I’m just going to say it. I love Town Meeting Day (TMD). Like, really love it. The sense of community. The potluck lunch (arguably one of the best meals all year). Listening to your neighbors disagree vehemently about whether the town should splash out on a new road grader. TMD can feel like the epitome of democracy. Direct democracy at its finest.
In the age of Trump, identity politics, and rising tribalism TMD feels even more special. It provides us with an opportunity to step away from our screens and our online outrage and into a building where you talk and yes, disagree, with people face-to-face.
Sure, there are heated discussions and arguments and some people even bully and intimidate. It isn’t all a utopian paradise where everyone leaves as best friends. But TMD places you in a forum where you have to listen to those you disagree with while knowing that a few minutes later you could be sitting across a table from them eating pie. In such a context there is less room for vitriol, hate and identity politics and more room for thought, listening and respect. This country and its citizens need more of these opportunities, not less.
TMD also provides people an opportunity to educate and be educated on important issues that impact their lives. We are all too busy. Working, raising kids, cooking dinner. Few of us have time to digest the onslaught of statewide and national news that is pushed into our faces everyday. Who on earth has time to delve into our town’s budget and understand the various nuances and implications of our school budgets? TMD gives us that time. It also gives us the gift of being able to listen and learn from our select board and school board members who (bless them) do understand the details and nuances of those budgets and their implications.
I’ve watched with some sadness as more and more small towns have moved away from this tradition and towards Australian ballots. I understand the arguments for this shift – some of them are very valid. Many people don’t get the day off work and can’t participate or vote. And that bullying I mentioned earlier? It absolutely happens. If there is a contentious issue those who excel at intimidation can beat the other side into submission.
These issues are real. But we should work to address them rather than replacing a direct forum for democracy with a substitute. First, more towns should look into holding their TMD on the Saturday or Sunday before TMD. As for the bully’s? People – especially our town moderators – should recognize their intimidation tactics and work to shut them down. These are not perfect solutions. They are preferable, however, to scrapping the whole thing in favor of a system that doesn’t include direct discussion and takes us further away from direct democracy. There are a lot of reasons to despair out there. Just look at your newsfeed, a newspaper or turn on the tv and you will find plenty of reasons to doubt humanity and the health of our democracy. For those looking for a sign that democracy does still exist, work and – even with all its imperfections – thrive, look no further than Vermont on the first Tuesday of March.