The American town hall tradition dates back centuries, as do critiques of its fundamental flaw: "In all very numerous assemblies," observed James Madison in Federalist 55 (1788), "passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason."
Especially when passion is organized. In spring of 2009, Connecticut tea party activist Bob MacGuffie authored a widely distributed memo, "Rocking the Town Hall, Best Practices," that served as a blueprint for those who sought to turn congressional meet-and-greets into taunt-and-shrieks about then-pending health care reform legislation.
Activists on the political right took the lead in undermining the town hall. But those on the left have learned well from their techniques, and this summer both sides are reportedly planning to — how to put it nicely again? — orchestrate their contributions to these events; to turn "Congress on Your Corner" into "Your Congressperson Cornered," as Stanford University's James Fishkin put it.
Fishkin heads Stanford's Center for Deliberative Democracy and advocates replacing the shrill town hall meeting with a gathering of a "scientifically selected microcosm of a lawmaker's constituents" to provide "informed feedback" representing the district.
Sounds a bit fussy to me, but closer to the ideals of democracy than ceding the platform to the loudest, angriest factions. And a sight better than Twitter town halls, admission fee barriers and other options some representatives adopted after the harum-scarum of 2009. In fact, prior to the 2011 August recess, the No Labels nonpartisan group surveyed all members of Congress and found 68 percent of the Democrats and 51 percent of the Republicans were not planning town halls. The Washington Post reported then that the number of such meetings had fallen 24 percent since 2009.
I found no comparable figures for 2013, but my suggestion is to cut the number to zero. The Internet, 24/7 cable news and relentless operatives in these polarized, high-volume times have turned meeting rooms into stages.
And congressional representatives who want to get a handle on what their constituents really think instead of simply getting an earful need to get off their — how to put it nicely? — chairs, walk around and ask.