Stop Trolling Politicians at Town Hall Meetings

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, was 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 nineteenth century, communities built town halls for the express purpose of advancing civic engagement. In Springfield, Massachusetts, 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 itself 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’ 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 eighteenth 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-Florida) 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 Rep. Jason Chaffetz faced very real—and very angry—citizens at a recent town hall meeting, while GOP Rep. Louis Gohmert of Texas refused to hold his planned 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 galls 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 Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, “[T]he 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 Sen. 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’s wasn’t ruffled and he never appeared afraid—not of a young boy who ask 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 protestors to let their neighbors speak—especially those who had driven the furthest. 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, Massachusetts, once noted. Bliss believed, “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.

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  • Thomas R Engel

    How did you stumble onto George Bliss? Seriously. He will become one of the incorporators of the Western Railroad in 1833 and its President from 1836 to 1850 and at the end of his life in 1862 write the “Historical Memoir of the Western Railroad”, practically the first almost-scholarly study of an American business (complete with footnotes; the authorial mask slips only three times in the whole book where he admits he is the George Bliss that’s mentioned!). The Western Railroad is the railroad between Worcester, Mass. and Albany, 155 miles, and when it opens in 1841/2 it is the longest main line of railroad under one management in the entire world. Glad to see he did something other than run RR’s and write scholarly books.

  • Saw this in the national review and I like this article, honestly I do.

    But I think it makes a fairly big error: Town halls are not for having a debate. They are simply a terrible venue for this. Debate doesn’t happen when a single person answers a series of short questions from different people on ranging topics. You can take the most banal topic that you can think of, and the town hall format will devolve into pure castigation. Internet comments will generate more debate than town halls!

    It is not a bad format, it’s just that debate is not the function. Its function is to expose representatives to the concerns, and anxieties of their constituents and act as a big ol data point as to how they should be representing. This includes being moderately rowdy (though not overly disruptive). And yes, includes pestering and refusing to give up the mic when feeling like important questions are being side stepped.

    I agree with you lauding Tom Cotton. I disagree with him on almost everything, but also find him fairly admirable. However, it is not because he stood up against the masses, but because he seems to understand that his job is to represent the people and that he cannot do that without listening, even when the feedback comes in rowdier forms than policy essays.

    • whnp

      The problem is that these “rowdy” protesters are not constituents there to voice concerns. These are organized, often professional, often paid, often not local, leftists whose only job is to create chaos and berate and belittle the representative. They contribute nothing constructive and are only there to provide footage for YouTube videos to egg on the next bunch. They in no way represent the feelings of the district because these Republicans were voted in by their actual constituents who obviously feel his/her positions reflect their own.