By Brian Tokar
Presented at the first annual conference of the Transnational Institute of Social Ecology, Myrtos, Greece, March 2013.
Those familiar with the origins of Murray Bookchin’s political strategy of libertarian municipalism are aware of the central role of Vermont’s rural town meeting tradition in the development of Bookchin’s unique approach to localist politics. Vermont’s town meetings are one of the longest-thriving institutions of direct democracy in the world today. In the era preceding the American Revolution, they were part of a vibrant but historically problematic tradition of direct democracy throughout the northeastern colonies, and they were among the first to abolish religious requirements for participating, as well as restrictions based on gender and property ownership. As Bookchin described in the first volume of The Third Revolution, this loosening of limits on town meeting participation eventually spread throughout the American colonies during the pre-revolutionary era.
Vermont today is one of only 3 or 4 US states with a relatively intact town meeting tradition. Communities throughout New England and beyond still hold informal town meetings when newly controversial issues arise, but only in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and some rural parts of Massachusetts are town meetings still the primary decision-making bodies for approving each town’s annual budget and any significant capital expenses, along with planning documents and other town policies. Among these states, Vermont’s town meeting tradition is the most dynamic, with very broad participation of town residents, not just those who are consistently active in local politics. As readers of Bookchin’s work may recall, the vitality of Vermont’s town meeting tradition was significantly enhanced in the early 1980s, when 159 out of 237 Vermont town meetings responded to the escalating arms race with the Soviet Union by approving resolutions in support of a freeze on nuclear weapons production. This initiative sparked the development of a national Nuclear Freeze movement, which eventually pressured a reluctant Ronald Reagan administration to resume, and eventually accelerate, arms control negotiations with the Soviets.
Since the 1980s, Vermont town meetings have included lively debates over issues such as acid rain, nuclear power, the US war on Iraq, proposals to impeach George W. Bush, and many others. During the early 2000s, activists based at the Institute for Social Ecology launched an effort that led to 85 Vermont towns, and a total of 120 across New England, passing resolutions opposing the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture. Currently, a broad coalition of environmentalists is working to enlist Vermont towns in opposition to plans by an Exxon-Mobil-owned oil pipeline company to transport highly corrosive and toxic material from Canada’s Alberta Tar Sands through our region.
All these efforts have contributed to the continuing importance of Vermont’s town meetings. When scores of towns pass resolutions on matters of national and global significance, it frequently helps jump-start broader organizing efforts around these issues. Well-coordinated town meeting efforts can help bring a new issue or concern to the center of public attention statewide, and beyond. For example, following the first wave of Vermont town resolutions on the GMO issue, several counties in California passed laws prohibiting the use of GMOs. Local organizing models began to spread across the country in response to the continuing inability of national environmental and food safety groups to pass any measures to regulate or even label GMOs at the national level.
However, there remain significant obstacles to realizing the fullest potential of these efforts. The functional legal powers of towns in Vermont and across the region have been significantly curtailed in recent decades, as numerous powers of taxation, school administration, and others have been taken over, all or in part, by the state government, often under nominally progressive-leaning state administrations. A few influential journalists and political scientists have argued that discussions of national and global issues serve to dilute rather than strengthen the town meeting tradition by “distracting” voters from pressing town business. Local officials occasionally deny the posting of issues on the town meeting agenda, even when the requisite number of petition signatures – 5 percent of registered voters – are presented. On several occasions, state officials have actively encouraged officials to deny petitions that they viewed as outside the scope of “town business,” and there is a mixed record of recent court cases attempting to challenge such denials.
In a landmark 1990 case, a peace activist in the capital city of Montpelier submitted petitions for the city’s Town Meeting Day ballot to post a resolution in favor of a post-Cold War “peace dividend,” and a Vermont state court ruled that the city had to accept the petition. But in a 2007 case the Vermont Supreme Court supported the town of South Burlington’s refusal to post a petitioned item from anti- abortion advocates calling for mandatory parental notification when girls who are legal minors seek an abortion.(1) Unfortunately, the court’s decision in this anti-abortion case is now considered by many to be the standing precedent.
When towns seek to pass resolutions of more than a symbolic nature – prohibiting particularly destructive business practices, for example – officials invoke a 19th century legal doctrine known as Dillon’s Rule, which is accepted as law in all but 11 US states. Dillon’s Rule asserts that towns are ultimately creatures of the state government and do not have rights of home rule unless they gain the approval of the state legislature for each specific measure.(2) The most vocal attempt in recent years to assert local “home rule” against this doctrine took the form of a short-lived, intensely reactionary campaign in the late 1980s by right wing landowners who opposed a state initiative encouraging town planning and zoning. In contrast, a Pennsylvania-based organization called the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (celdf.org) has developed a proactive strategy whereby a town’s voters directly challenge corporations’ legal standing in cases involving a variety of environmentally destructive practices.(3)
These limitations notwithstanding, activists in a wide variety of social movements continue to view Vermont’s town meetings as a viable forum for raising issues and bringing urgent matters into the public arena. The discussions are lively and sometimes heated, but generally rather searching in scope. Town meetings offer a setting where a wide array of local residents, from those whose families have lived in a town for generations up to the most recent new voters, can try work together to solve problems and understand each other’s views across divisions of culture, politics and a variety of socioeconomic barriers. They are the centerpiece of a vibrant public sphere, still largely absent from most communities in the US, and embody the potential for an engaged and active form of citizenship that is all too rare in a country whose politics are usually dominated by intractable power blocs and frequently overwhelming levels of disinformation and propaganda.
1 The full decision is at http://libraries.vermont.gov/sites/libraries/files/supct/current/eo2006-155.txt. 2
2 “Municipal corporations owe their origin to, and derive their powers and rights wholly from, the legislature. It breathes into them the breath of life, without which they cannot exist. As it creates, so may it destroy. If it may destroy, it may abridge and control.” Decision by judge John Forrest Dillon in Clinton v Cedar Rapids and the Missouri River Railroad, (24 Iowa 455; 1868).
3 For a recent description, see http://www.thenation.com/article/172266/rebel-towns. 3