town hall meetings liberty bell
The Liberty Bell, photo: Bev Sykes / CC BY 2.0

Though the Liberty Bell can no longer be rung due to its iconic crack, it did its job.

It now stands as a symbol for the process of participatory democracy. Tradition has it that on July 8, 1776, its ringing summoned citizens to the first reading of the Declaration of Independence by Colonel John Nixon. Some dispute the factual accuracy of the description, given the decrepit condition of the tower in which the bell hung, but the power of the image remains.

The signers of the Declaration, in severing ties with the King of England, declared that governments must act to defend the rights of the people governed. The power to do so, the Declaration avows, is derived justly from the “consent of the governed.”

The role of the populous was clearly envisioned in those words. This government was not to be an oligarchy, an aristocracy, or a monarch. The governed were to consent. The word “democracy” means a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.

It’s abundantly clear. We get to be heard.

Except when we don’t.

That seems to be the case with the muting of the voice of the people in town hall meetings held across the nation since Trump’s inauguration.

I don’t like Representative Jason Chaffetz much and agree with him on almost nothing, but I give him credit for standing up on stage at his town hall meeting on Feb. 9 in Cottonwood Heights. He took it on the chin from angry attendees. He’s become the poster child for how not to do town halls. He later tried to claim that he had been verbally accosted by paid protesters, but that didn’t stand up long. I don’t like Rep. Mia Love much, either, and less so because she tried to stifle the voices of her constituents by setting up “rules” for her proposed town hall. No recordings, no media.

No way.

The right of people to be heard is woven deeply into the fabric of this country. You can’t rule it away or discredit it if you don’t like the message.

People are angry. They are angry about the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, about immigration, about religious bigotry and isolationism. They are shouting and pointing fingers, waving signs and calling their representatives. They are organizing and activating.

If the anger being expressed at town halls harkens back to the tactics the Tea Party used in 2009 to protest the ACA, that’s not coincidental. The Tea Party wrote the playbook with regard to piling on politicians. And they were wildly successful. They took down the democratic majority in Congress during the midterm election in 2010. Why not learn from their experiences? Re-inventing the wheel just isn’t necessary.

There is, however, a gnawing question amid all the noise — and one that needs to be answered if we are to move on from here.

Are we the people being heard? And even if we are, is the Tea Party the group we want to model ourselves after?

I learned a new term last week: “Iowa nice.” Definitions vary, but loosely speaking, it seems to refer to the perception that people in Iowa tend to avoid confrontation when possible. The term was used to describe the behavior at an Iowa town hall featuring Sen. Charles Grassley. If you watch the tape of that meeting, there can be no doubt that feelings were running hot. At one point, two participants turned on one another. Later, a participant drew chuckles by suggesting that Grassley keep a supply of antacids at the ready for the next four years. Serious issues were raised, and Grassley looked mostly uncomfortable. He gamely stood there, though, and when participants spoke, he listened. When he spoke, the participants did the same. There was even some shushing going on, in both directions. I don’t know if that qualifies as Iowa nice, but it does look as though it could be a model for deliberate, but forceful, give and take.

Since the election, I’ve joined more than one group whose purpose it is to mobilize resistance to proposed policies and Cabinet nominees we find objectionable. One group recently issued guidelines for responsible participatory behavior when addressing legislators in town hall meetings and other venues. I won’t restate them here. Just imagine the guidelines you were issued when you participated in high school debates. Be courteous but forceful.

That’s as opposed to bird-dogging, another new term for me. Hugh Espey, an Iowa social justice advocate (oddly enough given the Iowa nice phenomenon) and former Sanders supporter, is the current guru of the bird-dogging strategy for Republican town hall meetings. His tips include preparing pointed questions, spreading supporters throughout the audience, asking the same question repeatedly to create tension, and overtly taking lots of video. Espey claims the benefits of bird-dogging are that a person gets to speak out and fight back with other like-minded folk. I would add that bird-dogging also acts as a pressure valve for people who are angry and need to release their steam and their voices.

As a woman of a certain age, I can embrace both approaches. I’ve raised my voice and a clenched fist or two when I was angry and felt my representatives weren’t hearing me. Most memorably, it was our country’s involvement in the Viet Nam war that spurred me to act. I got really angry when the Equal Rights Amendment floundered and ultimately failed. I still bristle that women need to march and rally to protect their own bodies. I understand the anger. I’ve felt it.

But because I am a woman of a certain age, I have learned to be respectful, even when disagreeing. I know how to be forceful and persistent while listening for areas of compromise. It’s what fits in with my vision of myself. I was angry and I still am, but I hope I’ve also become wiser.

That question about being heard? I’ve learned how to make my own voice heard. Participants at town hall meetings are learning what works for them. We all have this right in common, though: the right to make our representatives aware of our views.

The Liberty Bell can no longer be rung, but its reverberation can never be unrung.

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