When Town Halls Go Viral, There's Sickness in the Air

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 15, 2009

Alexis de Tocqueville once said that "local institutions," such as town meetings, were "to liberty what primary schools are to science." He was more right than he realized. In the past week town meetings have been just like primary schools, but without teachers or principals, and crowded not with children but with adults behaving worse than children, shouting, shoving and almost coming to blows.

The American town hall gathering, with its venerable history dating from New England self-governance in the 17th century, has always inspired some mix of revulsion and respect. Just like democracy everywhere. But as Congress has abandoned Washington for the month with unfinished business, namely health-care legislation, and with the public riled by genuine fears and ginned-up misinformation, the town hall meeting has never looked quite so absurd. And very different from the romantic image of white-clapboard meeting houses and sincere yeomen meeting to decide on budgets and road maintenance and the occasional symbolic bit of wing nuttery (impeach Nixon, freeze nukes, save whales).

It most certainly doesn't look like the town hall meeting depicted in a 1943 Norman Rockwell painting based on Franklin Roosevelt's famous Four Freedoms speech. To represent freedom of speech, Rockwell painted one of his neighbors in Arlington, Vt., speaking in a crowded room. Carl Hess, who ran a gas station, is seen standing against a dramatic black background, his gaze raised and focused out of the frame, as if talking to God. In his autobiography, Rockwell said the actual moment was based on yet another neighbor, Jim Edgerton, who "stood up and spoke against an idea that everyone else was for." But Hess, with his gnarled hands, grubby jacket and blue flannel work shirt, made for a better image, especially in contrast with the men around him, dressed in suit and tie.

The most remarkable thing about the image is not Hess in mid-oration. It is his neighbors listening. If there's a noise in the room other than the voice of Carl Hess, it could only be the wind rattling the windowpanes or squealing past the chimney.

Compare that with a viral video of Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) dealing with a man accusing him of cronyism and ungodly behavior. "I'm going to speak my mind," the fellow bellows, without speaking his mind. But he does threaten divine sanction: "One day God's going to stand before you, and He's going to judge you and the rest of your damned cronies up on the Hill. And then you'll get your just deserts." As an image, it makes a nice contrast with another of Rockwell's Four Freedoms paintings, the one devoted to freedom of worship, which shows a small group of people, quietly and fervently engaged in meditative prayer.

Rockwell was incorrigibly sentimental, a commercial artist producing the American equivalent of socialist realism for a wartime audience. Missing from his picture of the town hall meeting is any of the "government by farce," depicted by a Works Progress Administration writer surveying the subject in Massachusetts in 1938-39. That writer found a cast of characters with Dickensian surnames such as town clerk Mrs. Quabbin, who "disclosed feet shod for comfort and not for style," and "cotton-hosed legs that would have made a grand piano jealous."

But even a writer determined to mock small-town aesthetics couldn't depict something quite so unruly as what we've seen the past few days, which is less about governance than theater. A population that never tires of being counted, in polls and surveys, in e-mail group lists and comments pages, in tweets and Web hits, is showing up to be counted yet again. And thus democracy with a small "d" comes crashing against the decorum of republican governance with a small "r," and August has its new meme.

As Frank M. Bryan, author of "Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works," demonstrates, it's not even clear that what we're now dealing with even deserves the name town hall meeting. The current format -- timorous politicians with a deer-in-the-headlights look confronted by Web- and radio-riled audiences -- has only the most remote semantic connection with the genuine article, in part because today's YouTube-ready town hall meeting doesn't actually involve decision-making. People in New England don't meet just to jawbone and gum issues to death. They are personally engaged with and collectively responsible for actual governance. As Bryan points out, "Voting after speaking is to governance what keeping score is to sports."

Bryan's study also takes some of the Rockwell luster off the traditional town meeting. From 1970 to 1998, he says, attendance averaged only 20.5 percent of the town population. And not every observer romanticizes them. Journalist and critic H.L. Mencken, writing in the 1920s, said, "Some of the most idiotic decisions ever come to by mortal man were made by the New England town meetings."

But nothing quite makes Bryan's blood boil like the perverse hijacking of the name "town meeting" to signify a televised campaign event. Which seems to have been popularized if not quite invented by Bill Clinton (or perhaps Ross Perot) sometime in the 1990s. "Its meaning in the American conversation," Bryan writes, "is counterfeit."

Actually, the term was circulating as a catchall label for confab much earlier than the 1990s. Beginning in the 1930s, the "Town Meeting of the Air" popularized the public question-and-answer forum to a wide radio audience. And the American Enterprise Institute held a series of town hall meetings in the early 1970s. "The format for this series," explains a nicely published summary of a 1973 meeting on the budget, "is designed to encourage dialogue, that form of human communication that provokes intelligent exchange of ideas rather than harangue."

"The think tank world was very different in the 1970s," said a wistful Karlyn Bowman, a senior scholar at AEI and one of its "amateur historians." It wasn't clear, she said, whether the public was even invited. Journalists have done their part to muddy the historic meaning of the town hall. The average cable television "town hall" is relentlessly earnest and filled with "ordinary" people so carefully vetted that they make Rockwell's Vermonters look like circus freaks. In November 2004, on the eve of a bitter presidential election, Paula Zahn even managed to find 20 undecided voters, from the swing state of Florida, who took advantage of this carefully structured venture in old-fashioned free speech to propose . . . limiting free speech.

"I think we need a constitutional amendment," said a man identified as Bob Jones. "And the amendment will state that, in any political ad, you can only say what you're going to do and you cannot mention your opponent at all."

Public forums morph every time there's a communications revolution. With the first truly Internet-savvy president in the White House, the dynamics of public opinion now reflect the influence of e-mail group lists and Internet comments boards. A public with infinite opportunity to opine in the anonymity of cyberspace seems atavistically hungry for tangible confrontation with flesh-and-blood political leaders.

Watching that energy is both heartening and heartbreaking for people in the "deliberative democracy" business.

"We know how to take the New England town hall meeting and bring it into the 21st century," says Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, president of AmericaSpeaks, a nonprofit that facilitates large public meetings, such as a widely admired 2002 forum on how to redevelop the World Trade Center site. That meeting, Lukensmeyer says, attracted more than 4,300 people and led to recommendations that have remained part of the planning process to this day. But it wasn't easy. Pulling the town meeting together required about 1,000 volunteers, including trained facilitators, full-time staff, media and community outreach, and a lot of technology.

What she's watching today, are "faux town hall meetings that aren't anything about deliberation. . . . People are coming in advocating the answer, they're not coming in to learn anything about the options," Lukensmeyer says.

But people will still wait quietly and peacefully for a chance to have a genuine back-and-forth with experts. As a recent photograph in the New York Times shows, they came by the thousands to the Forum in Inglewood, Calif. The Forum is an arena. The experts were doctors. The enticement was a free health care clinic.

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