Letter: The Rise of Political Parties in Amherst Has Diminished Local Democracy


Photo: istock

I was sad to receive a campaign mailer from the Progressive Coalition for Amherst. This isn’t because I’m opposed to their program or have substantial disagreement with their positions on most of the questions currently at issue in the next town election. Rather it is because I see the formation of political parties as necessarily pushing people farther apart. Political parties tend to stifle debate by taking hard positions on the questions of the day. They lead to extremism and resistance to compromise. They encourage the narrowing of opinions to the lowest common denominator of that which is supported by everyone in the party, and work against the expression of nuanced positions. They engage in branding, with logos and abbreviations, which pushes people into the tribalism that has created such dysfunction in our national politics.

Of course, the PCA isn’t the first political party in our local politics. Amherst Forward (AF), formerly named “Amherst for All”, has been engaged in this process from the very beginning of the change in our form of government. It organized and raised funds to support the campaign for the change from town meeting to town council, and by advancing that process ended up in control of town government.

With, up to now, not enough in the way of effective resistance, AF has managed to steer the town in what some consider an extreme change in the direction and speed of development. The forces pushing development were formerly held back, to the extent that they were, by the cumbersome nature and inherent resistance to change of the town meeting form of government. With town meeting out of the way there has been no counteracting force to slow down the program advanced by AF. It’s hard to argue that the chaotic nature of town meeting was the best form of government, but the absence of checks and balances when a single party is in control is worse. The formation of an opposing political party, the PCA, is the inevitable and necessary result.

There is no way in our society to prevent the formation of parties and factions and the tendency toward tribalism and extremism, but it’s not a good thing. The only defense would be the wisdom, good will, and common sense of the people. Would that we could depend on that. I don’t know what a practical and achievable solution is, and it makes me sad to see things moving in this direction.

Lou Conover

Lou Conover is a resident of Amherst.

Spread the love

4 thoughts on “Letter: The Rise of Political Parties in Amherst Has Diminished Local Democracy

  1. Another blow to local democracy has been the lack of balance found in candidate support letters published by the area’s most widely read newspaper, the Daily Hamphire Gazette.

    In the month of October I count 16 letters to the Gazette editor in support of candidates running in the Nov. 7 Amherst election. 14 supported candidates endorsed by Amherst Forward. The remaining two were in support of Town Council candidate Jamie Daniels who is endorsed by neither AF nor the Progressive Coalition of Amherst. However, the two letter writers both have Amherst Forward affiliations — one as a donor and one as a former candidate backed by AF.

    With the widespread lack of understanding and voter disinterest in local politics, the Gazette’s willingness to print only Amherst Forward messages will likely perpetuate the free-spending and free-building agenda of most Town leaders. Perhaps this is not surprising given the role the Gazette played in the passage of the new Amherst charter.

  2. It’s not too late to submit letters to the Gazette in support of other candidates. And to get the word out to our own informal networks, the most effective way of building support. Six more days to go, and every day can make a difference.

  3. I appreciate Lou Conover’s comments and I agree that the growth of political factions in Amherst is both sad and inevitable. but I’m not sure I would apply the charge of tribalism to them. Tribalism makes distinctions based upon differences of identity and examples of tribal instincts in Amherst, allied with differentiation of power and control, has been much noted and commented on.

    However, I do have the impression that differences between Amherst Forward and the Progressive Coation are based on policy disagreements, and apart from Amherst Forward’s desire to contain and control Amherst politics those disagreements are real and important and should be the object of public debate and discussion. Recent developments downtown, with proposed zoning changes, in the schools, and with the plans for the library illustrate fundamental differences between the two PACs , and give Amherst voters plenty of grounds for making decisions next Tuesday.

    My own positions on these matters are closely aligned with the candidates supported by the Progressive Coalition, almost all of whom had strong public records prior to their endorsement by the PAC. Bowing to the inevitability of PACs, I am glad that the Progressive Coalition gives support and encouragement to candidates whose records, public statements and actions give me hope for the future of our town.

  4. Lou Conover’s letter is not only appreciated, but — somewhat spookily — articulates thoughts shared between this Indy commenter and another frequent Indy commenter on a long phone call just last weekend: Lou
    has certainly captured some of “The Amherst Zeitgeist” here!
    And one of Lou’s most salient sentences

    “They encourage the narrowing of opinions to the lowest common denominator of that which is supported by everyone in the party, and work against the. expression of nuanced positions.” almost echoed a conversation I had with a fellow former Town Meeting Member when dropping off my early-ballot and paying my taxes in Town
    Hall earlier this week.

    When I greeted this fellow (who used to call me at home from time to time when I was on the Select Board, and we’d have good discussions on Town issues, even if we didn’t always agree when it came time to vote)
    I smiled and reminded him how nice it was that we could agree on some things. And he wryly admitted that we both agree on “the common decency of humanity” (I paraphrase here), but he insisted that
    our voting records were almost perfectly opposed, so he couldn’t imagine we agreed on much else.

    So I pointed to the room he was gatekeeping, and told him that the late Walter Wolnik (another former Town Meeting Member) and I had sat in that room for many hours each month while serving together for
    years on the Amherst Public Transportation Committee, and that although we didn’t always agree, our discussions over the differences benefitted the policies that we recommended for adoption.

    The fellow former Town Meeting Member chuckled as he remembered how closely his and Walter’s voting records aligned as well . . . and then we both confessed how we agreed how wonderful it was for Walter to
    have generously donated millions of dollars to support classical music programming on WFCR/NEPM!! https://www.amherstbulletin.com/Late-Amherst-resident-makes-$3-million-gift-to-NEPM-52693256

    And then he went on to admit that Town Meeting would likely have been a much better forum to have discussed
    and develop the Amherst CRESS program . . . .

    So, in the course of a few minutes in line to pay my real estate taxbill, we two putatively-disagreeable people engaged in a high-level —even nuanced — discussion, and tripled our “agreement quotient”!!! Perhaps there’s still hope. . . ?

Leave a Reply

The Amherst Indy welcomes your comment on this article. Comments must be signed with your real, full name & contact information; and must be factual and civil. See the Indy comment policy for more information.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.