We live in an interconnected digital age. Instead of attending meetings, we video-conference call. No need to show up for person-to-person interviews, just activate Skype. We have virtual shopping centers, classrooms and medical clinics.
Society can’t rewind this modern progression, and few of us would want that, but there are limits to what a virtual world can capture. Have you ever attended a digital wedding, graduation, funeral or family reunion? It’s the difference between looking at Facebook pictures of food and tasting it yourself.
Enter U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, who, instead of hosting a traditional town hall meeting where he could share information, answer questions and address contentious policies in person, decided to do a “Facebook Live” event during the congressional recess.
Thursday’s digital interview will be moderated by KCTS anchor Enrique Cerna, who will pick questions submitted in advance. Constituents in Congressional District 8, which covers the eastern parts of Pierce and King as well as Chelan and Kittitas counties, are encouraged to drop everything at 1 p.m. and tune in to listen, not speak.
In a written statement, Reichert, a seventh-term congressman and former King County sheriff, voiced concern about the potential for unruliness in face-to-face settings. “Over the years, town halls have disintegrated into shouting matches with no productive results and in some cases put attendees and staff at risk.”
He’s not wrong. Political crowds can get boisterous. At a Vancouver town hall last month, civil discourse got thrown out the window. Rep. Jaime Hererra Beutler, R-Camas, was pelted with shouts and people talking over one another.
Still, Reichert picked the wrong year to hide behind a screen (and the wrong time of day to do it).
Constituents have genuine concerns for members of Congress, most centering on the fate of the Affordable Care Act. Faced with an Obamacare repeal and no firm plan for replacement, the roughly 750,000 Washingtonians who benefit from the ACA are right to be anxious.
People in Reichert’s farflung district will surely ask about the president who shares the congressman’s political party. Sensitivity to issues regarding Donald Trump’s alleged ties to Russia, Cabinet posts and immigration orders have left Washingtonians with lots of questions.
Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, is holding four in-person town halls and one telephone meeting over the next four weeks. He told the TNT that town halls are a priority for him, “even if it feels like you’re the piñata at the party.”
Having a phone or internet component is useful for citizens unable to attend a forum. But the leaders we send to D.C. must be tough enough to take some direct heat. Town halls are even more important for safe congressmen like Reichert and Kilmer, who faced token opposition in their 2016 re-election bids and thus didn’t have to stand up in public debates.
In an ideal world, politicians and constituents alike should enter a town hall in good faith. These sessions aren’t a time for epithets or heckling, but for dialogue. Neither are they a place for grandstanding; politicians should listen more than they speak.
By going the Facebook route, Reichert is trying to digitally control the message. He wants it neat and tidy. But democracy is just the opposite; it’s messy and often noisy, and has always been that way.
At a traditional town hall, someone living with a hardship will often step to the microphone. Maybe it will be a person with an autoimmune disease and no access to affordable drugs, or a mother whose child just received a cancer diagnosis and is worried about insurance.
Watching a person muster the strength to stand, or listening to a crack in a mother’s voice — those nuances don’t easily translate to the virtual world Reichert is retreating to on Thursday.