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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Shall we ever rid ourselves of bogus "town" meetings on national policies?

The spectacle of President Obama's town meetings on healthcare reform inspires my question. President Obama did not invent this device -- it really hit its stride in the 1990s, when the Clintons discovered its potency as a stage for an empathetic politico -- but I wish that Obama would forego its use. The problem is that town meetings (as the name implies) require town residents' dealing with town policies. When this essentially local procedure is dragooned into the task of discussing, say, national health care policy, the result is necessarily fake, an exercise in PR rather than democracy.

As William Fischel, the Dartmouth economist, has argued in his Homevoter Hypothesis (Harvard University Press 2001), local residents have both the incentive and capacity to gather information spontaneously about local politics -- zoning, local services, taxes, schools, etc. -- because these affect their property values in intense and immediate way and because the sources of information are close at hand. But the participants in "town" meetings about national policies have no such incentives. As Adam Ferguson observed a decade ago when the national "town" meeting was still a fresh campaign technique, the town meeting on national policy is "Ye Olde Town Gimmick" -- a Potemkin Village of policy ignorance, partisan high jinks, or (where a politician can screen the audience) soporific mutual admiration ("That's an excellent question! And this Administration cares about working families....")

The really repulsive aspect of national "town" meetings is that, by providing the simulacrum of participatory democracy, they crowd out consideration of the real thing. There are interesting proposals out there to create lay assemblies that, like juries, would be exposed to an array of expert and political testimony and forced to deliberate for an extended period before making a recommendation. Ethan Leib, my co-prawf, is a vigorous defender of one such type of institution, and citizens' assemblies have been tried in British Columbia to push electoral reform with mixed success. Of course, there is always our home-grown version -- the real town meetings that deals with real town policies: I recommend Frank M. Brayan, Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works (U. of Chicago Press 2004) for a detailed study.

By contrast with these institutional solutions to collective action problem of information acquisition in a democracy, the national "town" meeting feeds the myth that participatory democracy is can be acquired on the cheap without the hard work of actually studying the issues being discussed. So call them "talk shows," "focus groups," "photo ops" -- anything but what they are decidedly not: viz, a town meeting of citizens actually engaged in self-government.

Posted by Rick Hills on August 12, 2009 at 10:57 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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Joseph-- don't be so quick to disparage the town hall meetings in Springfield; in a single meeting the town was able to decide to purchase and construct the monorail system (and did so to the tune of a catchy song). On second thought, that actually turned out to be an ill-fated idea.

As you were.

Posted by: Paul Washington | Aug 13, 2009 4:18:30 PM

I might have said why we should distinguish between participatory and deliberative democracy if perchance it is not obvious: we can increase or widen participatory institutions, mechanisms and processes without thereby increasing deliberative features and, conversely, deliberative institutions, mechanisms and processes need not increase participatory democracy. Of course some recent proposals endeavor to be both participatory and deliberative (Ethan's, also Sutherland, Callenbach, et al.). And those who tend to conflate or confuse the two would fail to appreciate, for example, how the House of Lords has several exemplary characteristics of deliberative democracy (cf. John Parkinson's 'The House of Lords: A Deliberative Democratic Defense,' The Political Quarterly, Vol. 78, No. 3 [July-September 2007]).

To return to Goodin,

"Thus the problem with which democratic elitists began at the turn of the last century returns to haunt democratic theory in its most recent incarnations. How can we constructively engage people in the public life of a mass democracy, without making wildly unrealistic demands on their time and attention? That problem becomes particularly acute when we appreciate that we are inevitably dealing with people who often take no direct interest in political affairs, as such."

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Aug 13, 2009 12:23:32 PM

Too true. It's Frank "Bryan," though (and the book is definitely a trove of observational data on town meetings throughout Vermont over a 25 year period, I think).

Posted by: Jamie Colburn | Aug 13, 2009 11:29:37 AM

Great post. I would only two things.

First, the growth of multiple 24-hour news stations has increased the problem, as folks now see this as an opportunity to get on TV -- either in a broadcast of the "town hall" meeting itself, or maybe even as a guest of Fox News or the Chris Matthews show the next day. The culture is permeated already with people who are willing to do pretty much anything to get on TV, and this encourages behavior at these "meetings" that is not really conducive to participatory or deliberative democracy.

Second, the whole idea that "town hall meetings" are authentically American baffles me. I grew up in a small town in the rural midwest, corn fields around my high school and all that, and I don't remember our town ever having anything like these "town hall meetings." Although I suspect if we did have them, they would have resembled the town hall meetings on "The Simpsons."

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Aug 13, 2009 10:23:50 AM

I wholeheartedly agree.

Although there's no doubt considerable overlap between them, I wonder if we might distinguish between "participatory" and "deliberative" democracy, the "town" meetings failing on both accounts. In either case, I find most proposals woefully impractical and unrealistic, although I remain a bit intrigued (in a utopian or idealistic sort of way) by the model of Swedish study circles discussed in Leonard P. Oliver's Study Circles: Coming Together for Personal Growth and Social Change (1987).

For a provocative if not more realistic alternative to the recent enthusiasm for deliberative democracy (not long ago I was one of the enthusiasts), please see Robert E. Goodin's Reflective Democracy (2003).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Aug 12, 2009 11:45:13 PM

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