Isn’t it time to ask the question? Isn’t it perhaps time to consider deep sixing the traditional big-issue Town Hall meetings held by elected officials? Haven’t these meetings now become little more than media events, events literally begging to be manipulated by interest groups on each side?
Aren’t traditional Town Halls now overwhelmed by the power and impact of new media, increasingly strident talk radio and far left and right special interest groups to flood the venue in a never-ending, increasingly bitter, escalating struggle to gain media footage for their political purposes that fits their particular narrative?
Hasn’t the Town Hall meeting where the word is put out by an elected official who hopes to answer questions in a sedate, thoughtful or even traditionally spirited C-Span like setting — and therefore perhaps garnering some good news coverage and future campaign advertising footage out of it to boot — now truly going the way of the pay phone?
Isn’t it silly to think that such a venue can any longer be an authentic way to exchange information, answer concerns and get constituent ideas?
The bottom line is that this August, we’re seeing new precedents being set for big-issue Town Hall meetings. And what we see now will be cloned in the future.
It isn’t as if some things haven’t ever changed in America.
Once upon a time, Americans could walk right into their airplane with a minimal time devoted to luggage search.
Once upon a time, Presidents met with Americans on the White House lawn.
Once upon a time the words “grand” and swell were used often in conversations…. newspapers thrived and were hiring more people… Detroit was not just motor but profit city…it was considered unseemly for lawyers to advertise…rock was considered kids music (REAL adults listened to Sinatra)…people got milk their milk delivered by “the milkman.”…video cassettes were the big thing.
Things change, and it’s a more dangerous — and polarized — world out there. It’s the era of not just “road rage” but even ” shopping cart rage” (if you don’t believe me, just visit a CostCo).
Meanwhile, the kinds of “inputs” that influence our nation’s nation’s polity have changed: add weblogs; people on the right and left devoting three hours a day to listening to a talk show host who becomes their trusted and credible friend demonize the other political party (only their side is good, only their side is sincere, only their side tells the truth and the rest are corrupt, totalitarian charlatans); once dominant unions try to regain their clout diminished by years of Republican rule; the political culture celebrates admires outrageousness, punchy sound bytes and glorifies verbal aggressiveness and rudeness on a scales as large the national media or as narrow as on weblogs, email lists and even Twitter.
Healthcare proponents are upset about conservatives trying to drown out discussion. Death threats are increasing; a Twitter from a protester suggests carrying guns; conservatives say union thugs roughed up conservatives and won’t let health care opponents speak or enter.
Each side points to the other.
But the name of the game now is to use a Town Hall as a device — to push the event into becoming a symbol.
It’s less the content; it’s the image that the media, You Tube, and weblogs project that matter.
To be sure, there are different kinds of Town Halls.
Town Halls held by Presidential candidates are more carefully screened. Due to Secret Service protection any group that rushed the doors or tried to shout down a Presidential candidate would be quickly ejected from the premises.
But these are traditional August-recess Town Halls — where citizens are supposed can get together and discuss issues with their elected representatives — just as they did in an America when there was no Rush Limbaugh, no Randi Rhodes, no television, no movies or even electric light.
A possible solution?
Deep six a forum that may be traditional but is now far too vulnerable by political manipulation by one side or another and too attractive for a media that still believes “if it bleeds it leads…” — a saying that could become literally true if the Town Halls continue on their present path.
And do what some elected officials are doing: move towards online townhalls.
But that alone won’t do.
Elected officials should also make a point of stepping up their visits to groups of constituents to get their feedback.
What’s better and more authentic and accurate gauge of what “the people” think: a town hall packed with rightists and leftists and people aligned to political interest groups and/or trying to help their respective parties, or the kind of drop in campaigning that politicos do during elections?
During election season, politicos tirelessly go out to press the flesh (in a political not Mark Sanders kind of way) with voters.
They need to do that again — and to go online.
Wouldn’t politicians get a better feel for their home bases and also better advance their agenda if they meet with “real” groups of people — not a room with a large number of people who turned out because their favorite talk radio host gave out the address or their union decided to counter the other side by making sure they had a presence in the room?
So will elected officials of both parties continue to let Town Halls be used as political hockey pucks, using a venue that is now an antique in an age where broadcast, cyberspace and rapid response special interest group actions dominate?
The Town Hall is now oh, so 20th century.
But what seems to be the wave of the future of this:
It is truly getting ugly out there in political land, where he who says what someone else disagrees with is immediately evil, ill-intentioned, or a hypocrite.
If Lincoln Douglas debated today, the hall would probably be packed with people from both sides pushing and yelling at the debaters — and LIncoln and Douglas would probably call each other wingnuts.
Here’s a truly harrowing thought:
If this is how this is trending, just exactly where do we think we’re heading ?
OF RELATED INTEREST:
—Glenn Harlan Reynolds: Remember when protest was patriotic?
—Death threats cancel local town hall health care meetings
—No angry mobs, but tough questions at Maryland town hall
—No health care town halls in Vancouver after threats
—Town hall protests on health care are American, too
—Two town halls turn into near-riots
—Red State: Democratic Congressman Fears ‘Ambush’ by ‘Brown Shirt’ ‘Extremists’
—Democrats avoid health care town halls amid disruptions
—Town hall meetings new front in U.S. health care reform battle
—Editorial: Don’t demonize health care protests, listen to them
—Editorial: Can mobs derail health care battle?
—Right Wing S**T Storm Tries to Stop Health Care Reform
—What’s up with rowdy town hall meetings?
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.