Academic journal article American Studies

TOWN MEETING: Practicing Democracy in Rural New England

Academic journal article American Studies

TOWN MEETING: Practicing Democracy in Rural New England

Article excerpt

TOWN MEETING: Practicing Democracy in Rural New England. By Donald L. Robinson. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. 2011.

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. …

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