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Our Town Meetings

They may be old fashioned, but town meetings are still a fine example of democracy in America.

12:00 AM, Mar 6, 2012 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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Vermont has fought a long and unsuccessful fight to reform and restrict the way political campaigns are financed. While defending, in the Supreme Court, the state’s severe limits on campaign contributions, its Attorney General argued for limiting contributions to $400, which prompted the justices to wonder, out loud, if you could really buy a vote for that kind of money in Vermont. If that were the case, they surmised, then corruption in Vermont must be epidemic.

So the Chief Justice asked the Vermont attorney general how many prosecutions he had initiated for political corruption in the last year.

The answer was, “None.”

Vermont lost the case. But many of it citizens continued to believe, ardently, that there is too much money in politics and that it is corrupting in the truest sense of the word. The money flows into politics, of course, because the stakes are so high. And, since the stakes are so high, the money will find a way. But that argument doesn’t seem to change many minds in Vermont.

Nor does its own experience with the campaign of Richard Tarrant, a successful entrepreneur who personally funded his race against Bernard Sanders for a seat in the Senate. Tarrant spent some $7 million campaigning in a state whose population is just over 600,000. Sanders, who spent less, cruised to victory.

But Vermont does not seem willing to buy into the proposition that money can’t really buy elections. Only a lot of airtime for the broadcasting of irritating 30-second ads.

Finally, Vermont doesn’t seem to accept the argument that limits on campaign spending serve as job protection for incumbents. This, in spite of the examples of its present Democratic governor, Peter Shumlin, and his predecessor, Jim Douglas, a Republican, both of whom would consider it a day lost if they had not done something to get in front of a microphone and make people love them.

Vermont, in short, is unyielding in its resistance to big money in politics and given the town meeting tradition, this is not merely understandable but laudable. It would be a welcome thing if we could conduct a national debate about, say, entitlement reform, without the fancy TV graphics but with the kind of civility and seriousness that a couple of hundred people sitting in a drafty school auditorium can bring to the question of whether the town really needs a new snow plow and, if so, how deep it is willing to dig to pay for it.

Town meeting may be a quaint institution but it still sets a fine example.

Geoffrey Norman edits the website

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