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The Quirky History of American Town Halls
In which I subject you, dear reader, to my over-preparation for an interview with a local paper
Every August, Congress heads home for recess. For many of them, it isn’t a break—they’re still at work, touching base with constituents in one of America’s great traditions: the town hall.
Earlier this month I spoke with Dang Le from the Fort Worth Report for his article on congressional town halls in Texas. Le featured my own representative Marc Veasey, whose hilariously gerrymandered district runs from Fort Worth to where I live in South Dallas. It was one my first interview as a professor, so I did way to much research on town halls in preparation. Here’s what I found:
The first town halls in America were mini governments, not Q&A sessions—and we don’t really know where they came from. Today, when a representative goes back to their district, it’s mostly listening and responding carefully to constituent concerns. But the first town hall meetings in Massachusetts in the 1630s were experiments in community-level direct democracy, a tradition that continues today in some Massachusetts towns. But how they got started is contested. I’ve written before about how many of our democratic ideas and practices have Native American roots; I find myself wondering if the town hall might be the legacy of Pilgrims’ exposure to Native American deliberative traditions.
The phrase town hall is now part of American mythology and gets repurposed to lend legitimacy to lots of different things. Companies have town halls. Starting in the 1990s, presidential debate organizers started experimenting with the town hall debate format. CNN called its disastrous 2023 interview with Donald Trump a “town hall.” Former Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price used to have bicycle ride town halls, and the City of Dallas will host town halls for its 2024 bond program.
Congressional town halls took a beating in 2009, but there has been a wave of innovation since. In the midst of the fight over Obamacare and the rise of the Tea Party, generally sleepy town halls turned into fiery exchanges and, in one instance, a reported death threat against a representative. The town hall, scholars lamented, had devolved into a combination of a press conference and screaming match. Some representatives stopped doing them entirely (though the average representative holds nine town halls every two years). Other formats have emerged to serve some of the same functions as town halls. Politicians host AMAs on Reddit, interactive campaign announcements on Twitter, and video conferences for supporters, for example.
The most exciting experiments to me are online or “deliberative” town halls with representative samples of constituents, where it turns out representatives can be remarkably persuasive. It was a deliberative town hall-esque gathering that convinced politicians in Texas to support the development of the Texas wind industry (!). More links on those below.
We don’t know very much about how town halls reflect or effect congressional behavior. I was able to find very little research on congressional town halls themselves, which was a fun surprise. One working paper I found held a surprise. Scholars have tended to think of legislators having different legislative styles: some are focused on making policy, others on constituent services, and others on moving up in the party. But when Andrew Clarke and Daniel Markovitz looked at 23,000 congressional town halls over eight years, they found that representatives more likely to show up for town halls were the same ones that were effective at getting legislation passed.
As is often the case, I left all this research with more questions (and paper ideas) than answers. I’m curious to hear what questions you readers have about them, too!
Bonus! Go deeper on deliberative town halls: