Slow democracy? Vt. authors offer fix for political paralysis
By Kevin O’Connor
STAFF WRITER | September 30,2012
Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
Woden Teachout, left, and Susan Clark, co-authors of “Slow Democracy,” are pictured in the Middlesex town hall recently.
Think Vermont — the inspiration for many a Norman Rockwell town meeting portrait — is immune from political polarization and paralysis?
Consider the behind-the-scenes struggle of Susan Clark and Woden Teachout, co-authors of the new book “Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home.”
When Clark sought a collaborator to study the virtues of grass-roots governing, she saw Teachout — a fellow Middlesex resident, scholar and volunteer at their children’s school — as practically a twin. Only after the two signed a book contract did they discover some deep-seated differences.
Clark, moderator of their town meeting, savors every minute of civic deliberation, be it about the biggest grader or smallest grain of road salt.
“While I don’t expect always to see eye-to-eye,” she says, “I know at least my voice, along with the voices of my fellow community members, can be heard.”
Teachout, an advocate for common-man Davids fighting corporate Goliaths, favors less analysis and more action.
“The same process that warms Susan leaves me cold — I’d rather quit talking and get up and do something,” she says. “And yes, I enjoy the feeling of being right.”
How do you live in a democracy — traditionally defined as each member having the right to an equal say — when today’s my-way-or-the-highway culture lectures rather than listens?
Clark and Teachout had to wrestle with the question firsthand before they could write an answer. Their resulting book, now rolling off the presses of Chelsea Green Publishing of White River Junction, promises to intrigue partisans of all stripes.
Taking sides may seem the stuff of a nation awash in presidential attack ads, not a politically monochromatic state the authors call “almost insanely liberal.” But that doesn’t mean everyone in Vermont agrees on everything — or, increasingly, anything. A recent editorial cartoon by Montpelier artist Tim Newcomb pictured nuclear protesters battling each other as a bystander explains, “Someone shouted ‘More wind power!’ Now it’s a total brawl!”
The romance of town meeting, for its part, is giving way to a starker reality.
“As Vermont’s town population size has risen and we have lost connections with our neighbors, fewer people have been attending town meetings,” Clark writes in the book. “Between commuting, screen time and working extra jobs in a tough economy, we allocate less time for local democracy. Every year, it seems, another Vermont town has gotten rid of its town meeting altogether and switched to ballot voting.”
Clark hit upon the concept of “slow democracy” when thinking about the slow food movement, which calls for taking time to appreciate “good, clean and fair” local products and processes.
Her husband was quick to respond: “I bet you could even get the domain name — SlowDemocracy.org! While you’re at it, why not see if you can get PainfulDentistry.org too?”
Clark, however, isn’t calling for longer meetings. Instead, she wants a fast-forward society fixated on efficiency to see the value of considering all voices and views and, as a result, potential solutions that otherwise may be missed.
Enter Teachout. She began researching examples of good grass-roots governing, all the while talking up her advocacy for same-sex marriage and a single-payer health care system and against genetically modified foods and the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.
Clark wasn’t necessarily opposed to any of Teachout’s opinions. But she also was open to hearing out everyone else. And so the two faced yet another issue: Could a town meeting moderator who concentrates on process work thoughtfully with an advocate more concerned with outcome?
The two mothers discovered they could do so when their town weighed merging its school with another in a neighboring community. Teachout boiled down the situation to pro- or anti-consolidation. Then Clark shared the story of Portsmouth, N.H., where residents stayed open-minded enough to brainstorm a third solution (in this case, retaining all schools while reconfiguring student bodies) that worked for all.
“There is a real empowerment in rejecting the way that issues have been framed for us — often by national parties and coalitions,” Teachout concludes in the book. “As citizens, we need to be able to define our own agendas and have the power to implement them. Yes, this is a longer process than I would like, and yes, it involves meetings, but I’m convinced. The time for slow democracy has come.”
Before people can talk, however, they have to learn to listen. The book aims to encourage that by explaining Yale Law School’s current Cultural Cognition Project. Most people consider themselves Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. But university researchers are finding that society is quaking as a result of two underlying, unseen fault lines.
Some people are “hierarchical” and see authority as natural, while others are “egalitarian” and believe everyone should be treated as equals. Likewise, some people are “individualists” who favor personal liberty and responsibility, while others are “collectivists” who want to share the work of meeting society’s needs.
Researchers have confirmed those brain-deep differences predict someone’s perceptions more correctly and consistently than sex, ethnicity, education, income, personality type or political affiliation. Compounding the problem, people who once sought information from common sources (flashback to Walter Cronkite) now splinter between Fox or MSNBC, the Drudge Report or the Huffington Post.
“Citizens of all political persuasions have a tendency to ignore information they don’t want to hear,” Clark and Teachout write in their book. “In a cyclical, self-reinforcing and scary way, then, we’re wired not to take in new information that threatens our existing beliefs.”
Discovering such research, Teachout sees the benefits of advocates trading self-righteousness for self-reflection.
“If I know there are neurological reasons why I seek reinforcement for my ideas,” she says, “that forces me to take a really hard look and listen to where the other person is coming from and why it’s important to include that in the conversation.”
Clark and Teachout acknowledge that the problem of national political polarization seems as big as the country itself. That’s why they suggest starting small at the local level. They point to their own work on the book.
Says Teachout: “It was constant engagement and coming back to the points we agreed on. Part of the reason I now value the process so much is because I think it leads to better solutions.”
And Clark: “We had some very, very difficult conversations. When we got to the other side, we realized we walked the talk. I think it makes the book more truthful.”
University of Vermont political science professor Frank Bryan agrees. Having collaborated with Clark on the 2005 book “All Those in Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community,” he has penned a foreword to her latest work.
“‘Slow democracy’ is perfectly situated on the nexus where traditional ‘local control’ conservatives and newer ‘small is beautiful’ liberals meet,” Bryan writes. “In today’s America, with the marketplace capitalist/social-conservative Republicans and the mega-state/centralized-planning Democrats soiling themselves and each other with their incessant, inane yapping, Clark and Teachout are a breath of fresh air.”
“Clark and Teachout favor a New England-style town-hall political culture that wouldn’t last five minutes in Chicago or Los Angeles,” Publishers Weekly writes, “yet anyone who wants to reinvigorate grass-roots involvement and moderate top-down rule can benefit from this earnest volume.”
(Clark bristles at that “wouldn’t last five minutes” assessment: “Some of the best examples of slow democracy come from urban areas, and we feature three terrific examples from Chicago.”)
The authors are set to visit Hardwick’s Galaxy Bookstore on Oct. 16 at 7 p.m., Burlington’s Phoenix Books on Oct. 18 at 7 p.m., Montpelier’s Bear Pond Books on Oct. 23 at 7 p.m., White River Junction’s Bugbee Senior Center on Oct. 25 at 12:30 p.m. and Manchester’s Northshire Bookstore on Nov. 1 at 7 p.m.
“Sitting down with people who are different is a real act of courage,” Clark says, “but we need all of those minds in the room. All of us know more than any one of us. We can’t take away power on one hand and then bemoan citizen apathy and lack of volunteerism and engagement on the other.”
As for the “slow” part?
“Yes, local democracy and strengthening community takes time,” Clark concludes. “So enjoy it.”