TOWN MEETING DAY… posters reminded us that the Tuesday New England tradition was coming around again. These open meetings held at school houses and libraries all over the region are old style democracy in action. We always hear about how democracy is messy. We usually hear the phrase during contested elections. But the modern American experience really is not so messy. We had an election with presidential candidates separated by 537 votes in a hotly contested state. The Supreme Court of the United States made a ruling which stopped an unending recount. They were a mainly Republican appointed court and the Republican won. My fellow liberals and Democrats were united in their frustration, but, and this is a really big but, no one took to the streets. Tanks did not roll. Armies were not summoned. The system worked. People accepted the process. It was democracy in action, and it was not so messy after all.
But town meetings are a whole different story. People discussing whether or not to level the marble sidewalks, how much money to allocate to the local schools, and whether or not the historical society should get town funding, now these issues are messy. The sidewalks have divided the town. If there is sidewalk in front of your house, and you, ( by somebody’s standards anyway), are demonstrably rich, you might have half the town thinking you are a lazy miscreant for not leveling your damn part. That same voter is likely to believe that their contribution to the local schools, when they don’t even have kids, and their ridiculously high taxes, make them deserving of a little damn government service.
Then there are the people who have lived in their houses for thirty years and for whom taxes, since the property values have skyrocketed, are practically forcing them have to sell their family home. Minimally it means they can’t paint the thing anymore, and so they vote no to the school tax increase, wearing little pins with pictures of a schoolhouse on them with a big red slash through it like ghostbusters, only it stands for schoolbuster. Then the parents and the school board retaliate by getting together and passing laws about property maintenance in the historic village. They even create a taste police committee called the Design Review Board who summon folks in to discuss the height of their grass and the state of their clapboards.
In Vermont we even have two towns who indicted Dick Cheney. He better not come to here to ski, no siree. We indicted him for war crimes. Vermont used to be a its own country you know, and a whole bunch of people up here still think it is. Three quarters of the state passed resolutions, town by town, to condemn this wretched war in Iraq. Vermonters have lost more than their share since so many farmers up here serve in the National Guard as a way to make ends meet, and, (they always thought), to serve their country mainly inside their state. And on Town Meeting Day, lest Bush and Cheney mistake McCain’s primary success for support of this war, Vermont shouted out Not In Our Name. Marble sidewalks and the war in Iraq, this is democracy New England style…..