Facing loud booing in a crowded high school auditorium, Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, stands on stage alone behind a lectern, waiting for the audience to tire themselves out. “I won the district…” Stewart starts, before being drowned out. “Gerrymandering!” someone yells. “Do your job!” Some in the crowd hush the hecklers. Constituents fill the room: women in pink knitted hats ubiquitous at Women’s Marches, a young man in a black cowboy hat, families and white-haired couples. Just one man wears his red Make America Great Again hat, which Stewart tells the crowd is brave.
This was the scene at Stewart’s March town hall in the liberal-leaning enclave of Salt Lake City, where he faced constituents upset about his goal to repeal and replace the Affordable Healthcare Act, his votes against conservation of public lands and his support of President Donald Trump. For an hour of protest, Stewart pressed on.
Showdowns like this one have driven more politicians to forego in-person meetings with constituents in favor of virtual ones held over the phone, called teletown halls. Politicians say this high-tech format allows them to reach more people in an orderly fashion. But critics say that teletown halls distance politicians from those they represent, and let them avoid bad publicity and tough questions, endangering democracy in the process.
Though it’s Republicans now facing angry constituents, the phenomenon echoes the rise of the Tea Party, when it was Democrats in the spotlight. After the 2016 election, groups unhappy with the results formed, including Indivisible. The group created a widely shared guide for dejected voters to stay involved. The aggressive tactics it suggests recall those of the Tea Party, the loosely led conservative group that arose in reaction to former President Barack Obama’s election. The Tea Party’s confrontational approach helped hard-right Republicans retake the House in the 2010 midterm elections and created the now-defunct Tea Party Caucus in Congress. Similarly, hundreds of factions that consider themselves part of Indivisible have sprouted across the nation. Their main goal is to “resist Trump” by calling Congressional leaders’ offices and pressuring them to hold in-person town halls. Those tactics result in effective publicity stunts: Indivisible groups have invited unwilling politicians to town halls, and when they decline, hold them anyways. Constituents air their grievances to an empty chair or cardboard cutout for theatrical affect. In Colorado, a mariachi band serenaded Sen. Cory Gardner at a members-only chamber of commerce meeting, singing “Dónde Estàs Corazón?” (Where are you, my sweetheart?), to chide him for not appearing at public meetings.
The Indivisible guide offers tactical advice for in-person town halls: Meet up to coordinate questions, spread out in the audience, look friendly to get called on, and applaud loudly to support each other. The organized nature of the confrontations has fueled rumors that those speaking out are being paid, something Chaffetz said of attendees at his town hall. Utah State Sen. Jim Dabakis poked fun at that idea at Stewart’s town hall, handing out actual Russian rubles — the country’s currency — to those waiting in line. “You’re a paid operative now,” he chuckled.
More moderate groups such as Action Utah also attended that event. Andrea Himoff, the group’s co-founder, says they want to promote dialogue between people with opposing views rather than solely protest. Himoff says she doubts Stewart actually heard the constituents shouting him down. “The unfortunate effect of the raucous town hall may be that our representatives will listen to us even less, that we will push them away and make them unable to hear us at all,” Himoff says.
But teletown halls don’t guarantee a productive exchange, either, offering a more controlled environment and preventing back-and-forth interactions. Constituents pose questions and are then muted while the politician goes through talking points; alternately politicians may answer a pre-recorded question of their choosing. No signs, no chanting and no interruptions if the caller is unsatisfied with the answer. When Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, held a teletown hall in March, two callers were cut off mid-question. Whether it was a mistake or not, the callers didn’t come back.
After Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s disastrous town hall in February, state Republican Party Chairman James Evans told Utah’s Congressional delegation to stop holding them. Chaffetz disagreed, but hasn’t held any since. Sen. Orrin Hatch has held invite-only meetings with businesses, with no plans to hold town halls. Love and Mike Lee, Utah’s junior senator, have eschewed in-person gatherings altogether. “Teletown halls are fancy words for conference calls,” says Donald Aguirre, a member of Utah Indivisible who attended Stewart’s town hall. “(They’re) a great way to avoid your constituency.”
Republicans in Colorado, Idaho, Arizona and Montana have also embraced the political safety of teletown halls or small group meetings, although some still continue to face down angry crowds in hopes of finding common ground. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., has held 13 town halls since January. “This is democracy in action,” Walden tweeted after a meeting in Bend with 3,000 constituents, who broke into chants of “E-P-A!” to protest proposed budget cuts.
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Most Democrats have continued holding in-person town halls.
For politicians, opting for teletown halls can be an easy decision. With little time or effort, virtual meetings allow them to dodge visceral disapproval and potentially viral embarrassment. But it does cost the average citizen. “It completely takes away that feeling of power that you get from being here,” says Emilie Turner, a Salt Lake City resident who attended Stewart’s town hall and called into Love’s teletown hall. “It robs their constituents of a very fundamental democratic process.”
Anna V. Smith is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Follow @annavtoriasmith