On April 12th, a group of students from The Sharon Academy joined 1,000+ Vermonters at the State House for a student-organized rally on climate change. I’ve been thinking about that group of students and what they represent. So much work went into the day as students from around the state built connections with the goal of making their communities (and planet) more livable. They were exchanging views and petitioning their government. The messages on climate change were motivating and encouraging, but it was their enthusiastic engagement in civil society that I found inspirational.
Since last fall’s campaign, I’ve thought a lot about how our civil society is functioning. My wife Laurel, a former aide to Bill Bradley, recently reminded me of the Senator’s landmark 1995 speech on civil society. She was with him at the National Press Club when he told his audience that, “any prescription for America must understand the advantages and limits of both the market and government… how neither is equipped to solve America’s central problems, which are the deterioration of our civil society and the need to revitalize our democratic process.” Senator Bradley went on to define civil society as “the place where Americans make their homes, sustain their marriages, raise their families, hang out with their friends, meet their neighbors, educate their children, and worship their God…It’s where opinions are expressed and refined, where views are exchanged and agreements made, where a sense of common purpose and consensus are forged.” He used the metaphor of the three-legged stool to emphasize the central role that civil society plays in a functioning democracy. “Government and the market,” he warned, “are not enough to make a civilization. There must be a healthy, robust civic sector, a space in which the bonds of community can flourish…Without the third leg of civil society, the stool is not stable and cannot provide support for a vital America.”
In the 22 years since that speech, America has retreated further into opposing camps of Democrat vs. Republican, government vs. market, greater good vs. individual rights. Of course, civil society has changed massively in the last half century. In my parents’ generation, civil society was anchored in families, churches, unions, Rotary and Lions Clubs, and Robert Putnam’s bowling leagues. Today, we swim in a sea of social media, connecting with one click to friends and family five time zones away. Certainly our civil society is less subject to geographic boundaries. Is our ability to engage in civil society slipping away? Can we reverse our civil society’s atrophy so that it can act as an adequate shock absorber between the amorality of the market on the one hand and the well-intentioned but heavy hand of government on the other?
At Town Meeting last month in Sharon, I had the chance to chat with Nicole Antal, who was volunteering at the pre-meeting breakfast put on by the Sharon Energy Committee. You may know Nicole as the Sharon library director and DailyUV contributor who broke the story about the planned NewVistas development. Later in the day Nicole was headed to St. Albans to take her exam to become a U.S. citizen. Curious about the documents one studies to become a U.S. citizen, I found The Citizen’s Almanac put out by the Department of Homeland Security. Among the “Responsibilities of a Citizen,” the almanac notes the obligation to “stay informed of the issues affecting your community,” “participate in the democratic process,” and “participate in your local community.” These might also fall under the heading, How to Build a Civil Society. (BTW, Nicole will be sworn in as a U.S. citizen on June 23rd. Congratulations, Nicole!)
At Town Meeting in Thetford, during the usually uneventful discussion of the town’s financial support for community-based non-profits, we had a discussion about the town’s community nurse (Cindy Grigel, Thetford's community nurse is pictured here). It turned out townsfolk were dissatisfied with the $3,500 request made by The Community Nurse of Thetford. Noting the nurse’s essential role of caring for community members and helping seniors age in place, the assembly voted to instead allocate $8,000 of support.
Earlier this month, the Norwich Historical Society hosted a talk by David Hackett Fischer, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Paul Revere’s Ride. Stuck in Montpelier, I missed the talk but was moved to revisit the book about America’s most famous silversmith. Fisher’s Paul Revere is very different from Longfellow's Paul Revere who we were introduced to as children. Fischer celebrated Revere as a network builder, organizer, and activist. Revere didn’t ride indiscriminately to every village and farm shouting the alarm. He, literally, knew upon which doors to knock. As Fisher explains, Revere and the other midnight riders “went systematically about the task of engaging town leaders and military commanders in their region. They enlisted its churches and ministers, its physicians and lawyers, its family networks and voluntary organizations.” They built a network, a social web of relationships rooted in the bedrock of sustained effort toward a common cause. Revere’s civil society was not the flimsy stuff of mailing lists, donor rolls, or Facebook “likes.”
A couple of weeks ago at the Morrill Homestead in Strafford, I met with a group of concerned citizens who had formed the Alliance for Vermont Communities (AVC). Made up of folks from Strafford, Sharon, and a handful of other towns, they have come together to take on an out-of-state developer with hundreds of millions of dollars dedicated to building a 20,000-resident utopian development in the hills above the White River. AVC’s civil campaign is built on house-to-house networking in the affected neighborhoods, raising the alarm with local selectboards and planning commissions, bringing legal experts in to bolster the cause, engaging with their representatives and governor, and taking their case to Town Meeting assemblies.
With the classic strong man in mind, whether they be a utopian real estate developer looking to bend the law and landscape to their will, or a real estate developer who happens to be the President of the United States, I am inspired by this ominous video clip of a prescient Justice David Souter from back in 2012. He warns of “pervasive civic ignorance” in America and its potential to conclude with a passive concession to a strong man. “That is the way democracy dies.”
Those fears are partially assuaged by the strength of the civil society in our local towns. Our Town Meetings and citizen reporters. Our community nurses and historical societies. Our activist students finding their civic voice to play their part in a civil society. While I take heart in our local civil society, it remains to be seen whether our broader nation can fortify Bradley’s rickety third leg of the stool.
Some Montpelier pictures from the last month:
Erik Goodling, the Chair of Strafford's school board, came to the State House on April 4th to testify on S.122, a bill to make adjustments to Act 46 (the school consolidation law). I have been working with Jim Masland and a number of other legislators to add language to this bill to allow more flexibility for districts pursuing "alternative structure" school districts under Act 46.
One of March's snow storms overwhelmed the snow removal crew at the State House. The House Speaker did her part in helping dig out the Lieutenant Governor's car.
"Pat the Patriot" showed up at the State House on April 7th with the Super Bowl trophy. While my enthusiasm for the Patriots has waned with Bill Belichik's association with Donald Trump, it was fun to celebrate the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.
The VT League of Cities and Towns annual meeting was attended by Town Clerks Debra St. Peter (Sharon) and Tracy Borst (Thetford) and Thetford Select Board members Stuart Rogers and James Dixon.
During school vacations, we had bring-your-son-to-work day at our house. Tucker (left) and Mack (below) joined me at the State House and heard debates on the 2018 budget and on the gender-free bathroom bill. The Speaker asked Mack to bring the gavel down on the April 21st session.