Tom Fulks

What happened to rowdy, passionate town hall meetings? We need them now more than ever

Tom Fulks
Tom Fulks

Next time our congressman comes to town for a “town hall” meeting, he might consider doing more listening than talking.

To be fair, the recent one-way gab fest at the Morro Bay Community Center wasn’t Rep. Salud Carbajal’s idea, nor was my disappointment in it his fault.

The Santa Barbara Democrat simply did as asked: Tell constituents what he’s been doing on our behalf in the nation’s capitol by answering questions at a forum hosted by the SLO County Women’s March, moderated by the League of Women Voters.

And that’s what he did. He answered questions and, in the process, promoted his bills on gun safety, expansion of Medicare and other topics. Ten of them 10 were approved by the House – but all were DOA in the Senate. In other words, meaningless from a policy standpoint.

Sure, such bills provide the impression that at least one party is doing something in a moribund, divided Congress. But unless they’re approved by the Senate and signed by the president — which is not going to happen — they don’t pack much punch.

Carbajal talked about a moratorium on vaping, the need to address climate change. He mentioned impeachment, said the president “lies repeatedly” and should face at least 10 counts of obstruction of justice.

All well and good: Carbajal’s right on policy and he understands the Constitution. His information helps make the case for flipping the Senate from Republican to Democratic control. But making that case in Deep Blue California — which already has two Democratic senators — is, frankly, a waste of time.

The audience applauded at all the expected lines — yet something was missing. I came to the town hall expecting at least a chance to briefly tell our congressman how I felt about things, to let him know I’d like him to be more aggressive in dealing with recalcitrant Republicans and an imperial presidency.

But there was no back-and-forth between him and the people, no opportunity for a collective expression of public sentiment from the northern reaches of the 24th Congressional District that would weigh on his mind as he returned to Washington.

Carbajal didn’t actually hear from the people, except a few questions filtered through the tight control of forum organizers. He left empty handed.

A tip of the hat for the civic-mindedness of organizers, but the “town hall” wasn’t a traditional town hall at all. Not the kind of town hall where citizens stand in line and wait their turn to briefly address their elected leaders directly — no filters, no intermediaries interpreting and sorting questions into categories, no morphing all the pent-up bother in the room into bland, passionless oatmeal served up to our congressman on a platter of fawning obeisance.

This well-attended gathering had a “good old days” vibe, when most folks motivated enough to show up were polite, calm, quiet and reassuringly mild — those days before our democracy lurched off the rails.

Today, our nation is under siege, its norms, customs and institutions bludgeoned. We’re living in an era in which the president has allowed ethnic cleansing of our battlefield allies and the release of ISIS prisoners — our mortal enemies — to be loosed upon the West.

He withheld crucial defensive aid to Ukraine — a foreign ally — trying to force a fabricated controversy against an American political opponent. His family of companies takes foreign cash on a daily basis while he mocks the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution as “phony.”

Half the nation feels emotionally and politically at war with the other half. We’re not “becoming” divided. We’re “being” divided by dark forces inside and outside our borders.

Everyone’s poised for something even worse to happen next, around the corner, today, tomorrow, an hour from now. Our nerves are frayed, our wits spent.

I came to the town hall yearning for some visceral sense that this fever dream will end, seeking some inkling of how we survive Trump’s lawlessness, his assault on our civic and moral values, his invitation to foreign nations to interfere with our 2020 elections, wondering if the results will ever be legitimate again.

Instead, there we sat, quietly, patiently waiting for a morsel of emotional fulfillment, politely listening to our congressman, as if everything is OK, as if none of this American nightmare is actually happening.

Organizers of the next town hall might consider the people’s need for a collective spleen venting amidst this most unusual time in American history.

It might be messy, maybe impolite, perhaps a little — gasp! — uncivil. But it’s necessary.

Times are not normal — at all.

Let’s stop pretending they are.

Tom Fulks serves on the San Luis Obispo County Democratic Central Committee. He writes an occasional column for The Tribune.

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