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Town meeting

Frank BRYAN
Professeur titulaire
Sociologie
Université de Vermont

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Frank BRYAN, « Town meeting », in CASILLO I. avec BARBIER R., BLONDIAUX L., CHATEAURAYNAUD F., FOURNIAU J-M., LEFEBVRE R., NEVEU C. et SALLES D. (dir.), Dictionnaire critique et interdisciplinaire de la participation, Paris, GIS Démocratie et Participation, 2013, ISSN : 2268-5863. URL : http://www.dicopart.fr/fr/dico/town-meeting.

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History teases us with fleeting dreams. One of them is democracy; at once a hope and a lament, regret and inspiration: the Greek polis with its dems, the medieval Italian communa, the peasant mirs of Russia, the Germanic tun, the Spanish puebelo, and the sectional assemblies of the French Revolution. These institutions were real democracies, distinctive (in varying hues and intensities) for their communal properties and face-to-face decision making. In the West today the leading examples of real democracy to survive the urban industrial revolution are the Swiss Landsgeminde and the New England town in America.

Here I treat the New England town and its town meeting and intend to set in place a factual baseline for students and practitioners of deliberative democracy. With this accomplished one may ask (for the first time) the most fundamental of questions: if citizens were offered an opportunity to practice real democracy, in what degree would they? As democrats everywhere explore the many and varied opportunities to graft deliberative democracy to political systems around the world, it seems wise to first understand its most fundamental empirical dimensions. By real democracy I mean face-to-face decision making by citizens followed by a binding decision upon the whole – the kind of democracy that defines our dearest democratic dreams. Understand. This is not to be called “pure” democracy in the sense of its goodness or tidiness or most certainly its reasonableness. I mean it as authenticity. Understand as well that the democracy I measure has been under attack throughout the forty years I have been measuring it (1969 – 2009). Over this period (and, indeed, for several decades prior) the three variables most poisonous to democracy; increasing town size, declining community coherence and the erosion of local decision-making power, have been ascendant. This early warning will assist the reader to place the findings in context.

Town Meeting as a Citizen Legislature

Town meeting government is more than communal, face-to-face decision making, although it is most clearly that. The town meeting itself is part of the “legislature” (Nuquist 1964)of over 1000 towns in the New England region of the United States. Indeed, the best way to think about the New England town meeting (the actual assembly of citizens) is as the “floor session” of a legislature – the place where laws (ordinances, budgets etc.) are actually deliberated and voted up or down. The rest of this local legislature is the town in its entirety, which is analogous to the committee rooms, corridors, informal places and even the grounds and buildings that make up the places where elected legislators assemble in traditional legislatures.

Such a consideration requires two important understandings. First, since every citizen of a New England town is in fact a legislator and the town itself is the legislature, the town is not a representative democracy, like a city with an elected council.  I live in America and my legislature is the Congress of the United States where I am represented by two Senators and (because Vermont is a very small state) one representative. I also live in Starksboro, Vermont, a town of 2000 people. There the local legislature is the town. Here I represent myself. If my neighbor and I are talking local politics at the end of my driveway or outside the post office or at the town dump, we are in fact doing so “in” and “of” the legislature – doing “everyday” deliberation (Mansbridge 1999)as both citizens and lawmakers. In short, legislative deliberation in a New England town, like deliberation in representative legislatures, knows no time or space limitations.  Unlike legislatures based on elected membership, however, legislative deliberation in the New England town is polity-wide, featuring the union of geography, government, citizen, and decision.

Second, town meeting government does not employ the separation of powers principle featured in most governments in America. The executive is a small (typically 3-5 members) board of “selectpersons.” These citizen executives’ primary duty is to administer the ordinances passed at the town meeting. But in the process (like most executives in modern representative democracies) they also produce policy themselves (including ordinances) and frame other options (the most important being the budget) for the legislature (the town) to consider and then approve or disapprove at its annual meeting or at special meetings (“floor sessions of the town”) held during the year.

In contrast to executives like the American President and the Governors of the fifty American states, members of the selectboard bring proposals to the floor of the legislature (the town meeting) personally as legislators (citizens) and explain and defend them. These executives also vote on their own proposals as ordinary citizens and participate in the resolution of all the other matters before the assembly. In this respect, and since the legislature is unicameral, the New England town resembles a parliament – but a parliament of the whole community.

It is within this context that I now turn to the meeting itself, the floor session of the town as a legislature, and treat (first and most briefly) the origins of town meeting and its structural properties; then in more detail its performance as a deliberative institution. I will conclude with an assessment of, and a comment on, its future.

Origins and Structure

The socio-political origins of the New England town meeting are clearly English and (if a structural institution is to be named) the church “vestry” tradition in England. Other claims have been suggested such as; Town Meeting descended from the medieval Germanic village (Adams 1882). But even in this case they came to America from the Continent by way of the English village. In short, Zimmerman’s conclusion that the New England town meeting’s genetic code evolved through the adaption of “familiar English institutions to the exigencies of life in Massachusetts Bay” seems the most reasonable and empirically grounded (Zimmerman 1999: 24). And of all the exigencies involved in 17th Century New England those associated with the topography and the cold typical of the northern half of the North American frontier were most important. A rough and hilly land of geographical nooks and crannies provided perfect nests for communal democracy. The harsh climate forced togetherness and cooperation in ways that more temperate climes do not.

The origins of town meeting may have been English but its structure and processes have surprisingly clear parallels to the Greek experience with democracy. These too may have been passed on by the English, who knew their Greek in the 17th and 18th Centuries but they more likely rose from the very natural and universal requirements of collective, face-to-face decision making when the matters at stake are important.  At their meetings the Greeks required outsiders to sit on a hill behind the Pnyx. New England towns set up special chairs for them in the town hall. New England towns have their own metics,residents that pay taxes (in Athens the eisphorai) but can’t vote (like summer camp owners). Guards (lexiarchoi) prevented outsiders from speaking in Athens. In New England Ballot Clerks check citizens off at the door. In Vermont even governors of a state must ask for a vote of permission to address a town meeting.

In Athens the agenda for the meeting is set by the prytanis, a committee of the Council. In New England the Selectboard sets the agenda or Warning. Both systems posted these “warnings,” the Greeks for four days. It varies in New England – Vermont gives thirty days warning. Greek proposals for decision were called probouleuma. In Vermont we call them “articles.” Both meetings opened with a prayer. In both most proposals are settled by a voice vote or show of hands. Each, however, used secret ballots. Both meetings have their rhetores, citizens who speak the most and (usually informally) develop the (accepted) habit of “calling” the question, framing debates, and “seconding” motions.

 1951 the British journalist, Alistair Cooke described the Greek influence on the small town of Newfane, Vermont as follows:

The town was settled in 1776, but the county courthouse didn’t go up until fifty years later … in the interval Americans conceived a passion for everything Greek, believing that they had just successfully established the first genuine democracy since the Greeks and the grandest Republic since Rome. In this small village in Vermont, the county courthouse is an exquisite symbol of what Americans did with wood with Greek forms (Cooke 1952: 158).

 

 The Greek connection is striking for several reasons. First the two kinds of meetings were profoundly different in terms of their size, frequency and authority. In Athens about 30,000 citizens were eligible to attend the Greek assembly and several thousand often did. In New England meetings of over 500 citizens are rare as are towns with over 10,000 eligible voters. Meetings of the pnyx took place as often as 30 or 40 times a year. In New England meetings usually occur only once or (sometimes) twice. Greek citizens meeting in Athens ruled a nation with a foreign policy. Going to war was open to debate and decision. New England towns do nothing even remotely like that. They are subservient to both state and national law. Athens was sovereign.

Still, perhaps the most significant difference between the Greek experience and the contemporary New England town meeting is the extent to which New England town meetings conduct deliberation under strict “rules of order,” in short, law-making procedures. Indeed, this careful adherence to procedure is what most often surprises and (unfortunately, I argue) dismays newcomers to the town meeting experience and the scholars who seek to understand it. Contemporary literature on democratic deliberation is not in agreement on the need for rules of engagement (Gutmann and Thompson 1996; Rattila 1996). This is because almost none of the venues that interest students of civic engagement are legislative in character – that is they do not make force-of-law decisions for political systems. Town meetings do.

Performance

 I now treat 415 town meetings held in 161 towns in the state of Vermont, beginning in the year 1999 and ending in 2009. These data represent the most recent addition to my data set. Vermont is the smallest and most rural of the six states in the New England region and the only one without a seacoast.  The average population of the 415 towns in which the meetings in the sample were held was 2260. The average number of registered voters in these towns was 1373, about 61% of the total population. Here are my findings.

(1) Presence: Of the 1373 registered voters in the average town only 136 (14%) turned out to deliberate at their town meeting. This means that year in and year out the great majority of Vermont citizens refused the opportunity to engage in a public, deliberative assembly – to craft (in some degree) public policy for their town or at least to approve or disapprove public policy, including  town budgeted expenditures, and the tax rate to pay for them. Why is this?

 By far the most important reason for fluctuations in attendance is town size. In the 101 towns in the sample with under 1000 citizens 22.7% of the registered voters attended town meeting, while in 62 towns with over 4000 citizens only 5.8% did.  In small places citizens seem to be rational actors. One cannot be sure if they are acting in their self interest (small town people have more opportunity to protect their own interests) or in the community’s interest (small town people have more opportunity to protect the interest of the town). But one thing is clear. When town size, defined as the mathematical probability that any single voter could decide a tie vote (Banzhaf III 1966; Brams 1975)is entered into a regression equation with town meeting attendance, 52% of the variance in turnout is explained. This relationship is strengthened to 60% of the variance explained when other variables are controlled.

Voting on a proposal during the meeting immediately after deliberation rather than by ballot at another time when the meeting is not in session increases attendance at the meeting irrespective of its size. Some towns in Vermont hold the deliberative part of town meeting day the evening before and vote on the issues by paper ballot in a voter booth throughout the next day. This deliberate strategy to replace real democracy with plebiscite democracy lowers attendance at the deliberative meeting dramatically. A population scattered about on local (gravel) roads increases attendance a bit (since road maintenance is an important local issue in most towns) as does continuing the policy (opposed by state officials) of integrating the resolution of school and education issues with other town issues at the town meeting. It is also of note that the socio-economic character of the town does not impact attendance in a meaningful way. The education level of the town’s citizens, for instance, explains less than one percent of the variance in town meeting attendance when other associated variables are controlled. Income levels are equally neutral (Bryan 2004: 99, 136).

But the most important factor explaining increases in attendance at town meeting after town size is the presence of an especially controversial issue on the warning. Oddly, this variable is seldom mentioned when I ask other political scientists to speculate on what it is that causes attendance to rise or fall at town meeting. I suspect it is because most social scientists (in America at least) are relatively uniformed about the nature of politics in small places where individual citizens have a statistically realistic chance to make a difference in an aggregative decision-model. It may also be the case that such an insight leads to the conclusion that empowered citizens will act rationally and (perhaps even more disquieting to American political scientists) empowerment and democracy are joined at the hip.

 Figure I displays the relationship between town size and town meeting attendance for a sample of 111 meetings held 2004-2006 in Vermont. Here we see the average turnout for these meetings was 13.7% of the registered voters (for the entire sample turnout was 14%). Now the distinct curvilinear pattern in the relationship between size and real democracy becomes clear. What we learn (happily) fits our intuition; after a point the impact of size on democracy flattens out dramatically. Size matters but only to a point. This figure also dramatizes the impact of issues on attendance. When citizens have a reasonable expectation to change the outcome of a decision by their involvement in its deliberation and decision they respond.

Consider the town of Sheffield. By its size Sheffield was predicted to have 20% of the voters in attendance at town meeting. But 42% actually turned out, a remarkable deviation from expectation. While the average “error” (actual attendance minus predicted attendance) of the 111 meetings was 3.4 (+ or -) percentage points, Sheffield’s meeting produced an error of +23 points. It was held during a year of fierce debate in town over the placement of a “farm” of windmills on its hillsides. The battle attracted statewide attention and became a “cause celeb” in the region and especially in the town. When placed in the context of the 1825 meetings in the total sample of meetings (1970-2009), Sheffield’s 2006 meeting fell in the top third percentile of positive deviations from the size predicted attendance expectation. 

Moreover the other two meetings in the sample of 111 that most stray upwardly from attendance expectations were held in towns where fierce political battles were underway. In Holland a blow up had occurred in the school system over higher taxes. In North Hero town meeting found itself fighting for its life against citizens who preferred to take away the decision-making part of the meeting (voting on the spot after deliberation) and substitute a yes/no ballot box vote on each warning item the day after the meeting’s face-to-face deliberation took place. (Town meeting lost.) But the sample also contained towns with under-achieving meetings and their negative attendance residuals in Figure I also verify expectations. St. George leads in the “small-town-next-to-big-town” category of data in the study. No place suffers more from the culture leak and subsequent loss of sense of community than St. George. Burke is a town that began to separate its town meeting from its voting over twenty years ago. No decisions are decided at town meeting there any more.

 (2) Deliberation: Attendance at the meeting is, of course, the most fundamentally important act of the process I define as real democracy. Without attendance there can be no deliberation. But speaking out is the most fundamental act of the deliberative component of real democracy even though we cannot be sure that verbal participation produces deliberation. Still, we do know that without verbal exchange deliberation there cannot be. Surely listening (Shapiro 2003)to and contemplating face-to-face discussion is a major contributor to the deliberative process. In fact scholars argue that those who only listen (are “audience” only) have a key role in deliberation. Audience is important (Schauer 1999; Tetlock 1985). But some verbal exchange among citizens must occur for listening (and by extension) audience and deliberation to be possible. Data on the New England town meeting can tell us something the world has never known before and is a fundamental prerequisite to a science of democracy: in what numbers citizens will participate in real democracy if given a chance – not orchestrated or contrived democracy and not on hypothetical issues but real ones.

Here is a brief description of what I mean. The “deliberation” that follows took place at the town meeting in Newbury, Vermont, an ordinary small town in northern New England, in 2007. The issue was typical of the huge majority of the 4565 Warning items resolved in the 415 meetings in the 1999-2009 sample of meetings. It was “warned” (by law published in writing) as follows: “To see if the town of Newbury will raise and appropriate the sum of $20,000 (Twenty Thousand Dollars) for repair of the old village church.” The town published the Warning thirty days before the meeting announcing that the issue would be discussed seventh on a list of fifteen separate matters to be resolved some time after 10 a.m. on the morning of March 6, 2007 at the Newbury Village Hall. At 11:15 it came to the floor. It took 17 minutes to resolve the matter. During that time 14 different citizens spoke (not including the Town Moderator who enforces the rules of debate). Two of these were town officers, one a man, the other a woman. Each officer participated once. Of the twelve other participators, five were women and seven were men. As a group these citizens participated a total of 19 times.

Information was forthcoming. Exactly what was wrong with the church? The roof. What kinds of groups actually used the church? Could private people use it, say for a wedding? Yes. Was helping to restore the church a proper thing for the town to do since the church was owned by a private organization? [The town’s Woman’s Club had bought the church some years ago for $1.00.] A mild argument ensued. The key moment: A woman spoke to that issue saying it was not a private organization anyway; it was a “not-for-profit” organization. She then explained briefly what that meant. Was a “church/state” objection present below the surface in the minds of the citizens? Perhaps. But most people knew the “church” was a church in look and name only and had been for years.

On the matter of providing funds to fix the roof of the church two decisions were made. First, at 11:21 a.m. the town voted to end its own deliberation on a voice vote. Immediately after a citizen had finished speaking and as the Moderator looked to see if another citizen wished to participate, a man had called out: “Call the question.” The Moderator immediately said: “Since no discussion is allowed on a motion to cease debate I will call the question on the motion; All those in favor of ending discussion on Article #7 so signify by saying ‘aye.’” A murmur of “ayes” crossed the room. “All those opposed?” Silence. The town had voted to stop deliberating. Next the Moderator immediately “called the question” on Article #7. “Will all those in favor of appropriating $20,000 to repair the Old Village Church so indicate by saying ‘aye.’” Strong (but not loud) chorus of “ayes” was heard: “All those opposed?” Silence. “It appears the ‘ayes’ have it. The ‘ayes’ do have it,” intoned the Moderator, “we will now move on to Article #8, ‘shall the town …’” The tax bill of every citizen in the room and the tax bills of all  the townspeople not present had immediately been increased by about four percent.

 This kind of issue forms the bulk of the deliberation in town meeting, along with the approval of the total town budget and often the school budget as well. In the aggregate what do these meetings tell us about the nature of real democratic participation?  Overall 42 of the average of 125 citizens present at town meeting participated at least once. Thus 34% of those present spoke out and 66% remained silent. All in all, these participators produced (on average) 131 participations or 3.1 acts of participation each. On average the 415 town meetings in the sample deliberated for three hours and five minutes or 185 minutes. This total omits adjournments or any pauses in the meeting when (by order of the town Moderator) formal deliberation was not allowed. Thus the participation rates were about 15 participators per hour making about 46 participations per hour. Figure II outlines the bare essentials showing the relationship between the length of a town meeting and the total number of citizens participating.

Without an accepted benchmark for public deliberation it is hard to gauge the utility of these figures. One thing seems clear however. If town meeting is believed to be a “public hearing” where everyone has their say in informing public officials about their public policy preferences these figures may seem low. If town meeting is conceived (as I believe it should be) as a process of passing laws after due deliberation, these same figures may seem on the high side. The answer may be that a lot of the deliberation in a town as a legislative system takes place in other legislative venues – especially meetings of the Selectboard, the Planning Commission, at less formal gatherings and so on – as is the case in most legislative systems.

 As for causality the key variable for attendance at town meeting (community size) is also operative for verbal participation once the meeting is called to order. As the number of registered voters in a town  increases the percent of citizens  at town meeting that participates declines (r = -.45).  This is mostly because bigger towns produce bigger town meetings in the aggregate (r = .56) and the more people at a town meeting, the lower the percent of those in attendance who speak out (-.65).  But when the size of the meeting is controlled, the relationship between town size and the percent of those at town meeting that participate all but disappears. The only other variable independently related to verbal participation was the length of the meeting. As expected the longer the meeting, the larger the proportion of those in attendance who speak out increases. But here, of course, the causation is confused. Did longer meetings produce more talk or were longer meetings a product of the talk itself? In short community size is bad for deliberation in two ways. First it represses the percent of the town’s population that attends the deliberation. Second, it lowers the percent of those who do attend who speak because the actual number of citizens at the meeting, although relatively smaller, is objectively larger.

 Any way you cut it, small polities are better for real democracy. If the population of the towns of Vermont were cut in half, the number of Vermont’s citizens who went to town meeting and who participated verbally in the deliberation at town meeting would increase dramatically. Moreover, verbal participation in town meeting (like attendance at town meeting) does not increase as a town’s socio-economic status (SES) profile rises. Thus rich or poor, well educated or not, it is the size of the community that moves citizens to participate in town meeting.

(3) Equality: A key to the legitimacy of real democracy involves the degree to which it accommodates differentiations of SES in the community. Strong theory suggests that the face-to-face requirements of real democracy increase the probability that the standard findings of SES bias found in representative systems, “citizens of higher social and economic status participate more in politics” (Verba and Nie 1972: 125), will be exacerbated in town meeting democracies. But the link between theory and result (as is often the case in social science) leaves much to be desired. For instance, as far as the SES expectation for town meeting goes, I am certain that in the aggregate no such relationship exists. Towns with higher percentages of their citizens residing in the higher SES statistical cohorts (even under controls for all potential contaminating variables) show no increase in either attendance at or participation in town meetings.

 But aggregates hide things and at least one important study found that the very low end of the SES continuum was less apt to participate in town meeting democracy (Mansbridge 1983). This study (which is limited to a single Vermont town and two town meetings held there), I would argue, is correct. My personal observations of over 70 town meetings and my reading of thousands of student essays over the last four decades confirm that (as Mansbridge found) the very low end of the SES continuum “the down and out” is often found missing at town meeting. But it is well to remember that this cohort is found equally missing at the polls in representative systems. But my experience also suggests that Mansbridge’s observation that lower socio-economic and “working class” status can inhibit verbal participation, while clearly within the boundaries of statistical expectation in any given town, is far from universal. Moreover the reverse situation may be equally probable. My observations show that often “high end” citizens are effectively “put down” verbally at town meeting because they are not familiar with (or fail to conform to) accepted standards of discourse. Thinly disguised haughtiness or condescension can be as damaging to a speaker at town meeting as the defensive pathologies often exhibited by the poor.

 The only reliable individual level data available to shed light on the question of town meeting’s capacity to incorporate minorities is based on gender. Women in America (who are the only “minority” which is not) have been and continue to be profoundly disadvantaged by representative democracy. Yet my counts of women’s involvement in nearly 2000 local legislative floor sessions (town meetings) in real democracies (Vermont towns) show that women now share virtual equality with men.  In fact Vermont’s towns clearly put the 50 American state legislatures and the United States Congress to shame (see Figure III). However, while women’s presence at town meeting now borders on perfect equality with men’s, their verbal participation does not. Fifty-two percent of the men in attendance speak out at least once. Only 34% of the women in attendance do, although the gap has closed significantly in recent years.

 When measures of women’s attendance and participation in the deliberation are standardized and controlled, we find that (again) the single best predictor of variations in gender equality in town meeting is town size. And once more small towns are best, although the association is statistically weak. The very smallest towns in the sample were the places were women’s involvement in face-to-face democracy was most nearly equal and women’s involvement drops off as the towns grow bigger. Yet, increasing town size explains only 8% of the variance in women’s involvement with a slope of -.301 (beta) a relationship which is never the less statistically significant at the .001 level. Other factors matter in statistically significant ways as well, such as holding meetings at night, which discourages participation.  Perhaps most important of all, the SES character of the town enters the equation as the least powerful predictor (positive) adding less than one percentage point of explanatory value to the regression equation. Upscale communities are clearly not a prerequisite to equality for women in the New England town meeting.

Perspective

How does one defend town meeting as a model of democracy defined in terms of face-to-face deliberation? Here I propose three considerations: (1) participation (2) tutelage (3) the future.

(1) Participation: Let us consider the most damning statistic; only an average of 14% of the registered voters attended town meeting in Vermont in the first nine years of the 21st Century; and Vermont is prime habitat for real democracy. First the comparison most generally used is with voter turnout at the polls. But this is a false comparison. The apt comparison (since citizens are legislators in town meeting systems) is not with voter turnout but with presence on the floor of other legislative systems. And here town meeting is highly competitive. Moreover, evidence shows that the most active town citizens are often absent from town meetings, the floor sessions of the legislature in which they live. They are absent (like legislators in representative systems) because they have participated extensively in the town’s policy-making business prior to town meeting and see no need to be present at the floor session.

Second, even if we use the false comparison (and consider town meeting goers as “voters” only) we find that a town’s citizens – legislators all – do in fact “out participate” voters in representative systems. When town meeting attendance over a four-year American national election cycle is compared to voting in these national, state and local elections (including primary elections) it turns out that the aggregated citizens of a typical town spend more hours (1568) of their lives deliberating at town meeting than they do (908 hours) voting in all these elections, including the election of the President of the United States. Remember too that the “cost” of sitting in hard chairs in public for all these hours is much higher than voting in private in a polling booth for 15 minutes (Clark and Bryan 2005).

(2) Tutelage:  Individual-level data about the relationship between town meeting and civil society do not exist, but such a correlation does exist at the aggregate level. Surely no American state (with the possible exception of Maine) has deeper bedrock of town meeting democracy than Vermont. As I have reported elsewhere, Robert D. Putnam (Putnam 2000), in Bowling Alone, scores Vermont first among the fifty states on his tolerance index (gender/racial and civil liberties) and third on his social capital index (Bryan 2004). Another study published in Publius: The Journal of Federalism scored Vermont first on a comprehensive civil society index. The second state was another town meeting state, Massachusetts. In fact three of the six New England states (the only place in America where town meeting is practiced) finish in the top five states and five of the six New England states finish in the top ten states on civil society (Rice and Sumberg 1997). These aggregate findings do not prove causation but they clearly direct any reasonable hypothesis in that direction.

Add this evidence to an astounding commonality among commentators on town meeting throughout history (that the great strength of town meeting is in its educative properties) and it is hard to disagree with Michael J. Sandel’s affirmation of de Tocqueville’s claim about the profound value of face-to-face democracy demonstrated by the New England town – that “Republican soul craft involves a gentler kind of tutelage:

            For example, the political economy of citizenship that informed nineteenth-century American life sought to cultivate not only commonality but also the independence and judgment to deliberate well about the common good. It worked not by coercion but by a complex mixture of persuasion and habituation – what Alexis de Tocqueville called ‘the slow and quiet action of society upon itself.’” (Sandel 1996)

 

 (3) The Future: Here the argument confronts the very physics of history; a physics that propels human events like comets across the heavens – linear projections thrust by monolithic paradigms set in motion long ago and which remain nearly unscathed by contemporary evidence and thus the potential of human reason. I speak of the centralist text which began with steam in the 17th Century and was fulfilled by electricity in the 19th Century.  In the shadow of this (still) prevailing construct town meeting in Vermont and indeed throughout America – to the extent that it is considered at all (aside from its noxious misapplication to contemporary outbursts left and right in the public discourse) is considered a romantic and impractical return to a simpler time, wholly inoperative in any serious way.

 But the paradigm has shifted. Emerging evidence from third wave of post-medieval human progress (driven by the computer chip) is clear. Citizens of the world least encumbered by the paraphernalia of the old and most immersed in the possibilities of the new are going (or staying) home. The replacement of profession by place is becoming the organizing principle of human life. As this happens the potential for real democracy is ascendant while the need for its 18th Century substitute, representative democracy, is descendant. Small will not only become more beautiful as this new potential unfolds – it has always been beautiful – it will become possible. And from this incandescent possibility will emerge a new politics, a politics of human scale. The New England town meeting, preserved in the cold, north of the great American industrial monstrosity but deeply immersed in the new dynamic, can provide a beacon of understanding with which to cope with this most hopeful transition.

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