Tomorrow one of America’s most recognizable public figures will turn 80. He is a former mayor of Burlington, he has been an independent senator for fourteen years, and has twice made an unsuccessful bid for the Presidency, via the Democratic Party. He is, it is fair to say, unlikely ever to become President. Whatever you think of Bernie Sanders, though, it is undeniable that he has had an impact on his country. What is more, it is an impact that has to some degree (at least arguably) been influenced by his adopted home state.
Vermont, in the Northeast, is a curious place. Deriving its name from the French words for “green” and “mountain” (hence its nickname – the Green Mountain State), it was, like Texas, California and Hawaii, originally an independent country, not part of the original Thirteen Colonies that rebelled in 1775. It was admitted to the newly independent United States of America as the Fourteenth State in 1791. During its independence as the Republic of Vermont, it actually became the first part of North America to abolish slavery – on July 4th 1777. It is one of only four states that voted for the Whig Party’s candidate in every presidential election that the Party contested (the others being Massachusetts, Kentucky and Tennessee). From 1856, two years after the Republican Party was founded, it consistently voted for the Republican Party in every presidential election for 104 years. It even stayed faithful to the GOP in the party’s two biggest presidential election disasters of 1912 and 1936, where in each case it was one of just two states to stay red (in 1912 the other state was Utah, and in 1936 it was Maine).
As is the case with many things in the US, a turning point came in the 1960s. America’s president as the decade got underway was JFK, and his popularity and youthfulness, as well as a feeling that a new era was beginning, was reflected in the election in 1962 of Philip H Hoff as Vermont’s first Democratic governor for 110 years. In LBJ’s landslide two years later, Vermont was won by a Democratic presidential candidate for the very first time. It went back to the GOP when Nixon was first elected president in 1968, and stayed red for the next five presidential elections, but since Bill Clinton won in 1992 it has unfailingly voted blue. The state made international headlines in May 2001, when its Republican senator, Jim Jeffords, announced that he was leaving the GOP and voting thereafter as an Independent – in protest against President George W Bush’s cuts to special education programs – thus leaving the Senate perfectly deadlocked.
The job of state governor, meanwhile, has alternated between Democrats and Republicans since Philip Hoff served six years in the role. In 2004 the then Democrat governor Howard Dean announced his candidacy for the presidency, and although he ultimately lost the party’s nomination to John Kerry, he was nonetheless influential in being one of the first US politicians to use internet-based fundraising. The current governor is a Republican named Phil Scott, who doesn’t act or sound like most of his GOP colleagues these days – after all, where else in the States could a Republican governor get away with saying ‘I am very much a fiscal conservative. But not unlike most Republicans in the Northeast, I’m probably more on the left of center from a social standpoint‘? He supported the impeachment of Donald Trump in 2019, and after this year’s January Putsch he called on Trump to ‘resign or be removed from office.’ He also voted for Joe Biden in the last presidential election.
All of which begs the inevitable question: how on earth does Bernie Sanders – an example of that oh-so-rare breed in American politics, an avowed socialist – fit into a state that was once the Republican Party’s most impregnable political citadel? He believes in such radical things (from the point of view of the American mainstream, at least) as a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion, raising the minimum wage, substantial investment in infrastructure, and cutting spending on the military – yet in the last two presidential elections he was regarded a serious contender for the Democratic ticket.
Born in Brooklyn, New York city, on September 8, 1941, to Jewish parents whose families originated in Poland, Sanders got interested in politics at a very young age – not least because a number of his relatives were murdered in the Holocaust. Standing for election in his high school, he came last out of three candidates, after a campaign concerned with helping orphans from the Korean War. Sanders then went first to Brooklyn College before moving to Chicago University to study political science. His political activities included supporting the civil rights movement, campaigning against segregated student housing in Chicago, going to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (scene of Martin Luther King jr’s ‘I Have A Dream‘ speech), where he was fined for resisting arrest, and joining anti-Vietnam War groups. On graduating, he went back to New York, doing a number of jobs, before moving to Stannard in Vermont in 1968, where he somehow juggled the two careers of a carpenter and a film-maker.
Three years later, Sanders entered the world of party politics proper, as a member of the (now defunct) Liberty Union Party, and ran unsuccessfully as that organization’s candidate for Governor of Vermont in 1972 and 1976. Finally, in 1980, as the Democratic Party’s fortunes and reputation were at a pretty low ebb with the landslide election of Ronald Reagan to the White House, Sanders stood again for election, this time as Governor of Burlington. As something of an outsider, who had to contend with a largely dismissive if not hostile local media, as well as the establishment Democrat and Republican candidates, he nonetheless managed to win, by just ten votes. It was quite a contrast: a maverick libertarian conservative Republican president in the White House on the one hand, and an openly socialist New Yorker running the biggest city in what was then a fairly predictably Republican state. While a socialist, Sanders’s focus (both then and now) was always on pragmatism and Getting Things Done, with highlights of his mayoralty including winning reduced cable TV rates for customers, revitalizing Burlington’s waterfront, and balancing the city budget. He ended up being re-elected three more times, finally leaving office as Governor in 1989. Finally, he entered Congress as a Representative for Vermont in 1991, the first socialist elected to the House for over forty years, and was then elected to the Senate for the first time in 2006.
The point is this: the S-word is, it is fair to say, something of a dirty word in US politics. Even though the Cold War ended over thirty years ago, “socialist” and “socialism” are still pretty effective ways of closing down debates in the States – even though those politicians who use them as pejorative terms aren’t exactly averse to accepting state aid, in the form of the Federal Government subsidizing insolvent red states, and instituting tax cuts to billionaires who don’t need them. Despite all that, Bernie Sanders the unashamed socialist American presidential hopeful is still one of the country’s most popular politicians – with even a 2017 poll from Fox News (of all outlets!) giving him a +28 net favourability rating, their highest of the time! The fundamental problem is that, while Sanders is arguably more in tune with what Americans want for their country than any other politician (see my Slugger article from July), the top brass in both of the main political parties are not, and so will not take a chance with him – the Democrats because they are essentially a moderate conservative party, and the Republicans because they are ludicrously off the scale and seem determined to forge ahead off their ideological cliff. Nonetheless, if the career of Bernie Sanders proves anything, it is that if a Jewish socialist from Brooklyn can successfully run the biggest city in what was once America’s most stubbornly Republican-inclined state, then anything is possible. Even if he himself never makes the White House, someone whom he has inspired over the years with his ideas and determination surely can.
Based in Birmingham, Dan is a writer and actor