As recently as 25 years ago, political science and sociology journals featured articles dealing with local variations in the attainment of such democratic values as citizen participation, equal treatment, and inclusion of previously marginalized citizens. In contrast, such journals today tend to feature articles addressing the success or failure of various approaches to dealing with such collective action problems as promoting economic development and protecting the environment.
By focusing on the features of participatory democracy in Ashfield, Massachusetts, a town of just under 2000 people in the foothills of the Berkshires, Donald Robinson’s Town Meeting returns to the earlier tradition of community studies, but with a contemporary twist. Beyond describing the extraordinary opportunities for citizen control in Ashfield, Robinson evaluates the effectiveness of extensive democracy. In part 1, he uses the tools of a historian to describe the conditions, features, and issues of Ashfield’s origins and the evolution of its democracy in the 18th and 19th centuries. We learn, for example, about the tensions between democracy and religious freedom—how a Baptist minority was required to support an established congregational church. Ironically, it took a ruling from England’s King George III to curb democratic oppression and promote religious freedom.
According to Robinson, Ashfield retained its agricultural and isolated character for about two centuries, until “a cultural revolution” between 1960 and 1985 brought an invasion of newcomers including craftsmen, writers, organic farmers, and professionals. While this transformation led to liberal Democrats overtaking Republicans, the town still retains its ethnic and class homogeneity. According to Robinson, the relatively well-educated and middle-class character of Ashfield has ensured a citizenry that is capable of self-governance. Yet capacity for self-governance is not the same as effective government.
Robinson is well positioned to assess the effectiveness of town meeting democracy. A professor of government at nearby Smith College, he moved to Ashfield and began commuting to Smith in the 1980s. During the 1990s he served on Ashfield’s select board, a three-person executive committee. He thus combines a deep understanding [End Page 178] of democratic theory with first-hand knowledge of democratic practices in Ashfield to judge the effectiveness of a form of government where major decisions involving public budgets, provisions, and regulations are determined by annual town meetings (and occasional special town meetings, as needed). Robinson provides detailed discussions of the difficulties Ashfield has confronted building a needed sewer system, controlling its local police, and providing public education. His judgments about the performance of town-meeting democracy in dealing with these issues are even-handed and mixed. Too often, personal considerations override those of effectiveness, efficiency, and economy. In their devotion to self-governance, citizens ignore some of the economics of scale that arise from more regional arrangements. While the judgments of citizens seem as sound as those of elected representatives, citizens too often overlook the assistance they could attain from experts. In the end, Robinson judges town meeting democracy to be deeply satisfying to those who participate in it, but—like all methods of governance—subject to limitations.