USA Politics

At raucous town halls, a return to the messy roots of democracy?

finding the patterns

Town hall meetings have been a part of American politics since the colonial era, but they are often overlooked in the age of television, radio, and the internet. Now, protests against GOP representatives at many of these forums have been making headlines once again.

Constituents hold signs in agreement with an audience statement to US Congressman Leonard Lance (R) of New Jersey during a town hall event at a community college in Branchburg, New Jersey, on Wednesday.
Dominick Reuter/Reuters
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Across the United States, Republican representatives have been enduring unruly "town hall" meetings, facing down angry questions from constituents unhappy with their handling of President Trump's new administration. Some GOP lawmakers have even canceled town hall appearances or opted for teleconferences in order to avoid the outpouring of protests.

Town halls, especially in smaller districts, can be poorly attended, even dull events. But over the past week, these meetings have been anything but, with seats filling up early and protestors congregating outside meeting places, with the sound of boos and chanting often overwhelming the words of the speakers themselves.

The furor of the meetings has brought the spotlight back to an ancient American political format that is often overlooked in the modern age. Meetings like these, in one form or another, have been an important part of US politics for centuries, Jim Downs, an associate professor of history at Connecticut College, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email.

"Since the early 19th century, town halls have been an increasingly important way for ordinary citizens to voice their political opinion, and often opposition to a particular law or governmental platform," says Dr. Downs. "They have been used as a way to gauge how the public reacts to a particular issue and what their demands are."

In this case, the public is reacting – and reacting hard – to the Trump administration. Protesters, organized by activist, left-leaning groups like Indivisible and MoveOn have driven many constituents and activists to GOP town halls to complain about the new administration's alleged connections to Russia and the push to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

"Members of Congress have got to get used to this and listen to the feedback or there will be consequences for them, electorally," James Thurber, founder of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington, told the Monitor last week

The first town hall meeting in America was conducted almost 150 years before the United States declared its independence from Britain. The event, held on Oct. 8, 1633, in Dorchester, Mass., established precedents for future town hall meetings that would form the backbone of colonial American politics.

"It is ordered that for the general good and well ordering of the affayres of the Plantation there shall be every Mooneday before the court by eight of the Clocke in the morning, and presently upon the beating of the drum a generall meeting of the inhabitants of the Plantation at the meeting-house, there to settle (and sett downe) such orders as may tend to the generall good as aforesayd; and every man to be bound thereby, without gaynesaying or resistance," reads a town record of the event.

This kind of forum for addressing grievances and discussing local politics became popular, especially in Massachusetts. In that state, the longest continuously functioning town hall meeting has been run out of the same town hall building in Pelham since 1743. And in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, much of Boston's political radicalism could be linked to the grassroots politics and grievances brought up in these meetings.

As presidential campaigns became more significant in the 1800s, the local town hall format was adapted for politicians with their eyes on the national political stage. The famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, held between incumbent Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas and challenger Abraham Lincoln in 1858, borrowed heavily from town hall forums. The debates, which were open to the public, were held in seven different congressional districts from August to October. While Lincoln went on to lose that senatorial race, his performance earned him many supporters, making him a viable candidate for his successful presidential run in 1860.

"The setting of town halls has varied quite dramatically," says Downs. "In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, for example, freed slaves organized many outdoor political meetings to strategize about how they would gain suffrage and citizenship rights.... These meetings constituted the fundamental elements of Town hall meetings; they brought ordinary groups of people together to discuss politics and to create strategies."

But in the 21st century, the necessity of regular, local meetings to discuss specific local issues seems to be less pressing in light of the wealth of political discussion online and other forms of media. For many people, Downs says, the "virtual" town halls of Facebook and Twitter reflect the spirit of these forums. But with so much competition online, these virtual meetings can be easy for representatives to miss.

Overlooking a chanting crowd, on the other hand, is much more difficult. So says Trevor Parry-Giles, a communications professor at the University of Maryland who studies political campaigns and political rhetoric.

"It's probably a mistake to call these constituent meetings 'town hall' meetings, in the same way that it's also a misnomer to call political debates 'town halls,' " he tells the Monitor in an email. "In its truest sense, town halls were actually a place for deliberation and dialogue – these meetings are usually just a chance for the representative to monologically 'report' to his/her constituents."

Dr. Parry-Giles notes that the outrage at these meetings over the past week is a political strategy, similar to the one taken by the tea party movement, which also used protested hall meetings in order to fuel media attention and political support for their cause. That plan proved successful once, putting a comfortable Republican majority in Congress during the 2010 midterm elections. Parry-Giles notes that the meetings themselves, however, did little, if anything, to change the minds of the representatives being protested, and he predicts that Democratic protests will do little this time to change the minds of Republican representatives, either.

That doesn't mean what happens at a town hall meetings is entirely inconsequential, however.

"These meetings are really a part of a larger effort – in and of themselves, they don't create change," Parry-Giles adds. "But they can be an indication of public sentiment that may culminate in real electoral change."