Most Americans, particularly those in suburban and metropolitan areas, may not know where their town hall is, or even if their town has one. But lately everyone, it seems, is ready to attend a town-hall meeting.
“Town-hall meeting” is the it phrase of 2017. In some cases, thousands of people beyond capacity are lining up six hours early to attend town-hall meetings, as if Bruce Springsteen, not their local congressional representative, were performing.
Use of the “town hall” gathering — for political grandstanding, outreach, or political gain — is a longstanding tradition embraced by both political parties. Go back through news articles and you’ll find spikes in reporting about town-hall meetings under Republican- and Democratic-led governments. There was a spike in October 2008 (coinciding with the run-up to the 2008 election), and again in August 2009, when President Barack Obama was touring the country during the summer recess and Tea Party members took to gathering at meetings to express their discontent. After that, the term sat on the word shelf gathering dust until President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
As Time reported during the election last year, town halls are pure early Americana, dating back to 1633 in Massachusetts. During the 19th century, communities built town halls for the express purpose of advancing civic engagement. In Springfield, Mass., in 1828, the town assembled to ceremoniously unveil its new, bigger town hall and George Bliss wrote that the community needed a building that could “contain near all the legal voters in the town.” The building would long continue to be “a place where the inhabitants may peaceably assemble and transact their municipal concerns.” But, more important than the size of the space and its ability to accommodate as many people as possible, Bliss argued that it was the expression that would take place within the walls — and the manner of that expression — that mattered most:
A body so numerous as the voters in this town cannot think alike on all subjects. A readiness to give others the same privilege of expressing freely their opinions which we claim for ourselves is all important. Efforts to keep order in ourselves and others are also requisite. Experience and observation have taught us how easily strife and angry passions may be excited and it is the duty of all to avoid as far as possible the occasions of offence.
From first-term senators to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, many elected officials are running the gauntlet of town-hall meetings, where hard-eyed opponents and demanding voters often fail to recall Bliss’s suggestion for keeping “order in themselves.”
Town-hall meetings today are also a political tool of the party out of power. The recent town-hall revival and weekly headlines about elected officials who show up at them, get shouted down, and even run off (or duck out quickly) adopt something like the tone of stories about Boston crowds who tarred and feathered British tax collectors in the 18th century. Today, activists use the town-hall format as a trap to bash and embarrass politicians with whom they disagree. And politicians who lack the mettle to face angry voters and pass on the experience find themselves criticized for avoiding their duties.
If a lawmaker calls the town-hall meeting a setup, he or she risks appearing fearful of open debate. Consider Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) who said last week that he would not attend a town-hall meeting designed to produce heckling and screaming (at him) in front of an attentive media. The Florida Republican told CBS4-Miami he could face three, four, five, six hundred liberal activists in the state:
Rubio told the station that activists are instructed to go to town halls early and “take up all the front seats. They spread themselves out, they ask questions. They all cheer when the questions are asked. They are instructed to boo no matter what answer I give. They are instructed to interrupt me if I go too long and start chanting things. Then, at the end, they are told not to give up their microphone when they ask questions.”
Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz faced very real — and very angry — citizens at a recent town-hall meeting, while GOP representative Louie Gohmert of Texas refused to hold a town-hall meeting, saying he feared violence might erupt.
This is the new political coliseum, and while there aren’t lions, chariots, and sparring with swords, there is the aura of the melee rather than deliberative debate. As the Wall Street Journal noted recently, America’s town halls are “organic” and “rowdy” places; as well, “the surge [in] public assemblies comes at a time when America is drenched in technology,” which allows for easy appeals to emotion rather than substance via social media. As National Review noted of a recent town-hall meeting featuring Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, “The constituents didn’t actually want to ask questions or hear what Cassidy had to say; they wanted to express their anger.” And they did — by booing during the invocation and Pledge of Allegiance and continuing to heckle the senator during the event.
Republicans — and down the line, Democrats too — should take a page from Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, who moved a venue for a proposed town-hall meeting in recent weeks, not once but three times to accommodate more than 2,000 residents. Cotton stood in the center of a long stage, button-down shirt tucked in, looking out respectfully as chants, booing, and disapproval to his answers constantly prevented citizens from asking questions. He wasn’t ruffled and he never appeared afraid — not of a young boy who asked him a heartfelt question about immigration reform and refugees, nor of a wife and mother concerned about her husband’s visa status. At times, he urged attendees and protesters to let their neighbors speak — especially those who had driven the farthest. Perhaps it is his former military training and service in war zones that leaves him unruffled by opposition.
“A town hall is one of the needs of the town,” an early historian of Worcester County, Mass., once noted. Bliss believed that “it is the right and I believe the duty of all as far as they can to attend town meetings” (though he said he wouldn’t go so far as to suggest taxing no-shows). The best town halls will always be places to gather and debate, sometimes heatedly. But if this crucial democratic tradition is to survive our fractured age, we should embrace civility during town-hall meetings, and save the angry trolling for Twitter.
— Stephanie Cohen writes for Acculturated, where this piece originally appeared. It is reprinted with permission.
Editor’s Note: This piece originally incorrectly stated that Representative Louie Gohmert had canceled a town hall. In fact, he refused requests to schedule one.