Across the nation, so-called “town hall meetings” have been held in our church basements, libraries, and other community spaces. Typically convened by lawmakers, their purposes is to “talk” about health care reform. They’ve become a key battleground for the issue, as conservative groups have organized to disrupt them by shouting down speakers, and liberal groups have organized to protect them. A recent Huffington Post piece details the plans of the AFL-CIO to send out enforcers to 50 targeted districts where things are expected to get particularly ugly.
In my field, there is a lot of concern over these developments. I work in the civic participation field — “town hall meetings” where important issues are discussed and citizens can make choices about the direction they would like to go are an important part of my work.
I have been following this conversation closely, and not just because I am the author of an issue guide for the National Issues Forums Institute on this subject. (It’s called Coping With The Cost Of Health Care and is available from NIFI.)
I believe we are watching a particularly ugly (yet predictable) example of the effects of what some theorists in my field call “assimilation.” It’s obvious what that means, but as a term of art it reflects a particular concern that goes something like this: “Some people will see how authentic dialogue and deliberative approaches can be and how well people respond to them. So they may try to appropriate some of the elements that seem to work well for ends that have little to do with public choice-making.”
That’s what’s happening here. The national “town halls” that are being convened by officials are part of an orchestrated strategy to build what looks like grassroots political will for health care reform. The problem is that these “town halls” bear the same resemblance to dialogue that those ads in the newspaper for limited edition gold coins do to news articles. Sure, they look like news articles and are placed right next to them in the paper — but their purpose is to sell me gold, not to give me news.
The town halls are not intended to stimulate thoughtful discourse. And, given the political purpose of these “town halls,” it is hardly surprising that a group opposed has decided to try to disrupt them. The only thing that is surprising is that people have not been as organized about disrupting similar “town halls” before. These promotion-heavy events have been a staple of politics for a long time. (Even president Jimmy Carter used them, in 1978, in order to promote energy conservation.)
It’s only now, though, that people opposed to the policy that these meetings are intent on selling have decided to push back, hard, in the same milieu.
Here is what I would advise someone who asked for my help in convening an in-district town hall on health care at this juncture: Don’t have it. If you really want to gauge people’s views, and hear their give-and-take, invite a small group to get together to help you think through the issue. Reach out as broadly as you can, so there are different people in the room, but make sure the size of the group is manageable. People need to talk, not make statements or shout.
Whatever you do, in this environment, don’t announce a “town hall meeting” and think that it will be anything other than a shouting match. The forces arrayed against changes in the health care system are too angry. The strategy is backfiring on the people who are hoping to use such meetings to generate a groundswell. They may pull it out, but at the moment it is dark days for this particular tactic.
Even more important, holding such a town hall does a disservice to the concept itself.
My friends in the civic participation field may find me too negative. But I am concerned that what’s happening in these fake town halls will spill over into real town halls, the ones where communities weigh options and make decisions. When that happens, an important piece of how American communities rule themselves will be lost.
Photo from SodaHead.