Vermont’s Party Politics: a model for the nation

To the rest of the country, Vermont is a liberal, hippie—bordering on socialist—enclave of New England. If Americans know anything about Vermont apart from Ben and Jerry’s and Cabot cheeses, it is that we have pushed the envelope for liberal causes: same-sex marriage, single payer healthcare, and now a flirtation with legalizing recreational marijuana, not by a referendum but by the standard legislative process.

The politicos of the nation will know Vermont for its current congressional delegation, including an establishment Democrat and an Independent in the Senate and an affable representative willing to work across party lines in the House. In other words, those in the know have a more balanced sense of Vermont politics. We have sent to Washington moderate Republicans such as Robert Stafford and James Jeffords. And when the political winds changed, these legislators stayed moored to their moderate positions.

While to the rest of the nation, Vermont appears to be a solidly blue state, we have since 1962 had competitive two-party battles for the highest executive office, with the current governor winning twice (of three elections) by a very slim margin, and neither time carrying a majority of the popular vote.

Vermont is a two-party state. Republicans may be in the minority, but they are an active minority with a potential of taking back the reins of government.

In a recent poll by Castleton University’s polling institute, the highest-ranking Republican in the state, Lieutenant Governor Phil Scott, received the highest approval rating overall with 71 percent rating him favorably and only 23 percent unfavorably. Among those of his own party, Scott’s numbers are fabulous: 77 percent favorable and only 4 percent unfavorable. Yet even among Democrats and Independents who lean Democrat, Scott’s favorables are 66 percent to just 12 percent unfavorable (an astonishing 54 percent net favorability rating).

In addition, Scott has pledged to run a campaign focused on the state’s economy, which a plurality of Vermonters cite as the most important problem facing the state.

Scott’s popularity, as well as the continued strength of GOP gubernatorial candidates, is no fluke. In his memoir, The Vermont Way, former-Governor Jim Douglas argues for civility in politics and focusing on issues over partisan advantage. Commenting on the hyper-partisanship in Washington, Douglas writes, “It is profoundly unfortunate, not only because most Americans, I believe, don’t care much for the political extremes and would rather see elected officials achieve results, but also because blind allegiance to party does not lead to the policies that make for a stronger, more prosperous nation” (p. 324).

Phil Scott is clearly within the Douglas mold; he has a reputation for putting policy above politics, and he has earned respect from both sides of the aisle for this practice, as our poll results indicate. As the leader of the minority party, this bodes well for those who wish to move beyond partisanship.

Nationally, Democrats and Republicans have clear differences in what they believe the role of government should be. And clearly, these differences run deep. It is good for America to have competitive parties—to have clear choices in the direction of the nation—but because we do not have a parliamentary system where one party gets its chance to control the entire government for a period of time, once elections have played out, the parties must work together enough to govern effectively. This is what we do in Vermont largely because the Vermont Republicans continue to govern even in the minority. They not given up on government, as so many have at the national level, and they have continued to participate and make practical changes where possible.

Although Vermont is not without partisan bickering, and as Douglas notes in his memoir, partisanship is on the rise in the Green Mountain state, it is nowhere near the level seen in the nation’s capital. In large part, that is due in part to GOP leaders in Vermont who have not turned their backs on government for partisan advantage or ideological purity and to Vermont voters who continue to look past partisanship in selecting leaders.

The Vermont Way–or the Tao of Vermont–is a lesson for the nation.