Once upon a time before 140 character or less Twitter accounts, Face Book (FB) social networking newsfeeds, "Google" searches, email, or even "fax" machines, all research on a given political topic required the use of periodicals - often archived in their print format - or via bulky microfiche machines. The use of these devices often required physical trips to several libraries depending on which source you desired and the subscription each library paid to receive.
This degree of literal legwork also necessitated the full reading of the document by the researcher to determine the thesis of the author and to consider whether it supported, augmented, or refuted the reader's own hypothesis. This decidedly cumbersome exercise was however highly instructive to the development of one's own critical thinking skills and instilled humility in the researcher.
Each document or article studied included footnotes and other references, some of which then required even more work to review. At the end of the process the body of knowledge unearthed often sent the original ideas which spawned the initial research in a completely different direction for further study or the premise was altered or left in tatters on the floor entirely.
I submit that any of these outcomes was valuable because it was educational, expanded understanding, or created completely different questions requiring investigation.
Today, we live in a wholly different information age. An era where we can customize and filter sound bite sized data points into over-simplified, pre-conceived and compartmentalized viewpoints. It is a "point and share" or "cut and paste" opinion often un-vetted or predicated on any deeply reasoned theorem, except the shortest distance between "A" (what I believe) and "B" (here's what supports "A").
My position is that this technology only encourages data collection slothfulness and conclusion superficiality. The effect, I first noticed in business with the advent of the "fax" machine. Though a useful tool, more speedy than 1st Class Mail, it fostered an expectation of immediate response and action without an ability to discuss potential ramifications, or consider them. The technologies that followed have been extremely damaging to the critical thinking skills of those born and educated in the past thirty years. With data streaming in at fiber optic speed, attention spans have decreased and the ability to stay focused long enough to process and consider it has all but disappeared.
The forgoing is a metaphor for the concept of today's "Tele-Town Hall Meeting" format of political discourse. For the fortunately uninitiated it works like this: email or FB followers of an elected official's automated database electronically dials your phone based on another database drawn from multiple sources including voter registration lists. You answer the phone and are treated to the pleasant but droning voice of your government official extolling the virtues and benefits of the bills he either sponsored or voted in favor of during the current legislative session. Most times, these laws or resolutions have wonderful sounding names and purport to be the solution to some obscure societal ill that until now had been neglected or ignored by every prior legislator to the one you're listening to now. Naturally, someone other than whatever group you have been consigned too will pay for them, but I digress.
By design, the Tele-Town Hall format for most all folks is a one-way communication. After some minutes on hold listening to the mellifluent and benevolent tones of your representative, the lawmaker's call screener comes on the line, obtains your personal information, informs you that all calls are recorded, then types your questions (maximum of three) into a computer queue that will appear on a monitor sitting before your representative. You are then reminded to stay on the line and listen to all the other chosen questioners make their queries, and the representative answers them mainly by expressing empathy and volunteering to have one of his staff members call them back tomorrow to get to the bottom of the issue and refer them to the correct source of information or agency most appropriate. No calls from constituents questioning a stance on a controversial issue or pending bill of major importance that could put the representative in a position of having to defend his viewpoint or listen to yours are taken. After all, it's not easy be honest, spontaneous, and offer reasoned explanations while being politically safe.
This process bears as much resemblance to representative government as radio talk show hosts do when calls that enhance the reputation of the host and make him look good are taken, while most others are ignored. This, I submit is NOT constituent service. This is, at best, social work. At worst, it is propaganda.
Today's risk-averse technology savvy politicians are further alienating themselves from the folks they claim to represent. The Tele-Town Hall format may be easily controllable by the politician but it disenfranchises and is disenchanting to the populace. Should it surprise anyone that fewer citizens bother to show up on election day and exercise a right still not globally guaranteed? Is it odd that these same politicians have the capability to bulk email pictures of their last photo opportunity or FB post on where they appeared in the company of those whose hands they shook or back they slapped right after the "street naming" or "ground breaking" ceremony, yet are incapable of providing advance notice via the same technology of where they will be a week or two hence so you could actually talk to them?
In contrast, a live Town Hall format is real world research and fact-finding. It is up close and personal. So long as your representative does not insist on pre-submitted questions they can have their staffs prepare canned answers to beforehand, there is a truly open forum for spirited, yet respectful debate. Both the representative and audience should be notified in advance of the venue and come prepared with knowledge of the issues or legislation, and reasoned opinions either "for" or "against."
This format, though "old school" by the standards of many in politics today, especially those who would prefer to stay off the public radar, is what contributes to public knowledge and debate. Your law maker should not only be able to articulate his position, but to also listen to and engage with those folks less convinced of, or in opposition to, his views. Like the researcher, the public viewpoint is part of the fact-finding necessary to test his theories on public policy. Live town hall meetings, like visits to the library, are opportunities to learn, solicit, develop, and exchange views that in the end may alter, confirm or deny the very need for additional law, or may even lead to the repeal of many duplicative and unnecessary ones, thus saving tax dollars while increasing efficiency and protecting freedom.
The representative may then return to Harrisburg or Washington carrying their new found knowledge unique to their respective district , tempered by their own critical analysis, unfiltered by call-screeners, or their own unwillingness to engage those with whom they may disagree. Be patient, be thoughtful, then be bold.
Politics always was, and should be a "contact sport." Though I am not advocating the occasional duel that took place in the 18th century between political rivals, I am advocating the low-tech sport of respectful but spirited debate. Differing ideas should compete until the best, most reasoned, and least emotional argument wins. Also, the younger people would benefit. With "Civics" and "Forensics" less frequently taught today -the latter viewed with disdain as too "confrontational" - the twin concepts of the responsibilities of citizenship and respectful debate have been lost. As a result, many young people are frequently passionate, but rarely display thoughtfulness born of careful consideration of an issue in its entirety.
Given the importance of the many complex issues we face as a Commonwealth, and as a Nation, I believe the live unscripted town hall format is superior for all ages. Let's return to representative republicanism and discard the electronic technocracy which I posit is partly responsible for the diminished degree of confidence in government at all levels. Perhaps if the politicians were to once again engage the people, they would make the same effort to do what is right on election day believing their vote mattered because their opinions were heard, discussed, and maybe even reasonably considered.