is vexing the land, that, I think, is the true Congress, and the most
respectable one that is ever assembled in the United States.”
Henry David Thoreau
It’s hard to find fault with the words of Thoreau. Even today, 159 years after he wrote the above comment, Town Meeting is still one of the purest forms of democracy in our country. In many ways the phrase above boils down the essence of Town Meeting. It’s a congress of peers, of unelected, ordinary men and women who will meet, debate, and come to a decision over the issues of their community.
While there are some noticeable changes from Thoreau’s day, most notably the inclusion of women and non-landholders in the democratic process, the essential elements of open floor debate and discussion, and then an up or down vote, carry on. Voters who feel strongly about an issue stand up, give their name for all to hear, and state their case. Those in the room are free to offer their own opinions in support or against the original position, and then a vote is taken.
That’s the great thing about local democracy in action. Not only do decisions get made, people remember their manners. In general people understand and respect those who may argue the other side of an article. Folks may not agree on issues, but they can all agree that they need to walk out of the room with a decision, and with the understanding they all live and work together in the same community.
In theory the US Congress is modeled after Town Meeting, where a deliberative body meets, makes arguments for or against a bill, and then votes.
Practical reality shows something very different. Instead of debating issues on the floor, positions are staked out on television news shows, web sites, and in social media. Decisions often get pushed off, left for another day or for someone else, generally after the next election.
Perhaps Congress would be wise to revisit the Town Meeting approach to solving issues. Instead of ad nauseum debate and posturing for the next election, get together and agree not to leave until the votes have been taken and the issue resolved. Then agree that regardless of the outcome, democracy had its way, and both winners and losers will respect the ultimate decision.
In that regard, perhaps what we have today, both in Congress and our community Town Meetings, is little different than what Thoreau observed a century and a half ago.