uvm a - z directory search





UVM News


Alumni Voice

Class Notes

Ask an Alum

Extra Credit



Alumni news &






photograph by

Being Frank
A talk with professor Frank Bryan

interview by

Depending on the point he’s making, Frank Bryan may praise New England town meeting as the closest thing we have to pure Athenian democracy or he might just call it “a long day sitting on a hard chair listening to people argue.” Both descriptions fit, and Bryan, longtime UVM professor of political science, knows this better than most after 27 years of spending every first Tuesday in March in town halls across Vermont. That work comes together this winter with the publication of Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How it Works, University of Chicago Press. On a warm June morning in Starksboro, Bryan hopped down from his tractor and took a seat in the shade of his front deck for a conversation with Vermont Quarterly editor Tom Weaver. In the straight-talk style that makes him a favorite of students and journalists alike, Bryan held forth about life on a back road, Vermont politics, the temptations of secession, and the tradition of town meeting.

Does living out here on Big Hollow Road, in this rural Vermont setting, shape your approach as a university professor?
I think it helps me a hell of a lot for teaching. It gives me a sense of the real world constantly, and certainly, I think, makes one more of a democrat with a small d. Most of my time is spent with working class people in Vermont. The old Vermonters are who I socialize with, and professionally, I see the other side. I think having both of those perspectives helps make my lectures a little more lively.

It’s hard work living out here and it isn’t as much fun as it is put up to be. I don’t know how many times I have been dressed up to go to work, and when I get there I have to run in the bathroom and clean up because of some last-minute job I had to do at home or taking care of the critters. It’s kind of cute and funny and artsy and all that, but you’ve got to have the right mentality for it.

I read recently where you said the idea of “rural virtue” is a myth.
Jefferson once said that those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, and there certainly is a mythology about rural life in America. You see it in advertising. A bunch of teenagers in a hay wagon under a harvest moon — that’s good, healthy Americana. A bunch of teenagers on a street corner in a city are up to no good. But those kids in the haywagon may be up to just as much as those kids on the cement, see?

It’s both a blessing and a burden. We’re expected to be better for some silly reason, and we’re not. God didn’t bless us; we’re just as evil and sinful as anyone else, maybe more so.
The benefit I see to rural life has to do with spatial arrangements of people. I believe that the best way to breed tolerance is to force us to deal with one another. And we’re forced to in a small town. If I drive down the road and there’s someone in the ditch, I don’t dare go past them, because I might see them down at the village store and I’d have to explain why I didn’t stop. You’d never say, “I don’t like that jerk, I’m not going to stop.” Plus, I expect some reciprocity, knowing that they’ll help me out on the day when I’m the guy in the ditch.

Your book about New England town meeting comes out this year. I understand that many of your students took a role in the considerable data gathering and observation that went into this project.
Whenever I meet a student I haven’t seen in 20 years, I’ll ask them where they went to town meeting, and they’ll always remember, and then they’ll tell me a story about it. I’m proud as hell of that fact. So, they really learned something about democracy and the academic world both. There’s nothing like putting a kid right in the middle of it.

Between all of my years at UVM, and St. Mike’s before that, I’ve had something like 4,000 students out observing and writing about town meeting. There are probably 40 or 50 footnotes in the book that refer to a specific class report and some of my former students are quoted directly.

You’ve been closely watching Vermont town meetings for almost 30 years now, what are some of the ways they’ve changed?
Attendance has gone down in towns that have gotten bigger. But if you look at towns of 500 registered voters in 1970 and compare them to towns of 500 registered voters in 2003, the drop off in participation isn’t any greater than the drop-off in voting in national elections.
About 20 percent of the registered voters, on average, will attend the town meeting in towns of under 5,000. That percentage might seem kind of low. But compare that to national elections which you only have to attend once every four years, it only takes a half-hour, and it’s not work. You don’t sit in hard chairs and listen to people argue.

Town meeting is a lot of work, people don’t understand that. We turn out 20 percent year in and year out for something that essentially kills a day and for most people a good portion of a day’s salary. If you asked American citizens every four years to do something that would cost them most of a day’s pay and take at least five hours — forget it.

Is there a population level where town meeting just doesn’t work anymore?
Right around 5,000 registered voters, it gets tough to stretch it over a system that big. Growing Chittenden County towns like Williston or Colchester struggle with it. Brattleboro has a representative town meeting. Every little neighborhood of 100-200 people comes together. That’s a real good alternative.

John McLaughry and I wrote a book together called The Vermont Papers which deals with how we can recreate democracy on a human scale. I’m a decentralist communitarian, which means that political parties don’t mean much. I don’t care if it is General Motors or the U.S. Department of Education, they are both big bureaucracies that are both fundamentally undemocratic because ordinary people really don’t have a say in them.

My ideology is with the small is beautiful crowd. Applying that philosophy to schools, for instance, I think of my high school experience in Newbury, Vermont. I was in the senior play. I was on the debate team, basketball, baseball. Not only was there a place for any kid to participate, people would come and get you to participate. Hard core working class and poor kids, everybody knew there was a chance for them, they didn’t get lost. Studies that measure self-esteem, academic prowess, involvement in extracurricular stuff, indicate that the best size for a graduating class in a high school is between 30 and 70. Think about that…

I went back to my high school reunion last Saturday night. The Class of 1953 was there. They graduated 11. Ten of them were there, and the only one who wasn’t had died. There’s got to be a reason for that — and that’s conservatism in the best sense of the word, preserving values, sense of enduring community and place, the things that hold a nation together.

That’s my politics, keep it small. The basketball isn’t good, but everybody gets to play.

If small-scale town meetings make for better communities, do you think they also create better individuals?
Both of those things are up in the air. My view is that they do. There are some scholars who say that they just ask too much of human beings. I think that when you go to a town meeting you see a lot of intolerance, you see a lot of ignorance, but that’s because it is open, honest government. You can’t hide the fact that you’re an ass or a damn fool. We’ll come home after town meeting and my wife will say, “God, why did you say that, what a stupid…”
Someone once said that Adolf Hitler as the chancellor of Germany was a horror, but Adolf Hitler at town meeting would be immediately recognized as a jackass.

A lot of the national data shows that the states that have the strongest civil societies that are most tolerant of one another are the states that have in their tradition either strong town meeting systems or strong labor unions, places where people learn to participate in groups.

Your book also explores gender issues at town meeting. Could you talk a little bit about that?
There is no legislative institution in America in which women have more power than in town meeting in Vermont. Town meetings are legislatures, they make laws, and about an average of 48 percent of those attending are women. That beats any state legislature, the American Congress can’t come close, city councils on average are much lower.
In many towns in Vermont, the majority of those attending town meeting are going to be women, the majority of the speakers are going to be women. It is really egalitarian in that way.

We’re also noticing that the issues women are speaking to are no longer as stereotyped as they once were. It used to be that women participated more on education issues. Now that is leveling out, not because women are participating less but because men are participating more. And at the same time, women are weighing in on things like trucks and roads on an equal basis.

Do you think Vermont’s small-town aura could help Howard Dean in his bid for a presidential nomination?
I think that would strike a resonant chord with Americans. But I don’t think Howard Dean is a part of that; I don’t think he has any claim at all. I think most of what he would have done to Vermont would have destroyed that. I’m not being critical of Howard, I think he’s a bright guy, I just think it would be very artificial.

Who are some Vermont politicians you see eye to eye with?
Peter Clavelle. John McLaughry. Bernie Sanders is the only guy I’ve ever done an ad for. I like Jim Douglas a lot, he is a decent, good guy, a hard worker. I don’t like his politics on school choice; that puts me on the outs with the Republicans. On the other hand, I don’t like school unions and that puts me on the outs with the Democrats. I’m really an oddball.
I liked Dick Snelling’s competence. I liked Howard Dean’s competence. I liked Madeleine Kunin’s courage. If you want a real Democrat, she’s the one. If you were to compare Madeleine Kunin’s attempt to put Democratic Party programs in place as governor, she exhibited much more courage and moxie and drive than Howard did.

Back during Vermont’s state bicentennial you debated Supreme Court Justice John Dooley on the issue of Vermont’s secession. You argued pro-secession then, are you seeing that as a good idea these days?
I do think the future is going to have to be a future where we re-think political lines and even nation-states. As an intellectual exercise, it is worth a book to imagine Vermont as a republic. What’s scary is, if you do that seriously — put all of the reasons why we should and why we shouldn’t on the table — you say, “You know it would probably work out.” The only real reason it wouldn’t is that the government wouldn’t let us and we have no military power.

But at some point, people like me get paid to think outside the — I hate that expression — to think creatively about the future. If I think creatively, I think about a world where Vermont has maybe more to do with a maritime province in Canada, a world where government is bio-regionally conceived.

I consider secession a worthy intellectual exercise, but my generation couldn’t actually do it because we love America too much. I couldn’t sit around and let a bunch of crazy Vermonters like me pull down the American flag. My heart would break.