The real triumph of town halls.

How the Town Hall Became a Viral Video Factory—and a Vital Stage for the American Left

How the Town Hall Became a Viral Video Factory—and a Vital Stage for the American Left

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 28 2017 5:03 PM

The Real Triumph of Town Halls

The crowded, boisterous, emotional events are doing much more than holding Republicans accountable.

Constituents react after U.S. Congressman Leonard Lance responded to questions during a town hall event at the Edward Nash Theater on the campus of Raritan Valley Community College on February 25, 2017 in Branchburg, New Jersey.
Constituents react after Rep. Leonard Lance responded to questions during a town hall event at Raritan Valley Community College on Saturday in Branchburg, New Jersey.

Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

Sen. Chuck Grassley stood in front of his constituents on Friday like a clown perched over a dunk tank. Picking questioners from the crowd of 150 or so, the 83-year-old Iowa Republican might as well have been passing out tennis balls at the county fair. The suspense lay not in when Grassley would fall, but in the arc, spin, and speed of each petitioner’s throw.

Henry Grabar Henry Grabar

Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox.

“I think that when you ignore your constitutional obligation to hold hearings for a Supreme Court justice, that’s a problem,” one woman began, to applause. “I have to ask you what makes you put party over country now.” The cheers grew louder. “In recent weeks, I have been appalled at being called a paid protester, because as far as I can see, the only person in this room that is paid is you, by Betsy DeVos and the Koch brothers.” Shouts of approval.

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There were many reasons for Iowans not to come to this town hall. Grassley, who has served since 1981, just won another re-election campaign; he’s not going anywhere. The senator prides himself on the “full Grassley,” an annual visit to each of the state’s 99 counties. He had already hosted three town halls earlier in the week, and this one was in Parkersburg, a town with a population of 1,900, at 8 a.m. on a work day. The sleet blew horizontal outside; emergency signs on the interstate warned of a coming blizzard. But those were small barriers to getting a role in the best show in America: the GOP town hall. And Grassley’s event was a study in how an old civic stalwart has improbably become a viral video factory, a hot ticket, and the latest stage for the awakening on the American left.

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All this began, arguably, on Jan. 14 in Aurora, Colorado, when Republican Rep. Mike Coffman snuck out early from a planned event at a public library, fleeing voters asking questions about Obamacare. That was a week before the inauguration and a week before the Women’s March made clear the level of left-wing activism that would greet the Trump administration at every turn. It was a sign of things to come.

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By last week, the ritual that snared Coffman had evolved into prime-time television, as Republican representatives were thrust into humiliating confrontations with cancer survivors, 7-year-olds, Muslims, and other Americans angry with President Donald Trump and his party in Congress. Most Republicans have chosen not to hold town halls, canceling scheduled events or declining invitations from activists. House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz alleged attendees were being paid, a baseless accusation that has since been parroted by White House press secretary Sean Spicer, National Rifle Association chief Wayne LaPierre, and Trump himself. Aides to Sen. Marco Rubio initially said the recently re-elected Republican, who once lauded the events, would not attend town halls because he was in Europe, but Rubio later clarified: Organized activists will “heckle and scream at me,” he told a CBS affiliate in Miami. “These are not town halls anymore.”

There are signs that the town hall movement has achieved something more than scaring GOP representatives away from constituents. On Friday, Alabama congressman Mo Brooks said the fracases at town halls had given Republicans in swing districts cold feet about repealing the Affordable Care Act. “In the absence of a counter force, the protests will likely be successful in preventing an outright repeal of Obamacare,” he said.

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And while it’s hard to summarize the political thrust of these events, which swerve from topic to topic with a sense of whiplash that mirrors the news, it is easier to recognize their appeal. They’re not designed to give a platform to legislators, but to voters. The point is not to pin down a representative’s position, to nail his hypocrisy, or to solicit an inexplicable response like the congratulations Sen. Ted Cruz issued to a woman living with multiple sclerosis—even if that is what makes headlines. The point is to suss out, question by question, the contours of this new resistance: to determine who is there and what they stand for.

* * *

Grassley, to his credit, both scheduled town halls and firmly dismissed the lie of the “paid operative.” But on Friday morning, Butler County Sheriff Jason Johnson spoiled the senator’s goodwill with an introduction: “If you came to be here, whether you’re being paid to be here or you’re here voluntarily—” The crowd erupted in boos. The sheriff gave a half-hearted apology, but the tone was set.

Here’s the list of topics shouted out, at Grassley’s request, by audience members at the start of the Parkersburg town hall:

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  • “Tax returns”
  • “Enemy of the people”
  • “Bannon”
  • “Moral and ethical standards”
  • “ACA”
  • “Climate change”
  • “Your voting record”
  • “EPA”
  • “Supreme Court”
  • “Planned Parenthood”
  • “Independent investigation”
  • “Insane president”

“We don’t have enough time,” a voice burst out. But town halls—like film screenings, readings, and other forums where Americans ask public questions—are not built for exchange. They’re built for self-expression.

Managing his rowdy gathering, Grassley sometimes had the demeanor of an exasperated teacher trying to impress politeness into his class. At other times he seemed worn down by the vitriol. Fielding a long, critical question about why he had not fought to raise the federal minimum wage, the senator responded: “When did I quit beating my wife?” (That didn’t go over well.) But mostly, Grassley’s was a bit part in a show put on by his constituents.

One audience role at town halls is the pleading voter. On Friday, this part was played by a Republican with a young son who gave the senator his blessing to spend billions to stop climate change. The part of disappointed parent was best evinced by a woman who heaped praise on the senator’s past before expressing dismay over his blockade of the Merrick Garland nomination.

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The role of determined lawyer was played by a portly, white-bearded man in a sweatshirt who bombarded the senator with a series of questions:

“You have high ethical standards, correct? Would that be a fair statement? I think you do.”

“I’d rather have you tell me,” Grassley responded.

“Well, I think you do. And I think you surround yourself with people who have high moral and ethical standards, correct? OK. And you’ve been a senator for how many years?”

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“37.”

“OK. Well you’ve got really nothing to prove,” he said. And then he laid it on. He ran through the sins of Trump: the mockery of women, of POWs, of Sen. John McCain. He talked about Russia, about the free press. “And we also have a guy who admittedly gropes women. Now, tell me where your standards are at, senator. How low are they, that these things don’t bother you enough that you will speak out and say: ‘Enough is enough!’?” Riotous applause.

At the end of the day, though, no one seemed too angry with Grassley. Older Iowa Democrats, and a good number of independents and Republicans in attendance, seem to see Grassley as a fallen figure, a symbol of the recent, radical intransigence of the Republican Party. (That the Iowa legislature has dismantled the state's collective bargaining law and is working on “stand your ground” legislation this year, the latter a model policy of the far-right American Legislative Exchange Council, is evidence closer to home.)* Several irate Democrats in the crowd had once voted for Grassley. They have soured on him since, but they were here because of Trump.

Attendees often had two or three questions prepared. They were mostly Democrats, but armchair Democrats, who had realized their yard signs and votes were not enough. “I’ve lived in Iowa for 64 years, and this is the first town hall I’ve been to here,” said Debra Shoopman, who had driven from Waterloo, 30 minutes east.

Rather than grow irritated with what everyone agreed were lackluster responses from the senator, Shoopman and others were buoyed by the standing-room showing, the ovations, the witty one-liners, and the reminder that everyone around them was reading the same news and feeling the same way that they were. “It was encouraging to see that we’re not alone,” said Ashli Jung, a teacher who lived in town. It’s one thing to find that reassurance on Facebook, and another to hear it in the voices of strangers who had driven a hundred miles before sunrise to say so.

* * *

The next morning, I watched the same thing occur on a larger scale at Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey. Democrats in Iowa complain that Grassley’s spectacle of access is a farce, given his choice of tiny venues in rural, deep-red counties. This was not the case in New Jersey, where Rep. Leonard Lance said he had found the largest venue in his district, a 1,000-seat auditorium, and added this Saturday morning event to accommodate attendees. Still, at his second town hall of the week, there were at least 100 people watching a live-stream from an overflow room and scores more protesting outside.

In some ways, Lance and Grassley are opposites: Grassley is an influential, popular senator with a fresh six-year term and a 25-point mandate. Lance will be up for re-election in two years in one of America’s 23 split districts, where voters pulled for both a Republican representative and for Hillary Clinton. Lance won by 38,000 votes and by 11 percentage points, a comfortable margin—but down from 17 points in 2012. He has never met Trump; his ability to separate himself from his party leader may determine whether he keeps his job.

Lance was poised and gracious onstage, drawing raffle tickets for questions. He was interrupted dozens of times as he gave his responses, each of which was detailed and eloquent but few of which were considered satisfactory. But again, it didn’t really matter what Lance said. “Politicians never answer questions,” said Caroline Sroka, a 16-year-old who had snagged a front-row seat with her mom, Eileen, before the event. “I’m here to show support for anyone who feels victimized by Trump. I have friends who are Muslim, black, LGBT, who don’t feel safe wearing a hijab or holding hands.”

As in Iowa, these Democrats were flexing a muscle they had never used before. Eileen Sroka had just joined a new organizing group that had formed online after the Women’s March. Jennifer Robinson, a wildlife conservationist who was protesting outside, had founded a local chapter of the Indivisible movement, based on the influential left-wing activism playbook published by former congressional staffers. Her group, Tewksbury Area Indivisible, had grown from a handful of people at its first meeting, on Feb. 7, to more than 80 two weeks later. “We’ve been making it up as we go along,” she said cheerfully. “None of us have ever done this before. Ours is a small group but one of thousands, and these groups are starting to coalesce.” It was like that old Heather Locklear shampoo commercial, Robinson said: You tell two friends, and they tell two friends, and so on, and so on.

In Iowa, I had watched neighbors run into each other and relish the surprise of mutual recognition. In New Jersey, a subsequent stage of activism was underway. One group had provided sample questions to attendees; another had handed out thumbs up and thumbs down placards to the crowd.

As in Iowa, people didn’t care for the answers (which they shouted over) so much as the questions. Crowd-pleasers included the German immigrant and professor at Rutgers who invoked the rise of the Nazi Party; the registered Republican whose query about Russia and press freedom prompted a thundering chant of “Free press!”; the woman who asked, “What are you going to do about Steve Bannon’s power in Washington?” to which a thousand roaring suburbanites responded: “Stop Steve Bannon!”

Lance had drawn his last ticket when a man in the crowd hollered, “This woman has a question.” The congressman gave her the floor.

Her name was Mary-Beth Brooks. She is a mother of two and first-time town hall attendee who had met the congressman at Boy Scout meetings and voted for him. “I’m very happy you’re here with us today,” she began. “But I have to confess that I’m even more happy that I’m standing here today. You see, I don’t look all that sick, but I’ve been diagnosed with a chronic degenerative disease that is slowly robbing me of my ability to use my hands and feet and eventually will move inward far enough to rob me of my brain and my spinal cord.” When Brooks began treatment, her medication cost an average of $9,000 a week, and without the ACA’s ban on lifetime caps, she said, she would be dead. “So I want to know from you, sir, if you will support the provisions of the ACA that protect people like me from being thrown into a lottery system such as a high-risk pool, and not being guaranteed receiving any insurance at all, and protect my children and my husband from going bankrupt to keep me alive.”

The congressman responded that he was opposed to letting insurance companies restore lifetime limits.

It would be easy to see Brooks as an avatar for a simple political shift, as the kind of ex-Republican beneficiary of the ACA that gives credence to Mo Brooks’ warning that town halls are swaying the health care debate. But at an event undefined by one political issue, her short speech meant something more. “I didn’t speak for myself alone,” she told me. “There’s a lot of us out there.”

Afterward, standing in the sunshine of the parking lot, Mary-Beth Brooks was still shaking as attendees approached her: “You broke my heart.” “Thank you for your courage.” No one was talking about Lance or his answers. They were talking about themselves and their lives, feeling momentarily that they, as much as their congressman, were here representing something bigger.

*Correction, March 1, 2017: This article originally misstated that the Iowa legislature had passed a “right to work” bill this year. The bill in question dismantled the state’s collective bargaining laws. (Return.)

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