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Town meetings

Town meetings have largely fallen into disuse although they are still held in some small communities and communes in New England and Switzerland. These are probably the simplest form of direct democracy, and one that stands as good a chance of success as any other form of direct democracy, because they involve small, local communities of people in the local issues that are close to them. In spite of de Tocqueville’s admiration of them in the US, they seem to provide a poor example of direct democracy in action. Small is not necessarily beautiful where politics and participation are concerned. The participation of minorities often requires a sizeable critical mass, and the participation of majorities also requires populations large enough to develop a competitive party system, competitive elections, a media market large enough to provide regular local news, and a set of voluntary organizations and pressure groups large and varied enough to represent popular opinion (Newton 1982; Mansbridge 1983). In an increasingly large-scale, centralized and globalized world, small communities also lack the resources and capacity to deal with the most important problems of the modern world. The unavoidable limits set on their capacity sets limits on their powers, which, in turn, limits citizen involvement with them. This, as Dahl (1994) argues, creates a dilemma of system effectiveness versus participation.

Consequently, the decision-making powers of local and community government are limited to a few local matters and, even then, some town meetings are purely consultative, with no legislative authority of their own. Attendance is generally low (especially among the young and politically uninvolved) and two thirds of those who attend do not speak (Zimmerman 1999). None of this is surprising, given that one classic study of a New England township shows it to be closed, conservative, hierarchical, elitist and hard on minorities (Vidich and Bensman 1958). This does not make town meetings irrelevant or without influence, but it suggests caution in drawing too many optimistic conclusions about giving power to the people, even in small communities where they might, in theory, have substantial influence over local affairs.

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