The concept of the town hall meeting may soon be a thing of the past. As more and more of these gatherings are disrupted to the point of being both ineffective and downright dangerous, elected officials are losing a powerful tool for two-way communication with their constituents. In addition, libraries, churches and other community groups are increasingly hesitant in sponsoring any public information discussion or forum on a topic that may have even a small chance of being controversial for fear of their event being hijacked by a few disruptive people. But this presents a huge problem as we try to live in a democracy…if we can’t rely on town hall meetings and public forums for an open and free exchange of ideas where everyone can participate equally and without intimidation, what methods will replace them? Either we need to find a solution to the problem of disrespect and disruption in public meetings…or we need to find alternative forms of direct communication to support the flow of information that is basic to a democracy.
Our form of governing has certain theoretical assumptions…one of these assumptions is that elected representatives and government agencies have direct access to the public, so they can know the true will of the people…and the public needs to hear directly from these individuals and publicly-accountable organizations, so they can trust their representatives and public institutions. Without this practical linkage, a democratic republic cannot survive. Failure is not an option…we must have a reliable and respectful connection between the public and the government that serves the public. It’s not enough to have the public exercise their will through periodic elections. We can’t expect public officials to know the will of the people without on-going and frequent communication…and we can’t expect them to endure abusive behavior in public meetings. We also can’t trust the media to accurately portray the will of the people when they are profit-focused organizations. If the breakdown in public conversation continues, we’ll be nearing a crisis point in the flow of public knowledge very soon.
So…what are our other options? How do we convene a cross-section of public voices into a composite view of public sentiment? I would propose that one general method is very low-tech and the other is very high-tech. Let’s start with the low-tech method of community organizing. While this method is really low-tech, it is also very time- and labor-intensive. Community organizing listens specifically to those voices that are not already represented in public decision-making, generally focusing on minority and low-income populations. The theory here appears to be that most people already make their voices heard in the political arena, but these folks don’t have the money or the time or the influence to make an impression in democratic life like their well-employed and well-connected neighbors. More energy and time devoted to community organizing could help in the flow of seldom-heard public hopes and opinions.
The other option is more high-tech, and it listens specifically to the voices of a different, disconnected population…mostly young people. Facebook, Twitter and virtual worlds like Second Life are starting to bridge the gap between individual-focused, social networking and issue-focused, public networking. These are the voices we will only hear if we dare to spend time in their fast-paced and multi-tasking world. The Obama campaign plugged into this powerful but unpredictable engine, and it’s obvious that experiments are being run now on how to connect with young people through the use of technology in future elections. I believe this avenue of development has an amazing potential in public decision-making…not yet, but soon.
Where can our time and energy and resources be applied to bring a clearer view of the public’s values and priorities to our elected officials and governmental agencies on a regular basis? My preference is to focus more energy on the voices that need some help to be heard. I don’t really feel the need to help those who are already powerful to have an even stronger voice in public decision-making. I’m inclined to feel that more community organizing and more tech-savvy networking will actually provide our country with a ‘democracy upgrade’ as more voices from our diverse population can be heard than would ever have the opportunity to speak at any public meeting. Our democratic republic requires a constant flow of public information just like our bodies require a stable flow of oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood…freedom and life thrive when every little part of the whole is actively participating in the pursuit of fulfillment and well-being for all. We’ll probably still have some public meetings and forums, but I don’t think we should depend on them alone as the only sources of critical information in a thriving democracy.