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Henningsen: Town Meeting - Who Cares?

It’s Town Meeting time. But so what? Why should we care? I could say because the institution of Town Meeting is in danger even though it’s the best show around.

But the real reason is because it’s the rent we pay for citizenship.

Democracy in action is time-consuming, disorganized, inconsiderate, and unsatisfying, but still, somehow, effective. Every year we arrive aspiring to perfection and leave having taken most of a day to make things a little better than they were.

And as a country, we’re losing our capacity for this. National politics is about winning, no matter the cost; success defined as total surrender by the other side – whereas Town Meeting is about functioning despite divisions. Success is defined as mutual progress, only achieved by the hard work of mutual accommodation. We get less than we’d hoped for, but more than we’d feared.

If national politics seems now to be about excluding all but those who agree with us on everything, Town Meeting represents a more inclusive idea – sometimes grudgingly acknowledged, but acknowledged nonetheless – that in spite of our differences we all belong. It represents the truth, in a political sense, of Robert Frost’s definition of home: the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.

Town Meeting returns us to politics on a human scale. Just as we struggle with each other’s position on national issues, we wrestle with each other’s opinion of whether the town should buy a new grader – or close a school. But resolving local issues – and we do, because we have to – offers hope that, somehow, we can make progress on national ones.

Here we meet face to face with leaders we’ve chosen and hold each other to account. That’s important. In a nation of, by, and for the people, such unfiltered dialogue is essential.

Town Meeting reminds us that sovereignty rests with the people themselves, who must be responsible in using that power. Exercising that responsibility enhances community by renewing confidence in our collective ability to solve shared problems.

That’s no small thing. Successfully working through our differences at Town Meeting this year is no guarantee we’ll continue to do so, but it’s certainly a reminder of what’s at stake if we can’t – or won’t.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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