Column: A better sideshow?

After all the hoopla about the end of a long-standing tradition, I was surprised at how little fanfare ushered out the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Circuses have been increasingly under attack regarding their treatment of animals since my childhood. Criticism, right or wrong, of trained animals being paraded around circus rings has not won a groundswell of support for the industry.

There are other circuses still in business, at least for now. Perhaps those companies will fill the void created by the demise of Ringling Bros.. Perhaps they’ll be the focus of future criticism. Either way, it won’t affect me much. I haven’t been to a circus in more than two decades, and I have no children, so it’s unlikely I’ll be begged any time soon to take a youngster to see the clowns, trapeze acrobats or giant elephants doing handstands in the center ring.

A part of any good circus is the sideshow. While the Ringling Bros. sideshow may have gone dark, there’s a political sideshow that is alive and well. And rather entertaining, too.

I’ve enjoyed watching the game of “chicken” that has unfolded between Third Congressional District Rep. Erik Paulsen and those who seem to oppose him. If you live in his district, you’ve likely heard the story, more than once. And those living outside his district are not immune to the salacious details of the “Where is Paulsen” campaign.

Some of Paulsen’s critics have said that their criticism is not in response to the election of Donald Trump as president, that their criticism is not a Democratic Party movement. Are there Republican Party supporters joining the “Where’s Paulsen” chorus? I haven’t heard from any, but I don’t doubt there are a few out there.

The criticism of Paulsen touches upon several points, but the one that comes up most frequently is his unwillingness to hold a public meeting where every disgruntled, nonpartisan constituent can speak their mind and tell Paulsen what they think. (Translation: How wrong he is.)

The response from Paulsen’s camp is that the congressman makes himself available to constituents in a variety of ways. One of the defenses his office uses is that Paulsen used to hold such public meetings, and the interest was tepid.

There’s no shortage of interest nowadays, and the “Where’s Paulsen?” acolytes continue to shame him for not appearing where and when they want.

I can’t decide who looks more silly at the end of the day. It’s a bit like watching clowns at a circus sideshow, throwing buckets of confetti at each other. It’s good for a laugh once or twice, but the gag fails to provide the same amusement after five or six such exchanges.

A clash of political ideologies that inspires voters to get involved after an election is arguably a good thing, whatever their motivation. But let’s be honest, people who are motivated aren’t typically people who are happy. That’s human nature.

Wanting a forum to yell at Paulsen, something nobody seemed to be asking for in October, is a fair request. Catching brickbats is part of the political landscape, without question, but what would a Paulsen roast accomplish? Hundreds of people showed up at an open forum this past winter, to which Paulsen was invited but never agreed to attend. If Paulsen were to announce a public forum next month, he’d have to hold it in St. Paul, only because the arena in Minneapolis is under renovation and therefore unavailable to accommodate the crowd.

Since Paulsen is unwilling to endorse a public flogging, a portion of his constituents continue to make noise in a variety of ways. It’s a game of “chicken,” although perhaps in reverse. Instead of the two sides being on a collision course, they seem to be moving in opposite directions, and neither side is willing to stop running, or change direction. Allegedly, the critics simply want a public forum with Paulsen to air their grievances.

Paulsen, meanwhile, seems content with going about his business the way he has in recent years, which gains the support of the electorate every two years, despite what the critics argue. Paulsen, by the way, makes time to meet with constituents in a variety of ways, just not at a “town hall meeting,” which seems to be the gold standard for judgment.

As I said, there’s amusement in watching the sideshow unfold. But much like the Ringling Bros. circus, perhaps there’s a point when it makes sense to stop throwing buckets of confetti and find other ways to entertain the political observers. Or perhaps the donkey and elephant acts don’t offend people as much as animal activists would have us believe.