Michael Neblo

Town halls, without the screaming or scripting

By Michael Neblo
August 30, 2009

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THE CHAOS at town-hall meetings this month was just a vivid symptom of an older and much larger problem. Even at the outset of American democracy, the framers and average citizens alike were concerned about communication between elected officials and their constituents.

This basic problem of fostering consultation and accountability has only grown as our population has surged and our problems have become more complex. When they are at home in their districts, as they have been throughout August, members of Congress try to discuss issues with their constituents. But many citizens struggle even to understand the policy process, much less have their voices heard in it. As a result, they have become increasingly disengaged, and those who remain have become more extreme and more frustrated. In response, members of Congress have become increasingly wary of uncontrolled encounters with constituents.

Even before this latest wave of protests, most face-to-face town-hall meetings did little to promote reasoned discourse. If democratic decisions are made by the people who show up, decades of research have shown that at town halls, they are usually either people who already love their representative or citizens nursing specific grievances. Neither group is particularly open to persuasion, so members typically do not get to spend much time arguing the merits of a case. Instead, elected representatives offer palliative care, reassuring the aggrieved that they can be trusted to get it right the next time. Worse yet, representatives sometimes avoid confrontation by creating carefully scripted encounters, controlling the questions or participants.

There are better ways to promote dialogue.

Working with colleagues Kevin Esterling and David Lazer, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and the Congressional Management Foundation, I conducted Internet town halls as alternatives to screaming and scripting. We recruited 13 members of Congress - both Democrats and Republicans - who were interested in finding a better way to consult with constituents. The idea was to bring elected officials together with a good cross-section of the public through a sophisticated Internet chat room.

We invited random samples of citizens from each member’s district or state to participate in discussions on two contentious issues: immigration (during the summer of 2006) and detainee policy (summer 2008). And who showed up? Unlike the recent in-person town-halls, our participants looked a lot like the general public. They were neither political groupies nor angry extremists. They simply wanted to get the issues right by their own lights through an informed dialogue with their representatives.

The questions from constituents were uncensored. Yet, not once, in more than 20 sessions with over 600 citizen participants, did we get a question like the ones shown on TV. There were no verbal equivalents of citizens wearing weapons in holsters to the sessions, no nuclear attacks on members’ patriotism or humanity. Members had to answer thoughtful and sometimes difficult questions. When a constituent challenged a Republican congressman on welfare benefits for the offspring of illegal immigrants - a sensitive issue in his district - he defended his belief that a decent country doesn’t let children starve in the street. Things sometimes heated up, but nobody had to call upon the Capitol Police for protection.

We made it easy for the participants in our town halls to study up before logging in. In response, the elected representatives were eager to offer substantive, thoughtful viewpoints of their own.

The elected officials also reaped the rewards of straightforward dialogue in the dramatically increased levels of trust and esteem in which their constituents held them after the conversations. Participants could tell that the sessions were not infomercials and respected the representatives for being brave enough to skip the manipulation. They came to see that reasonable people can disagree on complex issues, and that deliberation is often valuable even if a given individual does not change her mind.

Elected representatives have a duty to consult with their constituents. There is a place for face-to-face confrontation, and even angry protest. But even more important for the health of the body politic is exercising the habits of thoughtful deliberation that the Founders considered so essential. With imagination, hard work, and good will, we can improve upon the politics of screaming and scripting.

Michael Neblo is an assistant professor of political science at Ohio State University.

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