"It does not stop thinking and it cannot stop talking"by James Noyes / April 6, 2017 / Leave a comment
I was in Washington DC a fortnight ago, and spent a few nights at the Trump International Hotel, which opened in September. The place is as you probably imagine it: a cornucopia of marble and fake gold, with signature cocktails and steak dinners in a vast inner atrium. In his own brash way, Donald Trump is resurrecting a tradition. The use of the term “to lobby” is sometimes said to come from the old practice of policy hacks hanging around in hotel hallways, hoping to grab the attention of passing congressmen. Trump has given the city a terrific, huge new lobby—right on Pennsylvania Avenue, a few blocks from the White House.
While I was in the city, I sat in on a “Nebraska Breakfast” in one of the Senate buildings up on Capitol Hill. This event is an example of American localism in action: each Wednesday, any Nebraskan in the capital can take part in a kind of meet-and-greet session with their senators and congressmen. No other state holds a gathering of this kind in Washington. It has been going on since 1943 and Nebraskans take it very seriously.
Nebraska Breakfast has the feel of a school assembly. Sitting in rows were groups of families, friends and schoolchildren; there was also a university professor, a farmer, a soldier in uniform and someone representing an association of cyclists. Republican Senators Ben Sasse and Deb Fischer both gave short speeches, then each person was given the opportunity to stand up and introduce themselves to the assembly.
America is at its best when it is at its most local. The French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville saw this as far back as 1831, when he visited the fledgling United States and marvelled at its culture of democratic participation. It is a tradition of civil society—let’s call it “Town Hall America”—that remains an integral part of the country’s identity. Town Hall America is a form of politics fostered through organisations and neighbourhood associations, clubs and cooperatives, tea parties and state committees that span the land from New England to New Mexico.
Town Hall America is an untidy creature. It does not stop thinking and it cannot stop talking. If it allows anything to define it, then it is two principles: decentralisation for government, and direct representation for the people. The evidence suggests that it has a wide appeal. In Gallup polls in late 2016, 71 per cent of Americans say they have a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of trust in local government to handle problems; only 42 per cent feel the same way about their political leaders. Recently, town hall meetings were instrumental in the successful opposition to the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.