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Democracy Without Politics – The New York Times

To figure out where you stood on the issue, you had a few options. You could read the arguments in your various mailboxes. You could bring it up at school trivia night, maybe, and hear what people thought. Or you could make a gut call. Those are valid ways people decide things.

Here’s what you couldn’t do: You couldn’t rely on some vaguely understood, loudly articulated party line. There was no conservative or liberal, no Republican or Democratic side to the road rerouting debate. There was just a problem that a community needed to resolve.

Americans are fond of saying that all politics is local, but the thing is, when it’s local, it’s not “politics” at all — at least not as we’ve come to understand it. That $329,700 road grader? I could figure out to the penny what part of it I paid for. And every time our dirt road frost-heaves itself into disastrous lumps next winter, I’ll know it was worth it. But our friends on the paved part of the road? Maybe they thought we could live without a new grader.

That’s the way it goes in a small town. The money comes in — from taxes, mostly, although in 2015 we apparently made $169.50 from the use of the town copy machine. And the money goes out — salt for the roads, fire truck maintenance, toner. You can count it, feel it.

Many of the people who were surprised by the result of the last national election have invested considerable time in trying to understand the differences in opinion that led up to it. They’ve read, debated and posted about how little Americans understand one another. But you’re far more likely to learn about the ways people who share any community can differ if you leave your laptop at home and go to the equivalent of your local town meeting. New Hampshire’s brand of direct democracy may be rare outside of New England, but there are neighborhood associations, school boards, City Councils and public hearings all across the country.

You may think “we’re all pretty much alike here in my part of the bubble.” But you’re not. You don’t all have school-aged children, you don’t all live on a dirt road, some of you are on the wrong side of the washed-out culvert. Those differences force us to ask the small questions that are also the big questions, the ones that help us figure out what connects us together as a town or a state or a country. What do we owe our neighbors? How do we value that which is not of direct value to us? Who gets to decide? The answers aren’t color-coded in red or blue.

You learn pretty quickly that if you don’t treat every washed-out road as though it were your own, you may not like what happens when it is.

The rerouting of the road passed, by a vote of 161 to 148. So there will be a road, there will not be farmland, this time. Next time, there will be another debate.

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