democracy, smaller is better
bring Iraq and Afghanistan into the 21st century, look back to 17th-century 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.
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."
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
town meeting method also resolves many of the problems of larger representative
democracy, where leaders control and manipulate information for their own
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
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
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.
[Available in bookstores: REAL
NEW ENGLAND TOWN MEETING AND HOW IT WORKS,
By Frank Bryan.
Otros libros/Other books: