Stories can be glimpses into American history. Town hall meetings in the United States of America are part of the American story. Each story both reflects on and celebrates the development and evolution of civic participation as a part of the democratic process. Arguments exist about the importance of finding ways to communicate complex ideas. I’m going to be spending the next few weeks digging into the topics of citizen participation and communicating with the public at large.
Crowds have gathered in congregations and town halls, and town squares throughout the history of America. Those venues for communication have been the living representation of the commons. The printing press changed just how far and how fast a thought could travel. Even the best printed material at the time the printing press came into existence only made it to a small part of what could be considered the commons (in the true grand and global view of the word). Consider for a moment the reality, that even the best shared utterance in our very modern and diverse world of interconnected social networks only captures a small part that commons. People have been talking about the commons long enough that those problems could be considered classic thought cases. Perhaps we could open a new chapter of thought. A new chapter dedicated to understanding what it takes for an utterance to influence the public mind in a lasting way. It might be worthwhile to capture a series of examples where an utterance has become timeless in the public mind. It might be worthwhile to capture 10 of the best examples. Those 10 examples might provide enough insights into the problem. Those insights might provide enough content to fill up an article.
During the formation of the United States of America democratic processes developed or at very least crystalized. Hundreds of years later, scholars now argue that declining citizen participation in democratic processes puts the very foundation of representative democracy at risk (e.g., Barber, 1984; Skocpol, 2003; Macedo, 2005). Those arguments could be extended to evaluate our fundamental breakdowns in communication. A newspapers or the nightly news used to be mediums to share things with the public mind. Those mediums cover smaller and smaller amounts of the commons. It has been argued, that citizen participation in government was necessary during the formational period. Inherent within the initial functionality of government citizen participation brought together various democratic processes. The large body of research available on the topic suggests that scholars believe even the possibility of citizen participation in government deserves consideration (Putnam, 2000; Skocpol, 2003).
At the most basic level of consideration or study, citizen participation in government describes the initial first step in the process. It describes the spark that started it. The spark that caused it to form. Essential to democracy and the very basis of civil society is citizen participation in the community, business, and government (Dionne, 1998). Scholars generally adopt a perspective that values citizen participation (Van Til, 2000). In order to understand citizen participation, now is the time to consider the historical influence of technological change on participatory democracy in terms of necessity, sustainability, and preference. As the intersection of technology and modernity brings a larger and larger disconnect between people and the commons, society has started to fragment in unexpected ways. Technology should have increased our ability to communication to society as a whole. Fragmentation of the commons into a multitude of public spaces seems to be occurring a very rapid pace.
Citizen participation is an important part of the democratic process (Skocpol, 2003). Understanding citizen participation requires understanding the history of how participation developed, why people wanted to participate, and what if anything sustains interest in participation. If citizen participation is an important part of the democratic process, then the historical influences surrounding participation require definition and consideration.
Considering the concept of civil society requires scholars to be careful in upholding a consistent presentation and definition. Jon Van Til correctly argued that conceptually theorists have to avoid using the concept of civil society as a type of social science ‘play-dough’ that can be molded into almost any shape (Van Til, 2000, p. 15). Reducing potentially problematic bias will involve keeping this conceptual issue in mind while addressing the issue of civil society. Introducing concepts and ideas without providing detailed explanations or basic definitions creates a scenario where a lack of clear intent potentially clouds perception. Clear straightforward analysis and explanations can illustrate intent and add a degree of clarity about the subject under consideration.
For example, a historical narrative looking at how town hall meetings influence society can explain changes in the way people work together, communicate political issues, and form communities. Not only can that analysis explain the influences of town hall meetings on society, but also that discussion can clearly define the ways people work together, how people communicate political issues, and the basic tenets of community formation. Ensuring comprehensive coverage of issues provides the necessary clarity and depth.
Part of the challenge of understanding town hall meetings involves identifying the relationship between technology and changes in citizen participation in government. Harvard University professor Robert Putnam, of Bowling Alone fame, has observed that living alone and working late combined with television and the internet have rendered society less trusting and less civic (Putnam, 2005, p. 7). The current trajectory of citizen participation in the democratic process is calling into question the future of democratic governance in the United States of America. People are making very real decisions about how to spend their time. Those decisions are including less and less time being focused on politics in general.
Modern discussions increasingly focus on how technology influences the most basic government functions of society instead of focusing on value choices. Questioning the influence of technology on society in general requires an understanding of both historical changes in technology and society. At some point during the course of history, the United States of America moved from being a nation of problem solving communities to a nation of communities waiting for problem solvers. In other words, throughout the development of the United States of America, the function of the participatory part of participatory democracy has changed. It could be argued that democratic processes in the United States of America from 1776 to 2006 involve three waves of citizen participation including necessity, sustainability, and preference. That might be an argument that I’m gearing up to present this year.
The dialogue would begin by reflecting on the necessity of citizen participation in terms of development and evolution of civic participation as a part of the democratic process from 1776 to 1965. After reflecting on the necessity of citizen participation, the next part of the framework analyzes the factors contributing to the breakdown of civic participation as a part of the democratic process from 1965 to 1996. Building on the foundation of both the necessity and sustainability questions the last part of the framework analyzes the development of preference based citizen participation including government facilitated online alternatives to the traditional town hall meeting on civic participation as a part of the democratic process from 1996 to 2006.
Dialogue can create a degree of perspective on citizen participation in the democratic process. Changes in the way dialogue occurs within the commons can be very informative about the influence of technology. Citizen participation can occur when people begin to gather in a public forum. Initially the dialogue in this modern public forum focuses on the history of town hall meetings in America from 1776 to 2006. Arguments about town hall meetings surround changes that occurred during the founding of the nation, industrialization, and the digital age.
Out of a very public dialogue, the distinct voice of a critic could begin to emerge. Distinct from the initial dialogue about democratic formation, the voice of a social critic might advocate that the potential of citizen participation should receive consideration before evaluating the values of efficiency, economy, and social equity. Within the context of general dialogue, a response originates from an even almost thoughtful tone, the practical voice of the trained public administrator. A practical public administrator would argue that efficiency, economy, and social equity are necessary to create the possibility of citizen participation. Together the voice of the social critic and the practical voice of the trained public administrator represent the aggregation of various arguments that are sometimes insightful or interesting. Both perspectives are necessary to challenge the nature of citizen participation in government. The discussion develops into three distinct parts representing the necessity of citizen participation, sustaining citizen participation, and preference based citizen participation.
The common or shared history of the people is at some levels a public conversation that does not require recognition or acknowledgment to influence society. The influence should be apparent. It is an influence that will continue to occur. Perspective on citizen participation is necessary to define the historical context of how town hall meetings illustrate one form of citizen participation in the democratic process.
Town hall meetings represent one mechanism for triggering public dialogue, discourse, and information dissemination in the form of a very public conversation. At every level of community, the dynamics of communication are different. Technology will continue to develop. Now is the time for individuals who share a common belief in the value of democracy to consider the history of what brought citizens together in the United States of America. The technologies we use to communicate are not architected to facilitate mass communication. Most of them have been focused on building user bases and keeping those users contained.
Understanding representative democracy requires recognizing the relationship between the people and their representatives before and after elections. From the perspective of the social critic representatives need to find ways of communicating with the people. At the same time, the social critic might suggest that people have to find ways of communicating with representatives. In response to the ideas represented in the questions raised by the social critic, the practical public administrators might argue the very nature of representative democracy requires a degree of active not just cyclical preference based citizen participation in the democratic process. Throughout the history of representative democracy in the United States of America, the cyclical nature of town hall meetings defined the essence of active participation in the process.
Scholars, philosophers, and critics often turn to the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville who during the course of writing the 1835 classic Democracy in America described the relationship between representative democracy, civil society, and individualism. At some level, democracy lives and breathes beyond abstract or ideal definitions. Consider the value Tocqueville placed on town meetings comparing them to the relationship between primary schools and science curriculums empowering the people to be able to participate (Sirianni & Friedland, 2001, p. 23-24). At the most basic level democracy involves the communication of opinion within a society. Town hall meetings represent one part of the democratic process. Throughout the necessary development of democratic institutions in the United States of America town hall meetings provided a proven and accepted method for gathering a community together.
Contemporary public administration scholar H. George Frederickson in the Spirit of Public Administration argued that citizens previously functioned by taking direct collective action in the form of town meetings, militias, and community activities like barn raising (Frederickson, 1997, p. 12.). H. George Frederickson went as far as to draw the conclusion that the tradition of citizens choosing to engage in direct collective action has been lost (Frederickson, 1997, p. 13). Representative democracy requires a mechanism for citizens to share ideas within a community. Town hall meetings are a way to facilitate citizen participation in the democratic process. I’m not sure that modern town hall meetings are very informative or engaging.
Large nations like the United States of America require the maintenance and availability of numerous methods of communication for participatory democracy to function. Not only can a society not forget the past, but also a society cannot ignore the future. E.J. Dionne in Community Works: the Revival of Civil Society in America argued that society has to recognize individuals and organizations that work toward building civil society (Dionne, 1998, p. 3). Public meetings, town meetings, or town hall meetings all represent a method of public assembly for the purpose of discourse within the community. Before the formalization of democratic institutions in the United States of America, the primary methods of political discourse involved informal communication. Communication is a necessary element of community.
Publicly disseminating knowledge about politics is the best way to ensure political dialogue and communication occur within the community. Looking at how town hall meetings have provided a forum for community dialogue from 1776 to 1965 provides a degree of perspective about the nature of citizen participation.
The next topics I will be writing about include 1) my 2015 Disneyworld experience, 2) the power of investing in people, 3) the importance of pracademics, 4) the intersection of technology and modernity, 5) omnichannel contact strategies, 6) runbooks, 7) strategic planning, 8) irregular operations management, 9) building quality executive presentations, and 10) citizen participation essays