ONE OF THE FIRST POLITICIANS to grasp the national potential of the New England town hall’s physical space was Jimmy Carter. Early in his term, “His aides carefully scouted small towns with historic physical halls and a strong local government in which to launch the president’s ‘meet the people’ tour. In the Irish Catholic town center of Clinton, Massachusetts, in a small but stately yellow brick building, Carter answered questions from a largely Irish Catholic community who packed the floor level up to the balcony.” According to the New York Times, “White House staff members were jubilant last night over what they considered the public relations triumph of their visit here.”
Fifteen years later, Bill Clinton, another southern political candidate, worked even harder to capture the mystique of the New England town hall for his campaign. As a small state with huge electoral stakes, New Hampshire voters are accustomed to a level of in-person campaigning that is impossible in other states. With some time and energy, it is possible for a New Hampshire voter to meet all of the candidates in a presidential electoral cycle in person. Bill Clinton’s campaign popularized calling these meetings “town hall meetings.” The 1992 New Hampshire primary campaign overlapped with some of the most challenging moments in Bill Clinton’s presidential career. He joined the rest of the primary field in conceding the Iowa caucus to native son Tom Harkin, but he faced a formidable challenge in New Hampshire from Paul Tsongas of neighboring Massachusetts. The New Hampshire primary took place on February 17, 1992, and the first six weeks of that year witnessed allegations of Clinton’s infidelity and draft dodging. The famous Bill and Hillary 60 Minutes appearance happened on January 26 of that year. These allegations took their toll in the polls. Close to primary day, Bill Clinton hosted televised town halls, which took the form of the candidate buying thirty minutes of time on a local TV station and answering questions from a studio audience.
As Mandy Grunwald recalled in 2016: “We all had confidence that if people could just see Bill Clinton and hear him, they’d be for him. It was very hard with the media covering all this junk. So we said, ‘Let’s create our own shows.’ So we bought 30 minutes of television time on Thursday and Friday night [February 13 and 14] and had these televised town halls.” In retrospect, Grunwald recalls these events as “televised town halls”; it is not clear how often that name was used for these events. At the time, the New York Times, in covering these two appearances, simply refers to them as “30-minute live call-in show[s] that [were] televised during prime time on a Manchester station.”
These two televised performances played a role in salvaging Clinton’s New Hampshire campaign, which managed a strong second-place finish against local hero Tsongas, a result which Clinton’s campaign spun by calling the Arkansan “The Comeback Kid.” With this success in mind, the Clinton campaign advanced the idea of a “town hall” format debate during the general election against incumbent President, George H. W. Bush. Between February and October, the name “town hall” became much more firmly attached to this kind of event—the debate was billed explicitly as such, and the commentators made a point of mentioning the uniqueness of this format.
Regular and formal debates between presidential candidates are a relatively recent phenomenon. After the famous Lincoln–Douglas debates of 1856, the practice lapsed for more than a century, until the equally famous Kennedy–Nixon debates took place in 1960. It is conventional wisdom that these latter debates demonstrated the importance of image in politics in the age of television—Kennedy was young and energetic, Nixon was tired and unshaven—but these debates did offer substantive opportunity for the candidates to engage with each other. The format of the first debate allowed each candidate eight minutes to make an opening statement, which is an eternity in contemporary television. The format of presidential debates over the ensuing three decades has generally been this model: candidates are on stage with a panel of journalists who ask questions. 1992 saw the first “town hall–style” debate. Instead of journalists, questions came from a panel of undecided voters, who also served as the audience for the debate. The appeal of this format is self-evident, especially if one considers the debates first and foremost as a spectacle. This format purportedly put the power in the hands of the people rather than journalists. But what power, and what people?
The principle difference between a regular debate and a town hall debate is that instead of questions from a panel of journalists, questions come from “real people,” specifically undecided voters. In subsequent town hall debates, undecided voters are selected from across the country and flown to the location of the debate, where they constitute the audience. There are all sorts of caveats one could offer about any effort to define “real people.” The important thing seems to be that real people exist in contrast to “the media,” which in this case, means journalists. For the effect of the town hall meeting format is to remove journalists almost entirely from involvement in the process. Indeed, one of the curious aspects of the town hall debate is that the media organizations that present them perform this ritual of self-erasure.
In place of elite and aloof media hacks, regular people make a town hall meeting a town hall meeting. This language evokes the town meetings discussed in the previous chapter, but the body of people assembled for a town hall debate fills an entirely different function. The people in the room during these debates have no jurisdictional power. They are voters, and undecided voters at that, but they do not cast votes as the result of their deliberations occasioned by their gathering together. Their power exists not in any direct influence they might have on what happens the evening they gather, but in the influence they have on the spectacle that is broadcast to millions of viewers across the nation. At the openings of these debates, there is usually a moment when the host indicates that instead of journalists asking questions, tonight the people are in charge. At the same time, of course, “the people,” represented by a studio audience, are conscripted into a media spectacle. Instead of a revolution that puts you in the driver’s seat, it is a revolution that hands you the controls for a video game that simulates driving.
The introduction to this 1992 debate suggests that its organizers had high hopes for the format. As moderator, Carole Simpson of ABC emphasized the historic nature of this debate, opening the telecast with:
My name is Carole Simpson, and I will be the moderator for tonight’s ninety-minute debate, which is coming to you from the campus of the University of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia. Now, tonight’s program is unlike any other presidential debate in history. We’re making history now, and it’s pretty exciting. An independent polling firm has selected an audience of 209 uncommitted voters from this area. The candidates will be asked questions by these voters on a topic of their choosing—anything they want to ask about. My job as moderator is to, you know, take care of the questioning, ask questions myself if I think there needs to be continuity and balance, and sometimes I might ask the candidates to respond to what another candidate may have said.
If not as decisive a victory as Kennedy over Nixon in 1960, the form suited Clinton much better than Bush—while the incumbent glanced at his watch, the challenger channeled the work he had put in to rehearsing for this event by hitting his marks on stage and connecting with the audience. This “October moment” gave the Clinton campaign some much-needed momentum and is credited by some observers with propelling the former Arkansas governor to victory in November. With shades and saxophone solos on Arsenio, Bill Clinton earned the soubriquet of “The MTV President,” and performances like these were part of the reason why. There are others who are better qualified to consider if a town hall debate makes for better electoral politics than the more traditional debate format. Indeed, the emphasis that this kind of coverage of electoral politics puts on the undecided voter diminishes attention to the role that factors like turnout and voter suppression have in determining the outcome of elections. My concern is not with the influence that this debate format might have on U.S. electoral politics, but rather how influential this model of a simulacrum of democracy has been for how universities and corporations relate to their constituents.
If the 1992 presidential campaign marked the moment the town meeting and the town hall meeting began to drift apart—with the town hall meeting taking on a life beyond the town hall—it is worth considering what each thing is and is not. Like a town meeting, the town hall meeting debate permits direct engagement between constituents and elected officials. Unlike a town meeting, that engagement does not have a direct or immediate impact on any vote. In a town meeting, everyone present hears a question and its response, and everyone present votes during the course of that same meeting. By contrast, a question in a town hall debate occurs some number of weeks before the election, is heard by a television audience who may or may not be willing or able to vote, and may or may not recall the impact of a particular question. As such, the crucial shift with the advent of the town hall meeting is a decoupling of the performative from the deliberative aspects of democracy. The participants in a town hall meeting perform the rituals of democracy, but they do not vote. Like faculty at a university commencement, this is an audience that exists to be seen as much as it does to observe. As a body of people, the audience assembled for a town hall resembles the audience for a program like The Price Is Right more than it does the citizens who gather for a town meeting—a lucky few will be called to participate, but even their participation is primarily for the benefit of those watching at home on TV.
Since the 1992 town hall presidential debate, the town hall debate in various forms has been a regular part of the presidential debate schedule. One of the curiosities of the 1996 town hall debate are the layers of audience: the constructed town hall on the stage, the audience in the auditorium watching the audience on stage, and then the audience watching on television at home.
The 2016 town hall presidential debate happened right after the release of the notorious video of Donald Trump describing his habit of grabbing women by their genitals. In an effort to change the conversation, among the guests joining Trump’s debate contingent were three women who alleged sexual abuse by Secretary Clinton’s husband. Many anticipated that the video revelations would be the end of Trump’s campaign, but the candidate’s deployment of human props representing Bill Clinton’s transgressions suggests that Trump’s understanding of the the intrinsically theatrical nature of a town hall helped him survive this challenge. Rhetorical performances in the context of a deliberative democracy can be theatrical, but you cannot fly in human props to help support your argument in an actual town meeting. If nothing else, this Trump–Clinton debate suggests the importance of an electorate capable of understanding the difference between deliberation and spectacle.
The context of these revelations and counterattacks also produces a curious conflation of theatrical and deliberative imagery. As a CBS News commentator observed when introducing the 2016 town hall debate (at 2:47), “This was supposed to be about the voters on the stage, but . . .”
This town hall debate was held on October 9, 2016, and was hosted by Martha Raddatz of ABC and Anderson Cooper of CNN. As Cooper explained, a town hall debate “gives voters the chance to directly ask the candidates questions. Martha and I will ask follow-up questions, but the night really belongs to the people in this room and to the people across the country who have submitted questions online.” Cooper explained that the people in the room had been selected by the Gallup organization from undecided voters in the Saint Louis area.
Anderson Cooper opened the debate with, “We will begin the debate with a question from one of the members in our town hall.” It is hard to figure out exactly what this town hall was or what it meant to be a “member” of it. Cooper described the physical space as a room on the campus of Washington University that had been converted into a TV studio. The members of this town hall were undecided voters selected by a polling organization. Essentially, ambivalence was a requirement for taking part in this body.
It is understandable that for the sake of the debate’s atmosphere, the organizers preferred not to have hardcore partisans of one candidate or the other asking questions. But the format did make something of a fetish of the relatively small number of voters who had not yet made up their minds. Indeed, if the fiction of the town hall debate is that the assembled voters are a representative sample of the electorate at large, the focus on undecided voters privileges a segment of citizens occupying a relatively narrow portion of the political spectrum. It is possible to imagine an alternative, where the television town hall is populated according to current polling: 43 percent for Candidate A, 37 percent for Candidate B, and 20 percent who are undecided. However, the kind of discourse this format would produce would likely do even more to reinforce extant preferences than the current format. Actual town meetings can and do get contentious, but they tend not to contain the kind of personal attacks that inform so much of contemporary presidential electoral politics. It is, one imagines, possible to persuade voters by informing them at a town meeting: “We need to increase the road budget, because that bridge will fall down if we don’t fix it.” On the other hand, presidential debates rarely allow voters the opportunity to learn new information about candidates and their stances. A question, then, remains: “Is genuinely deliberative presidential electoral politics even possible?”
If Bill Clinton pioneered the town hall meeting as a political form, his spouse adapted these gestures in her own campaigns. A 2007 CBS news report described the transition to “Hillary 2.0”: “When Hillary Clinton began her run for U.S. Senate in 1999, she embarked on a statewide ‘listening tour,’ for which she trudged through every county of New York State, visiting with small groups and paying particular attention to conservative upstate regions. It worked. Seven years later, Clinton is trying her old routine, but with a cyber twist. In the era of Web 2.0, meet Hillary 2.0.” As the article explains, “Instead of rural town hall campaigning, Clinton is meeting voters in online video chats, from the comfort of a living room—or at least a pretty convincing staged couch-and-computer setup—for ‘conversations,’ in which viewers can type out and submit questions.”
An article in the New York Times from the same time describes the process in more detail:
By the time she was done with her inaugural two-day trip as a presidential hopeful on Sunday evening, it was clear that the candidate who trudged across New York almost seven years ago did not show up in Iowa this weekend. This candidate Clinton did a lot more talking than listening. She offered an assertive case against the Bush administration and for her own qualifications to be president.
The image of Hillary Clinton trudging across every county of New York State on a self-described “listening tour” as a prelude to her first political campaign as a candidate raises some questions about the kind of gendered political reactions all of her candidacies have elicited in various contexts; but there are other scholars who have considered those questions in depth. It is interesting to note that if the relation between talking and listening is one of the salient questions of how town hall meetings work, the gendered norms that surround those two activities are worth considering as part of the framework of any deliberative or faux deliberative situation. A detail from the New York Times article is telling: “But for all her effort to restage the 2000 campaign here—‘Let the conversation begin!’ read the banner at her town hall meeting—this is a very different year and a very different campaign.” The town meeting becomes a town hall meeting becomes a conversation. Conversation can be edifying, but it does not carry the force of law. John Pat Leary considers “the conversation” as a totem of contemporary U.S. culture: blogs, news sites, and other media employ the euphemism of “conversation” to refer to any managed interaction with viewers, readers, or listeners. What was once confined to the Letters to the Editor page is now channeled through social media and online comment threads that simulate a casual exchange between peers—what most people would call a “conversation.”
However, as Leary details, “Taken literally, therefore, a conversation has almost nothing in common with any individual’s actual relationship to any bureaucratic institution, much less the modern mass media and advertising industries.” “Conversation,” however, remains a popular way for politicians to imagine their relation to constituents, as Leary observes. In the United States, “national conversations about race” have been proclaimed, demanded, and denounced at least since Bill Clinton’s use of the phrase in his 1997 “Initiative on Race.” The limitations of this invocation are significant: “Since a ‘national conversation’ about anything is a logical impossibility, many, if not most, invocations of the phrase are actually about how the conversation never took place, or never will.”
The New York Times article about Hillary Clinton campaigning in Iowa reveals this impossible conversation but does not comment on it as such: “An estimated 1,000 people turned out to see her at the town hall event on Sunday morning, prompting organizers to move it from a restaurant to an exhibit hall at the state fairgrounds. Mrs. Clinton spent an hour taking questions and lingered for nearly another hour talking to anyone who could push through the crowd. An intimate chat it was not.” Again, there are some presumptions that when a female politician invites voters to a “conversation,” it will be an intimate chat. At the same time, a gathering of 1,000 people, all focused on a single candidate, cannot be a “conversation” in the commonly accepted use of the term.
The contrast between Clinton’s senatorial and presidential campaigns throws some of the rhetorical perversity of naming these events “town halls” into sharper relief, but the deployment of the town hall as a campaign strategy is commonplace and bipartisan. The conversation (which is not a conversation) at an event called a town hall (that takes place in a venue that is not a town hall) is par for the course in contemporary U.S. politics across the political spectrum.