Party, Party, Party
Can't Vermont's Progressives and Democrats just get along?

By Bill Mckibben
Published January 11th 2006 in Seven Days
Being a relative newcomer to Vermont has certain advantages, including the right to ask stupid questions. Here's one of mine: Why aren't Vermont's Progressives and Democrats doing something to heal their rift, before they allow the Republicans to fill Bernie Sanders' Congressional seat this fall?

I lived most of my life in the Adiron-dacks, where there are no Progressives and few Democrats. So after I moved to Addison County several years ago, one of the pleasures of registering to vote was knowing that my ballot might back a winner now and again. I quickly figured out that my left-of-center preference came in two flavors here, and it was confusing enough to keep me from jumping wholeheartedly behind either band, but I didn't really give it much thought until recently. Suddenly, though, with the Bush administration flailing so badly, it's begun to look as if control of Congress could conceivably slip from Republican hands in November's election. And so a dismal scenario emerged in my mind: What if a divided liberal vote in Vermont sent Republican Martha Rainville to the House? And what if she turned out to be the margin of victory that kept this tax-cutting, Arctic-drilling, phone-tapping, war-making bunch in power? Not statistically likely, but plausible.

I decided to talk to candidates, organizers and contributors from both the Dem and Prog camps. What little I knew came mainly from Peter Freyne's political column in this newspaper, but since he's always breaking the next story, there's not enough room for all the history. I wanted to know why the Progressives had arisen; what the costs and benefits were of having two parties on the same general side of the political spectrum; and what, if anything, could be done to head off my particular nightmare. I learned a lot -- including the fact that nothing is easy when ambitions and ideas are at stake and personalities are in play. Still, it seems there are routes leading away from trouble if anyone chooses to take them.

First, the background. When Bernie was running for mayor of Burlington in 1981, the people who helped elect him came to be known as the Progressive Coalition. They weren't yet a separate party, but they weren't exactly regular Democrats, either. By the early 1990s, the first Burlington Progressives were elected to the Statehouse. And by 1999 the coalition had become a party. The date is important, I think: The end of the Clinton presidency -- eight years with not much to show for it -- was a dreary time for the left. It's easy to forget how obnoxious the big-money politics of the Democrats had become, with Clinton renting the Lincoln Bedroom to wealthy contributors, and pushing through a series of trade pacts -- GATT, NAFTA, etc. -- that helped commit the world to a race-to-the-bottom economy.

Meanwhile, environmentalists were unhappy that nothing was being done about global warming; social justice activists were watching the erosion of welfare. It's no wonder Ralph Nader was revving up to run for president, speaking to adoring crowds at campuses nationwide. And in Vermont, where six terms of Howard Dean had not exactly upended Montpelier, Anthony Pollina was running for governor as Vermont's first "clean money" candidate. He ended up with 10 percent of the vote, and has since become a Progressive star -- Pollina's daily radio show on WDEV, "Equal Time," is an indispensable forum for non-establishment Vermonters.

Other stars have emerged, too, notably Dave Zuckerman. The Burlington Intervale farmer and state rep became head of the House Agriculture Committee last session and is now considering challenging Democrat Peter Welch for Sanders' vacated Congressional seat.

The Progs have six seats in the Vermont Statehouse; successes last year in the Northeast Kingdom have demonstrated the party's ability to organize the kind of people Democrats claim to speak for but sometimes don't speak to: blue-collar workers, small farmers and others who aren't prospering in an increasingly divided economy. "We have a two-party system that doesn't work for half the population," says Pollina. Vermonters may be "heritage Democrats" or "heritage Republicans," says Zuckerman, but many of them are willing to ignore that legacy and support a . . . Bernie.

Indeed, the unspoken Progressive hope is to bottle Bernie-ism; to build a party with the same kind of issues and the same sort of honest, pugnacious stance that gets a New York socialist Jew a standing ovation at Barre's Thunder Road. The degree to which Progs have succeeded in keeping the strands of their party together is kind of wonderful. Tune in to Pollina's radio show and you'll hear old Vermonters agreeing with new-age transplants about the need for GMO-free milk and dairies that pay farmers livable wages. This, frankly, is more inspiring than your average Democratic stump speech about small changes that might keep things from getting worse.

On the other hand, a lot has changed since 1999 -- and not only "9/11." George W. Bush turned out to be incalculably worse than many on the left even imagined. A Republican-controlled Congress has not just cozied up to corporations but turned the government over to them; we're mired in a war based on lies; much of the world despises us; the greedfest on Capitol Hill has led to a seemingly endless string of indictments; the planet just keeps getting hotter.

Partly in response to Bush's radicalism, the Democrats look better than they used to. Howard Dean is perhaps a good example; the former Vermont governor has transformed himself from red-faced presidential candidate to Democratic national chair, fighting alongside the likes of Dem darling Barack Obama. In Montpelier, Gaye Symington leads the Democratic House. Surely to the left of any other state-level leader in the country, she has managed to shepherd legislation that looked a lot like single-payer health care. In the Vermont Senate, Welch pushed through anti-GMO legislation for which Zuckerman had built public support. And so, when the Burlington Progressive gave his party convention speech last fall aggressively attacking the Democrats "because they are beholden to the same big money that the Republicans are," it sounded a little flat.

Something else has changed for third parties since 1999: Ralph Nader. It can't quite be said that Nader handed George W. Bush the presidency. But his fierce, swing-state campaigning, in combination with Al Gore's lackluster candidacy, gave the Supreme Court the opportunity to do so. In Vermont, some accused Anthony Pollina of being a spoiler in 2002, when he ran for lieutenant governor and took 25 percent of the vote, allowing Republican Brian Dubie to win with 41 percent.

Pollina may run again this year, and if he does, Democrat Matt Dunne's already slim chances of ousting Dubie will dwindle to anorexic. In fact, Pollina might out-poll Dunne -- at this point he's better known, and plenty of people think his organizing work has earned him a job. But if both run, neither is likely to emerge victorious. And if Zuckerman takes on Welch and Rainville and walks away with 10 or 20 percent of the vote, will he hand the Congressional seat to the Republican? It could happen -- Zuckerman is an attractive, mediagenic, powerful campaigner -- and it would be impressive for a third-party candidate to do so well. But it would almost certainly turn into the Progressives' Nader moment, ensuring that only the truest believers would be there the next time.

Ironically, the most powerful statement on the Progs has come from Bernie Sanders himself. He may be the inspiration for the party, but he's never run under its banner. And as he gears up for his own U.S. Senate race, Sanders has made it clear he supports a Demo- crat for the seat he's vacating. The fight in Washington, he has said, is too important to risk electing a Republican.

From what I can piece together, this is where matters stand at the moment: The Progressives have the power to disrupt the next election but probably not to win it. And certain Democratic operatives are quietly optimistic that the Progs might slowly fade away -- which has been the fate of most third parties in American politics. And so, while Dems may work with Progs on the Burlington City Council or in the Vermont Legislature, in high-stakes races they offer no quarter.

This seems to me a tragic mistake. Not just because, backed into a corner, the Progressives could decide to take the Democrats down with them on Election Day next November. But because doing so would deprive the Democrats of something they really need: a way to connect with Vermonters who aren't traditional Democrats but who are being chewed up and spat out by our new economy -- precisely the voters Sanders has so successfully reached.

That connection might allow not only for electoral success but also profound progress on the questions that matter most to our communities -- questions about whether we're going to perceive ourselves primarily as individuals or as members of a community. Bernie-ism is the most provocative force Vermont politics has seen in a long time, but it could vanish when he does. That would be a shame. How to preserve it?

Not with the status quo. The Progressives war with the Democrats even though they vote alike on a majority of issues. (Their emphases differ, it's true -- the Democrats don't tend to care about, say, GMOs in the same visceral way -- but they vote alike. Say Zuckerman somehow won the House race; he'd caucus with the Democrats, just as Bernie has done, and he'd vote their way on 90 percent of the legislation that reached the floor.)

The Prog-Dem war leads to indefensible results -- it's widely believed, for instance, that the Zuckerman threat might "disappear" if the Democrats "gave" Pollina an uncontested shot at Dubie. No one knows if that's true, but that's the point. That kind of backroom dealing is the antithesis of what small-d democrats and small-p progressives want. Meanwhile, one reason Vermont Democrats can look so lackluster is that the very existence of the Progs weakens their own left wing, so the remaining Dems may be too comfortable with lobbyists and set the bar for progress too low. (Vermont's renewable energy policies, for instance, trail those of dozens of other states.)

And there's another problem: Because the Progs are off in their own sandbox, their very good ideas sometimes lack adequate reality testing. Everyone in the room roars their approval of universal, free college education, but no one stands up and says, "How are you going to pay for that?" And that's precisely the kind of question that makes you smarter when you have to answer it.

The divide between Progressives and Democrats seems deep, but I have come away believing there are ways to bridge it -- to allow the battle within the liberal/left to be fought among friends, not enemies.

- One possibility is instant runoff voting. IRV would, in effect, make every election into both a primary and a general. Say you have a three-way race for lieutenant governor. You might rank Pollina #1, Dunne #2 and Dubie #3. If Pollina gets the fewest number of votes, he's out of the race and your ballot switches over to the Dunne column. There's no such thing as a spoiler in this kind of contest.

I spent many years covering this brand of election in Cambridge, Mass., where it's been used to elect city officials for 70 years. As Burlington voters will discover in March when they use IRV for the first time, it's not too complicated. And it has a blessed side effect. Since Dunne wants Pollina's #2 votes and vice-versa, they have a great incentive not to slag each other in the campaign. The candidates can differ on the issues, but there's a real risk to loose talk about sell-out Democrats or wild-eyed Progressives. Or even about troglodyte Republicans, since everyone wants Dubie's #2s, as well.

There's really no good argument against IRV. The Senate should have passed it long ago, and they should do so this term. If they don't, it will only be because Welch won't want to look like he's giving in to a long-time Progressive demand. But that's letting playground fights get in the way of good policy. Unfortunately, Gov. Jim Douglas would probably veto IRV if it did pass, as he'd prefer to see the Progressive-Democratic split remain.

- Another possibility is some kind of quasi-merger. This is not without precedent: In the 1940s Minnesota's Democratic and Farmer-Labor parties joined together; the resulting DFL has been a remarkable force ever since, producing stars such as Eugene McCarthy and Paul Wellstone.

A Vermont Democratic-Farmer-Progressive Party would still have divisions, but the ideological battles would be fought where they belong -- in primaries.

Almost no one I've talked to could make this sound like a bad idea, yet nearly all of them said it wouldn't happen. But surely it wouldn't be that hard for the party chairs to sit down and talk. It would be easier still if Sanders decided to play the role that Hubert Humphrey did in Minnesota, using his enormous influence to persuade others to go along. (That might be the best chance for his legacy to live past his own career. Even saints need a church to keep their memory vital.) Sanders' independence is legendary, and it's worked extraordinarily well for him. But if he ascends to the Senate, he'll only have to run for office every six years, and it's almost impossible to imagine a real challenge to his tenure. So maybe the time is ripe for him to act.

- Finally, there's always a chance that the Progressives might decide to move back within the Democratic fold even without the parties merging. When I talked to Zuckerman and Pollina, neither would categorically rule out the possibility of contesting the Democratic primary this year. It would mean eating an awful lot of words about the corruption of the two-party system, and since they'd have to pledge support for the eventual nominee, it would essentially extinguish the idea of a third party. But the Progs could say they'd been inspired by Bernie's example. And surely it would come as a relief to them to talk about dairy farms and health care instead of denying that they're spoilers. I, for one, can imagine Pollina the plain-speaking radio host or Zuckerman the pony-tailed farmer running within the Democratic primary and doing pretty well. "It would be a hard pill to swallow, but it's on the wall as one of a dozen possibilities," said Zuckerman.

Some proto-version of these last two options seems to have been in operation last week when lots of Burlington Progressives attended the city's Democratic Caucus and helped nominate Hinda Miller for mayor, after she pledged to carry on the legacy of Peter Clavelle. Such attempts at fusion are a good start.

But I fear the most likely statewide outcome is that nothing much will change. Even if they don't run candidates, the Progs could sit sullenly on the sidelines, half-hoping the GOP wins, since it would prove their point about the hollowness of the Democratic Party. And it will always be easier for the Democrats not to try crossing the cultural gulf between them and the Sanders constituency.

Even if the groups did unite, of course, there's no guarantee it would result in victory. Peter Clavelle lost decisively running for governor as a crossover candidate, and ´┐Żber-handicapper Freyne says Rainville will be a tough match even head-to-head: "Jim Douglas in a skirt, she is."

In the long run, the biggest casualty of a continued split may not come with this fall's elections. The real cost is with us voters. Rather than being energized by the extra choices, I think the battles between Progs and Dems often drain enthusiasm for getting very excited about either party. Picking sides is emotionally and tactically difficult. Most of us who care about politics have both a desire to see the world change in profound ways and an understanding that day-to-day progress is usually the result of incremental change and regrettable compromise. This is not realism versus idealism; it's different flavors of idealism.

How powerful it would be to have a political party that fully represented this fact -- and how tantalizingly possible it seems in Vermont.