The Potomac - The Annoying State of Vermont
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December 2006
Lilliputian Vermont and the Forces of Giantism

Richard Russo Talks About That Annoying State

Noted Welsh travel writer Jan Morris wrote in the early 1990s that her initial perception of Vermont was that it was a "glorious receptacle of the symptoms romantics like to identify as the American Innocence." Yet a few days into her sojourn in the state, she came to realize that "in spite of [her] glimpses of Old America, Vermont is actually not very American." She goes on to write "In fact, almost nothing that we foreigners think of as characteristically American can be found among these people they are totally untouched by the cosmetic veneer of contemporary American convention."

The conventions of contemporary America ambition, "convenience", efficiency, more choices at lower prices, impersonality, competition, pretense, Generica, bigger is better, money buys votes have found it exceedingly difficult to take root in the state that has often served as a text and tableau for America's moralistic self-imaginings.

Why is this so? One could point to the fact that industrialism, with its Fordist paradigm of mass production and mass consumption, largely bypassed the state. Some suggest that Vermont's decade as an independent republic in the late 1700s has lived on in the state's independent political culture. Others point to the possible influence of cross-border ties with Canada. Or it might just be that in a country that is now largely defined as urban and suburban, Vermont is among the most rural states in the U.S. with approximately two-thirds of its population considered non-urban.

Vermont's Yankee ethic, social liberalism and libertarianism coupled with frugality, is not only quaintly out of touch with American mainstream culture, but a thorn in its side. While there is no shortage of foreign commentators railing against the largess and hubris of American culture, nothing is worse than a home-grown, vestigial culture serving as a healthy and pointed critique of the way the rest of us live.
Whatever the reason, Vermont has failed to follow many of the trends and conventions of American politics and economics. Thus, Americans flock to the state in order to experience vibrant small-town life and working rural landscapes which we have largely killed off in the rest of the country. Yet there is something pathological about our desire to vacation in the sorts of places that used to be commonplace our once vibrant hometowns and cities in which Americans once lived, but have long since abandoned to the vicissitudes of the "free-market."

Vermont's Yankee ethic, social liberalism and libertarianism coupled with frugality, is not only quaintly out of touch with American mainstream culture, but a thorn in its side. While there is no shortage of foreign commentators railing against the largess and hubris of American culture, nothing is worse than a home-grown, vestigial culture serving as a healthy and pointed critique of the way the rest of us live. Vermont is like that family member, a cousin, who unassumingly makes the rest of us look like drunks, slobs, and whores. Nothing is more enticing than trying to bring that person down to our level. In the case of Vermont, America is doing its best to ruin her reputation.

For example, with the June 2006 U.S. Supreme Court ruling against Vermont's Act 64, a law passed in 1997 restricting the amount of money that could be spent by candidates running for state offices, America-at-large imposed its "supersize-it" ethic on Vermonters' attempts to secure a polity and economy of appropriate scale and restraint.

In their 1989 book The Vermont Papers, Frank Bryan (a University of Vermont political scientist) and John McClaughry (a state senator and former Reagan advisor) offered readers both a well-reasoned and impassioned plea for rethinking the scale of democracy in Vermont and the entire country. Their vision was meant to reorient the politics and economy of Vermont away from "the forces of giantism." The Supreme Court's recent decision, while arguably a victory for freedom of speech, represents one more leak in the dam regulating the flows of capital to and from Vermont. Already, out-of-state money is flowing into the coffers of candidates for statewide office while planned big-box development will siphon off capital from Vermont's local and regional economies to far-away corporate headquarters.

Vermont's Act 64 established limits to the amount of money that candidates could spend on their campaigns as well as the size of campaign contributions they could accept. In the case argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, Randall v. Sorrell, the plaintiffs charged that the law violated the First Amendment's protection of free speech, in part, because the dollar amount of the limits were too low. For example, a candidate running for governor of Vermont could spend no more than $300,000 in campaigning. At the lower end of the spectrum, a candidate for a state representative seat could spend no more than $2,000. Depending on the office in question, individual contributions to candidates were capped between $200 and $400.

The plaintiffs in the case, the Vermont Republican State Committee and the Vermont Right-to-Life Committee, along with a group of candidates supported by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Vermont, claimed that the Act 64 limits restricted political speech. In a bout of circular reasoning, ACLU of Vermont lawyer Mitchell L. Pearl argued that the Vermont legislature's rational for passing Act 64 to reduce the possibility of election corruption was moot because such corruption "isn't a significant problem in Vermont" and that Vermont already ranks 49th in the country with respect to spending in gubernatorial elections. Such reasoning is akin to stating that laws making murder a crime in Vermont aren't needed because its murder rate is one of the lowest in the country. Laws exist not just as tools for the regulation of behavior but also as a defining set of cultural norms. Act 64 defined the cultural norms of politics as practiced in Vermont intimate, local, and relatively egalitarian.

The Supreme Court's recent decision, while arguably a victory for freedom of speech, represents one more leak in the dam regulating the flows of capital to and from Vermont. Already, out-of-state money is flowing into the coffers of candidates for statewide office while planned big-box development will siphon off capital from Vermont's local and regional economies to far-away corporate headquarters.
In Randall v. Sorrell, the Court drew on its own Buckley v. Valeo decision (1976) which found that a candidate for political office, "no less than any other person, has a First Amendment right to engage in the discussion of public issues and vigorously and tirelessly advocate his own election and the election of other candidates." In Buckley, the Justices ruled that "it is of particular importance that candidates have the unfettered opportunity to make their views known so that the electorate may intelligently evaluate the candidates' personal qualities and their positions on vital public issues before choosing among them on Election Day." Yet what these 1976 and 2006 rulings show is that a candidate's right to supposedly unfettered political speech through unlimited campaign expenditures trumps the right of a democratic polity to circumscribe its own political theater to the benefit of all its participants.

As Bryan and McClaughry argue in The Vermont Papers, elected representatives and their challengers should share the political stage of Vermont with the state's citizens. The tension between direct democracy and republicanism dates back to the founding of our country. Act 64 was an attempt to mediate between these two elements of America's and Vermont's political culture the direct democracy of the town meeting and the representative democracy of the Vermont state legislature and statewide offices. In The Vermont Papers, Bryan and McClaughry argue for a restructuring of Vermont's internal political structure, so that most power would be devolved from the state government to a new unit of governance, the shire (smaller than, and replacing, the current counties of Vermont). The authors model these shires on the Swiss cantons, semi-autonomous political entities governed by a representative body. The direct democracy of the Vermont town (and its meeting) would be preserved as sub-units of a shire, corresponding with the Swiss communes that form a canton.

Vermont's population in 2000 was nearly 609,000, ranking 49th in the country. This small population, however, happens to be spread over a relatively small area, creating a rather intimate political culture. While a $2,000 spending limit on a state representative seat in Vermont might sound like a severe restriction on the freedom of speech to a resident of Megalopolis, one should take into account the scale of Vermont politics. One of the smaller election districts in the state, Essex-Caledonia-1, represents nine towns with a combined population of approximately 3,500, similar to the enrollment of a relatively small college campus. In this context, these dollar amount restrictions aren't so unreasonable. Also, Vermont's governors serve only two-year terms and the General Assembly is a "part-time, citizens' legislature," whose members receive approximately $600 per week while the Assembly is in session, from early January through mid-to-late May. Obviously this system is designed to be responsive to voters and makes the spending limits of Act 64 even more understandable.

Many Vermonters want local-scale politics and economics to remain central parts of Vermont culture, as they once were in the country as a whole. Beyond the realm of politics, Vermont's communities have been steadfast in protecting their local economies from the forces of giantism. These efforts have been attacked by those who champion the benefits of big-box, national-chain businesses and the "market-freedom" or "consumer choice" these businesses supposedly represent.

The locals were drawn into camps, with elitist, "Volvo-drivers" fighting to preserve small businesses and "hard-working, middle-class" residents claiming they can't afford to shop on Main Street (also mentioning the limited selection to be found there).
Vermont, after a long struggle against Wal-Mart, was the last state to be blessed with "always low prices." But Vermonters forced even this global colossus to set up shop on their own terms restraining the size of the first three stores in the state to under 75,000 square feet and requiring the stores to open in redeveloped, pre-existing commercial sites. While acceding to these demands to gain a foothold in the state, Wal-Mart unsurprisingly had grander plans. Currently, Wal-Mart is pushing to build six Supercenters in the state, most in communities with pre-existing Wal-Mart stores. Wal-Mart must relish the diversionary class struggles that it unleashes with its building plans. In Bennington, home to Vermont's first Wal-Mart, town residents earlier this year voted down a proposed cap of 75,000 square feet for retailers, paving the way for a Wal-Mart Supercenter. The locals were drawn into camps, with elitist, "Volvo-drivers" fighting to preserve small businesses and "hard-working, middle-class" residents claiming they can't afford to shop on Main Street (also mentioning the limited selection to be found there). The vote has been hailed as a democratic victory, in which average Vermonters can now freely send their dollars to Bentonville, Arkansas to the pockets of the wealthiest family in the world. So, the Americanization of Vermont has clearly begun, the forces of giantism are resurgent and now may even have the majority of Vermonters on their side.

Yet, despite the media portrayals, it's not just out-of-staters, or "flatlanders," who resist the economics and politics of giantism. Vermont is home to a hardscrabble, ornery core that sees itself apart, the homegrown populist agrarians that Bryan and McClaughry believe share the "small-is-beautiful" outlook with the state's recently-arrived, progressive communitarians.

Perhaps these two groups will together be able to ward off the forces of giantism, protecting Vermont's smallness, its intimate scale of politics and economy. But they do so increasingly without the power of their own laws to protect them. Unfortunately it's par-for-the-course that the plaintiffs in Randall v. Sorrell sought court action when the General Assembly decided to restrict the power of money in the state's democratic process, yet decried "judicial activism" several years ago when the Vermont Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional for the state to discriminate against its gay and lesbians couples.

Yet even without the protection of Act 64, Vermont's political culture may still stem the tide of money flowing into its state political campaigns. Vermonters know that money doesn't always win elections. In 1998, Jack McMullen, a multi-millionaire, one-year resident of Vermont from Massachusetts, was defeated in Vermont's Republican primary for U.S. Senate by Fred Tuttle, a 79-year-old farmer with no political experience. Tuttle won 55% of the primary vote, spending a total of $201 on his campaign. Upon his victory, Tuttle declared his support for his Democratic opponent, incumbent Patrick Leahy (though Tuttle still walked away with 22% of the vote in the election). It was a $250,000 lesson for McMullen of what money can't necessarily buy in Vermont votes.

Let's hope that despite the Supreme Court's recent ruling and Wal-Mart's plans, Vermonters can still teach the rest of America a lesson about restraint. We may have gotten our goody-two-shoes cousin a bit tipsy at the last family reunion, but that puerile victory doesn't really make us look any better in the long run.

 


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