R.I.P. Town Hall Meeting

Town hall meetings often become exercises in political theater rather than a chance for honest communication.

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Congress has about two weeks left in its month-long recess, and if you happen to notice that your local congressman or senator is holding a town hall meeting, consider taking it in. These events are becoming increasingly rare and may eventually go the way of the drive-in movie.

The reason why is simple. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out in an article last week, town hall meetings often become exercises in political theater rather than living Norman Rockwell paintings, celebrating the American democracy.

Blame it on social media that makes organizing flash mobs relatively simple. Blame it on our polarized politics that makes tolerance for opposing points of view seem a quaint notion from long ago. Blame it on cable television and talk radio for teaching people that hyperbole and hyperventilation are acceptable substitutes for reasoned debate. There's plenty of blame to go around, and there's little evidence that political social behavior is going to change any time soon.

This isn't to suggest that people who show up at town hall meetings demanding straight answers to pointed questions or who want to provide their congressman with an unvarnished point of view are to be faulted. In fact, they are to be praised. And anybody who has won an elected office ought to be able to handle a few inconvenient constituents. That's part of the territory that goes with holding public office.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

I was an aide to three different members of Congress over the course of a dozen years in the 1990s and 2000s, and I helped organize many town hall meetings. By 2010, it was clear two things had changed.

First, the stakes of town hall meetings had gone up dramatically. In the early 1990s, congressional staff worked hard to get people to show up to these meetings. Usually the boss wanted the chance to speak to a room full of people about the work he or she had been doing; these were opportunities to reach beyond the people who turn out at campaign events and win them over. They were also low intensity. Sometimes only 30 people would show up and you often couldn't get the news media to come. So, if the boss made a mistake, cited an incorrect statistic or made an impolitic comment, it wasn't the end of the world.

By 2009, town halls would sometimes draw crowds of 300 people. A lot of them weren't very patient. And suddenly a lot of them had small video cameras. And those videos were uploaded to the Internet faster than you could say "Angry constituent on line one."

Second, technology was making it easier for congressmen to reach constituents without having to brave the organized mobs or costing the taxpayers tons of money. Back in the 1990s, if a congressman wanted to send an unsolicited update to his constituents, he had to send a paper newsletter, which cost thousands of dollars to print and thousands more to mail. Congressmen who frequently sent such mailers were often criticized in the media and by their election opponents for wasting taxpayer dollars. Now, every member of Congress can e-mail newsletters to constituents as often as he likes for no cost other than the software and staff time.

Another development is the telephone town hall. Think of a giant conference call: it allows congressmen to call tens of thousands of constituents and then select which ones get to ask questions. Politicians love telephone town halls because it gives them control of the event and reduces the risk of getting ambushed by somebody who might get out of line. Doubtless there will soon be new technologies utilizing Big Data to enable elected officials to target their various constituencies in even more controlled ways.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

As a result, President Obama's two-day bus tour last week generated a fair amount of media attention because it included a few unscripted moments. U.S. News' own Ken Walsh wondered if the president's experience with a town hall meeting last Friday would indicate if honest exchanges with average citizens are now a thing of the past. For the most part, Obama's bus tour consisted of carefully orchestrated events that all but eliminated the possibility of actual conversation between president and citizen – and that's not a new presidential tactic.

Call me a pessimist, but I suspect old fashioned town hall meetings of the sort Norman Rockwell tried to portray are quickly becoming a thing of the past. I don't think it is any coincidence that congressional popularity has declined to its current abysmal levels during this period, either. It all makes me think of Elliot Templeton, the prissy snob in Somerset Maugham's "The Razor's Edge" declaring, "I do not like the propinquity of the hoi polloi."

If it's not too late, take in a town hall meeting with your local congressman. It'll probably be something to tell your kids about.

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