Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works

"Frank Bryan…is arguably (and you can bet he'd enjoy arguing about it) the nation's leading scholar on town meeting democracy. What can't be argued is that he is its most passionate and eloquent promoter."—New England Monthly

"I wish I had written this book. It is witty (about Vermont village life) and wise (about everything from Athenian democracy to the ecological fallacy). It deals with a phenomenon that deserves attention from every American concerned about the future of our polity. Town meetings are hardly the primary solution to what ails our democracy, but understanding how they work could help us design reforms on a larger canvas. Too few books are both fun and important, but this one is."—Robert D. Putnam, Harvard University

An interview with
Frank M. Bryan
author of Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works

Question: Your book is about the form of democracy practiced in the New England town meeting. Since some of the readers of this interview are undoubtedly not American, much less from New England, can you give us a quick sketch of what a town meeting is like and how it functions?

Frank BryanFrank Bryan: A town meeting is a legislature of citizens, for citizens, and by citizens. The fact that each citizen of the town is also a legislator separates the New England town meeting from all other forms of democracy. This difference is huge. Town meeting democracy is not representative democracy. Representation was conceived as a natural substitute for real democracy—an effective way to insure some popular control over distant governments in large nations. Town meeting democracy is like the democracy of ancient Athens. In town meetings like the ones I study in Vermont, citizens come together and make laws face-to-face. Budgets are adjusted, passed, or defeated. Officers are elected. Town property is bought or sold. Taxes are levied. This is done legislatively under rules of procedure designed to protect minorities and to insure that the process is orderly and predictable. In recent years the national media has cast the town meeting as simply a public meeting or a candidate's forum attended by citizens. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Question: Talk about your data. Politicians everywhere at least pay lip service to the goal of greater participation in the political process. What does your data suggest about the factors that encourage citizen participation in town meetings?

Bryan: My findings—based on over 1500 town meetings and encompassing 238,603 acts of participation by 63,140 citizens in 210 different towns—show that citizens will participate—and often at great cost to themselves—when they know the political arena is small enough for them to make a difference and there are issues at stake that really matter to them. All too often national elites are only passionate in their commitment to a kind of statistical participation— for instance, the extremely thin process of going to the polls once every four years. But they are nervous when it comes to thick, rich participation like deciding how the community should educate its kids, or how it should properly take care of the aged, or what the budget for the local library should be. Decentralism and empowerment: put these requirements together and democracy will flourish. Take either away and it will die. The left had the right idea years ago in the 1960's and 70's. But the conservatives didn't like real democracy and liberals lost their nerve. Consequently a great opportunity to revitalize the heartland of our governance—our villages, towns, and urban neighborhoods—was lost. What a shame.

Question: But how does the town meeting help political participation at the national level? What is the relationship between real democracy as practiced in town meeting-like institutions at the local level and civic participation in a national representative democracy?

Bryan: Citizens are not born. They are raised. The single most recurrent theme in the literature on the town meeting in the 19th Century—when town meetings were much stronger than they are now—was the notion that town meetings are schoolhouses of citizenship. It is not a coincidence that Vermont, the place where my work takes place, often leads in measures of civic capital and is also the state that has the strongest town meeting tradition. Meanwhile America's greatest enterprise—our glorious national Republic—is withering away. We ask our citizens to participate in the selection of our president only once every four years at the cost of less than an hour's time out of their lives. Despite our best efforts it is difficult to get even half of them to do so. It is time to resuscitate real democracy—that unique blending of conflict and decision at the human scale—in the heartland. I see thick, local democracies—real democracies—as pasture springs in the high hills of the American homeland. From these pasture springs of politics will flow the waters that refresh our national reservoirs of citizenship. We have long known that the nation's parts cannot survive without the nation's whole. It is time to recognize that at the most fundamental level the reverse is equally so.

Question: You have been studying town meetings for over thirty years. Have there been significant changes in town meetings over that time? For instance, in the level or kind of citizen participation? Is there more controversy these days in town meeting or less?

Bryan: Town meetings have suffered a loss in attendance over the years. Most of this decline can be attributed to increases in town size, which explains about 60% of the variance in attendance from town to town. But a decline in the number and variety of issues over which towns have control has deprived townspeople of the opportunity to make decisions that matter in their lives. That has hurt attendance dramatically. Plus, Vermont has experienced in full measure the negative forces for civic engagement so eloquently catalogued by Robert Putnam. On the other hand, the percentage of citizens willing to speak out verbally and engage in face-to-face, public decision-making has steadily increased. So too has the ratio of women's to men's acts of speech. The town meeting is the only legislative body in America where women's presence is only a hair's breadth from equality. Women's verbal participation has also increased more than men's over the past thirty years—in some cases dramatically so. I'm especially proud of my chapters on women's participation because they constitute the first extensive quantitative record of women's participation in this kind of high-risk political participation.

Question: Every few years, on the other side of the country, we get to see another type of democracy in action: the California ballot initiative. Are ballot initiatives an adaptation of direct democracy to a large and diverse population? What do you think of comparing town meetings to ballot initiatives?

Bryan: The two are completely different. Ballot initiatives—recalls, incessant amendments to state constitutions, "directed legislation" and other forms of mass decision-making—are James Madison's worst nightmare. He was right to dread that form of democracy then and we should dread it even more today. This is why we have a republic! The key here is scale. Real democracy cannot exist at the mass level. We see today a typically American fascination with bigness. We are told that now, since we have the technology to do so—electronic interactive devices and mass media—we should make democracy big too. Why can't we be less arrogant and understand that some things—often our most precious things—have limits? These limits are not demeaning. Quite the contrary they make beautiful things like real democracy possible. The kind of democracy I am talking about does not take place alone in a living room in front of a computer or alone in a polling booth. It takes place in public in real time. America needs the kind of democracy where citizens can mark together the renderings of their common decisions, can know the joy that comes when they find the common good, can see the pain in other's eyes when they ignore (as we often do) what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature." The American Republic, fashioned by citizens so experienced, properly rejected mob rule. Now we are fast becoming an electronic mob. To equate the town meeting with such governance is like equating violets and poison ivy.

Question: A former governor of Vermont is currently running for President. Do you see any legacy of the town meeting in the campaign of Howard Dean or the positions he advocates?

Bryan: Sadly, no. Quite the opposite. Dean is a very smart fellow with a huge ambition and ego to match. He was raised in an environment as completely estranged from town meetings as one can imagine. While in Vermont he lived in the state's largest city and never participated as a citizen in a town meeting. Americans do not understand that being governor of Vermont is worse training for the Presidency than none at all. If Dean wins, he will not only have to learn how to be president of America, he will have to forget what he learned being governor of Vermont. Howard will take this as a criticism of both Vermont and America. It is a compliment to both, however, and the problem is: Howard has no idea why. Had he been an officer in a town meeting democracy, he could never have snookered the people into believing he is a liberal Democrat as he has so many Americans. He could never have manufactured and then perpetuated such a lie. Someone would have yelled out: "Hey Howard! Give us a break!" The only way out for him at that moment in a town hall would have been to grin sheepishly and sit down. But he wouldn't have. It isn't in his nature. And that would have been it for Howard Dean's career in town meeting democracy.

Question: About a dozen years ago, you advocated that Vermont secede from the union, to send a wake-up call to the rest of the country that its government wasn't working. Is the country still asleep?

Bryan: Yes. And the snoring is louder than ever!

As for secession I think imagining a second Vermont Republic is a worthy intellectual exercise. (The first Vermont Republic lasted fourteen years; we deftly played global politics with other European nations, other American colonies, and the Continental Congress before joining the Union in 1791.) When I look into the future of my children's great-grandchildren—on a good day—I see a world where nations as we know them today are gone, where the sovereign boundaries of places like America have been subsumed by a global commonwealth. To let this happen, indeed to gently encourage it, will be America's greatest challenge in this century and the next. But we must lead with our ideals and use our might to maintain the peace while these ideals take root and grow. Could Vermont "go it alone" right now? The arguments that point to a "yes" are so powerful it is downright scary. As for me I am too old and my passions are too firmly set. As I said in a recent interview in the Vermont Quarterly "I couldn't sit around and let a bunch of crazy Vermonters like me tear down the American flag. My heart would break."

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Frank M. Bryan
Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works
©2003, 320 pages, 24 line drawings, 6 tables
American Politics and Political Economy Series
Cloth $49.00 ISBN: 0-226-07796-9
Paper $19.0 ISBN: 0-226-07797-7

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Real Democracy.

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