Turning the Tables on Tumultuous Town Halls

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

Congressional scholar Richard Fenno wrote eloquently about the “home style” of the “people’s representatives,” deeming their local footprint critical to earning the enduring trust of constituents and a lengthy tenure in the Capitol. This traditional notion has been tested in recent years with the advent of highly polarized politics and a prevailing anti-government fervor.

We need look no further than congressional town hall meetings, historically intimate settings where voters and their elected representatives can connect on an intimate basis, discussing common concerns and the issues of the day. Lately, they have unraveled into angry shouting matches, where attendees feel that their voices are left unheard in the current political environment, and elected officials fear an ambush and national headlines in the aftermath.

Some, like suburban Chicago Congressman Peter Roskam, have gone so far as to avoid them altogether, limiting personal meetings to 25 or fewer constituents and instead conducting town halls by telephone. The latter has no threat of poor optics and offers Roskam tight control of incoming questions.

Both sides of the political spectrum have contributed to the deterioration of these democratic forums. Eight years ago it was Tea Party Republicans that raided Democratic town halls to voice their opposition to the fledgling Affordable Care Act (ACA). More recently, it has been a unified progressive movement showing solidarity against President Trump, his controversial policy positions, and somewhat ironically, the Republican refrain to “repeal and replace” the ACA.

As an advocate for youth civic engagement, I certainly find widespread interest in political issues and attendance at public meetings encouraging signs. Indeed, many Illinois educators require that their students do both as a condition for completing a civics course. However, I fear that the absence of deliberation at these forums is teaching them harmful lessons.

Too often government assumes the role of parent and treats its constituents as children. When the voice of the latter is narrowly conscribed, there is a tendency to rebel.

It’s also wrong for elected officials to characterize protesters as paid plants. While it’s true that money does go into political organizing, many Americans have and are attending these meetings under their own auspices and are demanding to be heard by officials elected to represent them.

Congressmen shouldn’t hide behind the cloak of their office, and citizens should be able to disagree with him or her without being disagreeable. This gets to the heart of the deliberative norms we try to teach our students and hope they carry with them throughout life.

As educators, we should critique these corrosive town halls with our students, using them as a foil to the discourse we model and practice in our classrooms. We can also draw from a couple of what I consider model town halls reported on in recent days.

Congressmen Sensenbrenner (left) and Schneider (right) have recently held model town hall meetings

The first was in my old stomping grounds of suburban Milwaukee, where Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner held court and asked attendees to respect the views of those with whom they disagree. He faced dissenting views in his district directly and demanded decorum, stating at the outset, “This is not a session on who can cheer or boo the loudest…Be respectful of opinions that you do not share.”

The second is closer to home in north suburban Chicago, where Democratic Congressman Brad Schneider hosted an overflow crowd every bit as concerned about the Trump Administration and its early actions as him. Schneider said, “If all of us try to do everything, we will accomplish nothing.” Instead, Schneider suggests, we should select a couple of issues that concern us most. Join a local organization fighting for them, and also educate friends and neighbors.

Both congressmen offer sage advice to share with students as we paint a new democratic canvass in the midst of these unprecedented political times.

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