Vyto Starinskas / Staff FILE Photo
Pittsfield Select Board members calmly debate a point at town meeting. Vermont will host a conference next weekend to celebrate its relative civility in political discourse.
MONTPELIER — With its town meetings, tiny legislative districts and heavy premium on retail politics, Vermont has long prided itself on being an exemplar of constitutional democracy. And as national pundits decry the levels to which partisan rancor has sunk, Vermont next weekend hosts a conference to celebrate its relative civility.
“Civility & Political Discourse in Vermont: How Do We Compare to the Nation?” convenes a panel of local dignitaries to ruminate on the state of politicking here, and the extent to which Vermont is insulated from the vitriol that infects the dialogue elsewhere.
The result of a $15,000 grant from the American Bar Association and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the event’s organizer says he aims to spotlight the rhetorical decency that characterizes public debate in the Green Mountains.
“We’re just going to have a conversation about political discourse in Vermont, and how it might be different than other states and on the national scene,” says Robert Paolini, executive director of the Vermont Bar Association. “We have a hunch it is different. People may prove us wrong, but we think it is.”
Former Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court Jeffrey Amestoy will be among the panelists guiding the discussion. He says Vermont seems to enjoy a spirit of civility that enriches the quality of public debate.
“We have the advantage of scale and community and a long history of respect of individual perspectives, and I think we have a responsible media and an absence of really negative campaigning,” says Amestoy, now a fellow at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University. “And so I think all those components give us a better chance than other parts of the country may have in maintaining a very vigorous but respectful and appropriate public and community dialogue.”
Amestoy says a well-functioning constitutional democracy depends on the preservation of that civility, lest the battle of ideas devolve into a war of words.
“I think in any kind of relationship … one always hopes that no matter how different and even strident the discussions might be, that you come away with respect for those you debate with, respect for different points of view,” Amestoy says. “And one way to protect that it is to make sure it never crosses over the line into assault and real hatred.”
When arguments emanate from places of anger and hate, Amestoy says, “I think the first thing you risk is you’re not listening.”
“And if you’re not listening, then you’re not going to hear perspectives that may be valuable or may change your mind, or may just be better,” he says.
As individuals begin to close their minds, Amestoy says, “society itself will close its mind.”
“And that’s a long way from the vigorous constitutional democracy and discussion and free expression that are the hallmarks of this country,” he says.
The conference, which includes a keynote address by James Leach, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, runs from 8:30 a.m. to noon on Saturday, June 1 at the Capitol Plaza in Montpelier. The event is free and open to the public, and includes a buffet breakfast.
Panelists include Secretary of Natural Resources and former Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz, VPIRG head Paul Burns, and Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development.
For more information, visit www.vtbar.org.
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