PUTNEY—In Vermont, Town Meeting is the occasion where the audience becomes legislators.
However, the tradition of people exercising their responsibilities as local lawmakers looks different this year due to the necessary public health measures that towns are taking in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead of in-person gatherings, approximately three-quarters of Vermont’s towns have opted to conduct business on Tuesday, March 2, using Australian ballots, a temporary measure enacted into law in response to the pandemic.
In Windham County, only Stratton plans a traditional in-person meeting. Other municipalities have opted to delay their Town Meetings until warmer weather — and, their officials hope, lower COVID-19 numbers — will allow for outdoor gatherings.
The pandemic has also changed how Selectboard and School Board meetings happen.
Instead of defending budgets on the floor at a Town Hall, residents and board members are siting around virtual tables, viewing one another through monitors from their homes.
But while it appears that more people are attending these virtual meetings, it also appears that many are frustrated by the procedures of democracy.
Namely, the parliamentary procedures known as Robert’s Rules of Order.
“The way Robert’s Rules works is it allows people to be legislators in that moment,” said Meg Mott, a retired professor of politics who taught for years at Marlboro College and has served as Putney’s town moderator.
Audience members might disagree. “Confusing,” “patriarchal,” and “stifling” are some of the words used by critics online to describe Robert’s Rules, including from recent activists new to the traditions and mechanics of governing.
Mott, however, wants to make a plea for the nearly 150-year-old parliamentary procedure created by Henry Martyn Robert, an engineering officer in the U.S. Army.
Once a believer that Robert’s Rules had gone the way of the telegraph, Mott has changed her mind. For her, they provide a process that protects decency, stops special interests from hijacking meetings, and gives space for those on the margins to be heard.
“These are really rules for democracy,” Mott said.
A fragile democracy
Mott’s enthusiasm for the nation’s democracy — which she calls “almost a mystical rule by the people” — is tempered by a grounding in the ways democracy can be usurped.
“Well, as anybody who studied democracies for any period of time knows, they’re very subject to demagogues,” Mott said.
“And so democracy is a very unstable form of government,” she continued. “It’ll turn to tyranny like that, in an instant.”
In Mott’s opinion, a republic — which, ideally, is run on the rule of law through the consent of the governed — is more stable than a pure democracy.
“When I’m a moderator, I say, ‘Hearing no objections, I will do this,’” Mott said. “The mob can always say, ‘Moderator Mott, you’re out to lunch. We don’t like this.’ That’s fine. They can stop me. But they have to do it according to rules, because all we’ve really got is procedural justice.”
Because justice has so many interpretations, she said — some people believe in divine justice, others believe in justice as defined by a thought leader, and some people believe in their own rules. And her list goes on.
With the structure of Robert’s Rules, the community does not need to start on the same page, she points out, and dissent is allowed — even almost expected. This means that people holding an opposing view are also allowed, she said.
Not that sitting in a meeting listening to dissent is comfortable.
Whether it comes from the left or the right, politically speaking, no one really likes confronting opposition. Still, in Mott’s opinion, dissent is part of debate, and debate is part of democracy. So, if people want one, they may need to become more comfortable with the other.
Mott hears the criticism that the ideals of U.S. democracy often don’t exist in practice. Throughout its history, the United States has kept people away from the seats of power because of race, gender, or economic status.
But Mott feels that deep-sixing Robert’s Rules won’t help matters.
A time existed when Mott doubted Robert’s Rules and sought different methods for group discourse. These groups spanned from community-based restorative justice programs to the work of feminist and activist Sonia Johnson.
“Here’s the thing — can I make my little pitch about Robert?” Mott asked. “I realized that not one of these groups had ways to make space for minority views. Either you were with the program, or you’re off the program.
“Everybody has to be on the same page. So you start with consensus, and then resolve the issue. Well, in how many [instances] does that really work?”
“So I’ve come to really appreciate Robert, because you don’t have to be on the same page. That it’s better for a minority view for someone not to be on the same page,” she added.
According to the Robert’s Rules Association (RRA), Robert published his procedure for conducting meetings in 1876.
On its website, the RRA writes that Henry Martyn Robert was asked to preside over a public meeting at a local church. He didn’t know what to do. In short, the meeting was an embarrassing train wreck. He set out to learn parliamentary law, which, in turn, led him to create the structure and procedure for meetings that became Robert’s Rules of Order.
For Mott, the first edition of Robert’s book — originally titled Pocket Manual of Rules of Order for Deliberative Assemblies — is linked in time to the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, which gave Black men the Constitutional right to vote, she said.
“Six years later, [Robert is] going off, and he’s out in the territories, going around to places that are trying to organize themselves,” Mott said.
What stands out for Mott is that these rules were designed less for parliamentarians and more for local organizations, whether those be churches, municipal meetings, or other groups.
Compared to what Mott characterized as Congress’s “very complex parliamentary procedures,” Robert’s Rules are relatively simple and straight forward.
“I used to make fun of it,” Mott said. “‘Oh, Robert, this is so patriarchal, and if you just left it to us feminists, we’d come up with much better solutions.’”
Over time, however, Mott’s views changed. For example, she noticed that many of the groups she followed operated with an inherent you’re-with-us-or-against-us model, she said. The meetings also operated without emotional or intellectual boundaries.
“And then I decided, ‘Oh, my God, what was I thinking?’” Mott said. “We were in our meeting for hours, and then we were all crying, and then we felt totally wounded, and then we’d say, ‘You’re in, or you’re out.’”
Mott said personally she worries when people are 100 percent certain that they are right and others are evil.
A couple of strengths of Robert’s Rules include using motions to focus a conversation on one item at a time. This way, everyone in a group has the opportunity to speak on the topic, and one person can’t hijack a proposition or motion.
“So it’s another one of these things which I like about the United States, and that is that we follow words,” she said. “Which means we can all interpret [words] slightly differently, but the words are what hold our attention.”
Mott said traditionally, the meeting moderator would specifically ask the group, “Who would like to speak in favor of the motion?” and then specifically ask, “Who wants to speak in opposition to the motion?” She noted that for many moderators, this explicit solicitation of for-or-against has fallen out of favor.
“It’s so simple and so necessary,” she said.
Beyond the echo chamber
Also, Robert’s Rules provide a clear process, and they also guide the group toward crafting a decision that sticks for the long term, Mott said.
“I think Robert’s Rules allows people to be heard, which is kind of amazing right now in this attention economy, where our attention is always being extracted by algorithms and stolen from us and used against us,” Mott said. “Robert’s Rules is a place where you can get people’s attention.”
The rules also require that people listen outside their echo chamber, she added.
Debate without decisions creates strife, Mott pointed out, and with Robert’s Rules, groups have a method for making decisions.
The 2020 presidential election, where then-President Donald J. Trump fomented anxiety around the election results before and after the balloting, is an example of the national madness that can follow unrecognized decisions, she said.
Audience members at local meetings in Windham County have argued that Robert’s Rules privilege traditional power structures — such as white men — over other, disenfranchised, people. Critics also charge that the rules require the strength to speak in public, required especially when vulnerable people push back against a privileged status quo.
“That’s a reasonable complaint,” Mott said.
Mott also notes that in a system like democracy, those who hold power or control the system must also play by their own rules. When those in authority don’t follow procedures, statutes, or laws, then the community easily stops believing in, and following, the same procedures, statutes, or laws.
One of the issues that Mott feels is happening in general with public discourse, from Washington to local Selectboard meetings, is that people blur the lines between the public sphere and “the subaltern counterpublics,” a term coined by Nancy Fraser, professor of political and social science at the New School in New York.
The term refers to groups or conversations that happen alongside the official public spheres, or groups where people of “subordinated social groups” discuss their needs.
In her 1990 essay “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” Fraser argues that the subaltern counterpublics form because their members have been left out of the mainstream political process.
According to Mott, the subaltern space is also where groups can safely discuss and refine their ideas and proposals before bringing them into the public sphere.
In southern Vermont, examples of subaltern counterpublics are groups like the Root Social Justice Center, 350Vermont, or the Tenants Union of Brattleboro, she said, and examples of the official public sphere would be a Selectboard or School Board.
To be proactive in the public sphere, people must first know what they want to ask, Mott said.
“What I’ve been hearing about some of the [Brattleboro] Selectboard meetings is people are confused, whether it’s a counterpublic or a public,” she said. “Selectboard meetings really should be a public sphere.”
Mott noted that even people who follow Robert’s Rules disagree about some of the procedural nuances. As Putney Town Moderator, Mott partners with Howard Fairman, whom she describes as the resident parliamentarian. The two have created a Robert’s Rules cheat sheet which they include in the Annual Town Report.
“So, yes, we do disagree, but then I have to remind him that he is operating in a purely advisory capacity, and I’m the moderator,” Mott said with a wry smile.
Mott urges people frustrated by Robert’s Rules to take time to learn them — first, because anyone can, and then, because they can use the procedure rather than let the procedure use them, she said.
‘We’ve got to believe the system can work for us’
In Mott’s opinion, the community needs to believe in the system of governance and participate in local democracy.
“We’ve got to believe the system can work for us,” she said. “We must also believe the system can get better because of us.”
Mott said people need to believe in the words that created democracy in America, that while they haven’t been perfect in practice, they represent a place to start.
“And the words are pretty inspiring,” Mott said. “‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.’ That liberty and equality go hand in hand.
“If we say those words are corrupt or just written by white guys who own Black people, then we have nothing to work on,” she said. “We might as well just call it off, and then it’s every person for themselves.
“And then, some of us have bunkers and others of us have AK-47s, and some of us have muffin recipes,” she said.
And that, she said sardonically, could be her strategy.
“I’m hoping to make some really great muffins so that when the marauders appear, I give them some muffins and ask them if they’d like to read Aristotle with me.”