America’s Most Respectable Congress
By Mike SeccombeMarch 11, 2012
American politics on the whole may be broken, but the country’s original democracy thrives — in New England’s town meetings, where voters decide on every dollar.
American democracy is stuffed; on that we would all agree, yes? I mean, look at the state of the country: a reactionary Supreme Court which deems faceless corporations to be "people" able to spend unlimited amounts of money in support of their vested, asocial interests; media dominated by strident, partisan and populist outlets with little interest in objective truth; a tragically ignorant populace, only a quarter to a third of whom even accept the concept of evolution; a nation in educational and economic decline, stuck in political gridlock.
That's what the world sees. But I want to speak of another American democracy - a small and shrinking one, for sure - but one that still works. For almost six years I lived with it.
I'm talking about the town meeting, the original, participatory democratic form which the best part of America invented 200 years before my homeland, Australia, was even settled by Europeans. If US democracy was a template for the world, then New England democracy was the template for the US. And while politics has long since supplanted democracy across most of America, up in the chilly northeastern states, it still lives.
On my arrival in Massachusetts in 2006, I had no idea such a democratic form still existed. My first reaction on discovering it was a bit like my reaction on first discovering a horseshoe crab washed up on the Martha's Vineyard beach: Here was a living democratic fossil. How quaint.
See, in my previous life, as a reporter on Australian national politics, I had been inclined to scoff at the concept of direct democracy. Politics, I thought, was best left to the professionals. I mean, if you've got a medical problem, you don't assemble a group of neighbors to consider it, you go to a professional, the doctor. If the power in your house keeps shorting out, you don't invite the bloke next door in to poke about the wiring, unless the bloke next door happens to be an electrician.
After five-plus years of immersion in small-town New England politics, though, that view has changed a lot.
These days I'm inclined to the view of Henry David Thoreau, who said:
"When, in some obscure country town, the farmers come together to a special town-meeting, to express their opinion on some subject which is vexing the land, that, I think, is the true Congress, and the most respectable one that is ever assembled in the United States."
Now, I'm not naïve enough to suggest that this form of democracy is scaleable in a way which would work at a bigger level. All I'm saying is that, having seen it work, I find myself more keenly aware of what has been lost from public life. And I do think there are some lessons that could be taken.
First, though, a little background on the place where I saw direct democracy in operation.
Martha's Vineyard is an island of about 220 square kilometres (and getting smaller all the time; the shore in some places is receding three metres a year), lying off Cape Cod, about 100 kilometres south of Boston. To the extent that non-Americans have heard of it at all, they know it as the "summer playground" of the rich and powerful. And that's partly true; between June and August each year, the Vineyard and its neighbouring island of Nantucket have possibly the highest concentration of millionaires and billionaires in America. President Obama holidays there, as did Bill Clinton before him (George Bush preferred to cut brush in Texas). Not to mention all the Kennedys and numerous other members of the political class. During summer the population swells to well over 100,000.
But the greater truth is that for the other nine months of the year, the Vineyard's population is less than 20,000 farmers, fishers, teachers, builders, artisans, cops and others, who struggle to afford the inflated costs of the real estate, the petrol, et cetera. It is, then among the least affluent communities in Massachusetts.
For such a small place it is astonishingly diverse. It has a native American tribe, the Wampanoags, who were never turfed off their land. It has a large Brazilian community (comprising several thousand people, but precise numbers are hard, because many are undocumented). It was a refuge for escaping slaves and was racially tolerant from the time its main industry was whaling, long before almost anywhere else in the country, and thus has a strong, middle-class black population. It has a large community of writers and artists.
According to the 2010 census, only nine per cent of its residents had less than a high school diploma, while 22 per cent had an associate's or bachelor's degree and another 22 per cent had a graduate or professional degree. I knew a farmer who had a PhD in Sanskrit and a philosopher fisherman. The builder who did some work on our house had a history degree. Almost everyone, it seemed, was way overqualified for what they did.
It is a population which overwhelmingly chose lifestyle over money.
Hardly anyone bothers to lock their houses or cars. I didn't in the whole time I was there. There is crime on the Vineyard, mostly things like domestic violence and drug or alcohol abuse. But the last time a cop fired his gun in the line of duty, it was to put four slugs into an over-aggressive Tom turkey. (Do yourself a favour and listen to the National Public Radio account.)
You can't get a Big Mac on Martha's Vineyard, nor is there any other franchise chain fast food. There are no shopping malls, no traffic lights, no casinos. Nowhere on the Island can you drive more than 45 miles an hour (about 80kph), and most of the roads remain calculatedly unpaved. You can live all summer on produce from the local organic "community-supported agriculture" farm; you pay the farmer seed money during winter, and then collect whatever is in season. And you can harvest your own wild berries, crabs, oysters, lobsters, fish, clams and scallops from the Island's coastal waters. Your kids can still roam in safety.
I could go on, but the point is made. And it is not just that the island is an idyllic place. The point is that its style of democracy is integral to that, as both cause and effect.
The reason there is no fast food is that a quarter century ago, when McDonald's tried to set up, local democracy defeated them. Where the Golden Arches might have stood, there is now a place where craftsmen build wooden boats.
The reason you can catch shellfish in the Island's ponds is that the local governments - there are six towns on the island - maintain rigorous zoning requirements limiting development, and take other measures to limit the leaching of pollutants into the water. Fishermen meet to discuss catch limits; farmers are educated about the risks of nitrogenous fertilisers to island ponds.
The reason people there are well-educated is that town meetings approve generous budgets for their schools. The primary classes my kids were in had about 14 to 17 kids in each, with one teacher and one teacher's aide. Parents were welcome to come in and help out. There are no private schools on Martha's Vineyard, because they don't need them.
The Wampanoag kid from Aquinnah has access to quality education, just as the black kid from Oak Bluffs or the child of the Edgartown establishment does.
So, let's look at how small town New England democracy works.
Each town has a board of elected "selectmen" - so called even when they are women - who are not paid wages, although they often get other minor stipends to cover their costs. They sit in open meeting, usually every fortnight, and anyone may attend. People with particular concerns can have them attached to the meeting schedule.
There is a paid town manager, and other professional staff. But there also are other boards - school boards, for example - elected on similar conditions to the selectmen, and committees, whose members also are unpaid, appointed by the selectmen to carry out particular functions: a shellfish committee, for example, or a building committee. These people look after day-to-day management of community affairs.
The big event every year is the April town meeting, which every enrolled voter in the town is invited to attend. Town officials put together a "warrant" for the meeting, the centerpiece of which is the annual budget, but it also includes other "articles" put up by various town committees or other groups of the citizenry.
In my town, Tisbury, there are about 3,000 voters; a quorum - the minimum number of people required for the meeting to go ahead - was 100. Usually, and particularly if there is a hot issue, many more than that turn up.
Then they discuss - and I use the term advisedly, for there is rarely heated argument - every item, one by one. The town moderator calls speakers, for and against, to put their points of view. Not everyone speaks; when there is consensus that all points have been made, it goes to a vote.
And when it comes to the budget, the townspeople have a line-item veto. If the voters don't think the police department needs a new Harley-Davidson, then the police department doesn't get a new Harley-Davidson.
The process takes as long as it takes. Sometimes town meetings stretch over several nights.
And that is not the end of the matter, either. For certain big decisions - an increase in property taxes, for example - the proposal must clear a second hurdle. Even if town meeting approves it, it still must go to a formal ballot of the whole town. Although voting, like everywhere else in America, is not compulsory, turnouts on the island are consistently higher than the 50-60 per cent the nation as a whole usually achieves in Presidential elections.
Turnout rates are not, though, much of a measure of democracy. The real measure is the character and quality of the decision making process. And while the town meetings I attended - and there were many, and scores of selectmen's and other meetings - sometimes bogged down on silly issues (dog licensing laws were always the worst), on the big things, they were consistently clear-eyed and focused. I might point out, too, that the people making these decisions were the year-round folk, the abovementioned farmers, fishers, teachers et cetera, not the members of the political class who arrive in summer. Through more or less constant discussion (I once asked an old-timer what people did in the long, cold winters before the place became a tourist trap, and she said, "We had meetings"), the island towns managed to maintain a lifestyle for their inhabitants that their inhabitants actually wanted.
They wanted good schools and affordable housing for the less well off, and clean water and good food and a safe environment for their kids. And they did not want rampant property development, or shopping malls, or McDonald's, or traffic lights.
Like I said before, even though this method of governance is clearly not adaptable to big electorates, there are lessons to be learned from it. Or maybe just call them observations.
First, the discourse is mostly civil.
Second, there are no political parties involved. But far more important than that is the fact that the corrupting influence of big money is absent. If only it could be driven out of all politics.
More important still is the fact of an informed electorate. Amazingly, in these days of contraction in the print media, this community of 20,000 is served by two newspapers, which both actually attend not only town meetings, but meetings of the selectmen and many of the other board/committee meetings. And they report them pretty straight.
Early in my time as a reporter on the Vineyard Gazette, I attended one such meeting, of the Edgartown shellfish committee, which was deliberating on whether or not to bring the scallop season to an early close to protect the following year's stock. These men - they were all men, big, weatherbeaten fishermen - were contemplating limiting their own income. It was tense and some of the language salty.
The next morning, I took a copy of the paper around to the home of the committee chairman, and knocked, a little nervously, at the door. It flew open and he dragged me in by the neck. He pointed at his phone message machine, blinking like a Christmas tree. "Look at that!" he bellowed. "A few threats. Great story." Then he dragged me down to the freezer in his basement and filled a bag with some cod, some scallops and some road-kill venison (he was licensed to cut it up for distribution to the island's hard-up folks). I probably shouldn't have accepted it, but I took it as an affirmation of integration into the continuing island conversation.
And as if two newspapers aren't enough to keep the citizenry engaged with the issues, the Vineyard has three - count 'em, three - local TV channels which are filled exclusively with local content. And you know how they came to be? Islanders decided, through their participatory democracy, that as a condition of licensing the giant telecommunications company, Comcast, to provide their cable service, they would require that it donate a proportion of its profits to fund MVTV and its productions. So the people can actually watch their kids' weekend soccer game, their neighbors' take on current events, or their elected representatives' deliberations. A lot actually do.
The result of all this is not just an informed community, but an actual sense of community, something which modern politics, and the modern media which attend it, often seem intent on breaking down.
Cable TV and radio shock jocks found ratings in division, and populist pollies found votes in fear.
But, as you watch the unedifying circus which is American national politics this election year, at least bear in mind that there are some places where democracy works for people and some parts of America that are still intelligent.
And I put a lot of it down to the maintenance of a tradition of government.
In town meetings, Thoreau claimed to hear the "few sensible words" that "redeemed the reputation of the race."
That's more true now, I submit, as than when he wrote it.