ESSAYS FROM WEST OF 98: ON TOWN HALLS AND TOCQUEVILLE

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By James M. Decker

Why has the American experiment persisted and thrived for so long, even in spite of our society’s flaws and missteps? Why have other nations attempted to copy the American system, only to see it fail to launch or struggle to sustain it in a stable manner?

In part, it’s the uniquely American concept of local government and town meetings. Some nations have imposed an American model from the top down, resulting in abject failure. From the beginning, the American model was built from the bottom up. The term “United States of America” is not accidental. We are not a single nation divided into arbitrary state-level jurisdictions; we’re a group of states who banded together to form a larger nation.

In 1831, French diplomat and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville embarked on a tour of American society. This tour spawned his classic two-volume work, “Democracy in America,” which is essentially a study of how and why America works. After witnessing town meetings in New England, Tocqueville wrote, “a nation may establish a free government, but without municipal institutions, it cannot have the spirit of liberty.”

He went as far as to say that “town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and how to enjoy it.”

On February 7, 2019, the spirit of liberty was on display in Stamford, Texas. A group of community leaders organized a town hall meeting to discuss the future of healthcare in Stamford (stemming from our hospital closure and the nationwide rural hospital trainwreck, as discussed in my last essay). Using a Q&A format, this meeting brought the elected hospital board to the citizens at a neutral location that would be welcoming to all.

We can all think of stereotypes of local town hall meetings. One stereotype is of leaders showing up to face an empty room, while citizens are too busy or uninterested to attend. Then there’s the stereotype of an incensed room full of people, asking angry questions and ranting against their town and/or their elected officials, usually in front of television cameras.

In Stamford, over 200 locals attended and submitted questions for an hour and a half. There were supportive questions. There were skeptical questions. There were hard and unhappy questions. No one walked away with a final solution, but I walked away thinking that the community wants to fix its healthcare struggles.

A town’s problems aren’t solved by rants and angry clashes that divide a town into warring factions. Problems aren’t solved by a detached, disinterested populace that doesn’t bother to show up to meetings and waits on someone else to fix the mess. I’ve written of the perils of a lukewarm attitude—a disinterested group of citizens is the embodiment of that lukewarm attitude.

Where are a town’s problems solved? They’re solved in the town meetings described by Tocqueville and exemplified by the citizens in Stamford on February 7. They’re solved by leaders who care and who communicate to the citizens and who listen when the citizens communicate to them. They’re solved by citizens who care to show up, who express their opinions, and who hold their leaders accountable.

Town meetings are not always fun for leaders. Sometimes you get hard questions. Sometimes the citizens evaluate your job performance in a very public manner and it can be uncomfortable to hear. And yet, all of it is vitally important. Tocqueville’s findings in 1831 remain accurate in 2019. By bringing liberty into the people’s reach, town meetings make us all better and embody the spirit on which America thrives.

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James Decker is a lawyer, farmer, and mayor in Stamford, Texas, and the creator of the forthcoming “West of 98” podcast and website. He may be contacted through Facebook at facebook.com/james.decker. Listen to our podcast interview with James here.

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