Saturday, April 22, 2017

Do town-hall meetings really achieve their objectives?

As you can see below, my blog posts on Rep. Doug LaMalfa's town-hall meeting in Redding this week generated several responses from attendees, and in the interest of fairness and for purposes of discussion, I thought I'd elevate them.

Kim Solga wrote:
Indivisible Shasta (indivisibleshasta.org) was present at the Redding town hall as individuals. We organized no group of activists, though we certainly encouraged folks to attend the town hall and express their views. The signs we helped hand out were the green "agree" and red "oppose" papers that are meant to be held up instead of yelling out opinions. The purpose of these signs is to keep order and civility in the meeting. The talking points we prepared were likewise intended to help people speak their opinions clearly and concisely. It is not surprising to me that many average voters are passionately opposed to the agenda of the Trump administration, that they show up at town hall meetings in great number and shout out their frustrations. I hope LaMalfa will hold more frequent town hall meetings in more diverse areas of District 1, and that he will think for himself and stand up for what is actually best for his constituents rather than just rubber-stamping everything Trump and the ultra-right proposes.
Christine Mitchell wrote:
It wasn't just Indivisible that organized for this. Berniecrats of Shasta County started organic quite awhile ago. They actually set up the training. There are many proud progressives who worked and have been working for the same issues for years.
I'm looking at this issue from two perspectives -- first from the member of Congress' perspective, and then from the point of view of what I call the average voter. That's the person who works all week, is involved in his or her kids' activities and may or may not be all that politically active, but has an issue or two that he or she really cares about and whats the congressman to address.

For the member of Congress, let's look at an issue like single-payer health care. It was wildly popular in the room on Wednesday night, but if you put a single-payer health care initiative on the California ballot, it would fail in Shasta County by a 60-40 or even 70-30 margin. And the same disparity could be noted with numerous other issues, too. For a lawmaker who is home for a week and has a district the size of several Eastern states, it's all about making the most out of your time in gathering as complete a picture as you can about the concerns and desires of your constituency. And I wouldn't blame a congressman if he concluded that spending half his time setting up and conducting town-hall meetings just to get yelled at about Trump's tax returns wasn't the best use of his time.

As for the perspective of average voters, let's take a look at some of the comments on LaMalfa's Facebook page, shall we?

Melissa Hunt: "Spending time with Doug LaMalfa at his Town Hall to appreciate his service for his district! We needed more respectful constituents to show up though! Next time won't you come out, please?"

Jan MacDonald-Skipitis: "I wanted to go but I don't want to deal w/ the negative, shouting, angry left!"

Melissa Hunt, replying to Jan: "We talked about this very reason being why [people] stayed away! That made me all the more determined to support him and go. Definitely a disrespectful bunch!"

Barbara Thurman: "So sad people act that way, just ruined for people who really wanted good information."

Rich Steele: "Until people realize that a town hall is for open discussion and not media infused shouting by a few I'm with Doug LaMalfa. Don't have anymore. If the losers from the left don't get a platform they will go away or start acting like good citizens."

A good example of the point I'm making is the Oroville meeting Monday night. The people in that community have been through two harrowing months, with evacuations and rumors that the dam above their heads could fail. That could have been an opportunity for them to pepper LaMalfa with questions and comments about dam reconstruction, federal funding, the federal investigation and the like. But it wasn't. One really has to wonder how many of the people who were doing all that yelling and disrupting were evacuated. My hunch is not many.

Look, protests -- whether outside of a congressman's office or on the National Mall -- are as American as apple pie. But booing and chanting during the invocation, shouting people down are not going to win folks over to your point of view. The pictures that you create don't make people think there's widespread anger among American voters, as much as friendly media outlets try to help you. They just show a vocal group of very bitter people trying to grab all the attention.

And average voters aren't going to deal with it. They don't have to sit and be offended and abused after a hard day's work. They have lots of ways to get their points across to members of Congress -- making phone calls, sending texts, sending emails, using Facebook or Twitter or getting involved in organizations like the Farm Bureau who will lobby for their interests.

That's why I wonder if the concept of the congressional town-hall meeting has outlived its usefulness. Perhaps a member of Congress would be better served by finding other ways to interact with voters, such as appearing before community groups to discuss specific issues or having the groups host public meetings where they can keep speakers on topic (and 86 the unruly ones). They can go on radio call-in shows, hold Facebook live chats or, as LaMalfa frequently does, hold "telephone town-halls." Or they can hold congressional field hearings on specific bills or topics, which are actual official hearings and are more structured.

If these town-hall spectacles actually educated people about issues, that would be one thing. But they don't, really. All they do is provide footage for media outlets to spin their narratives.

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