Thursday, August 13, 2009

Town Halls and democracy - what is participation?

The idea of a town hall usually conjures this image in my mind:

Which is sort of what a "town hall" with a member of Congress is designed to be. Except such town halls are clearly political events produced by the Congressional office for its own purposes - not, in other words, for the public to debate a local civic issue. That's fine. By holding town halls elected officials invite a specific kind of democratic participation from their constituents. There's the opportunity to ask a question to power in some kind of managed way and chance for a bit of a dialogue between office holder and constituent. I'd put this rather low on the level of quality democratic discourse, but it registers.

I think the USA Today/Gallup poll that came out yesterday asked a really interesting question about the confrontational turn at recent town halls. Its final question asked whether opponents angrily arguing against the health care bill, booing members of Congress they didn't agree with, or shouting down bill supporters represented "democracy in action," or the "abuse of democracy." Rather than recreate the chart of results, check it out for yourself.

How citizens understand their responsibilities to be little-"d" democrats cuts to the core of this question. Those polled probably unanimously agreed that doing something like the figure in the Norman Rockwell "Freedom of Speech" painting is an example of a citizen fulfilling one such responsibility: freely offering an opinion at a public debate. That guy, we'd probably all agree, is a good citizen. So are those carefully listening to what he has to say. The people at the back of the painting we don't see booing his point or yelling "Just Say NO!" are something else. They've shown up, but they are not being deliberative or civil.

This is a very 20th-century way of thinking about civic participation. Before that, Americans thought behaving as a partisan was the central expression of citizenship-- that the right to vote itself was the embodiment of citizenship. So they joined parties, made those identities a core of their identity, and had a jolly good time telling the world they were a Federalist or a Whig or a Democrat. In between elections they spread the most outrageous lies about their opponents in partisan newspapers. There was an occasional duel back in the day.

Progressives threw water on all of this at the turn of the 20th century. Political issues were becoming too complicated an too important to leave to partisanship and people, progressives thought, should stop with the nonsense of torchlight parades and straight-ticket ballots and actually think things out for a change. The duty of citizens, they argued, wasn't merely to participate on election day or at the party rally, but to become informed and deliberative individuals capable of seeing what the best course for the community or the nation was and voting accordingly. They started to get people together to talk out some of the burning political issues of the day. In other words, they tied the responsibilities of being a citizen to gathering impartial information, being a rational actor, and valuing a debate based on facts.

How boring! Progressives stamped their values on what we think "democracy in action" should mean in terms of rational debate, but we still like to yell at one another and exaggerate and lie about what will happen if the other side wins. Most of us know that's not the same as the pure civic model offered by the guy standing up to make his measured and respectful point in the Norman Rockwell. The closer the town hall protesters get to making an argument in this poll the closer to a majority of "democracy in action" they get. Booing is at the crossroads of argument (I'd agree with that having booed many a sports referee and a few UVa offensive coordinators in my day).

Shouting down a rational argument is bad to most of those polled. But I take issue with the idea that it's an "abuse of democracy." An abuse of a Progressive-inspired debate between rational actors? Yes. But democracy in action can still contain spectacle, no? Citizens can be good -- by that, I mean actively participate in politics in ways they think will benefit the greater society -- in ways that are not deliberative, discursive, or respectful. I don't think those people disrupting town halls are right, or even that what they are saying makes one iota of sense. But they're not abusing democracy. They are abusing a particular forum to which members of Congress have become increasingly enamored and will now probably reconsider using in the future. Many are actually trying to be the guy in the Norman Rockwell painting from the what I've seen but either don't know how or let their emotions carry them away. Those doing the chanting are obnoxious but what they're doing isn't "un-American."

The throngs outside these town halls holding the signs that compare Obama to Hitler or Stalin or whoever are not bad citizens or democracy abusers, either. Their participation adds nothing to a reasoned debate but it represents the peaceful expression of a political preference. Doing so is an obligation of citizenship as such folks rightfully understand it, even if we'd feel better if they left the swastika posters at home.

1 comment:

  1. Yes we were more partisan and we certainly voted in higher proportions, but was there something regional at work? There's any number of hair-raising stories about 19th century urban politics, but was the New England town hall (the archetypal town hall meeting one thinks) a similar kind of affair?

    Beyond that, more as a citizen than anything else, I have to wonder how meaningful the freedom to assemble is if those assembling are going to be drowned out by hostile guests. Implicit in the right, it seems, is some provision that the assembly won't turn into a carnival.