A talk with professor Frank
interview by TOM WEAVER
Depending on the point hes 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.
Its hard work living out here and it isnt as much fun as
it is put up to be. I dont 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. Its kind of cute and funny and artsy
and all that, but youve 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 thats 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
Its both a blessing and a burden. Were expected to be better
for some silly reason, and were not. God didnt bless us;
were 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 were forced to in a small town.
If I drive down the road and theres someone in the ditch, I dont
dare go past them, because I might see them down at the village store
and Id have to explain why I didnt stop. Youd never
say, I dont like that jerk, Im not going to stop.
Plus, I expect some reciprocity, knowing that theyll help me out
on the day when Im 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 havent seen in 20 years, Ill
ask them where they went to town meeting, and theyll always remember,
and then theyll tell me a story about it. Im proud as hell
of that fact. So, they really learned something about democracy and
the academic world both. Theres nothing like putting a kid right
in the middle of it.
Between all of my years at UVM, and St. Mikes before that, Ive
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
Youve been closely watching Vermont town meetings for almost
30 years now, what are some of the ways theyve 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 isnt
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 its
not work. You dont sit in hard chairs and listen to people argue.
Town meeting is a lot of work, people dont 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 days salary.
If you asked American citizens every four years to do something that
would cost them most of a days pay and take at least five hours
Is there a population level where town meeting just doesnt
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. Thats
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. Im
a decentralist communitarian, which means that political parties dont
mean much. I dont 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 dont have a say in
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 didnt 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 wasnt had died. Theres got to be a reason for
that and thats conservatism in the best sense of the word,
preserving values, sense of enduring community and place, the things
that hold a nation together.
Thats my politics, keep it small. The basketball isnt 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 thats because it is open, honest
government. You cant hide the fact that youre an ass or
a damn fool. Well 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 cant
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.
Were 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 Vermonts 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 dont
think Howard Dean is a part of that; I dont think he has any claim
at all. I think most of what he would have done to Vermont would have
destroyed that. Im not being critical of Howard, I think hes
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 Ive
ever done an ad for. I like Jim Douglas a lot, he is a decent, good
guy, a hard worker. I dont like his politics on school choice;
that puts me on the outs with the Republicans. On the other hand, I
dont like school unions and that puts me on the outs with the
Democrats. Im really an oddball.
I liked Dick Snellings competence. I liked Howard Deans
competence. I liked Madeleine Kunins courage. If you want a real
Democrat, shes the one. If you were to compare Madeleine Kunins
attempt to put Democratic Party programs in place as governor, she exhibited
much more courage and moxie and drive than Howard did.
Back during Vermonts state bicentennial you debated Supreme
Court Justice John Dooley on the issue of Vermonts secession.
You argued pro-secession then, are you seeing that as a good idea these
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. Whats scary
is, if you do that seriously put all of the reasons why we should
and why we shouldnt on the table you say, You know
it would probably work out. The only real reason it wouldnt
is that the government wouldnt let us and we have no military
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
couldnt actually do it because we love America too much. I couldnt
sit around and let a bunch of crazy Vermonters like me pull down the
American flag. My heart would break.