YANKEE  The Magazine of New England Living

March/April 2004

Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works
by Frank M. Bryan
(University of Chicago Press; $19)

Political scientist Frank Bryan calls himself "a passionate believer in real democracy -- where the people make decisions that matter, on the spot, in face-to-face assemblies that have the force of law." For more than three decades, Bryan has focused that passion on the town meeting, perhaps the ultimate icon of traditional New England life.

His is not a sentimental passion. "Numbers fascinate me," he says, with laconic Yankee understatement, and this book bristles with numbers as Bryan applies the methods of social science to the venerable but, in his view, poorly documented institution of the Vermont town meeting.

Over the years, Bryan and his student researchers sat through dozens of town meetings and recorded in detail what happened there: who spoke, how often, how many women, how many men, older versus younger residents, newcomers versus old-timers. He is adept at capturing both the routine and the occasional deviation, such as efforts by activists to use town meetings as a forum for national and global issues.

Bryan sees town meeting as an institution that promotes "forbearance in the face of others' intolerance." The book is punctuated by vignettes labeled "Witness," narrative accounts of specific town meetings that capture the texture of these annual assemblies, with their forbearance-inspiring rituals and time-honored formal phrases, from the moderator's "What is your pleasure?" that heralds each vote to the frustrated citizen's demand to "Move the question!"

"At a New England town meeting," Bryan proclaims, "[Adolf Hitler] would have at once been recognized as a flaming jackass and subtly ostracized into impotence." The serious point buried in his exuberant hyperbole is the lesson at the heart of this immensely readable and valuable book. - J.A.