Town Hall Democracy?

Here’ s a recipe for debate rather than deliberation.  Throw a town hall meeting and put a politician in the middle of the room.  In that setting, the people generally come to blame and beseech.  They don’t come to do the political work of deliberation, which is to ask themselves, on whatever the issue at hand is, what are we going to do about this?

Was it Bill Clinton who took the town hall meeting and put it to the political use of meeting and greeting the public?  The language of “town hall” invokes the ideal of face-to-face political decision making.  But when there’s a politician in the room, all the energy goes to “what are you going to do about this?” With his political gifts, Bill Clinton could turn this into an opportunity to charm the room into seeing things his way. But that’s not what a town hall meeting is supposed to do.

In a real town hall meeting, the power is in the room, not on the stage.  I attended a volatile town hall meeting in Andover, Massachusetts, when I lived there. The issue had to do with development and there were a lot of strong feelings in the room. But the energy was directed toward each other, and the live question was, what are we going to do?  How will we decide?  And are we going to be able to live with each other peaceably after we’re done?  Someone stood up and reminded everyone that years ago, on a similar issue, what “the town had decided.” We were all here trying to work out what the voice of the town was going to be on this issue, too.

That is hard work.  In deliberating, there are usually several things we want but we can’t have them all.  We have to decide what to give up, and how much we’re willing to give up, to get something else. If there’s a politician in the room, it’s easy to shrug off this work and demand that the politician fix it.  Worse, it’s easy to start demonizing and name-calling.

This summer of “town hall” fiascoes made me ill and the fall is turning out no better.  We have this sham democracy. Politicians need to meet and greet their constituencies in order to get reelected. And on the volatile issue of health care reform, citizens have nary an opportunity to think through and work through the quintessential political question of “what should we do.” Instead they’re invited to a town hall where the only opportunity to weigh in is to voice an opinion or ask a question, not to deliberate. At its best, this is a recipe for an illusion of democracy. At its worst it’s an invitation for a mob mentality, the kind we witnessed with Rep. Joe Wilson heckling Barack Obama at a joint session of Congress and then later witnessed when hordes of right-wingers descended on the National Mall to demonize Obama and all the ills they imagined.

We need to find ways to start deliberating together, to ask ourselves, what should we do and what are we willing to give up to get what we want. We need to think about the myriad consequences and effects of various courses of action. There are people trying to do this, including folks with the National Coalition on Dialogue and Deliberation and with the National Issues Forums.  Be we need more spaces for deliberation, especially online.