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Watts: Town Meeting

During the recent Congressional recess, stories about town hall meetings dominated the news. Large crowds attended the events. In some cases shouting down their Congressman. Some legislators avoided the meetings saying the process had been corrupted. Outside agitators were stirring the pot. President Trump tweeted about the “so-called angry crowds” calling them “sad.”

But this assumes that these Town Hall Meetings have serious merit as a forum for civil conversation. They don’t. There is limited opportunity for genuine dialogue or a free exchange of ideas. In fact, they have very little to do with the town meetings that will happen in Vermont next week.

Jimmy Carter first brought the idea of a “town hall meeting” to politics in 1977, helping to cement his standing as the people’s president. But it was Bill Clinton who made it a particular art form, hosting town hall meetings in his long-shot presidential campaign. Charismatic, personable and empathetic, Clinton thrived in these settings, alone with the voters, seemingly vulnerable and human.

But these are controlled settings. The politician has the microphone, the clock, the staff and the setting. The outcome isn’t likely to change based on what the people say.

In contrast, in a Vermont town meeting, the citizens of the town become legislators, voting up or down on the town’s budget, road plans and police staffing. And we do it together in one place – face-to-face. The neighbor we disagree with today may be the neighbor who’ll pull us out of a ditch tomorrow.

For this reason, according to Town Meeting scholar Frank Bryan, there’s a high level of civil discourse. Bryan and his students attended more than fifteen hundred Vermont town meetings over a 30-year period, cataloging more than two hundred and thirty thousand individual acts of participation – comments, votes, hand raising – by more than sixty thousand citizens – documenting Vermont’s town meeting as an authentic and meaningful form of direct democracy.

The town hall meeting is a corruption of this concept. That they are now being used by citizens and advocates to shame public officials is completely logical. Vermont’s town meetings have also been used as organizing opportunities. The nuclear freeze movement started as a resolution in town meeting, eventually swept through Congress and helped lead to successful arms control negotiations.

But don’t confuse the use of town meetings by politicians and advocates with the work of participating directly in our democracy – that's what a real town meeting is all about.

Richard Watts teaches communications and public policy in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Vermont and directs the Center for Research on Vermont. He is also the co-founder of a blog on sustainable transportation.
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