If you were invited to have a beer with Obama (or Pelosi, or Boehner), what would you two talk about?
If you are like me, there are many topics you'd like to personally discuss with the politicians running the country. Such as, why is nothing being done about climate change, why haven't the TBTF banks been broken up, and why is it that criminal bankers never go to jail? I am musing here not about getting to ask Obama or the others a single question at a televised town hall, but rather about an opportunity to have a relaxed back-and-forth dialogue which will be recorded for the public record. And to do this for free, rather than paying $32,000 for the privilege.
Our representatives occasionally hold public constituent meetings where they spend some time answering questions, but these have become very rare. For example, my congressman and two senators currently have on their schedule a total of zero public meetings, according to their websites. I believe this lack of dialogue between ordinary citizens and leadership is terrible for our democracy, and inexcusable given the tools at our disposal nowadays. And so I submit this modest proposal for your consideration:
We activist citizens should dialogue with our representatives, publicly and frequently. The specific way we should do this is with moderated and archived telephone town halls.Below the fold I describe what telephone town halls are, make suggestions for how they can be made more useful by adding moderation and archiving, list some persistent problems with our current politics that frequent ones could help address, and suggest how creating a tradition of holding them could be accomplished.
Public constituent meetings, when they are held at all, now tend to be virtual. This is completely understandable, given the relative ease with which they can be held, the disrespectful behavior of participants at recent IRL town halls, and the 2011 Giffords shooting. They are usually telephone town halls, which are just what they sound like - huge conference calls where the representative selects one person to speak with at a time.
I have participated in some of these in the past, and while the format is promising, the level of discourse is not very high due to the callers being randomly selected. Furthermore, recordings of the conversations are very rarely made available to the public after the event (an exception is available here), so there is no institutional memory created. And most infuriatingly, they never get to me and my brilliant question.
Here are some obvious changes which would make telephone town halls much more useful:
- Moderate the discussion topics in an open and democratic fashion, by having participants submit and vote on questions online. Minimize troll behavior by using a mojo system like DKos' to establish trusted user status.
- Foster a dialogue by allowing the questioners to have follow-up questions on the same topic. Keep things civil by having the moderator (selected by mojo) move on to the next question if the questioner stops being reasonable.
- Educate the representative by including pertinent facts (such as polling numbers) in the question, or by asking the representative to read and later respond to newsworthy columns or diaries. Likewise, educate ourselves by agreeing to read whatever material the representative feels supports his position, and discussing it with him later.
- Hold the town halls frequently to keep our voice heard, and allow us to respond in real-time to developments like upcoming votes or recent atrocious ones.
- Archive both audio recordings and text transcriptions after the event, and index the archives so people can see what topics have been discussed in the past.
- Organize actions based on what has been learned in the town hall.
How could all this work in practice? Here is one scenario:
- I am a new participant who has recently become concerned about climate change in general, and the Keystone pipeline in particular. I decide to find out what my congressman thinks. I log onto the town hall moderation website for my congressional district. It is run in a politically neutral fashion by volunteers from the district. Participant status is restricted to registered district voters to prevent industry sockpuppets from causing mischief.
- In the climate change section, I look over the congressman's stands, and the text of previous town hall discussions. I am pleased to learn that, after a period of education on the part of the early town hall participants, the congressman now claims to fully understand the existential threat that our scientists tell us we are facing from carbon. However, I am alarmed to find that he has not taken a position on the Keystone pipeline. I decide to ask him about it.
- I look over the climate change questions which have been submitted, and decide that I can write a better one. In it, I first remind the congressman of the high percentage of primary Dem voters, general Dem voters, and total constituents who are somewhat concerned to extremely concerned about climate change (97%, 85% and 65%, respectively), and cite this weeks' new and higher carbon dioxide ppm number. Then I briefly summarize the connection between the Keystone pipeline and carbon pollution. Finally, I ask him what his vote will be on an upcoming bill related to the pipeline.
- I also sketch out some follow up questions, such as why is he undecided given his stated views, a request that he respond to the points in a recent Op Ed by James Hansen, what new actions (if any) he has taken to work on climate change recently, etc.
- The question submission period ends, and the voting period begins. Voting results are not publicly shown so as not to influence results (and to tip off the representative's staff what questions will be asked).
- My question is voted as one of the eight to be asked during the hour long town hall. Since I can be free at the scheduled time, I am able to ask the question and follow ups myself. The town hall is not streamed live, in order to make the experience of recording it less stressful for everyone.
- Volunteers download the audio from the town hall website, transcribe it, and email the text to the website admin to be archived.
- The town hall moderator sends out an email to all registered participants announcing the completion of the latest town hall. It contains a list of the questions, with a link to the audio and transcripts, and an invitation to submit questions for next week.
- Separately, the local Dem leadership send an email which has the same information, but which also includes suggested action items for Dems, such as that those opposing the Keystone pipeline need to let the representative know of their views before the upcoming vote, that we should read and respond to an article he mentioned to us., etc.
- I write a DKos diary describing my experience with my question, and suggesting that people vote up climate change questions in their districts to keep holding our representatives' feet to the fire.
Why would it be worth the effort to set up regularly-scheduled town halls, and to moderate and archive them? Here are a few longstanding problems with which they could help:
- Currently, the 1% seem to be the only people our representatives are concerned with. The Occupy movement is a great thing, and was badly needed, but of course politicians are happy to ignore our smelly meatspace bodies. Increasing communication between politicians and ordinary citizens by demanding frequent virtual town halls (#occupytownhall?) will remind them on a weekly basis that the 99% are out there, and demanding change and accountability.
- There is a persistent problem of a conservative bias in politicians' perceptions of their constituents' views. The educational aspect of the town halls may serve to as a corrective to this.
- Citizen activists need to have frequent contact with their representatives to counterbalance the influence of lobbyists. Politicians in Washington are away from their constituents, but in constant contact with lobbyists who are willing to give them donations in exchange for their votes. This temptation can wear them down, despite good intentions (if any). This recent Matt Taibbi column describes the phenomena in the context of finance reform, which is currently being watered down in the House, with purchased Dem votes.
- The Democratic Party base is, let's face it, scorned by the Dem leadership except during primary season. The Republican base has recently greatly increased its influence by unifying itself, and leveraging its control over who makes it out of the primaries. I would expect that most members of the Dem base would register to participate in the town halls at some point. Even if the town halls are open to both parties, there are organizational and educational opportunities which arise from them which could be used to unify and organize the Dem base during primaries.
This all sounds great, you say, but how could we get a new tradition of these telephone town halls started? Well, my initial thinking was that Dem activists should begin to have frequent town halls with Dem representatives, but I later changed things to be politically neutral to help with this question. If the proposed town halls are open to all voters, many of us could make the following perfectly reasonable pitch to our representatives:
Congresswoman, I really enjoyed participating in your telephone town hall last January. It's too bad the audio isn't available for downloading. I did think the questions were a bit repetitious (how many times do you have to explain Benghazi!), and of course I was unhappy that we ran out of time before the topic I was going to ask about was addressed by anyone.
Hey, I've heard about a new politically neutral organization that is willing to solicit and democratically select the most popular constituent questions for your town halls. They will also archive and index past ones for you, so that your constituents can easily look up whether you've previously addressed a question. They strongly suggest a format where questioners be allowed follow ups, and that the town halls should be held frequently. It sounds like working with them would greatly improve the town hall experience for everybody, and the time needed from you would be only an hour each week.
Oh, you're worried about the Occupy hippies dominating the questions? I guess they are still out there, along with the Tea Partiers. I suppose you dialogue with the constituents you have, not the constituents you might wish.
What do you say?
And is anyone interested in working with me to try to get a demonstration project going?