Monday, March 2, 2009

Town Meeting: A Radical Tradition

Tomorrow is Town Meeting Day in Vermont. It’s a tradition that dates back to 1762 in this state, when the citizens of Bennington gathered to discuss and vote on community concerns. And it’s as close as America gets to real democracy. Thomas Jefferson called the New England town meeting "the wisest invention ever devised . . . for the perfect exercise of self-government.."

At least forty towns will weigh in this year on the future of Vermont Yankee, our state’s aging (and increasingly problem-plagued) nuclear plant. Three years ago, in 2006, Newfane and several other southern Vermont towns voted to impeach George Bush. In the past, agendas have included votes on the nuclear freeze, banning the production of land mines, and other issues that reach far beyond the municipal basics of school budgets and road repair.

Recently, the phrase “town meeting” has been co-opted by the media and political campaigns, used to describe stage-managed events that include hand-picked audiences and moderaters who keep dissent on the sidelines. Questions are as canned and predictable as the answers. “Town meeting” at this level has become just another televised exercise in political spin. That’s a perversion of our unruly New England tradition.

As a child, John Adams (our nation’s second president) attended town meetings in his hometown of Braintree, Massachusetts, where participants became so rowdy that a resolution had to be passed requiring participants not to stand up in the pews of the church where the people assembled. Now that’s grassroots!

Burlington, the city where I live, held its first town meeting in 1787. I’m not sure when the tradition died out. Now we go to the polls to elect a city council and mayor. There’s still a lot of room for citizen input here in the “People’s Republic,” but with over 40,000 residents, town meeting—where everyone has a voice and a vote--may no longer be practical. Yet we’ve lost something of value.

Suppose that at least once a year, neighbors of differing opinions (blue and red) , of all races, actually assembled in one room to talk about the issues that concerned them most, from taxes to foreign policy and healthcare? Imagine the conversations, the listening across ideological boundaries, the moments of learning and encounter. How different might America be if we had “Town Meeting Day” all across this land?

8 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

How different might America be if we had “Town Meeting Day” all across this land?

Oh, I think it'd be a lot like the city cable channel where a few thoughtful people are mixed in with a ton of mouthy cranks, and the cranks usually get the cheers.

See Isocrates on democracy, c. 400 BC. Ancient Greece. Democracy sucks, it's mob rule, and why our Founders created a constitutional republic, not a democracy. "Democracy" scared the bejesus out of them, and quite properly.


All fact and argument is ignored and indistinguishable from feelings and opinion, and usually, strongly expressed emotion is more effective than intelligent argument and actual facts.

Sort of like this blog here, or this past election---sentiments we agree with get the biggest cheers, fact and argument be hanged. Or, in the fine tradition of the French, guillotined.

[Not to say, mind you, that John McCain deserved to win this past election or that we made the wrong choice. In the past 100 years, I think we made the right choice every time, even if I didn't vote for him. We'll see.]

But Isocrates had a point, one that didn't escape the Founders.

Pinky said...

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"See Isocrates on democracy, c. 400 BC. Ancient Greece. Democracy sucks, it's mob rule, and why our Founders created a constitutional republic, not a democracy. 'Democracy' scared the [profanity] out of them, and quite properly."
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That's a ridiculous statement.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

That's a ridiculous response. In fact, it's not a response at all.

Pinky said...

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Hah!
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bpabbott said...

Tom,

I agree with you that pure democracy is a very brutal and poor form of government.

Choosing a representative democracy predicated upon the consent of the governed is a much better solution ... and greatly improved with protections for individual liberty.

However, I think your qualifcation "Democracy sucks", missed the entire point of the post (I think).

My impression was that the post was lauding a spirit of local responsibility, so I'm at a loss as to how your comment is even on topic :-(

Tom Van Dyke said...

Apparently you've never watched those city council meetings on cable. The "spirit of local responsibility" being lauded here is at best mere cacophony and at worst, per Isocrates, demagoguery.

One of these times, Ben, you're going to get the gestalt of one of posts instead of picking fragments out of context to argue with. I look forward to that.

bpabbott said...

TVD: "One of these times, Ben, you're going to get the gestalt of one of posts instead of picking fragments out of context to argue with"

How ironic. My point was that your picked a fragment out of context to argue with ... shrugs.

Tom Van Dyke said...

No, you're wrong, Ben. I wrote directly about town meetings, which is the topic, and compared them to the city council meetings you see on cable. And cited Isocrates.

You picked out a fragment of what I wrote and your response is sophistic nonsense.

You gave your feelings why you liked the original post, I gave reasons why I didn't, and you haven't offered the slightest intelligent thing in rebuttal.

Try again, or bug off, Ben. Or go try your luck at city council meetings.