Civil or not? Does Vermont’s political debate have to be so partisan?

James A. Leach, director of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Courtesy photo taken in West Virginia.

James A. Leach, director of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Courtesy photo taken in West Virginia.

Is there a place for civility in Vermont’s political process? Can citizens and politicians engage in opinionated debate within the parameters of well-mannered polity?

Lawyers, journalists, lawmakers, advocates and members of the public at large pondered that question on Saturday at a Montpelier conference held by the Vermont Bar Association and the American Bar Association Division for Public Education.

Political infighting and debate may rage on at town halls and the Statehouse, but politicians and citizens have to listen, too, once in a while. That was the consensus that emerged from “Civility and Political Discourse in Vermont: How Do We Compare to the Nation?”

“It’s never going to be calm. I don’t want a town meeting that is calm. I want it to be rough and ready and dynamic,” said Paul S. Gillies, partner at the law firm Tarrant, Gillies, Merriman & Richardson.

Despite its town meeting tradition and inclusive ethic, Vermont is vulnerable to the bitter partisanship that has impacted politics elsewhere, experts on the matter said. The unrestricted flow of money for negative campaign spending and wayward online public debate have undermined open, nonpartisan discourse.

The conference, in the spirit of the very comity it championed, engaged the assembled in a well-mannered discussion about the hostility that has come to mark politics in America.

Money matters

Corporate campaign money has harmed civil discourse in Washington and could soon affect Vermont, according to James A. Leach, ninth chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and keynote speaker at the event.

“Money is the elephant at the door in Washington,” Leach said.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which defined corporations as individuals with First Amendment rights to free speech, has facilitated negative political campaigning.

Leach said money for attack advertisements should not replace traditional debate between candidates. “Rather than conflate a corporation with a person, and money with speech, should not the focus be shifted to the transactional relationship inherent in speaking and listening?”

Without limits on independent expenditures made by corporations, more money will be spent on negative attack ads for political campaigns that will further taint the tenor of the debate and erode the focus on real issues, Leach said.

“At one end, uncivil speech must be protected by the courts, but filtered by the public,” Leach said. “At the other, moneyed speech must not be allowed to weaken the voices of the people. The Constitution begins, after all, ‘We the People,’ not ‘We the Corporations.’”

Burns said that limits on campaign contributions would allow more voices to be heard. Money has the effect of silencing opponents, in his view.

“You aren’t helping to make clear your position, but instead drowning out, potentially, your opponent,” he said.

Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said his greatest concern is the effect of intimidation and its power to reduce public participation.

Size matters

Vermont’s small geographic size creates a culture of accountability, several of the panelists said.

Emerson Lynn, editor and publisher at the St. Albans Messenger, said leaders and citizens alike are held accountable to one another in Vermont.

“We really don’t afford our leaders a place to retreat; there is no place for safety,” he said.

Accountability keeps the dialogue respectful and honest, he said.

“I think that is a lovely thing,” Lynn said. “Everybody is so close, and there is this need to deal with each other, you can’t escape that.”

Deborah Markowitz, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, agreed the size of Vermont plays an important role polite discourse.

“We can’t objectify the other the way you can in a larger place. We know the other: they are our neighbors, we go to town meetings, we see them at farmers markets,” Markowitz said.
She added that it is important to maintain a decent reputation with neighbors.

“Even more so, we know that if we are driving home, and we get stuck on the side of the road, we might need them to pull us out of the ditch,” Markowitz said.

However, accountability also means public discourse is vulnerable to both constructive and baseless criticism.

Lynn said that he had spoken with people in the governor’s office about how they can improve their communications with the general public.

“Their response to that is that they don’t dare, in many instances, because they are terrified of putting information out that can be torn apart by the public,” he said. “If you do that, then the blogs, the online chatter groups, tear them apart. They said it’s an absolutely vicious environment out there.”

Lynn said that even in the small state of Vermont, citizens hide in anonymity and intimidate others. He said that when small groups dominate a conversation, it paralyzes the larger debate.

“This is all about information. It’s all about having the right information,” he said.
Lynn said that he doesn’t allow for anonymous comments at the St. Albans Messenger because he does not believe that anonymous comment sections add any useful information to debates on local issues.

“If people are going to comment, they have to comment thoughtfully and respectfully,” he said.

Arbiters of civility: Moderators, the courts and the media

Gillies, who has moderated town meetings in Berlin, said moderators are to a debate what an orchestrator is to a symphony.

“What I see is a process,” he said. “I think what we have developed over the years is the ability of reasoning together. Not the ability to give up our own positions, but to at least listen to what the other is saying.”

Jeff Amestoy, fellow at the Center for Public Leadership and a former chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, said that like a moderator, the courts guide debates by offering constitutional guidelines.

“It seems to me that courts act best when they prompt constitutional debate – when they infuse debates with constitutional principles,” Amestoy said. “But you don’t want courts precluding the democratic process.”

Courts should guide debates, not foreclose them, he said. Amestoy cited the 1857 Dred Scott decision, a ruling that African-Americans were not U.S. citizens and that the federal government did not have the authority to ban slavery. Today this decision is inconsistent with American values.

Aside from town meeting moderators and the courts, the press, for better or for worse, also guides public debate.

However, Markowitz said the modern media does not have the same level of credibility. Reports, she said, are often laced with opinion, and citizens look to confirm their biases in the media.

“We used to have an arbiter of facts, and that was the press,” she said. “Now what we are seeing in Vermont, as well as everywhere else, is that people get their facts from sources that are really editorial sources.”

Civil citizens can still quarrel

Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, defined civility as an inclusive democratic process, not just a way of behaving.

“The process of dialogue and listening and kindness to neighbors and appreciating the best side of those we interact with at the community-level are kind of the foundations for democracy,” Costello said.

He said that civility is endangered by the segregation of communities in Vermont, including the growing divide between the rich and the poor. Groups on either end of the economic spectrum should interact as equals even if there is conflict.

“We don’t bump elbows as much as we used to. We don’t have to,” Costello said. “We can go on online communities of interests where people think the way we do and reinforce our internal prejudices, for good and for bad.”

He said that civility is about a mutual invitation to public dialogue and civil society. This does not necessarily mean the debate will be easy. In fact, it may be difficult.

“We have to have hard conversations and be ready to disagree,” Costello said.

A courteous closure

State Sen. Joseph Benning, R-Caledonia, said he came to the conference because he wanted to speak directly with the panelists.

The senator appeared to be picking a fight with Burns, citing content VPIRG posted on its website that said Benning lacks scientific judgment. On the other hand, Benning said he found humor in another web post that said he was a saint for advancing the bottle bill.

“We know we will be at each other again at some point in the future,” Benning said. “You and I never had the chance to do what I hope to be a demonstration of civility. So let’s make amends.”

Burns and Benning then shook hands, marking a textbook adjournment to the conference and a hopeful new beginning for civility between Vermont’s leadership.

The event was part of the program “Civility and Free Expression in a Constitutional Democracy – A National Dialogue,” conducted by the American Bar Association Division for Public Education.

The program is funded by a $500,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, $15,000 of which was used to fund the event in Montpelier, said Christine Lucianek, program manager at the American Bar Association Division for Public Education.

John Herrick


  1. Jim Christiansen :

    “The program is funded by a $500,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, $15,000 of which was used to fund the event in Montpelier, said Christine Lucianek, program manager at the Vermont Bar Association Division for Public Education.”

    Yes, lets continue to furlough national guard members and first responders through sequestration so essential Government funded programs of this type can continue.

  2. Avram Patt :

    I attended this conference and am very glad I did. A lot of substance and an awful lot to think about. Thanks to the sponsors, the panel and keynote speaker Jim Leach.

  3. 1) This IS essential to the success of our society.

    2) There has in the general sense never been this mystical “press” devoted to impartial facts and leaving out the opinion. Get used to that reality and you learn how to make proper use of the information reported to you. I have not found a news outlet yet that doesn’t interject its own views or priorities. This is most often by what is or isn’t included in an article – the list of false story lines that have been allowed to propagate by Vermont outlets is long.

    3) Organizations of the private, non-profit and government type can all help improve the public discussion by better disseminating their own discussions. Video broadcasts, preferably live with recorded backups, would be the ideal in my opinion with a close second place given to audio. It becomes very difficult to give too much credit to the extremes when one sees a room full of folks working towards consensus.

    4) Absolutely nothing takes the place of face to face time – especially when a meal is shared. Finding a way to maintain that Vermont city and town level face to face is difficult given our steady flow away from town meeting to Australian balloting (something I pushed for in Williamstown for our school budgeting), but that doesn’t mean a viable alternative is not there for our taking.

    5) Always leave room for the rants – they contain valuable insight into the range of emotions involved and contain interpretations of the facts as we know them that may not have been considered. I would suggest, however, that we not make our group (political) decisions based upon them.

    6) Words have meaning and words count. Use them wisely.

    • Jim Christiansen :

      Perhaps I’m a bit jaded, but I’m not convinced that gathering politicians and talking heads in a room to proclaim that government should/could be better, and that by comparison Vermont does it better than most, is an essential of taxpayer dollars.

      I agree, words do matter. That’s why I bemoan the loss of copy editors at news outlets.

  4. Fred Woogmaster :

    Civility between the two parties and/or the active political players is a good thing, or is it?

    The “two party system”, the obscene money, and the resultant corrupted process fueled by the super-obscene PACS, corroding the democratic process featured in the “American Dream” in a most profound/profane way

    If we think of it as a “one party system” with two heads – I suppose it’s a good thing

    For the rest of us – those independent from either party – civility between R’s and D’s could mean greater exclusion and alienation.

    At least, I hope those in attendance shared Mr. Patt’s positive experience. True civility will injure no one.

    We need leaders whose only partisanship is towards the people he/she represents; all of the people!

  5. Wendy Wilton :

    Rama, you are correct, words count.

    Media bias and editorialized news is much more influential than corporate money in campaigns. This is especially true in Vermont, where frankly there is less corporate money, and the media is concentrated. This bias, whether it’s how something is reported or what is or isn’t reported, has created public perceptions which continue to divide the electorate and chill free speech. The majority party in Vermont knows this and uses their relationship with the media and that influence to great advantage, as has been done nationally. I looked at TIME magazine the other day in a medical office. What used to be a serious news magazine is now merely a marketing tool.

    The media bias all the way down to your local weekly paper has resulted in a reluctance of debate on the issues in many communities. Fewer people are attending and/or participating in town meeting and there has been increased transition to Australian ballot. Vermonters avoid town meeting if it has become dominated by strong factions in the town, emboldened by the media, where other viewpoints are not respected and will be sharply criticized. Quite the opposite of our town meeting tradition of yeasty dialog.

    No amount of campaign money can overcome that influence.
    However, that influence comes with a price to the citizens if the media is not independent. News and media editors will comment (sometimes privately) that balance in VT politics is needed, however they are fundamentally complicit in creating that imbalance.

    • Ann Meade :

      Pot, meet kettle.

      • Wendy Wilton :

        Rama, thank you for responding to my comments in a civil way–and having a conversation–different from some other comments here.

        On a national level I think you are right, big money interests, whether for-profit, non-profit or quasi-gov’t are running it all.

        But are corporate influences very strong in Vermont? If so, can you give me some examples, and specifically an example of a false story related to corporate interests? In matters of corporate wrong-doing I feel the Vt media has traditionally been willing to expose it.

        • Wendy, all things being relative (in size and scope) here is a quote from your comment above: “Media bias and editorialized news is much more influential than corporate money in campaigns. This is especially true in Vermont, where frankly there is less corporate money, and the media is concentrated.”

          I think you’ll find the likes of WCAX and even WDEV to be corporate entities that flex their muscle (ever notice how much LT. GOV Scott gets on ‘DEV because of his connections to Ken Squier’s Thunder Road?).

          Ever notice how often the literal lies of Louisiana Entergy get papered over? How about the fawning treatment of major developers and multi-national corporations such as IBM?

          It all leads to a one sided and sometimes false story line.

    • Wendy, corporate money is driving most of the big “news” stories and false story lines these days – it is the primary large scale corrupting influence.

      On top of that corporate money is the driving force behind some of the most vitriolic and extreme conversations going.

    • Peter Liston :

      There are plenty of news outlets in Vermont which aren’t cozy with Vermont’s ‘majority party’.

      The News Director at WCAX served worked for Republican Governor Jim Douglas. WCAX’s owners are explicit backers of the GOP and proudly so.

      The Caledonian Record is right of Rush Limbaugh.

      The St. Albans Messenger is clearly conservative as is its Addison counterpart. The weekly rag in Lamoille County is clearly right wing.

      The Gannett chain that owns the Burlington Free Press is run by some of the most conservative people in the country … most of whom made their fortunes on Wall Street.

      What’s left? Seven Days? Yes, that’s a progressive paper. But note that they have been at the forefront of coverage on the Shumlin land deal in East Montpelier.

      The Rutland Herald/Times Argus? Yea, likely lefty.

      VPR is very balanced. VTDigger is quite balanced as well.

      So I don’t see that the “majority party” has any monopoly on media in this state. If it did, Jim Douglas wouldn’t have gotten such glowing coverage for his term in office.

    • Roy Moss :

      Ahh yes, Ms. Wilton, one would have expected you to pull out the “media bias” line. Many of us think of you as the Sarah Palin of Vermont and here, once again, you have proven us right. Fact is, that most of the “major” media here in Vermont is owned/run by people that are much farther to the right than the state as a whole. Mostly its poor messaging by the party/candidate who is alleging “media bias” that is the problem, not media bias. If you have a lousy message its much easier to blame the media than it is to blame yourself, whatever the party affiliation.

      • Wendy Wilton :

        Roy, Ann and Bonnie,
        Interesting how your (uncivil) reaction to my civil comments about free speech sure proves my point, and perhaps the point of the panel from the event, doesn’t it?

        • Ann Meade :

          If people voicing an opinion that does not agree with yours is rude then this whole conversation is moot.

          • Greg Lapworth :

            Well said!

          • No, but what I’d call rude is snide, sarcastic, and personal remarks like, “Pot, meet kettle.” And, “Ahh yes, Ms. Wilton, one would have expected you to pull out the “media bias” line.” That kind of thing is just obnoxious and adds nothing to the debate, except to say more about the speaker than the one being spoken about or to.

          • Ann Meade :

            So far you are the only one who has really been rude, I haven’t attacked anyone, nor called them obnoxious. But I guess that just speaks about the speaker than the one being spoken about or to (akwardly written Dude).

          • Peter Liston :

            “obnoxious and adds nothing to the debate, except to say more about the speaker than the one being spoken about or to.”

            Sounds like a perfect description of True North Radio.

  6. rosemarie jackowski :

    Yes, fewer people are attending the annual Town Meetings. Also, fewer attend the Select Board meetings. There has been a chilling effect on political speech. Citizens are silenced.

    The newspaper censors out any information about candidates unless they are D/R. The local tax supported library banns certain political books. Where did my First Amendment rights go?

    “When Fascism came, it was not brought by uniformed troops
    It was not imposed at the point of a gun
    Fascism came because citizens were too distracted to pay attention
    Voters were too misinformed to cast intelligent ballots
    And the mass of people failed to recognize the inherent danger
    In the censoring of speech and the banning of books” RMJ

  7. Annette Smith :

    $15,000 to fund one event? There’s a whole story there. Were you served caviar for snacks? Were the panelists paid to participate? Did you purchase the sound system? Did you hire a professional video recording company to produce a documentary of the event?

    Please publish the budget. That is a shocking price tag for one Saturday morning forum.

  8. Fred Woogmaster :

    I heard on the Mark Johnson show today that a video of this conference will be widely disseminated. I look forward to seeing it. It sounds like there were many dynamic moments.

  9. Bonnie MacBrien :

    Hmmm…fascinating that Ms. Wilton blames media bias for low attendance on Town Meeting days rather than real life issues like the need for people to earn a living. Many people do not get paid if they take off for Town Meeting Day. My former employer said employees could take off but they always seemed to have a way of letting you know that they actually frowned on it and there would be repercussions if you did. There are a myriad of other factors for low attendance as well, such as people working night shifts and needing to sleep during the day, etc, etc.
    I would have to say that there would be much dispute that the Burlington Free Press and Fox News for example are biased for the ” Majority” party – in fact, Ms. Wilton’s media bias statements would cause much merriment in certain circles. Also, in these days of the internet and instant access to all types of news, blogs, articles etc (which Ms. Wilton decidedly ignores), it is certainly debatable how much influence print, TV, and radio media actually wield.
    All this media bashing and gnashing of teeth at perceived media bias in response to an article about a conference discussing civilty. How’s that for irony…

  10. Greg Lapworth :

    Try being a conservative speaker or one without a left agenda at UVM and see how you will not be allowed to speak but instead be shouted down. Vermont is not now a place where opinions not liberal, left, socialist or progressive are allowed. The left controls free speech here, without a doubt!

    • Jason Farrell :

      “The left controls free speech here, without a doubt!”

      So do you think “the left” just missed the opportunity to control your free speech rights by permitting your hyper-partisan and critical comment to be published in a post reflecting on the virtues of civility in our public discourse? It seems there may be a little room for doubt regarding the veracity of your claim.

      • Greg Lapworth :

        Digger has not knuckled under yet to the pervasive left pressure. You proved my point precisely i.e. hyper-partisan? Because you don’t like my OPINION? Point made.

        • Jason Farrell :

          An “opinion” it wasn’t. It was one among a number of misstated facts in your post. Your statement of fact was disproven rather easily. Was it simply opinion, you wouldn’t have had to start your rejoinder with the caveat that “Digger has not knuckled under yet…”. If you were correct in making these statements of fact they would stand up to my simple questioning. They don’t. That’s clearly not the same as me not liking your OPINION, it’s that you haven’t made a point beyond a doubt, as you claimed.

        Do you recall in 2009 when Ben Stein was forced to withdraw as commencement speaker at UVM? I think this is the kind of fact Mr. Lapworth was referring to in his post.

        • Jason Farrell :

          Mr. Stein’s decision to withdraw as UVM’s 2009 commencement speaker has nothing to do with “free speech”, as Mr. Lapworth and you claim. In fact, Mr. Stein was invited to participate as the commencement speaker FOLLOWING a well-received speech he had made at the University in 2008. However, upon learning of the University’s decision to invite Mr. Stein to be the commencement speaker and award him an honorary degree, many members of the UVM community expressed their dissatisfaction (that’s free speech, too, right?). While Mr. Stein could have chosen to disregard their criticism of his views and spoken at graduation, I think he made a personal choice to blame others for his unwillingness to expose himself to scrutiny while standing up for his views.

          While attending UVM I met a number of 18-24 year-old students (like Ms. Wilton’s children, I suspect) who showed greater courage while being challenged for their views than Ben Stein exhibited. He wasn’t forced to withdraw, it was his choice. Ben Stein is a very weak example of what you’re attempting to demonstrate.

    • Wendy Wilton :

      Greg, both of my children–one at UVM, one a recent graduate of Castleton–and their friends have said the same thing. It’s sad to think young people can’t have an open dialog on a college campus and allow for all points of view.

      • Jason Farrell :

        I’m sorry to hear of your children’s dissatisfaction with their collegiate experience. I graduated as a non-traditional student (read: older) from UVM in 2000. My experience was much different than your children’s. I never encountered professors who prevented students from speaking or shouted them down, as Greg claims. In fact, more often than not, the minority voice was sought out and supported in the classroom by the professors for the sake of improving dialogue and discourse. With few exceptions the educators I encountered were very sensitive to allowing expression in the classroom. While you may feel “sad to think that young people can’t have an open dialog on a college campus and allow for all points of view” it’s simply not a universal truth, in my experience. While I was challenged to defend my opinions and create sound arguments in support of my views, I don’t believe that’s akin to my opinion being disallowed.

        • Wendy Wilton :

          Jason, much can change in 12-13 years. These young people felt they would be ostracized if they expressed moderate to conservative views in their campus dialog, both in the classroom and in social circles, because of the push back they experienced. We’ve had many young people visit our home and this has come out in our discussions around the dinner table with several of them.

          Some professors, well-intended, do try to create good debate. What happens afterwards once a student is branded a conservative, even if not accurate, is the problem. It borders on bullying and you see it here on this blog. That’s certainly a chilling of free speech and a dampening of civic engagement.

  11. Fred Woogmaster :

    Because of the nature of the forum, I, like Annette Smith,
    would like to know more about the specifics of staging such an event for $15,000.00 whether or not it was direct taxpayer money. It was held at the Capital Plaza, I believe, which would explain some of it.

    Since “money is the elephant in the room” in Washington is not an idea that has skipped Vermont – maybe he meant:
    ‘money is the elephant in this room; I don’t see $15,000.’
    Then again, he probably was paid well for his wisdom.

    Mr. Leach is not the issue. From what I know, he’s a good guy and worthy of respect, questions about the use of money notwithstanding. They take nothing away from the value of the experience and the benefit accrued by attendees.

    15 thousand bucks would feed lots of folks who REALLY need it. Civility requires no funding; it is a human choice originating in the individual. Civility breeds civility.

  12. rosemarie jackowski :

    It is not only an issue of partisanship, but also an issue of those in power silencing the ‘little’ people. At a recent school board meeting, when one parent stood up to say something, she was told that she only would be allowed 30 seconds. (I watched this on TV.) Complex issues were being discussed. Yes, this is a school district that recently made national news because of the way an autistic boy was abused by the school staff. (The family of the boy resorted to sending him to school with a ‘wire’ so that the abuse would be recorded.)

    It is common to see this kind of disrespect of citizens also at Select Board meetings. People are not stupid. They get the message. Their participation in local government is not welcome. Sadly, this has resulted in growing problems in the town – no dental care, no transportation, almost no services for the elderly, no water in some parts of town, no BBB, increasing taxes, major issues in the school system…



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