Participatory Democracy

Today is Town Meeting day in Vermont. For the uninitiated, this is the day when Vermonters pack themselves into school gyms and various meeting halls to vote on town governance for the upcoming year. Officials are elected. Laws are debated and passed. Budgets are assigned.  If there are complaints or disturbances, these are given voice and discussed. Resolutions are adopted. This is the primary assembly of town governors, the town citizenry.

In a world that extols the virtues of democracy, Vermont remains one of a very few governing bodies that is, in fact, democratic — that is there is a ruling body, a kratos, composed of the people, the demos. Vermont does have representational democracy. We have a governor and we elect representatives to both state and federal legislatures. But the main business of running each town — deciding how funds are allocated, deciding what laws will be implemented, deciding who will be responsible for implementation and how that will be done — this is largely accomplished through direct participation at Town Meeting. 

These meetings can be contentious. It is not unusual for them to go on for the whole day and late into the evening. But most are surprisingly efficient, wrapping up before lunch (at the local watering hole, of course). To begin with, townspeople are “warned” on the business to be discussed. Town warnings must be publicly posted a month in advance of the meeting. It is the civic duty of the people to read and familiarize themselves with meeting business before Town Meeting. Procedures at Town Meeting are designed to focus each item of business. Few words are necessary to conduct the vote, and everyone knows the rules. They’ve been the same for hundreds of years. 

Town Meeting predates the representational democracy this country adopted. This is how New England colonists arranged their lives. This direct form of governance flows from the ideas of community and commons that saturated New England life. From the beginning this region governed itself.

This is not always a good thing. Outsiders have a very difficult time even today. And there are few protections for minority ideas or people. But it is much more difficult to manipulate or corrupt this system than in representational democracy because no one person holds sway. Local needs are better addressed as well precisely because it’s difficult for outsiders to have much influence. So there are trade-offs. But if you live in a direct democracy, then generally you have more of a voice in how your locality is run than if you merely vote for someone to be your voice. For one thing, you aren’t going to turn your back on yourself — but politicians will turn on you.

I believe that we need more local politics. We need to govern ourselves. I can’t say I know how to make it so that minorities have a voice in majority rule. This has been a problem for thousands of years and I’m probably not going to solve it. (I suspect that it’s unsolvable, actually.) But I also think that small regions operating under majority rule have a better chance of making sure needs are generally met than under any other system. I might even go one step beyond Vermont and do away with elections altogether. Make a system wherein officials are chosen by lot or mandatory public service. This might have the advantage of smoothing over minority issues by giving everyone a chance to be somewhat above the majority vote. But in any case, I think Town Meeting is a good system to adopt for the daily operation of a small community. 

If you need a good introduction to real democracy, there’s no better than Vermont history — because plebeian rule can be highly amusing. “The laws of the hills are different from the laws of the valleys”, a long line of plucky underdog victories and, shall we call it, independent thinking makes for splendid theatre. Info-tainment that actually is just that.

Mayor Lincoln (AP Photo/Lisa Rathke)

In 2018 the community of Fair Haven elected its first mayor — Lincoln, a 3-year-old Nubian goat. Lincoln’s task was to engage the community in fund-raising to fix up the local playground. Lincoln helped raise $10,000 during her 2-year term in office. (Term limits are another solid feature of Vermont law.) She was so successful Fair Haven decided to elect another pet mayor in 2020 — this time Murfee, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel. Murfee, a therapy dog who presumably understands public service, doubled Lincoln’s revenue stream, raising $20,000 in the first half of his term. The town has contributed an additional $20,000 to the park rehabilitation fund. However, there is a whiff of special interests dogging the budget as a bark park is now in the works as well. Fair Haven still does not have a human mayor. It is unclear what species will fill the post in 2022. Logic might suggest a cow.

©Elizabeth Anker 2022