We tend to ignore local government until something goes wrong—municipal bankruptcy, perhaps, or unplowed streets after a mishandled blizzard. Turnout in local elections is notoriously low, and attendance at city-council and school-board meetings is usually negligible. Most Americans have become accustomed to putting our communities in the hands of a few purported experts and leaving well enough alone.
So when I moved to a small town in Massachusetts last summer, I was surprised to learn that I would have the chance to be part of an experiment in direct democracy that dates back nearly 400 years. My town of Westborough (and hundreds like it across New England) is governed by town meetings, a system in which citizens act as their own legislature, coming together to deliberate and vote on everything from whether to buy the police department a new cruiser to how to zone for medical marijuana dispensaries.
I had spent years covering municipal governments as a newspaper reporter, and I had seen the infamous “town hall” meetings at which Tea Partiers berated members of Congress in 2009. Those partisan spectacles, at which discussion of President Obama’s health care bill routinely devolved into chaos and name calling, exhibited the worst side of our system of government. When I decided to attend my own town meeting, I was expecting either a raucous free-for-all with anti-tax tirades or a boring procedural with bad coffee and a handful of elderly or pensioned regulars. It was neither.
Town meetings are the last vestige of true direct democracy in the United States, and about as close as you can get today to the sort of government practiced by the Greek city-states that invented the form 2,500 years ago. Early New England settlers, whose quotidian affairs lay beyond the control and attention of the British crown, formally adopted town meeting as early as the 1630s, and that apparently gave them a taste for democracy. While some founding fathers saw the town meeting as taking things a bit too far—James Madison wrote, “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob”—it’s clear that town meetings served as early inspiration for the American Revolution.
In my middle-class town of 18,000, the meeting was held this spring in the high school’s cavernous auditorium. The atmosphere was festive, and in the hallway outside the Westborough Women’s Club ran a bake sale, with proceeds from their banana bread and maple syrup muffins going to a local food pantry. The gym was turned over to a free childcare operation, with moon bounces and craft tables. When townspeople signed in, they received strips of mint green copier paper to hold aloft so volunteers called “tellers” could count the vote. Majority ruled, except in the few cases where a two-thirds vote was necessary. Few measures were controversial, so it was usually easy to gauge whether a motion carried by eyeballing the sea of green.
Some 450 people packed the auditorium at the height of the meeting—a small percentage of registered voters to be sure, but then again, they were being asked to do more than just mark a ballot. Town meetings consist of two four-hour sessions, with a two-hour dinner break in between. One long-time attendee told me that the meeting frequently required a third session the following week to complete all the scheduled business. It’s not quite government by the people—it’s government by the people who are willing to sacrifice a weekend.