What Happened to Vermont?

Is the far-left state a window into America's future?

Two hundred and twenty years ago last Friday [March 4], the U.S. Congress ratified Vermont’s petition to become the fourteenth state in the American union. Becoming part of the young republic was an auspicious beginning for the small state as it joined others in history’s greatest experiment in self-rule and human freedom.

Unfortunately, the Green Mountain State—and, some might argue, the rest of the United States—long ago forsook these principles. In fact, for many people, one of the greatest historical mysteries is how a rural, agrarian-based and solidly Republican New England state became so radically left-wing.

Why have liberal-Left politicians—like Congressman Peter Welch (D), and Senators Patrick Leahy (D) and Bernie Sanders (I)—been so successful in a state that for more than a hundred years was characterized by fierce independence, rugged individualism and a home-grown style of Republicanism?

The answer isn’t as simple as some think. Contrary to popular opinion, Vermont was not taken over by Hippies during the 1960s. While they certainly contributed to the counter-cultural "feel" of the state, many of them left after only a few winters. Many of those who stayed eventually chose to shed their tie-died rags, start businesses and become part of small-town life. Only a stubborn few chose to retreat further into the woods.

But other groups—like the intellectual and managerial elites who David T. Bazelon in 1967 called the "New Class"—also began to move to Vermont. Lured by teaching jobs, a nascent high-tech industry and the possibility of leading a more bucolic existence, they arrived by the thousands.

Over time, these "urban refugees" realized they could easily join school boards, run for office and re-create Vermont as a modern-day Utopia. (Bernie Sanders and former Governor Howard Dean formed part of this wave of newcomers.) The reserved and taciturn native Vermonters were simply overwhelmed by this tide.

Other seismic shifts took place at the same time which facilitated the development of a liberal-Left ethos that dominates to this day. For example, the election of Democrat Phil Hoff as governor in 1962—due primarily to the unpopularity of the Republican incumbent—ended 108 years of Republican domination. Hoff’s election ushered in a six-year period of centralization, bureaucratization and government planning.

Another dramatic change was the 1965 reapportionment of the Vermont House of Representatives. Under federal orders, Vermonters voted on a plan to move from a 246-member House (with one vote for each town) to a 150-member House (with membership in accordance to population). Overnight, power shifted from small, traditional, agrarian towns to urban centers like Burlington, heavily populated with the New Class and increasingly affiliated with the Democratic Party.

And at college campuses around Vermont students were increasingly politicized and radicalized, mirroring what was happening across the country (and around the world). In fact, throughout the late 1960s and 1970s students at the University of Vermont and Goddard College helped Bernie Sanders get organized and, eventually, elected as mayor of Burlington in 1981. Getting elected as Senator in 2006 was simply an extension of the political ambitions he had when he arrived in Vermont in 1964.

Before the 1960s—and even before statehood—Vermont was characterized by proud if scrappy farmsteads, rugged individualists and, beginning in the 19th century, a strong sense of Republican identity. Over the years, people moved to Vermont to get away from the oppressive homogeneity of the suburbs and the interminable regulation of big government.

But many of these rugged individualists have since been displaced by wealthy newcomers searching for a 10-acre parcel of manicured Heaven. Many small farms have been bought by out-of-state developers and turned into gated communities. And the independent, hardscrabble Republicans have been replaced by these ‘flatlanders’—typically wealthy Progressives and left-wing Democrats keen on using legislative means to achieve some abstract, utopian ideal.

In some ways, the story of Vermont is the story of America, writ small. The 1960s, in both its cultural and political dimensions, ushered in a new Vermont—and paved the way for a loss of local control, the erosion of the concept of individual freedom and the death of the “Vermont Tradition.”

These are changes that all of us, not just Vermonters, should lament—for in the small state’s forgotten political tradition was embodied the same spirit of liberty, freedom, and independence which had inspired the American Founding. It is Vermont’s departure from this tradition—at the hand of people like Bernie Sanders and Howard Dean—that we should remember today.