Reflections On Politics In A One Party Town
This is not a paen for Town Meeting or an appeal to bring it back. It is an appeal for more civility and less polarization in town politics and a hope that we can try to see ourselves as members of a shared community rather than as enemies.
A Community For All
Back in the day, when I was a member of Town Meeting, I would occasionally sit next to the town’s conservative blogger and iconoclast, the late Larry Kelley. Larry would always sit front row center and if you arrived late you could be fairly certain that seats would be available in that row. I had been a member of Larry’s gym for several years and so we knew each other from there and we knew that there were probably not many people in town who were further apart on the political spectrum than the two of us. And yet we talked – mostly about sports and training, and families; occasionally about Amherst politics. Our conversations were always cordial and I don’t believe we ever exchanged a harsh word or spoke to each other in a raised voice. I recall a couple of rare instances where we ended up on the same side on a standing vote and we had looked at each other with bemusement – he likely thinking, as I was, now how did that happen? Now I know that Larry could sometimes be harsh with folks – especially in his blog – Only In the Republic of Amherst – but at least with me, it never got personal. We disagreed on most things, and yet, I don’t think that Larry ever saw me as an enemy and I certainly did not see him that way. I’m pretty sure that neither of us felt that the town would be better off without the other or that one of us ought to be prevented from advocating for our views in the public square.
I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that at some time in a utopian past, we all lived in harmony here in Amherst. People brought their passions to the public square, tempers sometimes flared and within Town Meeting, a succession of moderators enforced a practice of civility when people were feeling less than civil. People sometimes went home angry from public assemblies. But I don’t believe, as is now the case, that the town was rigidly polarized. We have become a place where anger and grievance are prominent, where we are divided into opposing camps, where some do indeed see some of their fellow residents as enemies whose voices ought to be silenced or muted, and where a spirit of comity and community are only extended to some.
I recall one of the most bitter and unsettling debates that we had in my 20+ years in Town Meeting. No, not the school consolidation decision (I’ll come back to that), but the decision to sell an Albert Bierstadt painting which was left to the town in trust (meaning to be held and curated in perpetuity) but was sold in order to finance the soon-to-be-demolished 1993 addition on the Jones library. The decision was ethically fraught because it required residents to violate a trust. But in return, that action would produce a prodigious benefit for the entire community. The debate extended over multiple evenings. Passionate and compelling arguments were made on both sides. Tempers sometimes flared. The final vote to sell the painting was close. And I know that among my friends, there were folks who changed their positions on the issue multiple times during the debates, which suggested to me that people were really listening and considering what others were saying. Folks in my network ended up on both sides of the issue. But today, I couldn’t tell you how any of them voted. A hard vote did not destroy our sense of community – our sense of being part of a larger project, our sense of responsibility to and reliance on each other. And our position on that issue was neither a predictor nor determinant of how we would vote on subsequent issues. None of us stopped speaking to each other over that vote ,or any subsequent votes until the school debacle.
Of course that all changed with the vote on school consolidation in 2017 which now, almost five years after the fact, has continued to split the town in such a way that many residents who fell on opposite sides of the issue remain alienated from each other. And of course this is not unique to Amherst. In Shutesbury, a vote in 2012 to build a new library ended up in a tie and hence the effort to pass a modest $1.4 million debt exclusion failed, and today, almost 10 years later, there are still people on both sides of that issue who are not speaking to each other. And now in both towns, those bitter feelings continue to fester in the consciousness of some residents, complete with alternative histories and alternative facts that become more divergent and distorted with each passing year.
Amherst Forward And Toxic Politics
Amherst Forward did not create the toxic politics that emanated from the school consolidation campaign. Nor did they give us the politics of grievance and resentment that burgeoned during the Trump years and that divided the nation into two hostile and irreconcilable camps, operating under two different realities. But Amherst Forward embraced and exploited the strategy of toxic politics, positing that they represent a majority of good folks who care about the town and are working hard to make it better but who are opposed and obstructed by a loud, dishonest, unrealistic, and tyrannical minority who are hopelessly trapped in the past, and who are consumed by fantasies of returning the town to the failed governance of Town Meeting. They have asked their supporters to draw on past and current resentments, for example, when in a letter to supporters asking for support for the library referendum, they reminded them to recall how they felt about the school vote. And in the process of posing as a substantial majority besieged by a loud and misinformed and obstructive minority, Amherst Forward has fostered in their followers a festering resentment of those who do not share their agenda and they have used this divisiveness to successfully mobilize their followers and establish one party rule and a stranglehold on Amherst politics. This process did great damage to the fabric of our community.
Toxic politics is not just a ruthless and clearly effective political strategy. It does violence to the social fabric, creating a class of good folks and bad, insiders and outsiders, those who are entitled to be heard and those who should be silent. It diminishes and damages our capacity to find common ground, to support each other, and to pool our energies and our intelligence to work together to solve common local problems as well as to confront the prodigious existential threats that we now face – as a town, as a nation, and as a species. I can say with conviction that Amherst is a far more unpleasant place to live than it was when I was drawn to it more than 40 years ago.
Otherizing and dehumanization is becoming increasingly common, in our town and across the nation; so much so that it would appear that we can dismiss a person in their totality if they don’t agree with us on single issues like a school or a library or a parking garage. And this decline in civility is not unique to Amherst and is of course emblematic of Trumpism and its precursors – a framework of hostility and resentment that has divided us into red and blue America and culminates in an atmosphere in which wearing a mask or getting vaccinated becomes weaponized and a trigger for rage. And so when we are encouraged to resent or be angry with our neighbors or to see them as an obstacle to our desires, we’ve already been pre-conditioned to embrace such toxic sentiments, such emotions.
There Are Alternative Paths
It doesn’t have to be this way. Reasonable people can disagree. There is common ground to be explored if we are willing to hear each other and see our opponents not as evil caricatures but as members of a shared community and as people with aspirations and perspectives as complex and as sincerely felt as our own.
I believe that it is possible to achieve strong majorities on most of the issues that currently divide us. Many of the folks who were opposed to the school consolidation offered compromises that were not extreme and that likely would have brought most of the town together in support of the project.. I believe that the same was possible with the library, which it would seem, nearly everyone in town supports and acknowledges requires intervention. A slightly more modest project and a few key compromises could have fostered a massive majority that could have united rather than divided the town. But in those aforementioned cases, those who developed the proposals adopted early on, an all-or- nothing strategy and embraced, quite purposefully it appears, a tactic of polarization. We can’t dispute that over the last three years polarization and divisiveness has produced wins for Amherst Forward and their agenda (as it has nationally for the Republican Party), but it has done so at the cost of a bitterly divided community that becomes increasingly incapable of working together.
Amherst Forward and its allies seem committed to continuing with this kind of angry, alienating, exclusionary politics. One way to push them to move toward a more inclusive, civil politics is to reject their candidates until they change. This is a point they have frequently made themselves – that the public’s power to hold their elected officials accountable is to vote them out when they don’t meet our expectations. Unfortunately there are very few races being contested in this election and this too, it would seem , is fallout from an increasingly angry and exclusionary politics. After all, who wants to devote two years of their life to full time partisan bickering? Hence, I encourage Amherst residents to reject the Amherst Forward incumbent candidates running in contested elections and start afresh with a new council. Let’s send the message that we want Amherst to be a community that values all of its residents and has representatives who embrace a politics that respects that inclusive vision of community.
Art Keene is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at UMass Amherst. He was co-founder and co-director of two social justice-based civic leadership programs at UMass – The UMass Alliance For Community Transformation (UACT) and The Community Scholars Program. He is Managing Editor of the Amherst Indy.