Town halls cause much discomfort, but they remain necessary

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Maybe we need a town hall meeting on the future of town hall meetings.

Last weekend, The Gazette’s James Lynch, political reporter and resident voice of reason at our Pints and Politics events, wrote of the ongoing debate over town halls. Featured prominently were U.S. Reps. Rod Blum and Steve King, who have shunned the free range town hall format this summer in favor of private meetings with friendlier groups.

Blum cites the loud, angry halls he faced earlier this year. King cited safety concerns, pointing to the congressional baseball practice shooting. Meanwhile, U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst remain committed to doing town halls, among other events. Ernst’s most recent open forum in Washington, Iowa, was reportedly pretty calm.

It’s remarkable how much better people feel when you’re no longer scrapping their health insurance.

I attended one of Blum’s town halls, where he tried to limit attendance to residents of the 1st District. I’m not going to defend the lack of civility. It was ugly, at times. Shouting down a public official before he or she has a chance to answer questions is wrong. But why does decorum deteriorate? It could be people who yell and boo are convinced they’re not being heard. Maybe they’ve become irate at the notion their concerns are being ignored, that public officials and institutions are no longer responsive. They see a system where big donors, political operatives and interest groups have cozy access while they’re relegated to the cheap seats. Decrying lost decorum is fine. But abandoning town hall interactions only stokes the frustrations behind the outrage. Less engagement isn’t going to lead to more civility.

A lot ihas been written about voters and bubbles, people retreating into political comfort zones. But politicians are leading the way. More and more candidates are doing anything they can to avoid interviews, debates, editorial board meetings and town halls. Even the League of Women Voters now is a clear and present danger to be avoided.

Some candidates blame the media, which is not only an easy excuse but a crowd-pleaser among their supporters. We’ll twist and mislead, they claim.

Then, too often, they run on, or are the beneficiaries of, phony, twisted, misleading campaigns that blow out-of-context statements or obscure votes out of proportion. They’ll decry fake news but stand by in silence while outside groups pour tens of millions of dollars into fake campaigns targeting their opponents.

What a system, soaked in mistrust, defined by tribal partisanship, post-factual and paid for with shady money. Maybe the simple, straightforward town hall meeting has no place.

I hope that’s not true. I hope people are still capable of grilling elected leaders without shouting them down. And I hope more elected leaders understand taking heat, sometimes intense, is a necessary part of the job. Grassley and Ernst seem to get it.

If you yearn to meet only in comfortable settings with like-minded folks who are always glad to see you, join a fan club, find a cozy neighborhood bar or get a dog. Don’t run for Congress.

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