Department of Communication
Public Address Conference
Robert J. Green

What does Democracy Look Like? The Appearance of Rhetoric and Politics at Town Hall Meetings

Over the past three years, town hall meetings have emerged as contentious site of American political culture. Politicians, professional pundits, bloggers, and scholars have criticized town hall meeting participants for failing to adhere to the basic principles of a functioning civil democracy. In this dissertation, I argue that town hall meetings provide an opportunity to understand what democracy looks like. I suggest that the forms of democracy that appear in these meetings neither reflect ideal concepts nor a follow institutional processes. Democracy is an embodied rhetorical practice that emerges as people appear in public to seek political accountability. To understand what democracy looks like, I engage in what I call a rhetorical ethnomethodology of the public meeting. By combing conversation analysis and rhetorical criticism, I demonstrate how people constitute a democratic rhetorical culture as they seek political accountability through their speech and actions. This dissertation consists of three case studies that demonstrate how town hall meetings are local civic cultures that shape and are shaped by broader events such as the economic collapse of 2008. I show how the Tea Party, Solidarity Wisconsin, and Occupy Wall Street have used town hall meetings as a site to defend, challenge, and change prevailing political, economic, and social sensibilities.

Robert J. Green
Purdue University 

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