Some say the soul of the nation is up for grabs in the coming elections.
I know they've made me think hard about the ever-widening gap between people and parties. Maybe labels - right wing or left wing, Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative - are hiding deeper issues, especially in Vermont.
Look at our Senate race.
The Republican candidate, Richard Tarrant, is a self-made millionaire funding his own campaign. It's a campaign made of intolerance, half-truths, innuendoes and braggadocio. It has left most Vermonters as repelled as they are stunned. The rest of the nation is staggering under the weight of negative campaigning, but we don't usually see it up here.
Tarrant is running against independent Rep. Bernie Sanders, who is not only the state's most beloved politician, but whose record is well-known. Lying about it in political ads is just plain dumb.
At a recent debate between the two men, I was struck by how much Tarent already looks like a U.S. Senator. He's tall, coifed, polished, manicured and tailored. In fact, he looks straight out of Hollywood central casting.
Even in a jacket and tie, Sanders, who never lost his Brooklyn accent, looks a bit disheveled. Sanders is a real independent, a real original. He fights for the little guy, the elderly, the worker, the people who serve in the military.
Studying the two men, I wondered if the deepest question for Vermonters on Election Day is whether our state is behind America or leading it. Should we continue with our progressive, creative, liberal ways, or should we change and join the rest of the nation?
For many people, Vermont is a backward place. We don't have too many cell phone towers, for example. And DSL lines in the woods remain a fantasy.
We see mostly all-wheel-drive Subarus on the road, not Hummers. We
have many more miles of dirt roads than highways. We're pretty proud
of our open spaces, rolling hills, farms and mountains. We worry about polluting our rivers and streams. We either spend a lot of time outdoors or wish we did.
We feel connected to our history. We restore and use many of our covered bridges. We tend to fight big box stores and chain restaurants, and while every small town now has strip development, many of us are not too happy about it.
We value privacy, quiet and solitude. In fact, many of us live so far out of town that we're hard to reach in the dead of winter. Yet the U.S. Postal Service reaches us all, and we appreciate this semi-governmental agency.
We're pretty tolerant. We help our neighbors as a matter of course
- winters can be severe, and who doesn't need help minding the critters now and then?
We harbor a lot of artists, craftspeople and eccentrics. High heels and lipstick are strictly optional; Carhartt is a treasured brand. The last time I checked, there was only one Botox clinic in the state.
Vermont is supposed to be the "smartest" state. It has led the way on many important issues, including slavery and civil unions. Our entire Congressional delegation voted a loud "No!" on the war in Iraq. Our sainted Sen. Jim Jeffords left his beloved Republican Party because he believes in a government of checks and balances.
So, with all this, are we ahead of or behind America?
When I think of the rest of America, I think of Sgt. Michael Sprague of While Sulphur Springs, W. Va., who, during the invasion of Iraq, told a British reporter, "I've been all the way through this desert from Basra to here and I ain't seen one shopping mall or fast food restaurant. These people got nothing. Even in a little town like ours of twenty five hundred people you got a McDonald's at one end and a Hardees at the other."
I can see how Tarrant might appeal to the conventional among us, to the people who want a Vermont that looks like every place else, and who want a senator who looks and acts like everybody else's senator. He's smug. He's rich. He's got his. He would fit right in. In fact, he already has an air of entitlement about him. As Sanders said during the debate, "We have a Congress full of millionaires. That would be great - if we had a country full of millionaires."
Tarrant wants to go along to get along. When the debate turned to trying to reform the health care system, he said, "It's preposterous to think of a state-to-state system."
But the federal government is corrupt and moribund. If the states don't move, who will? Universal health care may well turn out to be the same kind of issue as civil unions, where Vermont starts the ball rolling and it continues to roll, painful as it might be to some.
Vermont is a place that has had to constantly reinvent itself. For 100 years, from the Civil War to the Sixties, the population declined. Farmland is mountainous and rocky, the growing season is short, and there's no way to get from here to there. Anyone with any ambition once got the hell out of Vermont.
But in historic preservation circles, they say, "Poverty preserves." Vermont was too poor to plow down everything for tract homes and strip malls. Now people are moving up here because of what we have preserved in the way of our buildings - and our values.
Sanders represents the best of those values. Tarrant represents the America that worships money and success and never sees beyond a pretty package.
Vermont may have many problems, but I believe we're way ahead of the curve. Maybe we're leading from behind - showing the way towards the simpler, kinder, quieter, more humane life that most of America has lost. I hope that Vermont perseveres, and the rest of the country catches on and catches up.<
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist and political columnist living in Vermont. A collection of her columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through joycemarcel.com. And write her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her new book, a collection of her columns called "A Thousand Words or Less," is now available. Learn more about her and how to order the book at her Web site.