Town Meeting the Democratic Ideal

Sure, they’re long, but town meetings get it done

Illustration by Peter Noonan

This month, about 160 towns in New Hampshire will hold a town meeting day — that’s more than half of the state’s municipalities. These town meetings are anachronistic, inefficient, and they give outsized power to a handful of people.

They are also exactly what the state and — dare say — the nation needs right now.

American politics has devolved to resemble a Facebook feed where people mostly engage with people they already know and agree with. As a result, people can either tune out politics altogether or only engage with it at a level that doesn’t make them think all that much. Oh, and like Facebook feeds, the discussion involves a lot of fake news injected to bolster arguments.

I could quote a person who recently said that people who watch Fox News are basically on a different planet from those who listen to National Public Radio. But if I actually quoted that person — former president Barack Obama — then no one would consider if the point was true. Those who like Obama would just reflexively think it was a great quote, while those who don’t like him will probably just dismiss it.

And that’s where we are in 2018: We have a polarizing president and a government that shut down over political games. Most members of the political parties aren’t happy with their own party, and there’s no agreement on basic underlying facts, much less what to do about such facts going forward.

Of course, even at town meeting day, where some bake brownies and others print out spreadsheets, there will be arguments, but there’s also something bigger going on — the sense that everyone in the community is in this thing together.

For the past 375 years, town meetings have taken place in New Hampshire. They can be intense affairs and are often personal, but at the end, the numbers have to add up and priorities have to be set. No one leaves a town meeting completely happy about all decisions, but that’s how it should be. While many decry the political games, the fact remains that creating a warrant, hearing debate and voting is how many towns solve vexing problems — even if they change their minds the next year.

National politics couldn’t be more different. In this polarized age, very little can get done. And what’s done to address national problems is sometimes quickly overturned as soon as the other party is sworn into power. And before anyone suggests that it works better in Concord, well, there is little proof of that over the last decade.

So if you want to feel inspired and reinvigorated about the spirit of democracy, then, by all means, attend your local town meeting or take your kids to one nearby. You’ll see people meeting people from different walks of life and newcomers mixing with natives. They will discuss what to do about things in their community and weigh it against the very real impact on their own property taxes. And they will eventually come to conclusions — almost always that same day.

Such romantic Norman Rockwell images of democracy in action come with one caveat: If your town meeting involves a resolution to impeach President Trump, then all bets are off

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