why have town hall meetings at all?

Members of Congress are doing their usual thing–holding “town hall meetings” that are really public Q&A sessions on major pending issues. This summer, the main topic is health care reform. What is unusual is the hostile reception that politicians are experiencing (although I’m not sure what proportion of the negative comments are truly inflammatory ones, like those covered in the media). As a result, some Members have already decided not to hold town hall meetings at all, and the whole practice might soon disappear. That prospect leads Matt Yglesias to reflect:

    I don’t understand why members of congress are holding these town halls. There’s been so much focus on the spectacle of the whole thing that nobody’s really stepped back and explained what the purpose of these events are other than to give us pundits something to chat about. Obviously this is not a good way of acquiring statistically valid information about your constituents’ opinions. And it doesn’t seem like a mode of endeavor likely to increase the popularity of the politician holding the town hall. The upside is extremely limited, and you’re mostly just exposing yourself to the chance that something could go wrong.

Yglesias is asking how politicians benefit from these events (in a narrow sense). A more important question is whether town meetings have public benefit–which would offer a different kind of reason for holding them. I would say …

On one hand, there is no good reason to hold the kind of “town meetings” we are used to. That phrase invokes the old New England deliberative forums in which citizens come together to make collective decisions. The reality, however, is a public hearing with a small group of self-selected activists who ask questions one by one. That format is easy to manipulate and likely to turn unpleasant; it rewards strategic behavior rather than authentic dialog; and it reinforces a sense that the politician and citizens are profoundly different. (The politician has responsibility but cannot be trusted; citizens have no power but only a right to express individual opinions.)

On the other hand, we need real public discussions that include politicians along with other citizens. The purpose of such discussions is not to find out what the public thinks already. As Yglesias says, a random-sample poll is better for that. And its purpose is not to sell the public on a position; for that, mass advertising works better. The purposes of discussion are rather to encourage people to see issues from other perspectives from their own, to develop new and better ideas, to enhance voters’ ability to judge their representatives as deliberators, and to strengthen local ties and relationships that lead to civic change. For example, citizens who discuss health care reform might not only develop opinions about federal legislation but also decide to launch a new initiative in their town.

Without deliberation, as Madison warned, “The mild voice of reason, pleading the cause of an enlarged and permanent interest, is but too often drowned, before public bodies as well as individuals, by the clamors of an impatient avidity for immediate and immoderate gain.”

To achieve deliberation, process is important. People need to talk among themselves in diverse groups, whether in study circles, National Issues Forums, or at tables in a 21st Century Town Meeting organized by AmericaSpeaks. There must be moderators and good background materials. Elected representatives should be observers, or maybe peer participants, but not lone figures on the stage.

The Obama Administration could have used public deliberation as a way of getting a health care bill. That would have required a large-scale, organized public discussion with moderators and rules. The Administration chose, instead, to drive the bill through Congress quickly, using their mandate. They may succeed, and there was a case for speed. But they have encountered–not only organized ideological opposition–but also deep public distrust of government. If they fail, this will be the cause.

Here are two potential “theories of change”:

1. Run a presidential campaign promising to expand the role of government in health care, get more than half the electoral votes and seats in Congress, write and pass the bill, and trust that the results will ultimately be beneficial enough that people will come to like and trust the new federal health care program.

2. Try to build a health reform plan in dialog with the public by organizing a large-scale deliberation about the content of the bill and by considering participatory mechanisms for the ongoing delivery of health care. (Co-op insurance plans might have potential for that purpose.)

The Administration chose the former strategy, and we’ll see if it works. I hope it does, because I think the House bill will benefit the public if passed. It is also possible that a deliberative process would have been subverted by partisan and ideological forces (although there are techniques that can protect deliberation to a degree). At any rate, I hope the Administration will try a deliberative approach to some other issue.