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Editorial: Dissent should have a purpose
Americans can't expect political leaders to bridge a wide divide until we can find common ground
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Protesters gather outside of a town hall meeting Wednesday held by U.S. Rep. Doug Collins. - photo by David Barnes

Put yourself in the shoes of a member of Congress for a moment. Yeah, it may feel icky, but play along.

For this exercise, set aside your political leanings for a moment and imagine you’ve been elected by a constituency that supports your views by a healthy margin. The people who hired you want certain policies put into place, and if you turn your back on them, they will throw you out faster than a Julio Jones touchdown dash.

Unless you want your political career cut short, you’d best follow the voters’ will. But in a nation of widely disparate views on all aspects of government and society, you’re also going to have a good many eager to tar and feather you.

Welcome to the reality faced by Doug Collins, David Perdue, Johnny Isakson and the other 532 souls who toil in the nation’s Capitol.

It’s easy to dump on elected national leaders as do-nothing, glad-handing, self-absorbed phonies; we do it often. But when you see things from their perspective, it’s clear what a no-win situation American voters have created for them.

We saw this on display Wednesday when Collins, the 9th District House representative, held a town hall meeting at the Gainesville Public Safety Center. It’s a common habit for members of Congress to do so in the days between their August break and fall session, though many recently have curtailed the practice as debates become more heated. Though the questions were screened in advance, and security and protocol carefully managed, give Collins credit for stepping in front of voters to answer questions.

It wasn’t surprising the event drew many of his detractors. They have shared their displeasure outside of his Gainesville office in the past and were out in full force again.

Their key issue is defense of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, the GOP has vowed to scuttle and replace. The House plan Collins supported met with loud protests from Democrats who fear the change will leave millions without health insurance, though the Senate version went down in flames, for now. The debate continues on whether health coverage should be provided by government or by the free market.

Thus, members of Congress are getting it in both ears — from conservatives upset they can’t repeal Obamacare and from progressives who don’t want it changed. And that’s just over health care; on other issues such as tax reform, immigration and national defense, the gulf between ideologies remains difficult, if not impossible, to bridge.

So what’s a well-meaning representative to do? If they’re elected by a majority of voters to do A, B and C, yet a vocal minority wants D, E and F, whom do they strive to please?

Ultimately, they have to do whatever lets them look in the mirror without shame. Evaluate all the input, make a stand, then be prepared to defend it. Too many of our representatives are accused of putting party before people, a valid charge in some instances. But when the people themselves aren’t marching in step, where do they turn?

Unlike totalitarian countries, the U.S. Constitution and laws include protections against a pure majority rule infringing on the rights of the minority. But in practical terms, there has to be some consensus to get anything done. With common ground elusive, you can’t always blame politicians when the people they serve can’t agree which direction to go.

Our system of governance is bottom-up, not top-down; the people choose the path for those whom they elect to follow. The gridlock in Washington merely reflects what appears to be happening throughout the land.

Thankfully, Collins stayed cool, even as protesters unfurled signs and heckled him. “I do not believe evil on anyone who was here who disagrees with me and I would pray they would not believe evil on me because I disagree with them,” he said.

That was the right thing to say, the same thing Nancy Pelosi should say to anyone wearing red hats at rallies in San Francisco. They are elected to back the majority views but also to represent everyone, listen and respond respectfully and provide services to all. Yet when it’s time to take action and cast votes, reality dictates those decisions will be based on what most voters want.

Everyone has a voice and a vote and the right to use them, and informed dissent is a key foundation of a free system of government. Yet we again cite the words of Barack Obama we used last fall after his successor was elected: Elections have consequences. To truly enact change requires more than mere protests; it means organizing to win votes and elect officials with the preferred agenda. Those who fall short at the polls will remain the loyal opposition and on the outside looking in.

That’s how democracy works. Yet it would work a little better if we could strike a more cooperative tone.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor; you can use this form or email to The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.