I have plenty of reactions to last night’s presidential debate (quick list here), but wanted to expand on one in particular in this post.
We have to stop doing tv town halls. We have to stop it now.
Because they aren’t town halls. They are cheap fictions. At best they are clumsy simulacra of a foggy dream of a dimly remembered civics fantasy. At worst they’re shams mocking democracy, Baudrillardian scams trying to convince us that tv “news” is somehow capable of making a nation’s democratic life happen.
Instead, this is what a town meeting looks like:
That’s the town of Lincoln, Vermont, a few miles north of my own town. The year was 2008. The moderator (to left, out of frame) was a local politician, a little-known political figure on the national scene, one Bernie Sanders.
(and yes, Norman Rockwell got it right)
You see, in Vermont we still do town meetings. Every year in March each town’s population gathers to hash out the next year, and even to plan a bit further. We drive and stomp through the cold to gather in community centers. “We” means anyone, people you might not normally see, old and young.
In my town the agenda booklet is published weeks in advance, a document crammed with civic information: budgets in microcosmic detail, updates on fire and rescue, road maintenance, animal control, cemetery upkeep, tax payments, tax delinquencies, insurance details, and more. Half of my town’s booklet is local school information, so that means even more data about budgets, attendance, state support, financing, etc. It’s a rich, thick description of our town.
The meeting takes hours, and can feel like an endless slog at times. A moderator presides – gently and elegantly in our town’s case – to keep things running, and to make sure everyone’s heard. Part of the meeting is kicked off by our selectboard, and the other by our school board. People ask questions of all kinds, from breathtakingly practical to the broodingly ideological. Side meetings happen, even outside in the snow. Tempers can fray, especially if things drag, issues are tense, or the coffee has been chugged.
Face to face, we hash out many aspects of how we’ll live together.
I’ve seen people normally quiet who launch into deep analyses of economics. I’ve seen a world-changing environmental activist listen intently for hours to his fellow citizens. I’ve watched our state representative explain state political developments in an accessible way, racing from town to town in his district; once I saw him speak nearly in tears about our economic sclerosis. Parents and teachers describe their experience and desires. Our very, very introverted fire chief gets epically embarrassed when we applaud his fantastic work. Some folks show up with talmudically marked-up agenda booklets, ready to pounce on all kinds of topics.
It’s a learning experience, always. People study policies, data, and terms. I’ve watched people grow into political persons over the years, becoming increasingly confident at speaking and participating. Some move into positions of local authority, like serving on the school board. Others cycle off into the population. I remember my first couple of years, trying to figure out all kinds of topics and questions. I’ve become a school board member, not to mention the town blogger.
There aren’t any celebrities or authoritarians. Everyone gets to talk. Everyone can be asked questions. It’s about access to politics, involvement in community life, and the practical details of living together.
This is not what CNN’s “town meetings” are about.
Town meetings are not perfect, of course. Some number of people show up without having read the necessary documents, a bit like school. Some folks are too intimidated to speak. Because it’s Vermont we have crappy internet connectivity, so the meetings occur offline (i.e., no Googling, no reference to web-published government documents). Some people don’t go to the meetings. Tempers can run high. I’ve taken my children to town meetings, and they didn’t get it. At a larger level, town meetings don’t scale without significant mutation.
But the town meeting is ours. In a powerful sense it’s us. We make of it the best we can. Every single year I attend my faith in practical democracy gets renewed.
This is not CNN. This is the lived experience of community-based democracy, and it’s obscene to steal the town meeting name from it.