by Oliver Broudy
I moved to Amherst seven years ago, having renounced big city living, together with the feverish and (for me) mostly directionless aspirationalism that went with it. To a recovering urban dweller there is something particularly appealing about a small New England town. In a world where folly can often be traced to human disconnect there’s a lot to be said for chatting on the soccer field sidelines, knowing the owner of the local book store, and above-the-fold headlines announcing the recovery of a lost dog.
But what appealed to me most when I moved here was the novel prospect of self-determination—actually being able to have a say in how the town was run. Such a thing was unthinkable in the city, where feeling helpless as the world changed around you (usually for the worse) was par for the course. In a small town you could at least ensure that sanity prevailed in your own little corner of the world. Particularly in a small town like ours. After all, we already agreed on most things (84% of us voted for Clinton—the fifth highest percentage among 351 Massachusetts towns), and enjoyed an unusually high level of education (over 40% have a masters or higher). The nation might stumble, but here, in our cohesive little hamlet, the future was ours to decide.
Our very form of government seemed to cater to such idealism. Every spring 240 elected representatives would convene in the middle school auditorium to decide what needed doing. So it must have been in the euphoric beginning, when our ancestors freed themselves of tyranny and, like serious children playing, gathered to hash out the new game’s rules. Town Meeting was participatory democracy at its finest, and in Amherst it had been going on for 260 years.
The history of New England is rich with idealism. The Puritans arrived in pursuit of it, the abolitionists legislated it, and the Transcendentalists retooled it for individual use. A lingering awareness of the ideal (and our failure to achieve it) has been with us ever since. It’s why we work more than we have to, and take pleasure in rising before the sun. It’s what makes us worry every December whether we’re donating enough to charitable causes, and in the interim administers the guilt that keeps us from buying a boat. In the leafless part of the year a certain level of idealism is requisite in New England. We school ourselves in winter beauty in order to survive. Following the example of our poets we transmute unwanted snowfall into a reason to carry on. “The way a crow / Shook down on me / The Dust of snow / From a hemlock tree / Has given my heart / A change of mood / And saved some part / Of a day I had rued,” Frost writes, convincing, perhaps, himself.
You could see this idealism play out in Town Meeting, as honorable members advanced one high-minded resolution after another: to divest from fossil fuel, commit to net zero energy buildings, outlaw plastic shopping bags, reverse Citizens United. We were the ninth community in the nation to call for the impeachment of President Trump. We aimed high in Amherst. Why not? The ideal was our specialty. We applauded ourselves for not losing sight of it. We were the first in our state to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. The motion was introduced by a bunch of eighth graders. There was room for that sort of thing in Town Meeting. Town Meeting could accommodate the idealism of children.
But there were also problems. Grandstanding, for one. Ideals have that effect on people. They ennoble them—which is all very well and good until the nobility degenerates into eloquence, and eloquence into speechifying. As one Town Meeting observer put it, it was as if members believed themselves to be addressing not a half-filled middle school auditorium but “the general assembly of the Federation of Planets.” One Town Meeting went on for 16 nights, with each session lasting 3-4 hours.
We tend not to notice the failings of idealism. At most, we acknowledge that it can be a bit shallow. But idealism also entails a kind of blocky stupidity that is not equal to the fine math of governance. In Town Meeting, for instance, members often espoused ideals that were fundamentally at odds—affordable housing, say, and the preservation of open space—and then found themselves without the wherewithal to reconcile them.
Nor did idealism do much to improve interpersonal relations. For although idealism is usually associated with progressive causes it can also have a dimming effect on how you view others. If you did not stand with the idealists, for instance—if you did not, say, share the vision of the bucolic New England hamlet, then you obviously espoused the opposite ideal and were either a nefarious developer or one of their stooges. In this way innocent idealism begat a creeping paranoia that could sometimes verge on delusion.
Who knows why it all came to a head in this particular century. Perhaps it was a generational shift. Perhaps technology had made us impatient. Perhaps dimming prospects for the future had sapped our confidence and left us unable to stand by our beliefs. Or perhaps we had simply reached some threshold of growth beyond which our idealism was no longer tenable. Ultimately the strain left us all so jagged and brittle that it was only a matter of time before we found an issue large enough on which to shatter ourselves.
Our two crumbling elementary schools sufficed for the task. The idealists wanted to rehabilitate the schools, and preserve their community-based character. A growing faction of pragmatists, incensed by the imprudence of the idealists, wanted to replace the two schools with one larger one, thereby consolidating costs—and children.
The battle over the schools was epic. It put you in the mind of those great French battle paintings, with flags rising, bodies tumbling, bosoms bared. To and fro the battle raged, but in the end, as we know, it was the idealists who prevailed—at a cost of $34 million the state had promised if the project was green-lit.
The pragmatists were apoplectic, and vowed revenge. And with that any remaining pretense that we were somehow above the bitter dealings of national politics evaporated. Ad hominems sullied the air. Vile hand gestures. The idealists indulged in gross mischaracterization. The pragmatists formed a PAC, bought a software package to deliver robocalls, and hired a data-miner based in the Philippines.
One year later the pragmatists managed to bring a vote on whether Town Meeting itself should be abolished. The idealists accused the pragmatists of plotting a dictatorship. But this time it was the pragmatists who carried the day.
And so, after 260 years, Town Meeting is no more. Today we are governed by a town council, and it is all as the pragmatists promised. Operations have become more streamlined and efficient. The council meets not annually but throughout the year, allowing for more responsive governance. And with fewer, more contested seats there is the promise of greater accountability.
Yet one cannot help feel that the triumph of the pragmatists was in some way a defeat for all of us. Since the council took power the resolution left over from the last town meeting enjoining the United States to disavow nuclear weapons has not been reintroduced. Nor has the resolution calling out our nation’s contribution to global CO2 emissions, and vowing to stand by the Paris Climate Agreement. Meanwhile at the first public forum on the town budget, held in the same middle school auditorium where Town Meeting used to convene, only 16 people showed up, of whom only six had anything to say.
A certain madness had been leached out of the process. A narrowing had occurred. Even the pragmatists seemed chastened.
“It was regrettable,” the Town Council President said. “I’m sorry more people didn’t come.”
And what of our eighth graders? In the absence of Town Meeting’s culture of idealism would they have thought to come forward? If so, would they, the leaders of the future, have been greeted as warmly, as proudly? Would their motion have received such serious consideration, endorsed and rebutted for over half an hour?
It is not easy to place a value on idealism. Somehow it can seem disposable in the moment yet when it is gone its absence is pervasive. Also, startling. For as loud and irksome as it often is, idealism is actually as gauzy as mist. Only symbols keep it from dispersing with the wind. With the demise of Town Meeting we lost one such symbol. The only other of its caliber is the town common itself. Whatever its value may be, it has no doubt increased in recent months. God help the next person who suggests we pave it for parking.