Town Meeting

Quaint tradition or microcosm of national politics?



illustration by peter noonan

Town meeting day this year was notable for two reasons.

First, there was the headline-grabbing confusion as a Nor’easter approached. Officials in each town decided the day before elections whether or not to continue or to postpone due to weather.

Second, in this day and age, it’s notable that anyone cares about town meeting at all.

While we continue to romanticize the Norman Rockwell image of town hall meeting day, the reality is that, for most New Hampshire residents, the traditional meeting has been replaced by a town election. This is not news.

Less explored is how town meetings reveal the change that politics has undergone, locally and nationally, in just a generation.

In the 1980s, former US House Speaker Tip O’Neill claimed that “all politics is local.”

Today, all politics is national.

It used to be that, to win a national office election or to craft national legislation (like O’Neill did), one had to pay attention to particular local concerns. It was a bottom-up approach. Members of Congress might vote “yes” instead of “no” on one bill if it meant more jobs or a new park could be created in their district by another bill.

But these days, everything — even local politics — is seen through the national prism.

Consider the town meeting in
Harrisville. The hottest issue on the agenda wasn’t whether to spend six figures on paving a road (that passed on a voice vote), but whether to oppose President Donald Trump’s initiatives on curbing illegal immigration by declaring themselves a “sanctuary city,” thus declaring that town officials such as the police will not share information about those living there illegally.

In Harrisville, the measure passed 74-48. This was too big of an issue to be decided on a voice vote. And it wasn’t just Harrisville thinking big. Three other towns nearby — Dublin, Fitzwilliam and Hancock — also took up similar resolutions, injecting themselves into the national debate.

In Manchester, the race for mayor kicked off with one candidate, Democrat Joyce Craig, saying she wanted to stand as a bulwark against Trump.

Trump didn’t single-handedly make local politics more national, but he did accelerate the process.

Long before Trump, raising larger amounts of campaign money was already more important to politicians than the need to develop political organizations town by town, while the loss of local newspapers and a rise in cable news shifted the focus to more national issues.

In a swing state like New Hampshire, a local election for county sheriff might hinge less on whose reputation is better known by his or her neighbors and more on which political party is more popular nationally at that particular moment.

And, on a technical note, the political mechanism that caused O’Neill to utter his famous catchphrase — earmarking money for a particular Congressional district or project — is no longer even allowed. In its place is a national politics that has become all ideological.

Perhaps even my contention is too small-minded. Trump’s main strategists argue that all politics is in fact global. They believe that Trump’s win last year is part of a global nationalistic populist movement, which also influenced Great Britain voters to side with leaving the European Union.

That may be true. We’ll know for sure next year if Candia voters take up the question about whether the United States should leave the United Nations.

More politics features you might be interested in

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Town Meeting the Democratic Ideal

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