Some Political Lessons from Vermont

The recent elections, which gave Republicans control of the Senate and increased their majority in the House, have raised serious questions for progressives across the country. Why is the country seemingly drifting rightward; more importantly, what can be done to invigorate a progressive presence in the electoral process?

The small state of Vermont may hold some answers. Largely white, heavily rural, it is not entirely representative of the nation at large. Yet this formerly rock-ribbed conservative state has elected, and re-elected, Bernie Sanders to its sole seat in the House. Sanders is the only Independent in that body; having served for twelve years, he is the longest-serving Independent in the history of Congress. In November, he won by a huge margin, defeating a serious Republican opponent by 32 percentage points. In many working class districts, Sanders pulled in over 70 percent of the vote. (Democrats did not nominate a candidate to oppose Sanders; in fact, in the past five elections no Democrat has garnered more than 8 percent of the vote in running against him.)

Nor was Sanders alone in doing well. The Vermont Progressive Party mounted a spirited campaign for Lieutenant Governor, a race in which Progressive Anthony Pollina got 25 percent of the vote in a three-way race. Pollina, endorsed by Sanders and the Vermont AFL-CIO, was heavily outspent by both the Republican and Democratic candidates, yet came in just seven percent behind the Democrat in a race won by the Republican with 41 percent. Three Progressive Party members from the state's largest city, Burlington, won re-election to the state legislature; a fourth became the first Progressive to be elected from the southern part of the state.

Burlington itself has been a progressive stronghold since 1980, when Sanders was elected mayor in the biggest upset in Vermont political history. The current mayor, independent progressive Peter Clavelle, will likely win a seventh term in March (Sanders was elected four times); currently, Progressive Party and independent councilors maintain working control of the City council.

It was this backdrop, in which a progressive agenda frames much of Vermont's political dialogue, that made it possible for Republican James Jeffords to leave his party, and give the Democrats a majority in the U.S. Senate for the past year and a half. It is this backdrop that allowed Democrat Pat Leahy, Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to mount (without worry about his base back home) opposition to President Bush's most conservative judicial appointees.

Not all is well in Vermont, of course. For the first time in many years, Republicans will control the Governor's and Lieutenant Governor's offices. Jim Douglas won the Governor's race with 45% of the vote against a cautious Democratic liberal, and Brian Dubie became Lieutenant Governor with 41% of the vote.

Still, everything considered, Vermont's politics are quite likely the most progressive in the country. Unlike the rest of the nation, most politicians look over their left shoulder - not their right - to see where their challenges are coming from.

How did the left make such an impact on Vermont politics?

First, many people have showed remarkable perseverance, a quality not always typical of the left. They have stuck with a progressive agenda, a commitment to economic justice, for decades. Bernie Sanders first ran for statewide office in 1971 as the candidate of a small third party, receiving two percent of the vote. After eight years as Mayor, he was defeated in his first race for Congress; running again, he was successful. Peter Clavelle has been active in Vermont municipal government for well over twenty years; Anthony Pollina has served as a community organizer and advocate for family farms for over fifteen years. The chair of the Vermont Progressive Party, Martha Abbot, has been involved in third party politics for thirty years. (It was she who, as a student of mine at the University of Vermont three decades ago, first drew me into third party politics.)

Second, and a key lesson for progressives across the country, Vermont's electoral activists consistently recognize that people are not afraid of a class-based agenda, but instead respond to it with vigor. Economic justice is not just a central issue to bring up in electoral campaigns, it is the best basis on which to build the broad-based coalitions that are necessary for electoral victories.

The reason that Republicans decry 'class warfare' is that they know that this, of all areas in American life, is the one that leaves them defined as the party of special interests and the foe of working men and women.

Take Sanders as an example. While he is seriously committed to - and has a 100 percent voting record on - issues concerning women's rights, gay rights, and the environment, his major focus has always been on class issues. He has been a leader in the fight for a national health care program and one of the first to decry the greed of the pharmaceutical industry. He has attacked, time and again, the unfair distribution of wealth and income in this country.

Sanders has been a leader in opposing the disastrous trade policies, whether proposed by Bush or Clinton, that have cost the American nation millions of decent paying jobs. He has not only walked picket lines with workers throughout the state, but has supported and encouraged every unionizing effort, usually when no other elected official will do so; in return he has been endorsed by every union in Vermont.

The end result of his class politics? Sanders does well politically not just among liberals and traditional Democrats, but among working class Republicans as well. Indeed, a recent poll indicated he receives about one-third of the Republican vote in the state. The political arm of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) endorsed him because of his strong advocacy for veterans' rights, a class issue many progressives ignore.

A third thing that Vermont has to teach is a lesson often stated but less often followed through in actuality. Grass roots organization matters, especially when we confront - as so regularly happens in America - a media either indifferent to, or downright hostile to, progressive politics and issues. Again, the recent electoral campaigns in Vermont provide a telling example.

During the campaign Sanders held over fifty old-fashioned political gatherings in towns and communities across the state. Many of these meetings were in towns of under 500 people, but nonetheless over 5000 Vermonters engaged in dialogue with their progressive representative - as well as eating chicken suppers, listening to music and occasionally dancing. People hunger for a chance to talk with elected officials who come to them in their own communities rather than relying solely on the evening news or paid advertisements to get a 'message' out. Anthony Pollina and other candidates that Sanders endorsed often appeared at these gatherings. While the Vermont media very rarely covered these events, they were extremely successful in bringing the message of progressive politics to every corner of the state. In terms of the media, despite winning almost 65% of the vote, Sanders won the endorsement of only a few of the state's newspapers.

Finally, many in Vermont have recognized that common sense is as important as political purity, and that destructive political action should be avoided. In the 2000 presidential election, Ralph Nader showed how an intelligent progressive could do extremely important work educating Americans, and exposing the failings of the two-party system. But he also revealed, by campaigning against Al Gore in the final days of the campaign in closely contested states, that a progressive could be the mechanism by which a right-wing Republican could be elected President.

There is no simple solution to the 'spoiler' issue. The problem has existed throughout the political history of this country and is why, among other reasons, that we need instant run-off voting. During the recent campaign in Vermont Sanders strongly endorsed and campaigned with Pollina, the Progressive Party candidate for Lieutenant Governor and Elizabeth Ready, a progressive Democrat who won re-election as State Auditor of Accounts. Sanders also endorsed the Democratic candidate for Governor, a number of Progressive Party candidates for Legislature as well as some progressive Democratic legislative candidates.

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