Monitor Board of Contributors: Fast-food democracy
Mel Graykin shot on November 17, 2010. She is a new Board of Contributors columnist. (John Tully/ Monitor Staff)
There’s a push in our town to bring back town meeting. A few years ago, Deerfield, along with a growing number of other towns, voted in SB 2, an alternative to the traditional town meeting which essentially lets folks just go to the polls and vote on warrant articles without having to attend any meetings. There’s a deliberative session in which the articles and budget are discussed, modified and finalized for the vote, but the actual casting of ballots is done at a more convenient time.
The common argument for this new system goes something like this: Many folks find it a hardship to sacrifice two Saturday mornings a year, often because they have to work and cannot get the time off. It is easier for them to find out about the warrant articles at their leisure, figure out what makes sense to them, and then go to the polls. It is also true that because the town has grown, it is impossible for everyone to fit into one room, old town-meeting style, and exercise their right to vote. Further, folks argue, all the information folks need to make an informed choice is available online in digital form. Videos of important meetings can be watched, minutes can be read, and if folks want to, they can attend the deliberative sessions to ask questions and hear the discussions. Or just email town officials with their questions. It’s the digital age; this is how most people get their information, quick and efficient.
So, why would anyone want to bring back town meeting? Well, the argument goes something like this: Sacrificing two Saturdays a year is little enough to ask, and the number of people who legitimately cannot arrange to do so is actually very small. In fact, there might be legal grounds for a lawsuit if a boss refuses to allow an employee to exercise his democratic rights. Also, people in fact don’t have access to all the information they need to make an informed decision. They don’t hear the discussions that would take place at town meeting concerning budget and warrant articles, don’t hear the questions asked and answers given by concerned citizens and officials, and often vote their gut when they go into the voting booth. Too often people vote their pocket book, rejecting budgets and equipment purchases because they think it might raise their taxes, ignorant of the possibly dire need or legal necessity of an item.
All that aside, town meeting is a marvelous manifestation of genuine democracy, an opportunity to get together with neighbors and friends and watch the spectacle of human nature in action. If you don’t believe me, I highly recommend you read Rebecca Rule’s book, Moved and Seconded, which captures the richness of this beloved but dying institution.
Anyway, as I said, our town has an article on the ballot to bring back town meeting. This has been put forward nearly every voting cycle since SB 2 narrowly passed, and has always been voted down. Frankly, I don’t know why they bother. Every time this happens, the same people come forward with the same arguments, nobody convinces anybody else, and a great deal of anger and resentment gets stirred up in the process. Personally, I’d love to see town meeting return, but I’m not holding my breath. And it has absolutely nothing to do with the actual pros and cons of either way of doing things. It has to do with fast food.
We all know those meals that come frozen from the store, or in packages that just require boiling water or a trip through the microwave, are not particularly good for us. We know we ought to cook from scratch. The best nutrition, not to mention the best food value for our hard-earned dollars, comes from fresh produce, meals prepared with carefully chosen ingredients, meats from a source you can trust.
But most of us have busy lives. We work full time, we spend our days running errands, driving our children to sports and lessons and play dates, and by the time meal time comes around, most of us can’t face the task of cooking from scratch. We go shopping, and see that the organic produce costs much more than the chemically enhanced alternative. The kids plead for the junk they see on television, or had at their friends’ house, and it’s one more battle we aren’t up to fighting. So even though we know we ought to take the time to do it right, we grab something easy and call it dinner.
It’s the same with government. We know we ought to take the time to research the issues. We ought to attend meetings and ask questions and get involved. The digital options exist, but at the end of a long, hard day, are you going to sit through the video of the latest meeting of the Municipal Budget Committee, or pull something up on Netflix? And that information flier about the proposed Village Center Zoning District doesn’t have nearly the appeal of the latest Nora Roberts or James Patterson calling to you from your bookshelf. Even if you do force yourself to go over the details of the proposed budget, your eyes begin to glaze over and you quickly skim to the end, knowing little more than you did before because there’s no one there to explain it, and you need to check your email, hop onto Facebook and get to bed.
Democracy, like cooking from scratch, is messy and time-consuming, and requires extra effort. It’s so much easier just to go into the voting booth and vote by the seat of your pants, or, like the great majority of citizens, just not bother to vote at all. Let somebody else make your decisions, and your dinner, for you.
Long term, the results to your health and happiness are much the same.
(Justine “Mel” Graykin lives and writes in Deerfield, and practices freelance philosophy on her website at justinegraykin.com.)