As March approaches, my mind slowly absorbs the idea that a season of slush and mud will soon embrace Williams, and the rest of New England along with it. It is, as anyone from this part of the country knows, a singularly unpleasant season that no one favors. It does, though, have something that sets it apart from the rest of the year, a sort of civic crown which only March is allowed to wear, perhaps as a reward for being the dreariest of months: March has the town meeting.
If any of you have ever attended a New England town meeting, you would quickly see that it embodies in microcosm all the comedy, lunacy and sweeping grandeur of democracy. Though the issues debated may be trivial â€“ a new playground on Main St., a perfunctory approval of some esoteric zoning law â€“ the way in which they are debated is a moving, even profound distillation of much of what is beautiful in American democracy. The floor is open to any citizen, regardless of color, religion, wealth, sex or any other conceivable category; one vote is assigned to each man or woman, no more and no less and the individuals casting those votes bear responsibility for the decisions of the polis. Credit (or blame) may not be passed on to some absent congressman, governor or president â€“ it is the people, in the truest sense possible, that make the decisions in town meetings.
Nevertheless, there are some problems with this system of direct democracy. It requires a very high degree of civic virtue â€“ after all, if no one is willing to attend the town meeting, it cannot be held. An attention to civic duty, then, is the sine qua non of the town meeting system of direct democracy. Also, there is the question of the wisdom of the people’s judgment: will they decide prudently, when even the most ill-educated and erratic are entitled to a vote? Furthermore, a distinct danger arises in any type of democracy, but especially in a direct one, a tyranny of the mob; will the rights of the minority be respected? These are all very important questions, but an even more pressing one might be weighing on the minds of readers right now: what the hell does this have to do with Williams?
Believe it or not, this discussion of direct democracy is very cogent to us Ephs. In a student body this small, it would be very easy to run our affairs in a town meeting format. In other words, do we need a College Council (CC)? Couldn’t a “College Meeting” perform the same duties in a more democratic manner? There are barely two thousand of us; towns ten times our size are able to run their affairs in this fashion â€“ why shouldn’t we? Every March we could convene, as a student body, but more importantly as a body politic, to decide the issues of our day. The student activities tax now in the hands of the CC could be placed under the control of the student body and dispensed all at once at this College Meeting; the group recognition issues regularly taken before CC could be dealt with in an annual vote before the whole student body. The advocacy that the CC undertakes on our behalf could be accomplished in a far more direct manner. In short, the CC could be replaced by the College.
An officer would have to be elected to run these meetings. Using the traditional New England town meeting as a model once again, we could elect a moderator. As I conceive it, there would be few differences between a moderator and the present office(s) of CC president or co-president. Where the CC co-presidents run a meeting of roughly thirty people, a moderator would have the unenviable, but nonetheless (with the right factors) achievable, task of running a meeting of two thousand, presuming that everyone shows up (which is hardly a safe presumption). The moderator, like the CC co-presidents, would be elected by the entire student population, and could just as easily serve as a conduit of student opinion and as a general advocate for student interests as a CC co-president does. In having to deal with the entirety of the student population then, the moderator would perform much the same function as a CC co-president, and would provide a similar role for student leadership on this campus.
Let me say at this point that I am not one of those perennial critics of the CC whose vehement opposition to that body has so defined the pages of this paper in the last few weeks. I myself am a College Council representative, and though I have not been overly impressed with it, I do not see it as the oligarchic country club some of its more fervent opponents make it out to be. While there certainly are improvements that could be made â€“ I, for one, would like to see meetings moved to Baxter Lounge and made more accessible to the public â€“ it is not the home of exclusivity that certain contributors to the Record have made it out to be. It is a fairly effective governing body right now, but it can be made much better, and scrapping it entirely in favor of a College Meeting is one route towards doing so. By granting every Williams student some sort of direct stake in the affairs of the College as a whole, a directly democratic system could improve the entirety of political life at Williams; that is not a goal to be quickly dismissed. The question I pose, really, is one of a direct democracy vs. a republic. For in our present system, we are republicans, believing, at least in theory, that the best and wisest amongst us should be elected by the people to be our rulers. In a true democracy, we would believe that the best wisdom resides in the heart and minds of our fellow citizens, and that they, therefore, are the most fit to rule us.
Of course, these two systems often overlap; much of the reason for a republic is that distances of time and space prevent the clearest form of democracy, though the people may be believed to be the wisest judge of their own affairs. Time and space are not a problem at Williams, but still, maybe this idea is simply fantasy, and never could succeed anywhere, even here at Williams. But New England has governed itself in this way for nearly four centuries, and perhaps we can too. The only obstacle that may prove insurmountable is us, the average Williams students â€“ for if we lack the civic drive and virtue to make such a system workable, then no democracy, whether direct or indirect, especially the former, can flourish on this campus. Let’s at least consider, though, a government quite literally of the people, by the people and for the people â€“ after all, it just might work.