Town Halls Have Become Town Hollers

Angry attendee at town hall meeting

Angry attendees at town hall meeting
It seems like hardly a week goes by that we don’t hear about another town hall meeting gone wild. City Councilmen are shouted at over zoning laws. County Commissioners are shouted at over budget cuts. School Boards are shouted at over lack of classroom discipline. And Congressmen are shouted at over just about everything. Civil discourse between voters and elected officials is a thing of the past because most folks can’t check their emotions at the door. It is a sad state of affairs, and one that has been building to a boil over the last few years.

Certainly our nation has experienced raucous public meetings before, some of which date back to colonial days when we protested English controls. But, over time, we learned how to embrace a sense of decorum, even in the face of political upheaval. In other words, we knew how to act in public. With the dawn of television, our approach for how to hold civil discussions and meetings was formed by watching the likes of Jack Paar, David Frost, Tom Snyder, and William F. Buckley. These hosts conducted their programs with humor and respect. They asked intelligent questions and expected to receive thoughtful, intelligent answers in return, with neither party shouting over the other. Unfortunately, that era was replaced by the age of Jerry Springer, which then spawned the age of Reality TV (where Donald Trump once thrived). The lynchpin of those two more recent eras was dysfunction and disrespect. They lowered the bar of decency for viewers, and gave us a whole new template for how to communicate.

Perhaps I wouldn’t care so much how people treat each other on exploitive television programs, but now, legitimate news programs have sunk to their same level. Today’s news anchors and cable hosts routinely interrupt, talk over, and chastise their own guests, and encourage their panel of experts to do the same with each other. The result is that the audience can’t hear what anyone is saying. Moreover, when we emulate that same kind of bad behavior at town halls, the media then enables, encourages, and rewards us by televising and streaming our actions for all to see. Let’s face it. Flying off the handle has become the new norm.

The modern era of dysfunctional town halls began in 2009 when conservative Tea Party groups lambasted their Congressional representatives during meetings about Obamacare. Things got so bad that Rep. Brian Baird cancelled his town hall meetings because he was receiving death threats. That same year, violence broke out at town hall meetings in Florida, Colorado, Missouri, and Michigan. Now, 2017 is shaping up to be a repeat of eight years ago. Republicans put forth a horrendous healthcare package, not once but twice, and in the second incarnation, they all but eliminated coverage for pre-existing conditions, while allowing insurance companies to charge older people five times the premium rate as everyone else. The audacity and insensitivity of Republican Congressmen in shaping their healthcare bill, set in motion a series of town hall meetings across the country in which constituents acted like angry villagers seeking to destroy Frankenstein’s monster. Voters shouted down their elected officials at every venue, and in some cases, violence erupted, such as during a recent town hall in Utah. Finally, GOP Conference Chair Cathy Rodgers called her troops together for a sit-down with a former Sheriff, who, according to Politico.com, advised the Congressmen on how to protect themselves during volatile town hall situations. Other Representatives didn’t need the security briefing, though. That’s because some decided to hold their meetings via teleconference, while others cancelled their events altogether.

Rep. Mark Walker (NC-6th) told me, “I love to have dialogue. I love to talk about the issues. I want to have a chance to share my beliefs, and then listen to those who may have an opposing view. But if you’re not even able to share, it makes things very difficult in these town hall formats.”

The thing is, we have the right to disagree with public policy and public policy makers, and we have the right to vote them out of office every two years. But yelling, screaming, interrupting, and making threats at a town hall meeting accomplishes nothing. Jerry Springer, Reality TV, and caustic news anchors have made it acceptable to be disrespectful, but by following their example, we’re not just the angry villagers anymore. We’ve also become the monster.
 
 

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