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"Let them march all they want, as long as they pay their taxes."  --Alexander Haig

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Author Topic: The True Congress - Town Meeting  (Read 736 times)


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The True Congress - Town Meeting
« on: March 01, 2006, 12:23 AM NHFT »

The True Congress By Frank Bryan

?Town meeting is the true Congress, the most respectable one ever assembled in the United States.?
Henry David Thoreau, Reform Papers, 1835

The time has come for Vermont to lead America away from the centralist, hierarchical and fundamentally inhumane social and political structures mandated by the age of industrialism and toward Leopold Kohr's "world of a thousand flags" ? a world not of fewer mega-states thirsting for power, consumed by greed and driven by paranoia, but more, many more, and smaller, much smaller, nations based on humanity, modesty and trust.

The urban industrial paradigm is behind us. A new human scale paradigm is rising on the near horizon.

Why Vermont?

The reasons abound. But fundamental to them all is this: None of the world's political structures (unitary states like France or federal states like America and its sub-units, like Vermont) is more democratically governed at its roots than Vermont. Why is this so? Two words: Town Meeting.

A bold claim to be sure. But true. Consider the words of Ferdinand Lundberg in his The Myth of Democracy, an exhaustive historical review of the absence of democracy in the world's great nations from ancient Athens to modern America. "Here [in the town meeting] more than anywhere else one finds democracy at work." In fact Lundberg notes that the town meeting is the only case of real democracy he has found, saying that when the Old World transplants in colonial New England created town meeting, it was "the first time ever in the history of the world" democracy was systematically practiced. And he might have said as well (with a tip of the hat to Maine and New Hampshire): no New England state still practices town meeting democracy - the real democracy the Greeks attempted but failed to realize in Athens - as well or as thoroughly as Vermont.

Why town meeting?

Democracy, real town meeting democracy (and the many variants of town meeting democracy that are surely coming) is essential because the ascendant global paradigm must be and will be democratic. While the urban industrial model featured concentration, the coming model (the third wave model as it is called) will feature diffusion. The concentration of socio-economic life, which was created to sustain the urban-industrial era, relied on hierarchy. Hierarchy required authority, which promoted symmetry, which retarded innovation. The result proved rigid, awkward, reactionary and (most importantly) insensitive, thus inhumane.

But the diffusion of socio-economic life, which increasingly defines the post-modern world, relies on networks not hierarchy. These networks require democracy, which promotes variety, which stimulates innovation. The result is elastic, nimble and progressive and (most importantly) sensitive, thus humane.

As democracy by representation (which is as much akin to real democracy as listening to a song by yourself is to singing it with others) proved the best substitute for democracy we could find in the past, the real democracy of communal decisions, whether in the workplace, on the playground, or in the government is the emerging reality.

We should rejoice in this.

A cradle for the new paradigm
If one were to look for a coherent political setting, a polity (that rare coincidence of nation and state) in which to chronicle the coming of the new paradigm (what L.S. Stavrianos called "the promise" in his The Promise of the Coming Dark Age) one would come to Vermont. Why? Because Vermont "leapfrogged" the urban-industrial period (as John McClaughry and I put it in The Vermont Papers) and landed ahead of America; smack dab on the frontier of the future ? our environment intact and clean, our social fabric a patchwork of decentralized, human scale communities, and most importantly, our governing structures democratic to the hilt.

Today, more than eight hundred seasons of calloused hands and sweating brows later, the hill farmers of Vermont, supported by an equally hard-working and enterprising infrastructure of merchants, inventors, small scale builders and manufacturers, craft persons, artists and artisans have endowed us ? those who now steward this fine earth between the long waters of the Connecticut and the deep waters of Champlain ? with the most natural habitat for democracy on the planet.

My god. What a glorious heritage.

What a daunting responsibility.

Town meeting and secession
Thus it is that the fundamental reason many of us are joining together to discuss and promote the peaceful separation of Vermont from the United States is because of what we already are. We are at the core a real democracy and it is this grassroots democracy that now sustains the best representative democracy in America ? featuring one of only two governors that must seek re-election every two years and a legislative body of 180 members representing less than 650,000 people. If the United States were comprised of 50 "Vermonts," the American Republic would be alive and well, not sinking into an abyss of disgusting politics, inhumane public policy, and increasingly authoritarian governance.
And we would not be secessionists.

But it is equally true that the Second Vermont Republic will not survive as a republic (a representative democracy) without the strong foundation of real democracy that has sustained it for over two centuries. The multitude of small communities practicing real democracy are spring houses in the high hills of home, furnishing the citizens that the larger, necessarily representative structures, required by soon-to-be small republics like Vermont.

Looking at our once magnificent national republic during the last thirty years has been like watching a great and fundamentally good giant of a person slowly dying of thirst. All over America, the hillsides of democracy are drying up. These dwindling springs, as the wisest among us from Thomas Jefferson to John Dewey to Wendell Berry have told us, have been the places that have reared our leaders, trained them in the practice of citizenship, endowed them with common sense and humanity, and prepared them to govern.
As I said in an earlier issue of Vermont Commons, what a tragedy it would be if, while we were focusing our efforts on disassociating our selves with America, we let our own democracy here in Vermont wither and die.

I tell you this: Vermont without town meeting might in some ways still be a good place. But it would never be Vermont. And while there are many good places, there is only one Vermont.

Every Citizen a Legislator
The best news is our town meeting governments survived the 20th Century, the most vicious and terrible century the world has ever known, a century in which more people died at the hands of their own governments (lead by Hitler in Germany and Stalin in Soviet Russia) than were killed by the horrific wars among nations for which the 20th Century will always be known. Since this is so, the following image is appropriate to consider.

If they could be with us today, Vermonters of 1830 would be astonished traveling through Vermont to attend a town meeting -- driving, for instance, in a heated car going 40 miles an hour over paved roads and listening to a radio ? a radio! ? while sipping hot coffee and eating a sticky bun. But once inside the local school gym or town hall or fire station where the town meeting was held, once the moderator had called the meeting to order, once she had read the words: ?The people of Craftsbury are warned to be at the Craftsbury Common School on Tuesday, the 4th of March 2004, at 9 in the forenoon to act on the following articles? these Vermonters of long ago would know precisely what to do. Town meeting would be perfectly familiar to them.

They would be home again.

Practicing real democracy.

During my life I have published literally hundreds of pages in defense of town meeting. I have given hundreds of public addresses on the subject. I will end this brief call for all of us to reinvigorate our commitment to town meeting by emphasizing the one thing that would surprise the hell out of our friend from 1830 as she stepped inside the contemporary town meeting hall. For this surprise holds the single best defense of modern town meeting democracy I know of.

It is a fair bet that on the floor of this local legislature women would equal men. Our visitor from the past (like every other woman 18 years old or older) would now be a legislator. It is impossible to name any legislative system in the United States about which this claim can be made.

In a representative year (in this case 2003) my data shows that in a sample of 44 small towns across Vermont, almost half (48%) of the attendance at town meeting was made up of women. In Belvider, Bridport, Charlotte, Grafton, Lincoln, Victory, Wells, Westford and Westminister, the majority of the local legislators at town meeting were women. The same could be said of nine of the other 34 towns we studied that year.

In Washington, only 14 percent of the members of Congress that year who fashioned and passed the federal budget and then fashioned and set the tax rate and processes for collecting the money to fund it were women. In Montpelier that same year, barely 30 percent of the people that made Vermont's laws were women.

In a typical Vermont town legislature nearly half of the legislators are women.

For more than a century, America the nation tried to provide women with equal political power. It organized and protested and marched in the streets. It pleaded and demanded. It ran itself through complex and frustrating and often hopeless loops and matrixes of convoluted national laws designed to achieve the parity for women without which it will continue to govern in shame.

It failed.

It tried for a decade to pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to at least proclaim it believed in the concept of women's rights. Again, America, the republic, failed. Even the Vermont in which we now live failed. In 1986, a statewide referendum to place an ERA for women in the Vermont Constitution produced a "No".

While all this was going on, town meeting - quietly and without fanfare - accomplished what the biggest, richest, most powerful government on earth failed to ? failed miserably to do. We need to think about this fact and we need to think about it deeply.

We need to think about it with pride and we need to ponder this question.

Why the hell is it that our leaders in Montpelier decade after decade after decade continue to take power and authority away from the very places were women rule equally with men (the local legislature and the town meeting) and place it in the hands of a government where they don't even come close to parity: the state legislature?

How dare they ignore town meeting?

How dare we?

Let us therefore as the first (albeit "unofficial") act of the Second Vermont Republic, agree to make sure that the Second Vermont Republic emerges with the single most important institution of the first Vermont Republic intact ? alive, well, and growing in influence.

It is what Jefferson called "the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government."

Town Meeting.

« Last Edit: March 01, 2006, 12:27 AM NHFT by FrankChodorov »
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