…don't get me started!

    "A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it!"
    -Tommy Lee Jones, MEN IN BLACK



  20. [20] 
    Michale wrote:

    I disagree with Bill O'Reilly almost as much as I agree with him..

    But I calls 'em as I sees 'em and when he is right, he is right...

    ""Talking Points" does not justify bad behavior by pointing to other bad behavior. I don't like insulting rhetoric at town hall meetings. People should be able to state their case without personal attacks, and I suggest all Americans bring some civility to the debate. However, organized protest is not un-American, and the left is now getting a big taste of its own medicine.

    Again, it is impossible to know what emotions are spontaneous and what are contrived, but if you want to know the truth about heath care, polling tells the tale. Most Americans now believe President Obama's health care vision is not good for them, and all the spin in the world will not disprove that fact.,2933,537982,00.html


  21. [21] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    For a story about yelling, this is a pretty well-behaved conversation here in the comments.

    I don't have any larger point, just wanted to say that.



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