Orbital Matters

Saturn Smith
Editor’s Pick
AUGUST 11, 2009 7:15PM

Why Even Have Town Hall Meetings?

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So, two Democratic Senators (well, one plus Arlen Specter) got shouted at today when they tried to hold health care-related town hall meetings in their districts.  I know I'm supposed to be more outraged, but, well, why is this a surprise?  The St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Shouts frequently disrupted a town hall meeting on health care reform hosted by Sen. Claire McCaskill, prompting her to admonish some in the crowd for being rude.
The Democrat hosted the forum on Tuesday in the eastern Missouri town of Hillsboro. Several hundred people turned out for the sometimes boisterous meeting. At times, the crowd shouted out comments to McCaskill.
At one point, she paused and told the crowd, "I don't understand this rudeness. I honestly don't get it."
Angry crowds have put lawmakers around the country on the defensive as they try to talk about health care. McCaskill had planned two town hall meetings on Tuesday, but one at University City High School was called off by the school district over safety concerns.

That's my emphasis, and my concern.  I don't really care if Senators have to fear shouting matches when they go home.  In fact, I wish many, many more Senators had been shouted at for the last eight years.  I'm concerned about the shouting leading to it no longer being safe for Senators to travel wherever they'd like in their states, though.  That's the kind of thing that leads to more groupthink.

Beyond that, I really, really, really don't like the town hall format.  For one, it's false.  It's never an actual town hall -- in fact, I bet most of the crowds you see are rarely composed of people from even a single county.  Second, because they're held like great, one-night-only events (yes, I'm looking at you, President Obama), they're less about a politician communicating with a crowd of constituents and more about another chance for a photo-op.  They're campaign leftovers.  They're pomp and almost never circumstance.  They are less likely to contain real news and information than the blog posts that go up on WhiteHouse.gov -- and I haven't noticed anyone putting video of those being produced up on the evening news.

The Obama town halls so far -- those on the economy and now on health care -- are slightly better because the audience isn't screened and hand-picked like those of the Bush era.  So maybe, if you live in the right town at the right time, your chance of "access" to the president is increased a thousand percent.  You'd still have to be someone who could take the entire day off of work on a Tuesday in the middle of the worst recession since forever, someone who has other childcare options or at least someone else to take the kids to school, someone who can pass through the security checkpoints and, oh yeah, someone who cares enough to spend several hours at a political event.  Town hall crowds seem as likely to be representative of actual American society as reality TV shows.

Speaking of TV, why do these events get televised, anyway?  I can understand having a camera on hand, in case actual news is made -- Obama says, "You know, I hadn't thought of it that way, but maybe Death Panels are a good idea!" -- but, really, it is not news that President Obama defended President Obama's health care package.

In a world that offers the possibility of a YouTube weekly "radio" address, where the President carries a Blackberry, where the Organizing for America e-mail list is still millions strong, where even Steven Chu has been posting photos to Facebook lately, the town hall meeting is an inefficient method of conveying information.  It is built only to reinforce old messages, to shore up local allies, and to look even-handed and accessible while offering neither more access nor more consideration than you have been offering the other side all along.  It's theater.  It's a sham.  (If anyone can prove to me that a town hall meeting changed more than a dozen minds, I'll reconsider -- maybe I could come to town and hold a meeting, say in a hall, and we could talk about it).

What's not theater is the threat of violence against elected officials.  If Senator McCaskill's office or the organizers of her event really believed that her visit to a school constituted a threat to its safety, well -- that needs to be not just news, but the beginning of an investigation.  I'm not a fan of the town hall format, but, to paraphrase, I'd fight to the death for any Senator's right to hold one just about anywhere she wants to without having to fear for her safety or for that of the people in the crowd.

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Satty: ANYthing a politician does is built for the photo-op. We have to hold them to standards, or they'll All be sucking gov tit, not even trying to hide it.

And you're right, the People should be allowed into the Town Hall.

I, too, am very worried about the invective, the anger, the proselytizing mob. It's way out of hand, and someone's or someones going to get hurt or killed.

Then we'll/they'll confront the shame. But will it change anything? Did any other shameful thing in the past few months change anything?
Can't disagree with you.

My rep is having a town hall meeting this Friday at 9:00 in the morning. That cuts out most people with jobs right there. I expect it'll be mostly scared senior citizens and "activists".
Yeah, I totally agree, Connie -- but town halls in particular seem to make the press complicit in getting that photo out to the people, which is my main frustration with them.

Jeannette, great example. Who schedules these things? Why not a weekend?
Saturn, how is CNN getting away with the blatant bias toward the town hall public disturbers? I watch in the morning, and I was almost brainwashed into believing that those people are the majority, that they're legitimate, and that they speak for most Americans.

But then again, CNN is also claiming that their 6 million "voters" who are giving Pres Obama a "report card" represent 300 million Americans.
I can't answer for or to CNN, since I didn't see their coverage (no cable!), but... they certainly have a reputation of going for the drama, and I guess the yelling guys in the crowd are way more instantly dramatic than, you know, the actual policy and facts. Bleeeeh.
Problem is, now if the sensible heads decide the astroturf opposition has turned these events into dangerous no-starters and dares to cancel them, THAT becomes a talking point, too. "We're being shut out! They don't even wanna hear from Real Muricans! They're gonna kill granny, give sis mandatory abortions, take away my insurance, give free healthcare to all the illegals, AND they don't even have the decency to listen to what we have to say!"

Fucking SIGH.
Wow, Saturn, that was a really well-thought-out post. Something of a high point even by the standard of your own posts.
Agreed. Town Hall Meetings are a sham and theatre. So I guess now we know, they can stop.
Good piece. Given all the noise and turmoil of the town meetings -- which are now totally useless -- why don't our representatives just do it the old-fashioned way? Pop unexpectedly at diners, speak to congregations, talk at clubs etc. AND NOT ANNOUNCE IT FIRST!

That way, they'll get the real opinions of people in their districts. And I won't have to fume everytime I watch MSNBC.
This whole thing makes me sick. You have some excellent points. I think it's crazy that the Fox network has the Repubs eating out of their hands, and pushing against a reform that would quickly become as popular with the public as Social Security.
Yes, in today's world of mass electronic communication, the town hall, though extant, is obsolete.
in the first place, the politicians are not having town hall meetings, they are having mob rallies. the difference is easy to spot:
after a town hall meeting, the electors vote. after a mob rally, the shouting escalates into violence, and there is no voting, because you are disenfranchised. only politicians vote on laws, policies, and plans.
only politicians vote on laws, policies, and SAILBOATS!
Gee, guess what? Surprisingly, people who have watched TARP bankers make billion-dollar profits are hopping mad. Do-Nothing career politicians like Arlen Spectator are for the first time feeling the heat. And so when the crowd is not at all friendly, they are "groupthinkers" and "dangerous." Unlike with the Code Pink types, of course, who were always just excercising their civil discourse.

Why am I unsurprised?

Speaking of transparency, we've suddenly discovered that politics, which actually affect people's lives, can be an ugly business.

My belief is that many of these town-hall howlers are mad at the very groupthink-government they've allowed to be created, but their generalized anger has been heretofore unfocused. I see this less as a beerhall putsch against needed health care reform than a lot of people who suddenly hate bankers and big business and the pols who cozy to them--but the implication to their soccer mom quasi-Republican Record experience is dizzying. Town Hall--as you say, are photo ops, but which have given them their first chance to get near their...elected tormentors?

Maybe the Left will catch on and try to co-opt this anger, instead of being shocked, shocked that protestors can behave as they have all along, 'cause it is too huge an opportunity to throw away with our own, somewhat posturing, outrage...
I agree with David. It isn't the town halls that are the issue here. The fascist wind that is being whipped up is the problem. And that is an issue that won't go away because you cancel the town halls. The situation is exceedingly grave. Please see my post about this for more: http://open.salon.com/blog/dennis_loo/2009/08/11/town_hall_fracases_the_fascist_movement
I feel like I should say something more insightful than this, but: I couldn't agree more--with everything you said.
Perhaps calling them Public Theater is giving them too much credit. "Theater" conveys a sense of propriety that seems to be lacking in these events. "Public Spectacle" maybe?
The politicians & press are complicit in banging the drum over these events because they both get what they want: attention.
I guess I can live with the term "Theater" if I must. They're certainly more about public performance than interactive democracy.
Thanks for another great post.
Actually, they were DemocratIC senators.

Democrat (n.), Democratic (adj.), for the party and its members. Do not use Democrat as a modifier (the Democrat party); that construction is used by opponents to disparage the party.
I think it's interesting that the left is being hit by it's own tactics. It's pretty common now at universities, for conservative speakers to be drowned out by mobs. I guess the tactic is being morphed to use in these town halls. Funny, we didn't hear anybody on the left criticizing the student protestors.
Thank you, Saturn. I would note that's it's not just politicians seeking photo-ops. Last week the local congressman held a Town Hall meeting in our little town. The line outside the meeting place looked like the line for The Price is Right. Just like wannabe game show contestants, people competed for media attention with signs, screaming and even some costumes. One woman jumped in front of a man who was being interviewed by a local t.v. crew and began her well-rehearsed rant. A local surgeon, costumed in lab coat and stethescope, showed up to protest all attempts to reign in unnecessary testing (he just happens to be a doctor well-known for ordering numerous unrelated tests prior to every operation). He made the front page of the local paper. Many came to the Town Hall seeking information. For the most part, all we got was a bunch of people jumping up and down screaming to the news media "pick me, pick me."
We gotta have them but I'm about finished with thinking that anything productive is going to come of them. The Obama Admin screwed this one - BADLY and I hate to say it because I love the guy and I have/had a lot of hope with his presidency, still do in fact.

But these representatives are facing crowds and they don't have a concrete bill to discuss - just bits and pieces of three or so bills and proposals. So the crowds are coming at them with bits and pieces that are distortions or half truths. No one has anything concrete to say so why are they trying to say anything?

Particularly after the "teabaggers" and the "birther" movements that are gaining, if not strength, then media attention. If five people show up claiming to be something anti-administration, then there will be at least ten media spots that will showcase them and their cause.

What the right lacks in numbers, it gains ten fold in noise and muscle. They know how to and WILL get attention. They will hold this country hostage to their whims and ignorance and bold face lies. And no one dares to challenge them.

I thought Obama had it figured. He knew how to immediately deal with this when he campaigned. He learned that you have to use the new cycles to your advantage. But he hasn't done this. And I wonder why. I wonder why he has let the health industry run away with this.
Lose the physical town halls and set up virtual versions, post the facts online, be honest about what isn't known,provide opportunities for people to voice concerns or questions, address misconceptions, be prepared to delve into very specific points in the legislation, and find another outlet altogether for people whose biggest fear is that this country will turn into Russia (because a health care forum is NOT the place to address that kind of thinking).
I think they should continue so the fascists within the Republicans can destroy themselves.
Great post. As a former elected person, I totally support the town hall meeting concept, but I'm appalled at the behavior and disgusted at how these things have corrupted any opportunity for real dialogue about the issues. Rachle Maddow said it well on her show last night....debate about health care reform? what debate? The media has taken the bait on this and that is what is also so discouraging. The hard core swing to the radical/militant right that Obama's election has engendered is freakin scary as hell.
I'd like to see a "town hall" meeting where angry citizens surround whatever armored battle wagon politicians travel in. Not astroturf Republicans or "YOU'RE A RACIST!" Democrats, just angry regular people. Politicians seem to exist in a corrupt imperial bubble in Washington with next to no exposure to what us little people call "the real world".
Saturn, you are so smart, but I hate to disagree with you. Town halls provide an extremely valuable function for congressmen in particular, as they give him/her a chance to actually see constituents instead of email traffic summaries. Congressmen who don't do town hall functions make themselves vulnerable to serious challenger who can truthfully say that "Congressman X is out of touch with his district." And on top of that, congressional town halls are a chance to get outside of the bubble of Washington, DC to see REAL people. It's unfortunate that the meetings have been pirated by astroturf assholes.
Though I disagree with the sentiment about Town Hall meetings in general, I do agree that the problem is the danger now invoked. I watched the bits of Mccaskill's meeting on MSNBC (when they broke in for the flare-ups) and what got me was the guy shouting at her that he didn't trust her. If someone doesn't believe anything that comes out of their representative's mouth, why even be there? The meetings serve a purpose for those who go and ask questions seeking answers, but they're turning into a platform - for the dissentors AND the politicians. Civil discourse has taken a backseat. The debate isn't even about the topic at hand anymore, it's about one side having a beef with what they view as the other side. And THAT is the problem, not necessarily the town hall meetings themselves.
Vapor, good point. A symptom of writing too fast, I'm afraid. It's fixed now.

Dennis, David -- I understand your points and agree that the threats are because of fanned flames from the right. Absolutely. But my central point is not that the health care meetings are being overrun, but that town hall meetings at any time on any topic are pointless. That counts for President Bush's meetings as well as President Obama's. There has been and continues to be better ink than my own spilled over the roots of the current disruption and threat. I'm glad to see links to it.
ONL, I think we actually agree in principle -- congresspeople need a way to access their constituents in an unfiltered forum. It's just that town halls don't provide this. I'm with John Blumenthal -- if they really want to connect with their constituents, instead of with the media, they should make unannounced (to the press) visits to diners, to churches, to community picnics, to health fairs, etc. Any event for which a representative sends out a press release is not an event at which she's seeking real feedback from "real" folks.
Typical liberal hypocrisy. Once the forum is used to express an opposing point of view, advocate shutting it down.

As for these particular town meetings are concerned, it's of no consequence. The public's opposition to the Obama plan has been registered and reported. Mission accomplished.