“ORDAH!” somebody yelled again. But there was no order.
In this same town, the residents of Greenland gather every spring to settle their differences in a civil, orderly, traditional New England town meeting. This month, Guinta couldn’t even get them to shut up long enough to finish a thought.
“I want everyone who’s here to have an opportunity to give their opinion,” said Guinta, a freshman legislator with the look of a crestfallen teddy bear. “So let’s just try to respect everyone’s time, um . . . ”
He was interrupted.
“So let’s go back to the costs on the glossy!” the first yeller demanded.
Why is Congress so partisan and divisive? Why is American politics so confrontational and contentious? The answer may have something to do with the broken state of the national town hall meeting, a staple of congressman-voter interaction, and of American democracy more generally.
So what happened to the town hall?
Part of the problem is the altered political landscape; it’s not just that talk radio has made screaming popular. Legislators say that voters are now more interested in national issues — on which a single lawmaker has little power to effect change — than in local ones, for which the problem may be easier to resolve. Which means fewer people arrive at meetings with a reason to listen.
But also, the tools of citizenship and activism have changed with the advent of YouTube and new, more aggressive strategies from activist groups on both sides. Somehow, an event that was once all about listening has become all about shouting. It now counts as a defeat if one’s opponent is allowed to make a point in peace.
Liberals vs. conservatives
One potential danger is that congressmen take away the message that America is just as estranged and divided as their town hall meetings.
There will be about 500 congressional town hall meetings during this summer’s recess from Capitol Hill, involving 153 of the 535 members of Congress, according to a database maintained by Knowlegis. That’s down from 659 meetings in the summer of 2009, when tea party groups used the gatherings to target Democrats for their support of a health-care overhaul.
This summer, liberal groups have tried to do to Republicans what was done to them two years ago. They have targeted GOP town halls to demand higher taxes on the rich and on corporations, and to push for new jobs in infrastructure and clean energy. Already, there are similar results: Freshman Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), who blasted his opponent for not holding town halls last year, has suspended his own meetings after disruptions by liberals.
“What we say is, ‘Get there early, bring signs and be visible, and ask tough questions,’ ” said Justin Ruben, executive director of the liberal group MoveOn.org, which Barletta blamed. MoveOn encourages people to be civil, Ruben says, but the GOP needs to understand the high level of voter frustration. “The best thing for our democracy right now is for Republicans to get an earful.”