Then-Rep. George Miller, D-California, at a town hall meeting in 2013. Photo courtesy George Miller
Chris Christie must love town hall meetings.
This is the only reasonable conclusion to draw, considering that the New Jersey governor has held at least 127 of them across the state since taking office. At a time when many of his fellow officeholders, at both state and federal levels, are scaling back the practice, Christie continues to stand before New Jerseyans and field their unscripted questions.
If Christie loves town hall meetings, though, it is an unrequited passion. And as he considers a potential run at the presidency, the ghost of meetings past may come back to haunt him. At least 14 raised-voice confrontations have made their way onto the Internet, where YouTube viewers can watch Christie lose his temper again and again. A recent article in The Washington Post noted that some attendees have taken to riling the governor simply to draw attention to their cause or just because they want to see if they can.
While Christie has remained sanguine about the possible political fallout of these skirmishes, he seems to be taking an inordinate amount of risk in pursuit of an unclear reward. The truth is, in the age of email, social media and YouTube, town hall meetings no longer make much sense.
Today, the popular image of town hall meetings is probably less shaped by Norman Rockwell’s painting “Freedom of Speech” than by the absurdity that serves as comedic fodder for NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.” Many officeholders complain that the only attendees are politically hyperactive and hold extreme positions. This problem is amplified when social media can draw a crowd, even on short notice, to push a particular issue and to film any missteps for prompt uploading. The Wall Street Journal reported that national activist groups have increasingly organized efforts to use town hall meetings to pressure politicians or, more frequently, to drive news coverage.
Much like unmoderated website comment sections, town hall meetings give trolls a chance to show up and try to hijack the discussion for their own purposes, and waste everyone else’s time in the process. People who want to goad a politician into a “gotcha” moment are not attending meetings to participate in meaningful political dialogue. Instead, they turn such gatherings into one-way platforms to advance a narrow agenda, cutting off any fellow attendees who might have real, thoughtful questions. Why give such people that platform?
As far back as 20 years ago, Bill Gates famously had a “bozo filter” on his email to avoid dealing with people who had nothing better to do than waste his time. Today we need a political bozo filter, and nobody needs it more than politicians who want to communicate thoughtfully with their constituents.
I don’t understand why someone like Christie would choose to enable the bozos. Public officials who wish to make themselves available have an array of options these days, most of which are much more efficient for both the host and the participants. Many politicians now favor telephone-based town hall meetings, which preserve the immediacy of the traditional question-and-answer format but have the added benefit of screened questions and reduced risk of ambushes primed to go viral online.
Politicians can also host online town hall meetings on their websites, with a moderator filtering questions in real time before passing them along for an answer. A few politicians, notably including President Obama, have used Reddit’s well-known “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) chats, though the practice is not widespread. Politicians with email newsletters could invite questions and then publish responses to those of general interest. Politicians also could invite voters to submit videos of themselves asking questions on YouTube, and then reply with videos of their own. If they wanted to capture the live feel of a town hall, politicians could prescreen participants to join them in a Google Hangout, which any member of the public could then observe.
All of these options offer an advantage over in-person town halls. They allow the host to control the discussion - not to avoid difficult questions, since the difficult but genuine questions are what attract an audience in the first place, but in the interest of everyone’s time. In any case, every accomplished politician knows how to dodge questions he or she doesn’t want to answer. What is harder to dodge is a person who attends in bad faith, intent on whipping up controversy for its own sake. Online options, whether conducted in real time or not, also offer the potential to reach a wider audience than any in-person meeting could hope to achieve.
Bozos and trolls are a fact of 21st century life. For the most part, they can only waste our time and energy if we let them, and they can only play gotcha games with us if we play too. I wouldn’t, and I don't understand why anyone would.