Commentary

Vermont’s superpower, revealed: The ability to practice local democracy

This commentary is by writer and facilitator Susan Clark, co-author of Slow Democracy  and All Those In Favor (a book about Vermont town meetings). She is the town moderator in Middlesex, Vermont.

As we look ahead to Town Meeting Day 2021, we might consider how 2020’s struggles have revealed Vermonters’ superpower. Vermonters aren’t exceptional. But some of our systems sure make us look that way. In fact, by 2020 national standards, dismayingly so. 

Over 60% of Vermonters live in small towns with populations of under 2,500, and the overwhelming majority of towns decide on their budgets face-to-face, at annual town meetings. It turns out that centuries of Town Meeting Day deliberations may have imbued our democratic DNA with powers worthy of Marvel action heroes.

Every year, Vermonters exhibit an epic understanding of these elusive truths: 

• There are such things as facts. 

Online conspiracy theories are flourishing. But when you’re in the same room with neighbors, town meeting discussions tend to focus on hard realities — the storage space in the town vault, the actual mileage on the town truck (yes, voters have been known to check). 

My liberal and libertarian neighbors might not see eye-to-eye on much. But at least when we’re working to solve local problems, there’s not a lot of interest in “alternative facts.” In today’s world, it’s weirdly refreshing not to argue about the truth, and instead move straight on to how we’re going to deal with it. 

• Election officials are our neighbors.

In Vermont’s town halls, it’s all right there — the workings of our democratic machinery, revealed. There’s your town clerk, taking town meeting minutes. Your local Board of Civil Authority and other neighbors are sitting in folding chairs, ready to help you participate. Democracy has not been stolen away by an anonymous “them.” Democracy is a “we.”

• It’s important to spend time with people we disagree with.

On issues of finance and governance, town meeting participants serve as the legislative branch of local government. This means we can practice changing someone else’s mind, or (even harder) changing our own. And at this level, there’s a strong incentive to listen carefully and speak thoughtfully. 

Every year at town meeting, ordinary Vermonters make binding decisions about millions of dollars. Incredibly enough, we learn to balance our views and work out our differences. Because if we can’t agree, we might not plow our roads. 

• Our opponents are not our enemies.

Most Vermonters not only understand bipartisanship; we embody it. In November 2020, the overwhelming majority of Vermont’s electorate voted to send a Democrat to the White House and simultaneously reelect a Republican governor. This is nothing new; Vermont is a state of inveterate ticket splitters. We’ve experienced enough democracy up-close to know this: Parties and ideology are far less meaningful than the person we choose for the job.

• Losers can lose gracefully. 

Every year at town meeting, some of us lose at something. And every year, opponents shake hands and break bread together afterward. We teach our children how to be “good sports” on the playing field; given the recent election, it’s evident that grownups need practice too.

• There is such a thing as the common good.

In emergencies, communities show their true colors. Over the past year, Vermonters have recognized “mask up” for what it is: a call to take individual action for the public good. Having personally experienced leadership roles ourselves, Vermonters respect and understand when leadership is necessary, and that we all have a role to play. Our community-based traditions may help explain why Vermont has consistently experienced the lowest Covid-19 rates in the nation.

•••

Our country has never more desperately needed the civic skills strengthened by local democracy. But it’s challenging to hold in-person meetings during a global pandemic, so many of us won’t be able to practice these skills at town meeting this year

While some towns will postpone their meetings until warmer weather, hoping to hold meetings outdoors as they have in Massachusetts, many selectboards will choose the easiest route allowed by emergency legislation: to temporarily trade their traditional floor meeting for ballot-box voting on Town Meeting Day, 2021.

The result will likely be higher voting numbers. Yes, it’s easier to cast a ballot than to attend a meeting, and especially easy if ballots are mailed directly to voters. Some towns will even ask, why not make the switch permanent? Watching the rest of the nation struggle in 2020 demonstrates the answer: Because forgoing regular, empowered community deliberation is Kryptonite to a healthy democracy.

Vermonters’ powers aren’t due to a freak science experiment or aliens from other galaxies like in the comic books — just centuries of practicing deliberative democracy. When democracy is conducted at a human scale, it helps create what, these days, looks like superhuman wisdom.

A lot has changed about the world, but what hasn’t changed is human nature, with all its flaws. Personally, I’ll be glad when the floor meetings resume in 2022.  Right about now, the world needs all the democracy-superheroes we can get.


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