Soundings : Consider yourself warned
Stand up and be counted: This old Yankee imperative never resonates more strongly than in April.
It's a birthright we take for granted, this right to gather at town meeting, in a deliberative assembly of citizen-legislators, and there bind ourselves to laws of our own making. But in fact the exercise of democracy in this purest of all forms is as globally rare as the sandplains of Katama.
You can trace our April town meetings to ancient Athens - to traditions rooted in the Greek "demos" for people, and "kratos" for rule. E.B. White, who had a farm in North Brooklin, Maine, and knew town meetings firsthand, described democracy as "the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time." Morris Udall, the Arizona congressman, was more colorful, declaring: "Democracy is like sex. When it is good, it is very, very good. When it is bad, it is still better than anything else."
Frank Bryan, the political scientist who has made a career of studying the New England town meeting tradition in Vermont, calls town meetings "schoolhouses of citizenship."
In his book, "Real Democracy," Mr. Bryan unpacks the data he gathered at more than 1,500 Vermont town meetings between 1970 and 1998. One of his central findings is that town meeting turnout, expressed as a percentage of registered voters, drops in a predictable way as a town's population grows.
It's not that we become lazier citizens as our towns grow larger. But the size of a town changes the calculus behind the decision to bundle up, head out, and devote an evening or two to democracy. What Frank Bryan discovered is that citizens are willing to participate to the extent that they believe the political arena is small enough that they can make a difference.
Given this dynamic, the real miracle is that the central sacrament of American democracy - the presidential election - draws the turnout that it does. No citizen seriously expects the election to turn on a single vote. In fact, most of us realize that probability is less than the chance of being struck by lightning on the way to the polls.
Jeff Norton has presided as town moderator in Edgartown since 1975, across a span of years that has seen the town's population more than double. In a recent forum, he agreed that this shift in scale has changed the dynamics of town meetings, at least for him. "The main thing is, I used to know everybody," he said, pausing a beat before adding wryly: "And I knew what they were going to say."
Mr. Norton said that in his view, townspeople today seem more willing to trust their town officials and to follow their lead than they were three decades ago. "In the old days," he recalled, "we would have people arguing on the floor, because they didn't believe the selectmen knew what they were doing. Nowadays at town meeting, a lot of the time, it's just a rubber stamp."
But if town meeting democracy is to have any future as a robust form of government, we need to bear in mind that when we are called together for annual town meeting each spring, it's to do more than hear reports and meekly do our leaders' bidding. We are lawmakers, the legislative branch, and town meeting is the moment when we convene, face to face, to set our community's course.