It's time to blow up the tv "town meeting" scam

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:

Town meeting in Lincoln, Vermont, 2008

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.

Ripton town meeting, 2010

I got there 30 minutes early, and the place was already packed.

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.

Ripton town meeting from the front

My first time at the front of the room, serving on the school board. Note the tasty pie off to the left.

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.

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13 Responses to It's time to blow up the tv "town meeting" scam

  1. Would a change in name solve the problem? People want to see politicians in unscripted, handler-free settings. Hillary won the first such meeting, Trump the second. Maybe the third and last will be the decider and maybe not. It could be all those people who claim they are undecided aren’t really.

  2. Mark klitzke says:

    Vermont has the “luxury (aka civic-sense)” to have an entire day dedicated to Town Meeting, unlike Massachusetts, where in my rural western Mass. town (not to be named), you are lucky to have received the annual report a week beforehand. There are few people who speak, and most voting questions are a foregone conclusion.

    Vermont IS a shining civic example compared to some of it’s neighbors. Be Proud!!

    Also, please notice that CNN calls these skirmishes “town hall debates” and not a “town meetings”, AND “never the twain shall meet”!

  3. VanessaVaile says:

    Maybe it’s not the same everywhere in MA. A friend in Dunstable has described town council meetings there that sound more like town halls. Very open. Discussion and questions from the floor invited. Plus meeting notes are posted online quite soon after the meeting is over — and open for comments, which are active.

    All it took was one televised yclept “town hall” (that I did not even finish watching) to turn me off. I don’t watch any so shouldn’t comment on them.

  4. I grew up with town meetings in CT. I was a kid, so never got to go, but the babysitter and I would listen to them on the radio. I agree that the “town hall meeting” debate is neither a town meeting nor a debate. I do think they provide a bit of context of how a candidate relates to more typical citizens, and for that, they have value.

  5. Pingback: The Future Trends Forum town hall meeting, where the guest is your fine selves | Bryan Alexander

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