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The Decline of Political Democracy in America

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In present-day New England, especially the state of Vermont, there is now a festering underbelly of disenchantment of the body politic, known as the Town Meeting. Once the Town Meeting reflected this historical summation of how   Alexis De Tocqueville saw New England after the first American Revolution, when he wrote so enthusiastically, perhaps even naively, in his 1835-1840 classic work, Democracy in America: "The New Englander is attached to his town not so much because he was born there as because he sees the town as a free and powerful corporation of which he is a part and which is worth his trouble to seek to direct.”  

At the time the French historian made such stirring if not optimistic observations about New Englanders and their townships and emerging political traditions, there was a young, energetic capitalist economy,  liberal in its political outlook. This was particularly true of the Anglo-Americans who lived in New England and saw themselves as the ‘American Patriots’ of the Revolution, and so, entitlement was theirs for the taking. Tocqueville would go on to state, “In general, the towns of New England led a happy existence. Their government is to their taste as well as of their choice. Amid the profound peace and prosperity that prevail in America, stormy episodes in municipal life are rare. Management of town interests is easy.”

Alas, Tocqueville would now find New England in our time, the year 2019, unrecognizable -- what he once blissfully commended as 'the easy management of town interests' no longer exists; nor does whatever 'happy existence' he rhapsodized about. Contemporary New England is a very different place. Today's New England is marked by a quiet bitterness and sulkiness in both body language and speech, evident across the various townships of Vermont.  As University of Vermont associate professor of economics Art Woolf recently noted in the Burlington Free Press,  “Vermont’s economy is healthy, but without any significant growth in jobs, the legislature and governor will continue to face an economy  not generating sufficient tax revenues to cover the promises and commitments our elected officials have made.  That means Vermonters can look forward to either higher taxes or programming cuts." [i] 

What does all this have to do with the decline of political democracy in Vermont?  Everything, for the economics within any given state always to an extent affects how the average citizen views his own situation, that of his neighbors, other citizens living in towns such as New England, and in turn that influences his view of those who govern and guide legislations delivered up at New England Town Meetings. One such indicator of a possibly deepening decline in political democracy in Vermont was articulated in an astute, highly observant news article by Robin Smith in the Caledonian Record about a local Vermont town meeting. I have quoted her brilliant piece at some length because of the important political details her coverage conveys...

“City resident Anne Chiarello stood, as she almost always does, and offered her take on recent council decisions. This time, Chiarello took the council to task for not putting two voter-petitioned articles signed by 260 voters on the city’s town meeting ballot. One of the non-binding petitions asked whether the city should officially oppose the expansion of the landfill in Coventry and the other asks whether the city should immediately stop the treatment of leachate from that landfill or any other at the city’s waste water treatment plant. The city council had already voted to continue treating the leachate.

"Voters in Derby will get to consider those articles. Voters in Newport City will not. Chiarello complained that the council voted at a previous meeting under “new business” not to put the articles on the ballot, without advanced warning on the agenda.

“It’s always been the rule here … that before a vote, it has to be a warning, that it’s got to be an agenda item, and can’t be something that’s simply raised in new business,” Chiarello said. “I can assure you that if the public, all 260 or some of us who signed that petition, had been aware that there was going to be a vote that night … more of us would have been here to comment on it,” she said.

“You can’t simply raise an issue in new business and then get a vote on it. It is totally unfair, it is the essence of our democracy that people should know ahead of time what’s going to be on the agenda.

“I submit to you that the vote that time is null and void,” Chiarello concluded.

Chiarello asked the council to reconsider the decision. The deadline to warn articles had passed. The council did not take up the request.”[ii]

What one can see from this account of unfortunate legislative indifference to citizen input is this: a new patrician class is emerging in Vermont, which no longer just demands subservience to the Old-Boy Network of old-family allegiances and old-money interests, but also the arrogance to now openly use political deceit as a blatant option within the town officials in Vermont, whether they be either  conservative or politically liberal.

There is within the cultural history of Vermonters a certain smugness and sense of superiority  towards “Flatlanders” like myself and others who migrated to Vermont from other states of the Union. However, the irony is that the poisonous nest of vipers was always within their own townships, and they are now only realizing this, as they emerge from their parochial and provincial behavior and inbred state isolation. Actually, it has been the influx of others, these very 'outsiders' who have become politically productive and creatively imaginative citizens of Vermont, including immigrants and asylum seekers that have given the born and raised Vermonters pause to think about his/her view of both township affairs and world affairs in general.

The two Vermont activists, Anne Chiarello and Pam Ladds, who both participated in raising political awareness in the township meetings of Newport about how elected leadership both corrupts and lies to its fellow citizens and residents, represent a growing tide of political consciousness spreading across Vermont.  In a recent election for City Council in Burlington, two significant wins for two Progressive candidates was a big win for the people. One of the proud victors said, “This is a historic night in Burlington. We’re going to reshape the city.”

As Aidan Quigley reported in the online news publication VT Digger on this local triumph:  “[T]wo young Progressive organizers are replacing two more moderate council members. Their election will make it more difficult for Democratic Mayor Miro Weinberger to continue to advance his agenda. On the 12-member council, eight votes are needed to override a mayoral veto. With wins from Freeman and Hanson, the council will become evenly split between councilors who are generally supportive of Weinberger, and those who are more oppositional.”[iii] 

And, as Quigley added, one of the Council candidates who won a Council seat said,  “This is a Progressive city, the East District is a Progressive district.”[iv]

However, it should be cautioned for these so-called politically elected young enthusiasts who seemingly are ready to fight for the ordinary citizen, it does not always necessarily come to pass as simple as it may seem. Often these hopefuls may forget the class they came from, and only when they have some semblance of power on City Council in a New England Township, it suddenly dawns on them what their actual class alliance would mean, cemented in action, and they may flip their allegiance. Not only that, there is yet to emerge in Vermont serious Socialist and Communist alliances which could actually give the patrician class in Vermont  a deep gut fear in their well-fed stomachs. 

Tocqueville saw that the best side of the New England people in their early stages of democratic living cannot be denied, and for that we thank him. But now it is best for me, as a historian and political commentator, to remind us about Autocracy and the current rise of Fascism in America.  How the citizens of Vermont act in their struggle to retain their democracy remains to be seen, Perhaps they should take their cue from the great Yellow Vest movement (gilets jaune) in France.

Author: Luis Lázaro Tijerina