It's the decision season
Democracy is an imperfect mechanism. Who can deny it? It is especially imperfect here. Can anyone deny the latter statement?
Town government often makes decisions that are late and foolish. Town meeting government empowers voters unacquainted with the issues to make critical choices and allows gross manipulation of voter judgments by permitting false and shaded information to flow unchallenged into the debate. It is a climate hostile to sensible choices, and here is a year in which careful decision-making is badly needed.
The question after all is not how so many intelligent and well-meaning people can make so many bad decisions. The question is how do ordinary folks, afflicted with such a Rube Goldberg system, ever get it right.
E.B. White took note of the fact that "Life Magazine calls the New England town meeting the quintessence of democracy; but one of my neighbors, who has probably attended more of them than the editors of Life, had another name for it. 'Well,' he said, as he climbed into our car balancing a pot of baked beans wrapped in a paper bag, 'here we go to the Chase & Sanborn hour.'"
The Chase & Sanborn Hour was a radio show featuring Eddie Cantor, the minstrel, in the early 1930s. White, now dead, was writing years ago, and of course the radio culture has changed. But, town meetings haven't changed much, so the implications of White's observation apply. The annual meeting is a perverted sort of a social hour. One sees one's friends, gasses on about things that have been little mentioned at home over the past 12 months, attacks the plans and wages of municipal workers, attacks (sad to say) a neighbor or two, then votes aye on most everything.
Vineyard meetings are often sociable in this way, although without the songs and skits. Voters will, in their neighborly fashion, heedless of their imposition upon the aspirations of their equals, blithely deprive property owners of rights they formerly had in their valuable holdings. Chortling, they will prevent newcomers from building at the water's edge next to where the old-timers all have their family camps. They will raise hurdles they never faced themselves, to defeat the dreams of folks who want to change the window trim on their house in the historic district. They will expand self-importantly over the wonders of small-town life and how it might be preserved against the depredations of, well, humankind - that is, humankind of less exalted sort. And, if there is a low-cost, small lot next door, they'll whip out the checkbook to outbid the ordinary Joe who might have thought he'd found his place in the sun. It's an old fashioned hoedown.
This eviscerating process can at times consume no more than mere moments and cause not a syllable of opposition. The about-to-be-fleeced, hopeless and knowing it, stay home or stay quiet, fearing for their social lives. If summer property owners, heedless in their West Side condos, only knew what was being spent in their name, they would blanch, but thinking it over, submit, in the interest of plumping their property values.
Sometimes there's a battle royal. "It had the heat and turmoil of the first Continental Congress without its nobility of purpose and purity of design," White wrote describing a meeting in Brooklin, Maine, where he farmed and sailed. "Old echoes of twenty years ago were awakened, old fires flared up and burned with original heat. At intervals there were bursts of applause when somebody scored a direct hit. At last the moderator rapped with his gavel." It was time to do the business they had come there to do. It is serious business, if voters are indeed concerned about the pressure rising tax bills place on property owners of modest and fixed income.
What redeems the town meeting from rubbishy uselessness is power. Power exists in the upraised arms and voices of town meeting. Town meetings can change the course of history, deliver thumping punishment where it's deserved, and compel the attention of wayward representatives who have listened too fondly to their own voices and too carelessly to the voices of their constituent-employers.
Town meetings can sometimes speak with the unexpected authority of a parent. "What are you doing in there? Come out here where I can see you. Did you not hear me call you?"
After all, democracy - especially the small-town practice of it - often wanders aimlessly, misses the point, abuses its privileges, and neglects its responsibility. It is scattered and susceptible to narrow interests, pernicious influences, and whimsical cruelty. But it has the power, and when circumstances inspire voters to use it, the results, although often seriously delinquent, are unquestionably impressive.