For democracy, smaller is better

To bring Iraq and Afghanistan into the 21st century, look back to 17th-century New England

New England's three-century experiment with real democracy - the face-to-face variety practiced in 500 annual town meetings - contains abundant lessons for Iraq and Afghanistan. Participatory democracy will be more secure and more effective in both of those liberated entities if it is introduced painstakingly from the bottom, rather than imposed centrally from the top.

Frank Bryan, who writes tellingly and thoroughly about Vermont's 210 annual town meetings over three decades, concludes that "town meetings come about as close to paragon status as reasonable people would agree is possible within the limits of human nature."

His central claim is that ordinary citizens are prepared to work at and practice real democracy in towns, the smaller the better, more than they are to participate in representative democracy (that is, elected party politics) in America.

In Vermont, over years of observation, the best of the town meeting performances were in less populous places where real issues were at stake. At the local level, citizens young and old were prepared to expend energy and go to the trouble of debating and deciding questions of concern to them and their neighbors. The larger the town, the less full and the less active the participation.

If the leaders of the Afghan and Iraqi reconstruction operations devolve responsibility to local people, not just to their sheikhs, chiefs, or warlords, then it will be possible to implant sustainable democracy. Bryan is instructive in this regard: "The fundamental purpose of a town meeting is to make decisions for the commonwealth based on principles of due process and equal protection - but on a human scale." That is the way to train citizens in the democratic process. Moreover, the town meeting method of face-to-face deliberation instills tolerance and forbearance.

Bryan is hardly starry-eyed about the Vermont town meeting experience that he and his students have so painstakingly analyzed. He's the first to admit that, on average, attendance at annual town meetings is only 20 percent of registered voters, and some meetings manage to rush through their warrants in an hour or so. And he admits that modern schedules and suburbanization have diminished the efficacy and the centrality of the town meeting model.

Even so, New England has retained its tradition of deciding questions of governance together, and that is not the same as putting questions to referendum, as in California. Nor is it in any way anachronistic. With all of its real and potential flaws of pettiness and trivialization, the New England town meeting still offers a bedrock experience in collective and communal decisionmaking.

Deliberation is important. So are controversy, conflict, and compromise. The effort of arriving at win-win decisions through a process of presenting arguments and persuading opponents contributes meaningfully to the practice of democracy.

The town meeting method also resolves many of the problems of larger representative democracy, where leaders control and manipulate information for their own benefit.

At the town meeting level, all is (or should be) revealed to everyone, and decisions cannot be made without sufficient and timely intelligence (about road construction, police and fire protection, proposed capital expenditures, and so on).

Bryan employs many of the sophisticated methodologies of political science to demonstrate that the New England town meeting is not merely a traditional method by which early Americans governed themselves. It still works well for most of the inhabitants of Vermont's 210 towns, and the 634 towns in New England's other states.

In town meetings, stakeholders can only blame themselves when local government fails. Obviously, New England can't be transferred to Iraq and Afghanistan, but its lessons are still relevant.

Robert I. Rotberg teaches at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and has been an elected member of the Lexington, Mass., Town Meeting since 1973.

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