FOR BOTH CNN AND FOX NEWS, the town hall format offers a spectacle designed to advance a particular political agenda and to boost the networks’ ratings. Both of these town halls also offer simulated deliberation to an audience watching at home. “Town hall” imbues these events, and other such events will follow with their cozy aura of democracy, even as they represent a total abrogation of the democratic ideals of the town meeting. In writing what amounts to a critique of the evolution of the town meeting, I hope that I do not put myself among those writers who revere the New England town meeting as a sort of democratic Camelot we cannot hope to regain in these sad, latter days. At the same time, I think that paying attention to what town meetings and town hall meetings are and do is worth the effort for people who support democracy as a system of government. To summarize its ongoing metamorphosis, the original town meeting is when people gather to vote on the future shape of their institution. In the town hall meeting as political debate, political event, or academic town hall, the people gather so the institution’s representatives can listen. In the town hall meeting as corporate event, the people gather so the institution can announce something, perform a ritual of listening to its constituents, or broadcast this ritual to audiences watching on television.
The town hall meeting used in response to trauma or grievances—in other words, town hall meeting as press conference—is perhaps harder to pin down than the original town meeting. But its transitional role might warrant further consideration from scholars of trauma and of public culture. For one thing, it is worth considering just what it means for a politician or the representative of a university to listen. Listening exists as a more active variant of the passive state of hearing, but listening also imposes no obligation. In contemporary language, listening is perhaps an easier way to say empathizing, but even empathizing does not carry the promise of any action on behalf of the speaker. The shift from deliberation to listening as the function of a town hall meeting is the more straightforward part of this equation. The abstraction inherent in democracy—including the fact there will always be a minority who does not get what they want—means that making appeals and airing grievances will not always elicit the action one hopes for. (Indeed, in the Trump era, much of current “resistance” activity consists of a quixotic proliferation of appeals that are delivered with the full knowledge they will be ignored.) So, to some extent, being on the losing side of a tax increase vote at the town level conditions citizens to politely smile and nod, just as they do when their senator answers their questions at a town hall meeting.
The shift from listening to announcing is complex but strategic, and the categories overlap. For instance, a racist incident on campus will traumatize some members of that community, and the university’s leadership might well hold a town hall to provide space for members of the community to talk and for the university to listen. At the same time, if a university announces a new austerity plan that will traumatize some members of the community, the university might well hold a town hall to enact the announcement of those austerity measures, even as it performs the act of listening to objections to this plan. What works for the university works for the corporation—at the end of a town hall meeting to announce corporate restructuring that will cost jobs, there is nothing for employees to vote on.
If this brief study has a conclusion beyond surveying the various ways that individuals and institutions have co-opted a basic form of democracy, I hope that it reemphasizes that without voting, there is no democracy. This is not a sophisticated political analysis, but it is worth bearing in mind, especially in an age of widespread gerrymandering and voter suppression. For citizens who are unhappy with the status quo, it would be a disaster to confuse being heard at a town hall meeting with being heard at a ballot box.