Twenty years ago (and still today), one could step into a small town in middle-Vermont on a Wednesday night to observe—or participate in—a genuine town hall meeting. Citizens from around the area would discuss water rights and road access, school policy and the volunteer fire department. At times it got heated, though after the meeting, these folks were still neighbors, so a fairly high level of decorum was required. Indeed the credibility of your comments was to some degree tied to your ability to express them in reasonable terms. There were no bonus points for making headlines or getting your face on the evening news. For the most part, there was a sense that we were all in this together; even the outsiders just passing through for a summer or two were welcome to observe. Most of the Bostonians and New Yorkers who built their vacation homes in Vermont recognized the rules were a bit different in Vermont.
Curiously, this morning’s Wall Street Journal remarked how Vermont has managed to miss the recent boom and bust residential real estate cycle. Vermonters generally missed out on the compelling appreciation of the last decade and subsequently missed out on giving much of it back. The Republican Governor, James Douglas, was quoted as saying that “We generally do often lag the national economy—both up and down. We don’t benefit from the boom times, but we don’t fall as deeply into the abyss when things get tough.” Remember, that was a Republican governor of a state that has sent self-described Socialist Bernie Sanders to the US Congress for the past 19 years.
Perhaps Vermont is on to something from which much of the rest of the country could learn. One has to wonder if there is a correlation between the reliance on community-centered policy setting and smoother, more sustainable economic growth. It would make sense. After all, it is hard to look our friends and neighbors in the eye while selling them unreasonable debt products, highly leveraged investment products, abusive tax increases, or an unsustainable health care system. It’s much easier to build an economy on such products and policies when we do not have to interact with the people who are hurt by them.
For a town hall meeting to be effective, however, the emphasis must be on participants possessing a common desire to make their community function effectively. The forum fails when the people in the room rail to recognize that we are all in this together, when we comfortably assume that the people who disagree with us are stupid or unethical or un-American and thus their perceptions are unworthy of our consideration.
There is nothing inevitable about America. If we are to remain vital and engaged, if we are to continue growing economically, then it will take thousands of genuine town hall meetings with difficult—but hopefully reasonable—conversations. It probably wouldn’t hurt if we gave less attention to the cable and radio demagogues on the left and right, but they would probably get less attention naturally as their extreme comments fell increasingly on ears of citizens busily engaged in working with their neighbors. Just a thought.