Government we deserve
For all that we embrace the name of democracy, in practice it is an imperfect mechanism. It is especially imperfect here.
An example: Once upon a time, everyone was Republican and they voted that way. The characteristic story, which I've told on other occasions, recalls the Gay Head town clerk years ago who was asked late in the evening of election day for the vote count in the presidential election. Well, she said, consulting her tally sheet, it was Dewey 47 and Truman 1. Clouds of confusion, then irritation skimmed across her face. That can't be right, she managed, it must be Dewey 48.
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.
The question after all is not how can so many intelligent and well-meaning people make so many bad decisions. The question is how do ordinary folks, afflicted with such a Rube Goldberg system, ever get it right.
"I see," E.B. White wrote, "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 reference is to a radio show featuring Eddie Cantor in the early 1930s. It was an important early spur to the minstrel's early career. Cantor sang songs and talked and performed sketches. Perhaps you'll remember "Carolina Moon" and "Minnie the Moocher," though you might have forgotten "Santa Cantor." The point is, it was a social hour.
Vineyard meetings are often sociable, 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 in the way of folks who want to change the window trim on their house in the historic district. They will gas 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.
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.
It's not always like that. 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.
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.