We speak with Meg Mott—political theory professor, constitutional scholar, and the moderator at Putney’s town meeting—about the ongoing threats to Vermont’s town meeting tradition.
We featured a much shorter interview with Meg in the “A Town Solves a Problem” episode of Before Your Time, our podcast with the Vermont Historical Society. Since we could only use a few minutes of our conversation in that piece, we’d like to share more of our discussion here.
This episode is part of the “Why it Matters: Civics and Electoral Participation” initiative sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Federation for State Humanities Councils.
Meg Mott: What are our values? Are the values that we want to get out of here fast? We want quick decision making? Or are our values we want to learn. We want to know who our neighbors are. We want to think about an issue from so many different perspectives that we begin to see complexity. When we arrived, we thought it was a simple yes/no.
Welcome to the Portable Humanist, the podcast where you can listen to Vermont Humanities talks and learn when you’re on the go. I’m Ryan Newswanger.
Meg Mott is a political theory professor, a constitutional scholar, and the moderator at Putney’s town meeting. She’s led a number of events for Vermont Humanities as part of the “Why it Matters: Civics and Electoral Participation” initiative sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Federation for State Humanities Councils.
I recently spoke with Meg for an episode of Before Your Time, our podcast with the Vermont Historical Society.
That episode was about Vermont’s town meeting tradition. We could only use a couple of minutes from Meg and my conversation in that piece. So we’d like to share more of our discussion here.
Ryan Newswanger: I try to come up to speed by doing research, and I think probably that most of the research I’ve done for this is by having attended town meetings in the past. I’m probably not the only one who would look forward to a town meeting with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. I wonder, do you hear from people that town meeting is obsolete and maybe there’s a better way to do this.?
Meg Mott: I think I became town moderator five or maybe six years ago now. I can’t remember. So people don’t usually come to me and say town meeting is obsolete. When I was at Marlboro College and it runs through town meeting using Robert’s Rules, there was always a moment when new students would arrive on campus and they’d be very confused by what is this? You have an amendment to a motion or amendment to amendment. What is a point of information and what is a point of order? How can you distinguish those two things? So there was always pushback that this was a terrible way to run a college. And it wouldn’t take very long, though, for people to get caught up in it and then ask, why isn’t every institution run using town meeting and Robert’s Rules of Order?
Meg: I think if you want to have a conversation, consensus can be very useful. If you want to make a decision, Robert’s Rules is necessary because with Robert’s Rules, the minority viewpoint gets a chance to have its say. In fact, it’s encouraged to speak and then people slowly start to make their minds up. And I like something that Susan Clark taught me. When you hear the decision, you say all those in favor, please say aye. All those in favor, please say nay. And then when you hear it, the response is the ayes have it and the nays were heard. So that the dissent, the minority position really has a chance to be fully explored in a deliberative process.
Ryan: Have you found that people who are new to town hesitate to dive in, or is it more common for people to observe for a couple of years and then start to start to speak up?
Meg: That’s a great question. I think that the League of Women Voters for a long time in Vermont tried to get out material on Robert’s Rules cheat sheet. To let people know, yeah, you can participate, who cares how long you’ve been living in this town? This is a very simple procedure. And once you figure out these rules jump right on in. Then in recent years it seemed like there was a lapse so that the people who showed up at town meeting had the assumption that you’ve already mastered Robert’s Rules. But starting in Putney and I’m going to guess this is true in other towns, groups, citizen groups in the town decided they needed to do more to educate people about Robert’s Rules ahead of time. So in our town report, we have two or three page document that gets the key issues of Robert’s Rules on the page.
Meg: And as moderator, I always say, if you’re having trouble, take your time, we’re here to help you. We really care about what you have to say. We’re looking for diverse points of view. So if you start to speak on something that’s actually not germane, I will gently let you know that and we’ll figure out if there’s another opportunity for you to participate.
Ryan: In your presentation, or at least one of your presentations, you said one of the criticisms of town meeting that people sometimes have is that it’s always the same people who go. And so it’s sort of groupthink. Is that what you’ve found in your experience or in your research? Does that seem to be true?
Meg: I used to live in Halifax, Vermont, and now live in Putney, Vermont. So those are the two town meetings I know of. And then through Marlboro College, that was run through town meeting. And I noticed in Halifax, yes, there was a group who had been in Halifax for generations, but I never felt that new people’s viewpoints weren’t accepted. And we had excellent town moderators in Halifax who…and that’s the great thing about Robert’s Rules. By following the rules, if you had a different viewpoint, it was encouraged. And in Putney before I became town moderator, I felt that we had people who had been doing it for generations, lived in Putney for generations, and then we had newcomers. Young people with families are often sort of new residents who come to Putney because the school elementary school is so good. And they jumped in and they cared about taxes and they cared about the school board.
Meg: I think the big change that’s happened in Putney and other towns is that we don’t have the school board now as part of our town meeting, and I think that’s had a negative effect on participation in general, because you want new families, people with young kids, they’re going to have different concerns and you want them to be part of the mix on town meeting day.
Ryan: And so they hold the school meeting on a different night or different times?
Meg: In southeastern Vermont, we have a consolidated district, so it’s a district meeting, much larger, and it happens at a separate time.
Ryan: What happens to a democracy when there’s a small percentage of the voters who are actually coming out to town meeting?
Meg: Well, this is probably the big concern and I’d say this is true across the country, that we used to have opportunities for people to come together with different points of view and through a process of deliberation achieve a solution that the majority of the people agreed with. And that process of coming together with strangers to deliberate is becoming I don’t know, I’d put it on the endangered species list. The jury system, which is the other place where citizens can go to discuss important matters that have significance, I mean a conclusion on a jury matter is significant. Just as a decision in town meeting is significant, it has lasting consequences. And the jury system is well, people call it the missing jury system. Hardly any trials go to a jury. Hardly any controversies go to a jury trial. So people are not learning how to deliberate, which means they lose trust in being a citizen. They lose trust in themselves. They lose trust in each other. So, when you ask, what does it mean to a democracy when people don’t deliberate? We’re pretty much not a democracy. We are an administrative state that makes decisions based on expert opinion and rules by fiat, not by decision making.
Ryan: What’s the appeal of Australian Ballot?
Meg: Well, it’s easier in the sense that towns don’t have to bring everybody into a single space to deliberate. You can get greater voter participation because people get their ballots either sent to them or they go pick them up. Then they put them in a drop box or vote at a polling booth. So the idea is you can get more people in the door to make decisions, but they don’t get to massage what’s on the ballot. Straight up or down, vote yes, vote no. End of story. So you’re not thinking about how the ballot language is crafted or you want to change it, you want to revise it. That’s off the table. So the people say, yeah, this is great, go with Australia ballot. You get more participation. That means greater democracy. But from a citizenship viewpoint, no, it’s terrible in my opinion.
Ryan: Do you have concerns about the changes that had to be made in Vermont for this year where people physically can’t get together? To allow communities to vote by Australian ballot this year if they hadn’t already approved, or delay town meeting to be outside? Do you have concerns now that towns have experimented with that, some maybe for the first time, this would start to become what happens de facto?
Meg: I am concerned in that I see a tendency in Montpelier to look for efficient administrative solutions to problems and less attention to grassroots decision making. And I want to believe the towns in the interest of checks and balances will say, no, we’re going back to this, this is one of the ways that we’re able to prove that we can rule ourselves, that we can engage in self governance.
Meg: What I am more concerned about is a governance model that spends too much emphasis on efficient results and even evidence-based governance. That makes me nervous. I want to believe that people do a better job of reaching solutions than experts who have just been thinking about things on a mass level and not on a local level.
Ryan: Why do you feel that way?
Meg: Because I think that’s been the tendency of the…I don’t want to make it sound like I subscribe to a deep state controversy or conspiracy or something of that sort, but the tendency has been for top-down decision making in the United States. Some people call this neo liberalism, a way of governing that is much more top-down directed based on economic indicators, increasing GDP, reducing social services. And I see that playing out with legislatures, state legislatures when they start saying they know what the answers are and they’re going to make the towns behave better. So I think of town meeting as a way of saying, no, let the towns have more leeway, let them go through the arduous process of deliberation, let them learn from each other. And not just say, OK, this is a new regulation, we all step in line.
Ryan: In your role as moderator, can you recall the circumstances where someone said something from the floor that sort of turned an argument? This might be a person who might not be heard from in other settings because of class or income level or education level?
Meg: I’ve seen that happen a number of times. One of the things that happens continuously in Putney town meetings is an elder will stand up. And I don’t want to make it sound like there’s a disregard of old people, but there is a little bit of disregard of old people and what they have to say. So I can think of a number of times when an elderly person has stood up and spoken about what she’s seen over the course of her lifetime. And it just puts a whole new perspective on the problem we’re addressing. So that’s one example.
Meg: Another example is when somebody who actually works the roads and is out there after the snows or after the floods or putting the dirt back where it belongs and keeping it out of the waterways, when they actually talk about what they’re facing, people listen. And so somebody who has a working class position in a town is treated with a good deal of respect, perhaps more so than in other venues.
Ryan: I feel like I’ve witnessed that as well, like some of these life experiences and skills might not be as valued in a different context.
Meg: That’s a lovely thing about local deliberation. It’s all from a specific place. It’s not just from an abstract space. Some political theorists talk about this distinction: so everybody knows a certain road or how dangerous it can be. And so when people talk about it, they’re really talking about a very specific issue. Nowadays, when it seems like people are susceptible to sound bites and dogma, that when you’re actually dealing with a practical problem that needs a practical solution and we have to spend money on it, people just start getting very specific and constructive. So that’s something I worry about if town meeting disappears. Internet talk tends to be more polarizing. Solving a specific problem together tends to build the social fabric.
Ryan: Do you have a sense that what we might need to experience this year out of necessity around town meeting, do you suspect people might say, at least I didn’t have to spend that day in that hall or in that gymnasium?
Meg: I think that’s a good question. I think town moderators are worried about that. Oh, are we about to become obsolete? So I think that’s out there, that concern from a practical standpoint. However, what’s going to be very interesting to see is how many towns have to come up with a Plan B because their budgets were voted down through Australian ballot. Because you can’t run a town if you don’t have a budget. The same is true for school boards and school budgets, for places where that’s still within the jurisdiction of the town. What’s going to happen if the school budgets get voted down? Well, then we’ll have to have a town meeting. And maybe it’ll be in the summer, so I don’t know if the Australian ballot is going to solve the problem.
Ryan: In your role at town meetings, have you seen people change their minds?
Meg: Oh, sure. I would say what happens is it’s not maybe as strong as somebody comes in with a clear sense of the issue and then they change their mind. It’s oftentimes people come in and they’re not sure. And then they think and they listen for a while and then they become sure and then they listen some more and they become less sure. And then it’s you know, the conversation goes through its orbit and eventually it becomes clear that more people are sure than unsure.
Ryan: One of my reflections is just reading faces at town meeting, sometimes there’s a look on people’s faces like “surely there has to be a better way to do this.” But in listening to you, it’s like, the messiness is kind of baked in and maybe there really isn’t a better way to do it. It’s not some of the things that we prize around efficiency and punctuality. Maybe those aren’t the highest values that we need to be looking at this tool with.
Meg: I think that’s it. Ryan, it’s what are our values? Are our values that we want to get out of here fast? We want quick decision making? Or are our values we want to learn. We want to know who our neighbors are. We want to think about an issue from so many different perspectives that we begin to see complexity. When we arrived, we thought it was a simple yes no.
Meg: I use the word citizenship a lot. Do we want to be citizens? Well, this is a glorious occupation. You don’t even have to have a job and you can be a citizen. You don’t have to have a fancy place to live or drive a fancy car and you’re still a citizen. And we’re all equal when we come to town meeting, in expressing our opinion and listening to others.
Ryan: It can seem that being a citizen in modern day, all it means is voting, right?
Meg: Right. And not being a deliberative body that that weighs and considers options and then doesn’t just vote for somebody else to act, but acts. That’s I mean, that’s an amazing moment in town meeting when the people act. There are some fantastic moderators out there. And what they do well, and what I always strive to do, is to reflect back the potential of all the people gathered in that room. And that this is a moment where we get to do what democracy offers: to be bigger than ourselves, to be more than our private concerns, to carry the concerns of the community on our shoulders together. So I find, when you keep reflecting that back, this awesome power. Awesome in the sense of we should be pretty thrilled with ourselves right now. So, yeah, we get tired and our butts get tired. We have to stand and stretch. But I do feel like people get that tingle when the vote happens, it’s like, wow, we just did it. OK, next article.
Ryan: This is really challenging me, what you’re saying in terms of the advice people gave me like, don’t be that flatlander who gets up at his first town meeting and talks about how we need to have stoplights. But to say, well, everyone has a place at the table, so to speak, or on the floor once they’re recognized to ask their questions or speak their truth.
Meg: Right. Right. As long as moderators are saying, tell us what you’re thinking. And if I need to ask you, how does it pertain to the amendment we’re currently discussing and to give people the space to do that. I think that’s really on moderators to set a tone that say we want to know what you’re thinking, help us to make a big decision.
Ryan: What’s Putney doing, are they doing Australian ballot or are they doing…
Meg: Yes, Australian ballot all the way down the road. And so there’ll be an information meeting on the Saturday before town meeting.
Ryan: Not just covid, you mean going forward?
Meg: Oh, no, no, no, no. We’re going back to town meeting. In fact, we may have a town meeting in the spring outside if the voters vote down the budget.
Ryan: So it doesn’t sound like your job is as moderator…it sounds like it’s still needed.
Meg: I am going to be very sad, though, if people think, well, we just had an information meeting and I’m going to moderate that, and that seemed like that was great because I didn’t have to actually go and sit with my neighbors all day and I could just Zoom in and have my questions answered by the select board and then I could vote in the voting booth. That makes me a little worried because I don’t want people to confuse those information meetings with true deliberation. They are completely different animals. I’m not really moderating. I’m facilitating. I’m making it possible for more people to ask questions and to get their answers, facilitating the questioning of the people who can answer their questions. But deliberation, moderating means you guys are the ones who are going to come up with the answer and you’re going to do this on your terms. And I’m here to help you all work together to make that decision together. Collective decision making is what a moderator helps. Individual decision making is what a facilitator does.
Ryan: I see the difference, that makes it clear. It almost feels like an information meeting is more transactional.
Meg: Right. That’s a beautiful word. That’s exactly right. It’s not transformative. It’s not turning the many into one into an assembly.
Ryan: We Zoom in, get our information and cast our vote from the comfort of our own homes.
Meg: That’s it. That’s it. And that’s the worst thing for democracy is the atomizing tendencies of late capitalism, if I could sound like a Marxist for a moment. Where we get more and more pushed into our own little private spheres, we become more and more concerned whether we’re living up to others expectations of us. And we have very little trust in ourselves and in others around us. And this atomizing tendency political theorists have been talking about well, for a while since the 70s. And I see town meeting, Robert’s Rules of Order and the process of deliberation as the check on that atomizing tendency. That’s the antidote.
Ryan: And why is that?
Meg: Because it reminds people that we make better decisions with each other than alone in our little rooms. To quote Aristotle, the many when they meet together may very likely be better than the few good. And he was talking about technocrats at that point, elites who could make the best judges. No, he says, the many the people may very likely be better than the few good. Just as a feast to which many contribute is better than a dinner provided out of a single person. A potluck could be better than just one person’s paying for the meal.
Ryan: Hmm. And that really feels running counter to specialization, to technocracy.
Meg: This is what Trump understood. That people were really unhappy with elite decision makers, they had come up with NAFTA, they had come up with a globalized market. They had the consequences, which were terrible in the Rust Belt. And so that real sense that the elites were in charge and were making it impossible for groups to govern themselves turned into the grievance we’re still living with.
That’s Meg Mott, political theory professor and town meeting moderator.
Thanks for listening to The Portable Humanist. Visit our podcast website at portablehumanist dot org for a transcript of this episode, and for more information about Vermont Humanities.