Vermont Leads the Way for Progressives
The Web site of the Vermont Progressive Party, with its moose silhouette as its party symbol, looks like something put together by a bunch of Eagle Scouts trying to earn a merit badge. One of its party stalwarts, state Rep. David Zuckerman, could not be reached during the day because he was tending his 16 acres of organic vegetable fields. And the party’s populist message, in the age of corporate money and slick campaign slogans, seems lifted from the era of Eugene Debs. But the party is slowly succeeding at a time when other progressive movements are failing. And maybe, just maybe, this movement in Vermont signals a crack in the political landscape that could allow American progressives to rise from the dead.
Here is a political party, founded in 1999, which really does not take any corporate funds and refuses to discuss any potential health care solution but a single-payer, not-for-profit system. Here is an anti-corporate party that seeks legislation to protect small business. Here is a party that demands workers be paid a living wage. Here is a party that calls for state investment in renewable energy. Here is a party that condemns the “two brand-name parties” because they act in concert to “serve the same corporate interests” by “taking the most important issues off the table and preventing discussion of issues important to most Vermonters: health care for all, property tax reform, energy independence.” The progressive candidates, one of whom is making a credible run for governor, seek to represent the interests of the working class. What a novel idea.
“A lot of us do not believe that working within the Democratic Party is possible,” Zuckerman, who has served 12 years in the Vermont House, told me one evening from his farm in Burlington. “On a national scale the [Democratic] party is entrenched in the same money needs as the Republicans. This is not necessarily an individual fault, but it is the reality of politics today. They can’t change. I know many, many good small-‘p’ progressive or liberal Democrats whose philosophy is very similar to mine. They do believe they can change the party from within, but I think the institutional need for hundreds of millions of dollars to compete on the national stage makes it impossible for them to turn back into a populist party.”
The rise of the Vermont Progressive Party, which has six members in the 150-member Vermont House, is another indication that Vermont, which has battled back everything from Wal-Mart to urban sprawl to billboards, may be one of the few sane states left in the nation. And the political lessons are important. If progressives want to regain political influence, we have to, like these Vermonters, think local. The corporations, through their network of oily lobbyists and infusions of cash, have a lock on most of the huge national and state offices, including, sadly, the seats in the Vermont state Senate. But Vermont now has the nation’s only independent, socialist senator, Bernie Sanders. Sanders got there by showing Vermonters that a progressive mayor could efficiently run the city of Burlington.
Our hope lies in first capturing seats on city councils and town boards. Our hope lies in building a party from the bottom up. We will have to be patient. It will take time. But it might work. And that is why, in some ways, the campaign for Vermont governor, which pits the progressive candidate Anthony Pollina, a community organizer, against Democrat Gaye Symington and three-term Republican incumbent Gov. Jim Douglas, is one of the most important races in the country.
“If we can show people how to do it, then other people around the country, who are grasping for real change, even if they vote for Barack Obama, will see how to do it,” the 36-year-old Zuckerman said. “The idea will catch fire quickly. The tinder is out there. It is dry and ready to burn. People only need an example. We have an opportunity this year to become a nationwide presence with Anthony’s campaign.”
Zuckerman, like many others in the party, supports Obama for the presidency. He does not believe Obama will make major progressive changes, but he argues that it is always better to have a Democrat in the White House.
“He at least inspires people, especially young people, to believe in the institution, that the institution can do good,” Zuckerman said. “This is positive for the country. Ultimately, Democrats are better than Republicans. If we have a generational shift, as [there was] with Reagan, this is a net positive. Is Barack Obama a great lefty populist? No. He is not much farther to the left than Hillary, to be honest.”
“When a Democrat is in power, you can say, here are the people who said they were going to do great things,” Zuckerman said. “You can say, where are the results? You can give them a threat from the left. With the Republicans in power, all the Democrats have to be is better than the Republicans. Everyone is so afraid of the Republicans. They say we can’t afford to vote for anyone but a Democrat. I’d rather have Democrats in power so we can challenge them to be better.”
The Vermont Progressive Party might seem like a natural ally of Ralph Nader, but it breaks with Nader on the issue of where to put political energy. Before worrying about national politics, the party is determined to show local voters it has the skills to govern. It argues that institutional credibility is vital for success.
“I have mixed feelings about Nader,” Zuckerman said. “I have tremendous respect for him and the work he has done. I was very frustrated after 2000 when he did not take his supporter list and his networks and say go forth and win local office, go forth and build a party from the bottom up. It is extremely difficult, given the media and the hundreds of millions of dollars you need, to do it from the top down. It is an impossible task.”
Rep. Chris Pearson, the head of the Vermont House Progressive Caucus, said that the party gradually built outward from its base in Burlington. In 1999, the first year of the party, all four progressive members in the Vermont House were from Burlington. Progressive members now come from around the state, representing seven of Vermont’s 14 counties. Pearson said the biggest inroads are among the working class and poor in depressed rural areas. These are voters who have traditionally voted Republican, but who are suffering economically and are increasingly open to populist politics.
“If you approach them as a progressive and talk about pocketbook issues, you can get their vote,” said Pearson. “And we do. Because we are not Democrats, they can vote for us. In a funny way, they are liberated.”
The party is especially critical of the Democratic Party’s refusal to support progressive taxation. Progressive representatives in Vermont presented a bill this year to reform the state’s capital gains tax. The unsuccessful legislation called for using 25 percent of the new money collected by the state to pay off bonds and add 25 percent to the roads budget, a move that would have created employment and addressed the state’s crumbling infrastructure.
“The Democrats have been too scared to talk about what regressive and progressive taxation means,” Zuckerman said. “In Vermont we have a capital gains tax loophole. We are one of three states that exempt 40 percent of capital gains from being taxed. That is a giveaway to the rich. We offered an amendment to close it. We got 30-odd votes, including the six of us and 20-something hard-core Democrats. The Democratic leadership did not work to make it happen. They worked to kill it.”
“The Democrats are afraid to talk about populist, class-based issues,” Zuckerman said. “I don’t know why. Is it the 300 people that give $2,000 to the party in Vermont? In Vermont, one of the most powerful people is an investment banker in Chittenden County. He was behind [former Gov.] Howard Dean. … A Democrat is not going to win statewide office until they kiss his ring.”
The party believes it can slowly build a broad base of support around the state, especially given the looming economic dislocation. It hopes it can begin to institute progressive reforms, reforms that will one day reach beyond Vermont’s borders.
“Get into those local offices and show people you can take care of the basics,” Zuckerman said when asked what progressives should do. “Success in one place on a moderate scale sparks inspiration.”