Reclaim the 'town hall' for genuine public engagement

December 21, 2009|By Ruth Wooden and Andrew L. Yarrow

Thomas Jefferson called them the "wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government." Hardly faint praise from one of the fathers of American democracy. So, what was he talking about? The town hall meeting.

Fast forward 200 years to Dartmouth, Mass., where a "town hall" on health care reform finds a woman calling President Barack Obama's position "Nazi policy." Amusingly, aptly, but not very cordially, Rep. Barney Frank responds: "On what planet do you spend most of your time?"

This incident and many others during recent "town halls" are a far cry from what Jefferson or his Colonial forbearers conceived of as a town hall meeting - or, for that matter, what is practiced today in Dartmouth, Mass., where citizens still have a chance to discuss and vote on community affairs in town halls twice a year.

What happened? How did we go from this brilliant concept of participatory, respectful democracy that complements representative democracy to circumstances where, too often, only the most politically charged zealots show up, and they spend much of their time shouting at each other?

Have bad manners become so pervasive in our culture? Or have town halls been hijacked by those with specific agendas and the loudest voices, with little interest in finding common ground or, more importantly, pragmatic solutions to a problem?

Commentators from David Riesman to Robert Putnam have decried the growth of apathy and disengagement, or what the German scholar Jurgen Habermas called the decline of "the public sphere." How does the U.S., a vast country of 310 million people with many points of view, foster a climate where people can gather to address complex issues in constructive ways?

Recent "town halls" have hardly been apathetic. Vocal cords get exercised, to be sure, by the cadre of vehement, unyielding ideologues who show up to such events, but rarely are solutions to real problems found this way. Passionate advocacy certainly has its place, but it can't be the only means or opportunity for citizens to grapple with tough national or local issues.

We need to look at ways to achieve a better balance between advocacy for a specific position and pragmatic dialogue if we are to devise solutions that most people can embrace. In this way, we can move forward and tackle the next problem rather than ending up in total gridlock.

In contrast to the hostile histrionics at pseudo-town halls and on TV talk shows, in recent years a new movement has emerged to create more meaningful opportunities to engage in public life and get past the gridlock. The push for a different kind of public engagement comes both from citizens demanding genuine opportunities for participation and input and from local leaders who, faced with making difficult decisions, want to recruit citizens as partners in problem-solving.

This movement, called "public engagement" or "deliberative democracy," offers citizens a space free from the overweening influence of partisan special interests. It enables them to work through the trade-offs and tough choices involved in addressing difficult and complex issues, ranging from how to better educate children in a community to how the nation can dig its way out of its deep fiscal problems. This model creates opportunities for smaller group dialogues than the spectacle-like "town halls."

In the "Achieving the Dream" project, for example, up to 130 community college students, community members, faculty and staff have been brought together to talk about what's wrong and find ways to work together to make changes. In the 15 states where this has been piloted, it has helped not only students discuss practically how they can meet their goals and succeed but also teachers and administrators to change practices and develop new strategies to help improve student outcomes.

Politicians or others in positions of power don't lead such groups, but they participate with their fellow citizens. Participants are given basic information about different viewpoints and policy options. They have access to experts who can answer questions. And they are assured that intermediaries will convey the results of their deliberations to their leaders.

Such an approach can help cast aside the three "A's" - advocacy, anger and apathy - and change the relationship between leaders and the public, as well as among people with different ideologies. Most people crave the chance to discuss issues without spin, manipulation and hostility. Aside from being empowered as active citizens, people generally like meeting new people - including politicians - even those with whom they disagree. They also like having the opportunity to voice their opinions and, most importantly, helping solve problems facing their communities and the nation. In short, they like small-scale, civil, nonpartisan dialogues that are a world away from angry "town halls" and are closer to Jefferson's wise and practical vision for participatory self-government.

Ruth Wooden is president of Public Agenda. She is a former executive vice president of Porter Novelli and president of The Advertising Council. Her e-mail is rwoo den@publicagenda.org. Andrew L. Yarrow is vice president and Washington director of Public Agenda and an adjunct history professor at American University. He is the author of the forthcoming book, "Measuring America." His e-mail is ayarrow@publi cagenda.org.

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