We value political leaders who connect with the full range of people they serve. Unfortunately for the residents of Texas, most of our congressional representatives are throwing away a golden opportunity to provide such leadership.
Thousands of Texans phone their members of Congress to express their opinions about the important issues facing our nation. But when it comes to in-person conversations, our members of Congress are pretty hard to find. They could be helping to bring us together by holding town halls and leading dialogues with their constituents on the important issues facing our country. Many of our political leaders used to do this. But now, too many are nowhere to be seen during congressional recesses.
Texans deserve better.
During the current session of Congress, the three members of Congress who represent me have held a grand total of zero open, in-person town halls. Only one person who represents the Austin area, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, has hosted a town hall that was open to anyone who wanted to attend.
More than half of the 38 people who represent Texas in Congress have not held a single town hall since January of last year. This widespread failure to hold town halls suggests that our representatives do not care about our views, or perhaps that they see their donors rather than the voters in their districts as their primary constituency. Either possibility cheapens their office and their relationship to those whom they are elected to serve.
Before every recess, I call the offices of my members of Congress, asking about upcoming town halls. Every time, I get the same vague promises — “none at this time, but we can put you on a mailing list to be told about future town halls” or “the schedulers are working on it” — and every time, there is no town hall.
Even though I have no expectation that this pattern will change anytime soon, I keep calling to make a point. Elected officials and constituents need a chance to regularly meet, not simply to air opinions, but to put faces to real people who hold those opinions.
Dialogue between people who disagree is not a zero-sum game that I lose if someone who disagrees with me is able to state his opinion in my presence. Nor is it for the faint-hearted. Effective dialogue requires strength of mind from all parties, both the strength to listen calmly and respectfully to criticisms of our ideas and the confidence that both we and our beliefs can withstand the challenge of engaging with opposing views. I do this every day in my classrooms. Apparently, it is asking too much to expect my members of Congress to do the same.
Fortunately, dialogue is not a war, a costly last resort for dealing with conflict where one side defeats the other once and for all. It is an ongoing process without which a healthy and vibrant community life cannot exist.
Regardless of whether we change any minds, we often become more comfortable with opinions different from our own when we have had a chance to explain our views and hear conflicting ideas from people whom we may already know from the gym or church or the bus ride to work. If we have such conversations, our sense of community can embrace, rather than preclude, a range of different viewpoints.
It is easy to understand why our representatives might hang back from holding town halls these days. No one likes to be yelled at, or to get bad press. And security is on everyone’s mind. But when our representatives use these legitimate concerns as a justification for not representing us, they send a terrible message: that refusing to talk is an acceptable way to handle a difficult conversation.
Refusing to talk is no solution at all. It just makes everything worse.
The purpose of listening to ideas with which we disagree is not to change minds. It is to open them. During the current recess, our members of Congress could be helping to foster open minds among Texans. Some are. But too many are not.
Deborah Beck is an associate professor of classics at The University of Texas at Austin.
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