NOT MANY WEEKS separated the infamous Trump–Clinton town hall–style debate from the “town hall meetings” many elected officials felt compelled to hold in the winter of 2017. These town hall meetings offered something quite different from what town hall–style presidential debates offered viewers. In general, these constituent service town hall meetings do not offer viewers or attendees the sense that they hold the fate of the featured politician in their hands. Instead of an exchange between candidates that viewers can use to inform their voting decisions, the constituent service town hall meeting provides already-elected politicians the opportunity to cement their incumbent status. These constituent service town hall meetings reflect an ongoing shift in political culture, as Greg O. Jones described in an early iteration in 2000: “An instinctive campaigner, Bill Clinton promoted a more public style of governing, a development referred to by some as ‘permanent campaigning.’”
These meetings can go well or poorly, and the hosting politician can lose their cool or not. But nothing is immediately at stake as there is in the town meeting or even indirectly at stake as there is in the town hall–style debate preceding an election. These meetings, in fact, owe more to the kind of campaign town hall meeting pioneered by Bill Clinton than they do to any kind of deliberative political activity. In spite of this obvious limitation, constituent service town hall meetings are popular, and constituents berate their congresspeople when they fail to hold them. There is an organization that maintains web resources to help interested citizens keep track of when a town hall meeting will take place near them. Town Hall Project’s slogan is “Show Up, Speak Out.” As they describe their mission, “Town Hall Project empowers constituents across the country to have face-to-face conversations with their elected representatives. . . . We come from a diversity of backgrounds and live across the country. We share progressive values and believe strongly in civic engagement. We research every district and state for public events with members of Congress. Then we share our findings to promote participation in the democratic process.”
The work the Town Hall Project does is laudable, but its own account of this work reveals the slippage of the town meeting into the town hall meeting. On their About page, one of the questions is “Why town halls?” and they answer like this: “There is no better way to influence your representatives than in-person conversations. Town halls are a longstanding American tradition—where our elected representatives must listen and respond to the concerns of their constituents. Remember: you are their boss.” This statement may fetishize the embodied nature of democratic politics in a way that is anachronistic in the current media landscape. But it also obscures the differences between a town meeting—which is a longstanding American tradition and where the members have immediate political power—and town hall meetings. Like the gatherings cataloged by the Town Hall Project, town hall meetings will, at best, push public opinion in one direction or another, and they are not a longstanding American tradition (at least not by the name of “town hall”).
Town Hall Project’s statement of purpose concludes: “We believe every citizen, no matter the party of their members of Congress, should have the opportunity to speak with his or her representatives. You have more power than you think. Town halls are one of the most effective ways to use it.” It is difficult to be cynical about this conception of contemporary U.S. politics, but it is important to be clear about what is and is not at stake in these constituent service town hall meetings. By definition, an organization that “empowers constituents across the country to have face-to-face conversations with their elected representatives” is focused on engaging with incumbent politicians who have already been elected to an office. These meetings can be compelling political theater, but the actual political change they can accomplish comes down to two possibilities: (1) a congressperson hears testimonies that move him or her to change positions on a given issue; or (2) the congressperson’s performance at these political rituals is so poor that it costs his or her seat in the next election. Given the host of other forces that shape politics—lobbying, television, social media—it is hard to think of an instance when either outcome could be attributable to the voluntary town hall meetings Town Hall Project calls elected officials to have.
In any event, Town Hall Project treats the willingness to hold these meetings as a significant litmus test for politicians. It maintains a Missing Members list on its website: “162 members of Congress have not held a single in-person town hall since January 1, 2017. Is yours one of them?” In a similar vein, Town Hall Project has promoted the #townhallpledge campaign, which asks candidates to pledge that they will hold at least four public meetings a year. It is good to encourage elected officials to be more accessible to their constituents but calling these gatherings “town hall meetings” suggests they are more powerful than they actually are.
To consider a particular example, in the context of the rhetoric of accountability that surrounds the constituent service town hall meeting, the atmosphere of Lindsey Graham’s town hall meeting on March 4, 2017, was surprisingly jocular. Senator Graham began with, “Play ball!” and announced that they would be finished in time for everyone to watch the Clemson–Carolina baseball game.
The audience, which was largely anti-Graham, seemed to enjoy the back and forth with their antagonist. But the mood changed a little more than ten minutes in when Graham literally wagged his finger at an attendee who disputed the senator’s account of problems with Obamacare, telling him he would “get kicked out if you don’t shut up . . . because you’re rude.” The conversation that unfolded included questions concerning many of the major issues of the moment, including health care, Russian interference in the election, and Supreme Court nominees. Near the end of the event, Graham made a comment that summed up the tenor of the conversation: “People came here thinking that if you yell at me enough I’ll stop being a conservative Republican, and I won’t. Some people came here believing that I’ll never help Trump because I say bad things about him. I will, but I’m still going to push back when I think he’s wrong.” Earlier in the meeting, at 45:25, Graham replied to a follow-up question about his support for Betsy DeVos: “We’re talking about foreign aid. I’ve answered the DeVos question. If you don’t like it, you don’t like it.” And earlier, at 44:02, Graham observed, “There are consequences to losing an election.” These comments suggest that Senator Graham viewed his 2014 electoral victory as a mandate to pursue what he felt was best for his constituents for the duration of his term, and he communicated as much in this meeting. There were almost 673,000 South Carolinians who voted to reelect Graham in 2014, and there were no more than 1,000 who attended this town hall in 2017. So, it would be unreasonable to expect major changes from Graham as a result of a gathering like this. At the same time, it may be that the principle benefit of a constituent town hall is to provide catharsis for unhappy constituents. At 1:01:35, Graham suggested he understood as much when he said, “A lot of people out here . . . are so upset about Trump. You have no idea what it takes to run a democracy. You’re so upset, you’re so bitter that you can only see one side of the story.” Graham’s comments remind us, this is a conversation that happens after an election rather than a conversation that has immediate impact on a vote.
Graham’s performance also reminds us that while town meetings are about institutions, town hall meetings are often about personalities. This is “Lindsey Graham’s Town Hall” rather than a gathering that involves a political jurisdiction. As attendee Tara Burnett explains at 36:00, Graham held the town hall in response to a petition from a constituent. Unlike an election, State of the Union address, or town meeting, there is no law that compels Senator Graham or his colleagues to hold events like this. A petition underscores the voluntary nature of the meeting:
Constituents of Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham would like to request a town hall meeting to discuss a variety of issues. . . . A town hall meeting would give you the opportunity to communicate with your constituents in larger numbers, and would grant us the opportunity to clearly understand your positions and to voice our own concerns. We would like to schedule this meeting as soon as possible.
Residents of South Carolina
Constituents “would like” and close by saying “thank you.” Good manners can be a good thing, but the please-and-thank-you dynamic informing this event limits its political efficacy. In contrast, the formal announcement that a town meeting will soon take place is called a “warning.” There is a tone of deference here that runs counter to the idea that congresspeople are the employees of their constituents. As we saw in the case of Steven Salaita’s dismissal from a tenured position at the University of Illinois, invoking civility can work to derail conversations about things that are more harmful than bad manners. Here, Graham traded on this dynamic when he threatened to kick out a constituent for being “rude,” and much of the coverage of the many constituent service town hall meetings held in early 2017 focused on the boisterous nature of the proceedings.
Indeed, “raucous town hall meeting” was a favorite phrase during coverage of these events in the wake of Trump’s election. While the Greenville News used the phrase to describe Senator Graham’s town hall meeting in Clemson, Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy was the first to have his own “raucous town hall meeting” in February 2017. The list of 2017 “raucous town hall meetings” continued: Texas Representative Pete Sessions had one in March; Arizona Senator Jeff Flake had one in April; Maryland Representative Dave Brat had one in May. In one of the more extreme cases, California Representative Tom McClintock left a “raucous town hall meeting” with a police escort.
The persistently raucous nature of these meetings owes something to the political mood in the country following Trump’s election; but it might also have something to do with the intrinsically frustrating nature of these meetings. Imagine a subset of constituents who confront a congressperson who has most likely been elected in spite of the votes of those attending the town hall meeting. In this respect, the town hall meeting has a different function than the kind of rallies Donald Trump frequently holds. As attendees at constituent service town hall meetings speak, politicians perform the postures of listening, while still reaffirming the views that got them elected in the first place. In the absence of parliamentary rules like the ones that govern a town meeting, the rules that govern a town hall meeting are less distinct but do tend to default to some conception of politeness—or transgressions on politeness, what with all the raucousness these meetings evidently engender. Politeness has its place, but it can be a luxury a democracy cannot afford.
While a town meeting has a moderator, a town hall meeting has a host. A moderator of a town meeting is empowered to keep order, up to having obstreperous attendees removed by police, even as a majority of citizens can overrule the decisions of the moderator. Rather than the standard of order implied by a moderator, a host suggests a different standard of civility. Civility and democracy are not inimical to one another, but they can be uneasy companions. The question of what is or is not “personal” (or polite or civil) overlaps with the putative status of the constituent service town hall meeting as a way to hold elected officials accountable. Guides to parliamentary procedure like Robert’s Rules of Order point out that personal remarks are not appropriate during deliberation. In the context of a constituent service town hall meeting, the focus of the meeting is the person holding the meeting, so it is difficult for any comment or question not to be personal.
At the same time, the word “accountability” has become popular in a variety of spheres as part of a broader embrace of the language of managerialism in every possible human endeavor. It is a popular way to describe what town hall meetings engender. As an example, alongside a picture of preparations for a town hall meeting, the Town Hall Project tweeted, “This is what accountability looks like.” Substituting “accountability” where the word “democracy” usually appears suggests resonance between the two terms; however, they mean different things. “Accountable” means something like “responsible,” and it may not be an accident that the word “accountable” adds a fiscal sense to the moral obligations humans owe one another. More generally, though, “to be accountable” means that you are obliged to explain your actions and to face the consequences of your choices. In the most concrete sense, a cashier at a supermarket is accountable when the manager reconciles the goods the cashier rang with the money collected—any shortfall will come out of the cashier’s pay.
This notion of accountability has become popular in many political contexts. A February 2018 article about Devin Nunes begins like this: “Apparently, House Intelligence chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) feels no accountability to his constituents. Not only does he refuse to hold a town hall, the very idea of doing so is ridiculous to him.” As the name suggests, Shareblue is a Democratic-leaning media outlet, but the equation of holding town hall meetings and accountability is taken as a given here. The condemnation of elected officials for failing to hold town hall meetings has become commonplace in contemporary politics. Missing from this condemnation, however, is evidence of just how much accountability a town hall meeting can produce. By its nature, a town hall meeting will tend to attract attendees who have some objection to register with the official hosting it. For the sake of argument, we assume the official holds a town hall meeting, attendees register their objection, and the town hall meeting concludes. And then what happens? Compared to the cashier with the short drawer, nothing. There is likely some media coverage of the event, especially if the conversation became heated. The elected official returns to his or her duties, and people who attended or followed the conversation can vow to “remember in November,” even though that November may be more than five years away. If we pursue the metaphor of the cashier and cash register drawer, it is also possible that a congressperson may feel more accountable in the fiscal sense to his or her donors than to his or her constituents.
As such, these gatherings are what we might call “accountability theater,” or an exercise where a politician performs the gestures of accountability without ever having to face actual consequences. For those who attend, town hall meetings can be quite satisfying. As the slogan of Town Hall Project says, these gatherings offer citizens a chance to show up and speak out. Unlike a town meeting, however, the outcomes of this speaking out in town hall meetings are often difficult to discern. Constituent service town halls raise a question: Are the limitations of speaking and hearing as metaphors for the democratic process features or bugs?