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.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. I completely agree with your thoughts and sentiments here. I’ve been reading a lot of Alasdair MacIntyre’s work lately, for an important chunk of my dissertation. (By way of apology for reading an intellectual much admired by conservative culture warriors: his background in Marxism makes his conception of a practice an excellent intellectual tool for pragmatists and leftists.) His deepest critiques of our society run along these same lines, but he’s also profoundly pessimistic about any possibility of improvement. (Alliteration is fun, ha.) It’s made watching coverage of the Town Halls, &c., horribly depressing.

    I think MacIntyre’s deep pessimism might be counteracted by Dewey’s unlimited optimism. I can’t wait for the chunk of my dissertation where I get to immerse myself in Dewey instead!

  2. No need to apologize for reading MacIntyre. I think many of his criticisms are right on, even if he’s lacking in the way of answers. I’m looking forward to seeing where you go with the dissertation. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Thank you Noelle for saying what many of us have been thinking. Yes, it is enough to make one ill. I’ve even questioned the work that I have been doing for 20 years. Was I naive to believe that we could and would even (sometimes) welcome the opportunity to come together on issues? To believe that people want to try to understand diverse perspectives and to jointly construct approaches to vexing issues that reflect what we value and are willing to support? To imagine a roomful of turned up sleeves on people ready to do the messy work of deliberating?

    But here’s my tiny epiphany. The shouting matches, the sound bites, the vilification of the “other” have made it all but impossible for those who truly do want to roll up their sleeves and deliberate together. An editorial in the NY Times by Sheryl Gay Stolberg brought this home to me when she commented that amid the “increasingly ugly scenes of partisan screaming matches, scuffles, threats, and even arrests…the average Joe — seemed to disappear, pushed into the background by crowds bearing scripted talking points and signs.”

    So it strikes me that now, more than ever, we need folks like NCDD and NIF to carve out the space and opportunity for the disappearing Joes. In answer to Stolberg’s question “Where Have You Gone, Joe the Citizen?” S/He’s still out there. Let’s create more opportunities for people to do that hard work together and bring those deliberative, thoughtful voices forward.

    Taylor Willingham
    Texas Forums, LBJ Presidential Library

  4. I agree that these town hall meetings are falling far short of the deliberative ideal. But could these incidents just signal that the Right is taking a page out of the playbook of the Left? Re-reading Saul Alinsky’s Rulebook for Radicals, I got the sense that the disruptive citizens at these meetings had become radicals in the service of the status quo (no matter how oxymoronic that sounds). They borrowed the means of Alinsky’s radicalism, but dropped the end: transformative social change.

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