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That's Just Not Funny Anymore, Karl: Town Hall Meetings, History and Critique

American voters are fed up. They feel that politicians do not respond to their needs.
John Brady

Issue #37, March 1998

History, Karl Marx remarked, occurs twice: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. Marx aimed his remark at the faux revolutionaries of his day. In times of revolutionary crisis, he noted, individuals tend to conjure up the ghosts of past political events and cloak themselves in the signs and symbols of past periods of revolutionary upheaval. By cloaking themselves in this way, these revolutionaries hide the limitations of their political projects.

We here in the US, of course, don't live in revolutionary times. But this has not stopped our political leaders from engaging in an historical farce of their own. These politicians, too, don the costumes of the past as they act in the present. A notable example of this is the recent revival, first in political campaigns, and lately in processes of policy formation, of the town meeting.

As every American school child interpellated by the US public schools knows, our forefathers built American democracy upon the institutional bedrock of the town meeting. Prior to the revolution, stoic, pious New Englanders would regularly troop down to the town hall where they would patiently work together to decide their collective fate. This experience of collective decision-making instilled these proto-Americans with the taste for exercising popular control of government. The participatory impulses of these meetings would later flow into the founding of the nation and help to give American democracy its unique flavor. Or so the myth goes.

But as the media constantly reminds us, the American voter is angry. Whether in the guise of the angry white male ticked about minority entitlements and government giveaways or the irked soccer mom displeased about the lack of public safety and our crumbling public schools, American voters are fed up. They feel that politicians do not respond to their needs. Wasting taxpayer money by the minute, these fat cat politicians hide behind their incumbency inside the Beltway, smoking crack and eating little children.

In an effort to dispel such voter prejudices, politicians, especially Bill Clinton, have attempted to appear close to the people and in tune with popular needs and anxieties. The stage they have chosen for this is the town meeting. These small, intimate gatherings between a politician and a demographically and politically correct slice of America have been by all accounts a big success. They have allowed politicians to appear sympathetic to the general population and concerned about their issues. What is more, these meetings have allowed the people the illusion of having direct influence on the decisions of politicians. Slickly produced, these meetings have functioned as perfect simulacra of democratic discourse.

Everything was going fine until Madeline Albright led a delegation of administration officials to Columbus, Ohio in February to sell America's heartland on the idea that bombing the bejeezus out of Iraq was an effective form of foreign policy. Expecting to simulate policy consensus, the officials instead faced a hostile crowd. Protesting loudly, the citizens cast doubt on the wisdom of the administration's plans. They had, in other words, the nerve to express real opinions, ones that diverged substantially from those of the administration. And in public, no less!

Commentators on American politics have presented the town meetings as an innovation in US politics. But to my mind, these meetings are not a departure from how we normally conduct our affairs in the public sphere, or have those affairs conducted for us. Instead the meetings conform to the usual logic of public discussion. This discussion is dominated by two types of public activity. In the first, public figures, pundits and media stars publicize the private details of other people's private lives. The personal tragedy or the lover's indiscretion are suddenly swept up into the stream of media speculation and become the focus of public attention. How exactly such private events are political, that is, of common concern to the rest of the citizens, is rarely explained. The second dominant type of activity is reflected in the town meeting. Here political leaders use the public sphere to stage publicity and win acclaim for the policy decisions they have made. Politicians use the public sphere to generate an aura of legitimacy around their decisions. Basking in this aura, the politicians hide the fact that their decisions have been made above the heads of the people.

Of course, there is a third approach to the public sphere. Individuals and groups can use the public sphere to generate critical publicity. As public critics, these individuals and groups actively engage in a discussion of public policy and other issues that face society; they provide reasons for and against a certain policy or planned course of action. Ideally, through such discussion they ensure that the decisions taken by political leaders reflect the concerns of the people.

The events in Columbus, Ohio are significant because for an instant, people took on the role of public critics. For a moment, they ruptured the seamless media discourse and called into question the wisdom of government policy toward Iraq. In doing so, they demonstrated the resiliency of the principle of critical publicity. Even in the face of a public discourse dominated by political leaders seeking acclaim and media outlets seeking profit, Americans still possess the ability to dispel the aura of administered public opinion and to use a public forum to discuss public affairs.

In the recent revival of the town meeting, there is, of course, something farcical. Here we can agree with Marx. It is a farce to think that we can overcome the very real impediments to citizen involvement in democratic decision-making by orchestrating a few get-togethers between politicians and a select group of the led. And insofar as politicians actually believe the town meeting serves to increase citizen involvement we can see the limits of their vision of democratic politics. It is a vision blind to the necessity of fundamental institutional reform. But even as we enjoy the high comedy of the town meeting, we can hear echoes of the tragic. And here we have to depart from Marx's view. History repeats itself, to be sure, but comedy does not completely replace tragedy at the center of the political stage. Even as citizens use the town meeting to generate critical publicity, the town meeting retains a tragic element because such critical use is so rare. This rarity demonstrates how impoverished our political culture is and how far from anything approaching a robust democracy in the United States we really are. And there is nothing funny about that.

John Brady is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently writing his dissertation on the development of a multicultural public sphere in Berlin. In his spare time he serves as acting president of the International Institute of Doughnut Studies.

Copyright © 1998 by John Brady. All rights reserved.