Take this as a national parable. Once upon a time–in the early eighties, actually–there was a progressive coalition in Vermont designed to become a third force in politics. One of its prime spokesmen was Bernie Sanders, who became mayor of Vermont’s largest city, Burlington. Sanders duly became a leading proponent of the idea that America needed a third party of the left.
In 1988 the coalition backed Sanders for Vermont’s single seat in Congress. Then as now, orthodox Democratic liberals accused the radical progressives of being wreckers. The radicals said that yes, some creative destruction was necessary. A Sanders candidacy might put Republican Peter Smith into Congress over liberal-populist Democrat Paul Poirier, but that wasn’t the concern of an independent force. Just as he’s now bashing Ralph Nader, Barney Frank bashed Sanders’ candidacy as bad for gays (whose legislated well-being Frank regularly conflates with the fortunes of the Democratic Party) and liberals. And so it came to pass. Sanders swept up Poirier’s liberal base and denied Democrats the victory they would otherwise have obtained. Smith won with less than 50 percent.
The progressive coalition had a long-term strategy. It knew Sanders would not win on that first outing. The essential victory was to persuade progressives to vote, finally, for their beliefs, to stop deluding themselves that the Democratic Party would fulfill even a sliver of their expectations. Two years later, Sanders again made a bid, this time against the incumbent Republican. The Democrats effectively quit the field. Sanders swept to victory.
Creative destruction worked. The progressive coalition matured and expanded. It replaced Sanders with Peter Clavelle as mayor of Burlington and took numerous seats throughout the state. Last year it formally constituted itself as the Progressive Party of Vermont and put up Anthony Pollina, a leftist with years of grassroots activism in the state, as its gubernatorial candidate for November 2000.
Once again, the state echoes with the anguished bellows of liberals that Pollina’s candidacy will install Republican Ruth Dwyer and take Vermont back to medieval darkness. The Progressive Party has refused to stand down. Incumbent Governor Howard Dean is a DLC-type Democrat who never met a corporation he didn’t like or a mountaintop he wasn’t willing to sell to a ski-resort developer. Pollina, who had led Vermont’s successful fight for public financing of statewide elections, became the first to benefit from it. As required by law, he raised $35,000 (from donations averaging $22), then qualified for $265,000 in public money, the only funds he can spend. Pollina was on an equal money footing with Dean. But not for long. A court threw out the law’s spending limit, and immediately Dean inoperated years of pious blather about campaign finance reform. Five days after lauding such reform at the Democratic convention, he rejected public financing and put himself back on the block for corporate contributions and soft money from the Democratic Party.
Pollina and the Progressives have taken the Democrats’ scare strategy straight on. They say, Vote Your Hopes, Not Your Fears. The campaign is rich with proposals on healthcare, environmental protection, a living wage, stability for small farmers and small businesses. Pollina has plenty of ammunition against Dean, who has been running Vermont longer than Clinton/Gore have been in the White House. It’s the pathetic national story. In Vermont, 95 percent of men under 22 in prison do not have high school equivalency. In the past ten years prison spending has increased by 135 percent, while spending on state colleges has increased by 7 percent. One of every seven Vermont men between 18 and 21 is under the supervision of the Corrections Department.
And Pollina doesn’t shrink from reminding voters that at the very moment in the early nineties when Vermont was poised to become the first state to have universal healthcare, Governor Dean, a physician by trade, killed off all such hopes, as he did a bill this year that would have established prescription-drug price controls.
Democrats of the stripe of Dean and Gore know how to talk the talk. They don’t move a finger to expand human freedoms or opportunities, then boast that they alone are the bulwark against right-wing attacks on such freedoms and opportunities. After undermining choice and gay rights for much of his Congressional career, Gore now tells women and gays that he is the prime defender of choice and gay rights. At a gay event in Los Angeles, Dean claimed the hero’s mantle for signing Vermont’s civil union law giving gay couples the same state benefits as married couples. But he was never out front on this issue, moved only under direct order of the courts and then, in an act of consummate cowardice, nervously scribbled his signature to the law secluded from press or camera. So what does our Vermont parable add up to? Independent in name only, Sanders sold out to the Democratic machine long ago. He’s no longer part of a movement. He’s not a member of the Progressive Party and has not endorsed Pollina. In his re-election race for November, he’s outflanked on both politics and gender, facing a Democrat to his left (Peter Diamondstone) and a transsexual moderate Republican (Karen Kerin). But the big story is not Sanders’ dismal trajectory; it is that third-party politics in Vermont has moved out of his sad shadow and is changing the face of the state. The Progressives have also endorsed Nader.
“This race, a lot like Nader’s nationally, has posed the question: If we want good people to run, and they get on the ballot, what do we want to do with that? Do we wish to use their campaigns to build up a progressive movement, or do we once again want to squander our power on business as usual?” Thus Ellen David Friedman, a long-term Progressive organizer in Vermont. “People under 30 don’t give a damn about the spoiler stuff. Most of Pollina’s campaign workers are under 25. They want to be able to work for what they believe in. Demographically, these are the people who will be making the difference, organizing progressive campaigns in the years to come.”