Watts: Town Meeting

Feb 23, 2018

Legendary Vermont Political Scientist Frank Bryan is fond of saying “Real democracy takes place in small places” and drawing a direct line from ancient Greece to our New England Town meeting.

Bryan believes what he calls “enforced civility” is central to town meeting's success. Because you know your neighbors and they know you, you treat each other with respect. The person you disagree with at town meeting is the same person who may pull you out of a snowbank the next day.

In a way that large scale political systems cannot achieve, making decisions face to face creates a habit of civility, allowing us to recognize our common humanity.

And Bryan should know. For 30 years, he and his students attended more than fifteen hundred Vermont town meetings, cataloging more than two hundred and thirty thousand individual acts of participation – commenting, voting, and raising hands – by more than sixty thousand citizens – documenting this authentic and meaningful form of direct democracy.

Watching the complete dysfunction of current national politics, I’m reminded of Bryan’s research. Vermont has our challenges and prejudices – but Bryan documented something about our scale, our sense of community and our ability to talk to each other, instead of across and at each other, that clearly stands out.

Because of this, Vermont usually manages to avoid the partisan rancor and inability to make decisions that plagues the national system, and we routinely score high in rankings that measure the well-being of our citizens. Our education system is strong and we were among the first to provide universal health care to our kids. Most recently, our approach to the opiate crisis – a bi-partisan approach – has been recognized as one of the most effective in the country. And just this week Governor Scott initiated a bi-partisan conversation on gun control. Perhaps we can lead there where so many others have failed.

To again borrow from Bryan: “It’s the fact that we can get along enough to govern ourselves that [others pay] attention to us when we give them advice about governing the nation.”

It’s been about eight years since Bryan and his students fanned out across the state. This year, the Center for Research on Vermont with partners in the Vermont State College System will again be collecting data from town meeting, diving into this exercise in local democracy.

And it’s never felt more important.