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:
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.