April 27, 2017 by Jean
The reading I’ve been doing to try to understand the fall Presidential election has given me a new understanding of different regional cultures in the United States. In Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land (see Empathy Bridges and Empathy Walls), I was particularly struck by the way one of the Louisiana conservatives she studied described government action as inimical to a sense of community. This view was startling to me because my regional culture is that of New England, where government (at least, at its best) is understood to be an expression of community rather than its opposite.
New England has a long history of Town Meeting government. Town meetings are often described as a “pure” form of democracy, where every citizen votes on the laws that govern the community. Town meetings seem to work best in smaller communities, so it’s not surprising that in Maine, which is largely rural, most towns still use some form of town meeting government. My town of 6000 combines a full-time town manager who administers town government, a part-time Board of Selectmen to which the town manager reports, and an annual Town Meeting that approves the budget and sets the parameters within which the Board of Selectmen and Town Manager operate.
One of the goals I set myself when I retired was to become more integrated into the local community. To that end, I have been serving for the past year as a member of the town Conservation Commission, and this has led me to a greater awareness of and involvement with town government. So last Saturday, I got up early and took myself over to the local high school auditorium to participate in the annual Town Meeting.
It had been 4 decades since I last participated in a Town Meeting (when I lived in a rural Connecticut town in the 1970s), and I wasn’t sure what to expect. My greatest concern was that the meeting would just be a rubber stamp to what had already been decided by the Board of Selectman, with no real discussion. I needn’t have worried. The meeting was divided into three sections. The first set of items involved changes to land use regulations and zoning; the second set involved approving various parts of the town budget for the coming year; and the third part primarily focused on changes to the town’s governing charter. In all three parts, I was impressed by the care that was taken in asking and answering questions and by the thoughtfulness of discussion. Although most items on the agenda were approved, some were voted down and none were just rubber-stamped.
In an era when political discourse seems to be characterized by intolerance of divergent viewpoints, this was a setting in which people disagreed with one another calmly and respectfully. There were moments of humor when those who normally disagree expressed surprise at finding themselves on the same side of an issue. People were generally tolerant of those who took a while to get to their point, voting to cut off debate on one item only after a particularly long-winded participant announced for the second time that he was getting on his soapbox (which seemed only tangentially related to the proposal under consideration).
I don’t want to romanticize town meetings. In a time of multi-tasking and excessive busyness, it can be difficult to get people to come out for a meeting that lasts several hours, and many New England towns have seen serious declines in participation. In my town of almost 6000 residents and more than 4000 registered voters, the quorum for a town meeting is 100 – and there was worry about whether that many people would turn out. My estimate of the attendance at the meeting was about 150, less than 4% of those eligible.
But those who came out to the Town Meeting clearly valued the process. One of the most contentious items was a proposal for a Charter Commission to revisit and amend the town charter. The Board of Selectmen, which recommended such a commission, argued that some outdated clauses in the Charter need to be amended and that it is good practice to revisit the charter once every ten years or so. Those who argued against a Charter Commission noted what a big commitment it is for the members of the commission and that it shouldn’t be taken on except for compelling reasons. But the most passionately argued point against a Charter Commission was that such a commission might decide to propose a new form of government and do away with the Town Meeting. This argument carried the day and the Charter Commission proposal was voted down.
I recently finished reading Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin Press, 2015). The book argues for the importance of face-to-face communication and explores the deleterious effects of substituting electronic communications, particularly reliance on text messages and social media. Turkle is particularly concerned about declines in empathy and in the ability (willingness?) of people to take on difficult conversations and really listen to one another. The Town Meeting seemed to provide evidence in support of Turkle’s thesis. As participants engaged in face-to-face discussion of issues affecting the town, they did seem to really listen to one another. I was particularly struck by the focused attention of participants, without the smartphone “multitasking” that has become ubiquitous in meetings and at public events. In a meeting that lasted almost three hours, I only once heard a cell phone ring and saw the owner leave the room to take a call and only once (and very briefly) saw someone sitting near me scrolling through messages on their phone.
I confess that when my alarm clock sounded early Saturday morning, I was not enthusiastic about getting myself up and out to the Town Meeting. But I’m glad I did. The experience renewed my faith in the possibilities of civil political discourse and community decision-making.