On townhalls

August 27, 2021 08:41
Photo: Reuters

Definition of a townhall (from the Cambridge English Dictionary): “a public meeting at which a politician or official speaks about his or her policies and answers questions from members of the public.”

In seeking to comprehensively make sense of town halls, it is imperative that we understand the phenomenon’s historical roots. In many ways, Greece featured the prototype of the town hall – men and women alike would assemble at Athens’ agora, where they would engage in heated conversations and debates over issues of the day, listen to philosophers and politicians preach, and engage and fraternise with one another. Greek/Athenian democracy was established upon the basis of common entente – the public will, whilst by no means perfect or complete, would dynamically adapt and evolve on the basis of the outcomes of the deliberation. Political icons, religious figures, and civil society leaders alike would find themselves amongst the very people to whom they must answer.

The modern town hall, then, is in many ways derived from this Greek archetype: politicians would invite focus groups (or representative samples) of ordinary citizens, engage them in active, cordial conversation, listen to and respond to their demands, and – ideally – channel the findings and products of the discussion into the policymaking process. Town halls are a means of rectifying and addressing the imbalance in attention and access to social and media capital amongst individual citizens (cf. Fishkin, or, indeed, Owen Fiss on deliberative inequalities in contemporary democracies).

It’s well worth noting that town halls need not be a construct exclusive to the “Western” kind of democracies. States with more top-down, centralised governance approaches also lean heavily upon town halls as a means of gauging and evaluating public opinions. Local and municipal officials in the mainland (China) are required to regularly speak with, hear, and interact with their local constituents – just as elected Members of Parliament in the PAP-driven Singaporean state are required, by both internal stipulations and political necessity, to probe and respond to the thoughts of their own constituents. The deliberative processes embedded within town halls are pivotal, in enabling decision-makers and those in government to come to more informed, well-reasoned, and justified decisions on civil and domestic affairs.

All of this is not to say that the ideal town hall needs no restrictions. All forms of speech, as previously discussed, must be curtailed and regulated in order to ensure that it yields productive outcomes and outputs. Speech for the sake of speech is vacuous at best, disingenuous at worst. Nor does the above imply that deliberation without rules, privacy, or immunity offered to participants should be tolerated – indeed, unstructured, unregulated deliberation would yield counterproductive results, if any.

Yet all of the above attests to one very simple fact – that is, short of necessary, instrumentally justified restrictions upon speech, town hall meetings should be, eponymously, as inclusive, open, and transparent as possible. They should act as the pivotal outlet, the idiomatic “pressure valve” for opposition members and citizens to voice their concerns about the direction in which the polity is taking. They can also serve as pivotal reminders that civil, unfettered debate over issues – coupled with a rigorous mentality that involves cross-examining the pros and cons of every issue – can and should be possible without undue violence, excess raucousness, or incivility that, whilst certainly relevant and favoured in certain political quarters, has no place in an informed and civilised polity.

Town hall meetings also compel members of the administration to “come to their senses”, to be necessarily grounded and connected with the crowd, as opposed to being swept up in their aloof inanity and/or stuck in their ivory towers. Having and valuing these meetings enables the government to keep its own performance in check, to pledge and demonstrate its devotion to the public’s welfare and wellbeing.

Town halls with constricted demographics, with hand-picked attendees, with obscurantist deliberative rules and arcane stipulations concerning how and why the debates are held, are thus obsolete town halls. They do not serve as effective conduits for mass opinion; indeed, they amount to missed opportunities for the state to make amends with a disenchanted wider public – who are woefully underrepresented in the carefully curated audience at these meetings. A more open, less selective town hall, would be pivotal in assuaging the fears and addressing the pent-up discontents of the public, to the extent that remains something for which we all, presumably, care.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review