21st Century Town Hall Meetings in the 1990s and 2000s: Deliberative Demonstrations and the Commodification of Political Authenticity in an Era of Austerity

Special Report: Participating in the United States: Town Meetings
By Caroline W. Lee

The public participation field grew dramatically in the United States during the 1990s and 2000s, in part due to the flagship dialogue and deliberation organization AmericaSpeaks and its trademarked 21st Century Town Hall Meeting method for large group decision-making. Drawing on participant observation of three such meetings and a multi-method ethnography of the larger field, I place these meetings in context as experimental deliberative demonstrations during a time of ferment around declining citizen capacity in the United States. AmericaSpeaks’ town meetings were branded as politically authentic alternatives to ordinary politics. But as participatory methods and empowerment discourses became popular with a wide variety of public and private actors, the organization failed to find a sustainable business model. I conclude by discussing the challenges for contemporary town hall meetings in an era when political authenticity is a valuable commodity.


  • public participation
  • deliberative democracy
  • AmericaSpeaks
  • commodification
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