Red Star of Vermont: Bernie Sanders Mixes Marx and Norman Rockwell
January 8, 1991
BURLINGTON, VERMONT — His acceptance speech sounded like The Communist Manifesto, but it came from rock-ribbed Vermont. “Our small state might go down in history,” Bernie Sanders told jubilant supporters on election night, “as leading a political revolution which takes power away from the multinational corporations and the wealthy and gives it back to the people.” If that seems ambitious, consider that Sanders — the first socialist elected to Congress in 40 years — has always thought big. Shortly after Sanders’s first election as mayor of Burlington in 1981, François Mitterand became the first Socialist president of France in 40 years, prompting Bernie’s supporters to distribute buttons that read: “As goes Burlington, so goes France.”
In an otherwise colorless election, Sanders became a media darling, his Brooklyn basso broadcast on everything from Nightline to National Public Radio. Now, as Congress reconvenes, people are waiting to see what, if anything, this son of a Flatbush paint salesman can do about war, recession, and poverty. And whether, as University of Vermont political analyst Garrison Nelson predicted earlier this year, “there are going to be 100 Bernie Sanders running for Congress in 1992.”
That prospect makes organization-minded Democrats bristle. But it gives hope to some feminists, labor leaders, and civil rights activists who are now, in a series of meetings across the country, testing the waters for an independent third party.
“Bernie Sanders’s vision is to open up the process,” the Reverend Jesse Jackson says. “After all, the reason we had such a low turnout in the last election is that, in many cases, the two parties have become indistinguishable — one party with two names, wrestling over marginal differences.”
Independent candidates like Sanders, he says, “can only help make democracy better.”
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The People’s Republic of Vermont
Is Sanders’s election a mandate for strident class politics and third-party candidates? Or could it happen only in a state whose tiny population commands just one congressional seat, and where diversity is largely limited to the flavors of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream?
Sanders, 49, a prickly civil-rights activist, carpenter, and videomaker who migrated here in the hippie invasion of 1968, insists the miracle isn’t that he carried Vermont. It is that the left is not sweeping elections across the United States.
Seated behind a stack of dogeared campaign posters at his Burlington office — a white clapboard storefront with a red “Bernie” sign overhead — Sanders paints an America at the brink.
“At a time when the country is $4 trillion in debt, when the people have experienced one enormous scandal after another… when you have a president who’s itching to go to war, an enormously growing gap between the rich and the poor, 3 million people sleeping out on the street, and a health-care situation in absolute chaos — how is it conceivable that the left is not making enormous gains from one end of this country to the other?” he asks.
“It is” — he pauses for breath and resumes with force — “beyond comprehension.”
America is ready, he says, for “radical solutions” that the Democratic and Republican parties are unwilling to provide, and that the left is too timid to trumpet.
“The day the left wakes up and understands that virtually every working person understands instinctively the class issues, and begins talking those class issues, we’ll have a revitalization of progressive politics.”
Sanders has been “talking those class issues” to Vermonters for nearly 20 years. Since 1971, he has run for senator twice, governor three times, mayor four times, and Congress twice. Along the way he became such a familiar fixture of Vermont politics that even farmers in the remote Northeast Kingdom know him as “Bernie.”
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The rough, sometimes abrasive style that alienates even supporters did not seem to bother rural Vermonters. In fact, Sanders has been able to count on their support in several elections when he lost more urban parts of the state.
Sanders’s style is pure Brooklyn street-fighter: confrontational, unyielding, and convinced of victory even as he lies bleeding on the ground. Defeat, Sanders says, is not failure. Not when you get people to listen to your ideas.
After one year at Brooklyn College, Sanders transferred to the University of Chicago in 1961. He led sit-down demonstrations against the school’s segregated housing, joined the Young People’s Socialist League and the Congress on Racial Equality, and applied for conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War.
Resettling in Vermont with his first wife in 1968, he built a small business making educational videos (his favorite is one on the life of Eugene Debs) and joined the Liberty Union Party, an outgrowth of the antiwar movement. Four times, he was the party’s standard bearer in state races. Four times he lost. Then in 1981, running on his own, he stunned even his supporters and tumbled onto the national scene as Burlington’s socialist mayor.
His trademark mop of unruly hair is white now, trimmed neat as a monk’s. He even traded his crew-neck sweater and jeans for a suit and tie in a televised campaign debate. But his message has stayed remarkably consistent: The wealthy and powerful 1 per cent of the population will not surrender their half of the American pie without a battle, and he is ready to wage it.
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The people of Vermont either love Sanders or hate him. But in an age of political torpor, he has succeeded in making his brand of “Swedish-style” socialism the hottest topic around.
“In the face of catastrophic failures of socialist governments worldwide… are there really enough left-wing wackos in Vermont to elect him?” one man wrote to The Burlington Free Press shortly before the election.
“What nonsense!” countered another reader. “Bernie Sanders hasn’t made a Bulgaria out of Burlington.”
In fact, Burlington prospered under Sanders, who won the 1981 mayoral race there by 10 votes. An able administrator, he won comfortable majorities over his eight years in office.
Working with other members of his Progressive Coalition on the city council — known here as Sanderistas — the mayor opened the state’s first municipally funded day-care center, expanded moderate-income housing, and built a pollution-control facility on neighboring Lake Champlain. He switched the city away from property taxes — which he viewed as unfair to the middle class and the elderly — to hotel and restaurant fees and higher taxes on utility companies.
His efforts won him recognition as one of the nation’s top 20 mayors by U.S. News and World Report and a following among otherwise traditional voters. A 1985 poll showed that one-third of Ronald Reagan’s Burlington supporters also voted for Sanders.
Conservatives were less enamored with the sister-city relationships Sanders established with towns in the USSR and Nicaragua. But his fiercest critics came from Burlington’s Green Party, who said he was insensitive to environmental concerns.
After leaving office in 1989, Sanders launched his second run for Vermont’s congressional seat. He had lost by only 3 per cent in 1988; this time he had the economy, momentum, and 1000 volunteers on his side.
Sanders’s 16 per cent margin of victory in November reflected in part the desperation of dairy farmers, loggers, granite cutters, and graying hippies in this economically ravaged state.
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For all its postcard-perfect beauty, Vermont is in crisis, hard hit by a recession that has devastated family farms and made “For Sale” signs as familiar a part of the landscape as Jersey cows. Hidden behind the verdant hills are single mothers living in uninsulated trailers and an increasing number of homeless camped at highway rest areas.
In these hard times, even conservative Vermonters warmed to Sanders’s message. “I listened to the man,” my neighbor Harold, a lifelong Republican, said a few days before the election. “And what he said makes sense. I just can’t bring myself to pull the lever for a socialist.”
Sensing that hesitation, Republican congressman Peter Smith released two attack ads late in the campaign: Both questioned Sanders’s patriotism and painted him as a communist sympathizer. But the ads misfired badly, as would-be supporters told Smith that they didn’t need a lesson in Vermont values. Negative ads only work when the target is an unknown, analysts say — and Bernie was better known than his opponent.
According to Ellen David Friedman, a union organizer and former Sanders campaign staffer, Sanders has effectively “eliminated red-baiting as a valuable tool by taking the punch out. You talk to the farmer or little old lady on the street, and he or she will say: ‘Well I don’t like socialists, but if Bernie Sanders is a socialist then it’s OK.’ ”
Even the state’s unions departed from tradition: drawn to Sanders’s call for national health care, the state AFL-CIO and National Education Association backed an independent candidate for the first time in Vermont history.
Can Sanders’s success be duplicated in other parts of the country? Many political observers say no, citing the weakness of Vermont’s Democratic Party and the independence and homogeneity of the state’s electorate.
But Sanders is hopeful that his victory will encourage other progressives to launch independent campaigns for local, state, and federal office. Success may take years, Sanders says, but even in defeat, progressive candidates broaden the terms of American political debate.
“I suspect if somebody in Colorado was talking about the things I talk about, and ran for Congress, they might not win the first time… but they’ll get people thinking,” Sanders says.
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Who Started the Class War, Anyway?
Sanders’s victory has been hailed by left-leaning Democrats as a signal that class warfare is good politics.
“President Bush is a very race-conscious, sex-conscious, and class-conscious president,” Jackson said in a recent telephone interview. The president’s veto of the 1990 Civil Rights bill cut off all opportunities for the poor and minorities save one, he said: joining the military.
“The price you pay for survival is the high risk of dying,” he said. “And that’s a class crisis.”
Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank, an ally of Sanders, agrees that Americans are hungry for progressive leadership, but says it should come from within Democratic ranks. A third party, says Frank, is a Republican’s wet dream.
“It’s daft, D-A-F-T, which rhymes with Taft, whose memory would undoubtedly be smiling at it,” he says. “The best thing for Republicans would be for liberals to split.” (Republican president William H. Taft was crushed in his 1912 bid for reelection when former president Theodore Roosevelt ran on a third-party ticket; the split allowed Democrat Woodrow Wilson to sail to victory.)
“What disabling compromises do you think Pat Schroeder [Democrat, Colorado], Ron Dellums [Democrat, California], or Teddy Weiss [Democrat, New York] have made?” he asks. “They are very outstanding, independent-minded people. People who have been effective from a left position have done it from the Democratic party.”
But Eleanor Smeal, former president of the National Organization for Women and now director of Feminist Majority, says that only a third party holds answers for women. She and NOW president Molly Yard have established the Commission for Responsive Democracy to bring together feminists, unionists, civil rights leaders, and environmentalists to voice frustration with the two-party system and explore alternatives.
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The commission, which has held hearings in Washington, D.C., and New York, is planning sessions in Atlanta, Los Angeles, and other major cities in coming months.
“Some folks want to scare both the Democrats and the Republicans,” Smeal says, “because they’re fed up with a one-party system with two names. They’re fed up with women and minorities being locked out of the decision-making of the nation. At the present rate of growth it will take women 400 years to get parity in Congress. That is just not acceptable. ”
But Smeal is wary of too much emphasis on class distinctions. “You don’t hear a total class analysis from me,” she says, “because women from all classes have been locked out.”
There are signs that party loyalties are weakening: In November, independents were elected to governorships in Connecticut and Alaska, and Massachusetts voters passed a referendum easing ballot access for third-party candidates. Add to that Sanders’s victory and independents have had their most successful year since 1936, according to Ballot Access News in San Francisco.
But independents do not a third party make. Connecticut’s Lowell Weicker and Alaska’s Wally Hickel ran as independents only after losing their Republican primaries. And Sanders, although aligned with the Progressive Coalition in Burlington, has shown little interest in building a party structure around him.
If the time is ripe for a third party, Bernie Sanders says he is not going to lead it. “A third party will be created, not when a dozen people get together and decide to form one,” he says. “That’s probably happened a hundred times in the last 100 years.… It starts on a grassroots level.”
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The Road Ahead
Two weeks spent with the Democratic caucus last month proved the political equivalent of a cold shower for Sanders.
“I would not be telling you the truth if I told you I thought the U.S. Congress will support my agenda,” he says.
Still, he won his first tug-of-war, gaining a committee assignment from House Speaker Thomas Foley without joining the Democratic caucus. (He will most likely serve on the Banking and Finance or Education and Labor committee.) And he draws distinctions between elements of his program that he is unlikely to win in the near future, such as military budget cuts and higher taxes for the wealthy, and those goals he believes are realistic: national health care and federal relief for small dairy farmers.
“The laws in this country favor chemically intensive, large-scale farming,” said Ben Cohen, cofounder of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. And that leaves Vermont’s struggling family farms out in the cold. Sanders says he’ll make their cause a national priority.
National health care, too, is “absolutely winnable,” Sanders says. “It is not a poor people’s issue.… Most of the people who have no health insurance whatsoever are working people.”
The effort would coalesce unions, farmers, and the elderly “all on one side against the multinational insurance companies, the drug companies, the AMA, all the people who have been making billions of dollars in profit off human illness and misery,” he said.
Even Lee Iacocca, chairman of Chrysler Corp., is talking about the idea, Congressman Frank said. “He says he has to put the cost of health insurance on his cars, while his competition — the Japanese and the Germans — don’t.” Sanders says the program could be funded by recouping the fraud and waste in the current system; Frank says the money could come from trimming NATO outlays in Eastern Europe.
And if national health coverage is won, Sanders believes, the coalition behind it would be well armed to tackle other policy goals, like affordable housing, adequate funding for education, and a more equitable tax structure.
Utopian? Sanders doesn’t think so. Raised in a cramped apartment on Kings Highway, where money worries caused bitter family rifts, Sanders says it is “not utopian” to work toward an America where people’s basic needs are cared for.
Pointing to the Swedish model of democratic socialism, Sanders believes his role in Congress is to debunk what he calls the “big lie “: that there is no middle ground between Reaganism and Stalinism.
“The president of the U.S. will not tell you that it’s good that 3 million people sleep out on the streets,” Sanders says. “But what he’s been able to posture is: ‘Do you want the Soviet Union? That’s your alternative.’ ”
“The role that people like me have to play is to say: We do not want authoritarian communism, but we can do a hell of a lot better than laissez-faire capitalism.”