Bryan: Town Meeting and the moral voice

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(HOST) Town Meeting Day 2009 finds commentator Frank Bryan reflecting on the fundamental purpose of this traditional exercise in grassroots democracy.

(BRYAN) Thirty-five years ago on Monday night, March 4th, 1974, at town meeting, Thetford voted something wildly unique.

About 10 minutes after midnight the vote was announced to a huge national and local press corps.

160 yea, 130 nay.

Impeach him, said the town. Impeach Nixon.
From that moment, the town meeting took on an entirely new meaning for Americans.

The old view of town meeting featured nests of Yankees holding fiercely to the past, fighting progress, skimping on public spending. Joe Sherman advanced this view in his book Fast Lane on a Dirt Road, faulting town meeting as "…exercising an old-fashioned ritual of democracy, spewing rhetoric and in some cases applauding jingoism."

The NEW identity was best expressed in 1982, when more than 150 town meetings demanded a freeze on nuclear weapons production.  With the national media still smarting over the election of Ronald Reagan, the specter of Vermont towns rising up against Reagan’s bombs, much as they had risen up against Jefferson’s embargo, was simply too sweet to resist.

Town meetings are now regularly co-opted by special interests, widely spread over the partisan landscape, who seek to cloak their concerns with what leftist scholar and activist Murray Bookchin called "…the enormous moral voice…" of town meeting.

Worse, politicians holding public meetings to explain, promote, or solicit the public’s opinion on a program or policy now call these gatherings, "Town Meetings."  And some even use town meeting as a campaign gimmick. This began in earnest in 1992 with Ross Perrot; but it was perfected by Bill Clinton, who was a master at it. Most recently it was used by John McCain, who was not.

Names mean things. To wit: when town meeting is referenced in the text books on American government these days, it is more likely (and sometimes exclusively) found in the chapter on the media, NOT the chapter on democracy.
Now, when the term "town meeting" has for the first time in history achieved common day-to-day usage throughout the Republic, its meaning in the American conversation is counterfeit.

Town meeting may be a fine place to ask questions, give opinions and even do something as nebulous as "building community," but its fundamental purpose is to legislate.

The historical "moral voice" of town meeting comes not from citizens meeting to give advice or render opinions. It comes from a people trusting themselves to govern themselves in person, to render collective decisions, and do it openly and face to face.
That is why people listened when we called for an end to Nixon’s presidency or Reagan’s bombs.
It is time for our elected officials to honor the term "town meeting" for what it is. And that was perhaps best put by Henry David Thoreau.

Town Meeting, he said "…is the true Congress…the most respectable one ever assembled in the United States."

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