Thursday, December 17, 2015

Progressive Movements and The Vermont Way

In conjunction with a recreation of Teddy Roosevelt’s 1912 visit to Vermont during his Progressive Party run for president, in 2012 writer and historian Greg Guma presented stories and thoughts at the Vermont History Center about the evolving nature of progressive politics in Vermont.

The journey  includes vignettes and impressions on how the Anti-Masons briefly took the state, why feminist Clarina Nichols decided to leave, Burlington’s early progressive mayor James Burke and a 1906 fusion alliance that almost overturned the Proctors, progressive Republicans in the 1940s and Phil Hoff’s 60s breakthrough, the Green Mountain Parkway fight, a Vermont conservative who stood up to McCarthy, and the rise of Bernie Sanders.


William Palmer, Anti-Mason Governor
Thaddeus Stevens, Anti-Mason politician and Republican leader
Clarina Nichols, feminist leader who left to keep fighting
Percival Clement, Railroad tycoon, fusion candidate and GOP Governor
James Burke, progressive Burlington Mayor and Clement ally
James Paddock Taylor, Green Mountain Parkway visionary
George Aiken, Republican Governor & Senator
Ernest Gibson, Jr, liberal Republican Governor who expanded the state’s role
Ralph Flanders, US Senator who saved the country from McCarthy
Phil Hoff, first Democratic Governor in 100 years
Bernie Sanders, socialist who changed Burlington and became a US Senator

Elizabeth Dwyer, the inimitable editorial page editor of the Bennington Banner, used to talk about erecting a toll road at the border with upstate New York. Flatlanders were finding it way too easy to get in. It wouldn’t hurt to discourage them a bit.
     Liz was not conservative in the typical sense of the word. At 60 she remained a liberal skeptic and a compassionate realist with a great sense of irony. But that also meant she could see a downside to being attractive to outsiders, the pitfalls of progress, and the dangers of undervaluing what this place has going for it.
     Liz was also one of my post-graduate history teachers. My attraction to the past, and specifically to the stories, people and values of this state, did not emerge in a classroom. No course work involved. My undergrad degree was a Bachelor of Science in mass communication and broadcasting.
     My early passions were capturing and interpreting reality in photos, on film and early video and telling stories that engaged and informed. Forty-four years ago, however, when first working as a journalist – covering several southwestern Vermont communities – I also developed an urge to understand the real who, how and why behind what was happening around me. The backstory.
     Even if it was just a rough first draft of history, reporting should incorporate as much context and background as possible … on a deadline.
     As Ken Burns puts it, history is a table around which we can all sit and have a conversation. I’ve come to believe that we can make better decisions by understanding the past, re- examining, recreating, reliving, and remembering it.
     The stories assembled here come from material -- anecdotes, documents, books, interviews – collected over those four decades. In 1976, responding to the official bicentennial celebrations, a group of us first developed a people’s history – Vermont’s Untold History, we called it. Being an editor has also helped. In that role over the years I’ve reviewed and worked with the ideas of hundreds of writers. More recently, I’ve been writing a study of the state that revisits its history, opens some new areas for inquiry, and searches for core values.
     Before going any further a small disclosure – I’m not a native Vermonter. When I arrived in Bennington in 1968 this was an important, potentially damaging revelation. I was a flatlander, a Yorker even. But I don’t feel that way anymore, and my son is definitely a Vermonter – though like too many of our young people, he has left (temporarily, we hope) for life in Manhattan.
     Fortunately, I am not irony deficient.

The Hoff Effect

When I arrived a period known as the Hoff era was winding down. Phil Hoff was one of Vermont’s breakthrough governors, the first Democrat elected to the office in a century. Phil served through much of the turbulent 1960s.  “You have to stand up for things,” he told me in 1998, “and if that results in you being defeated, it’s a risk you take.”
     Phil was speaking from experience. After three terms as governor, he was beaten decisively in a 1970 run for the US Senate by incumbent Republican Winston Prouty. Years later he still felt that the main reason for that defeat was his civil rights activism, particularly sponsorship of the Vermont-New York Youth Project, which brought Black teenagers up from New York to work and play with White Vermonters. Others point to the polarized politics of the Nixon era, or a whisper campaign concerning his alleged problem with alcohol.
     Phil says that latent racism emerged in reaction to the Youth Project. And his position on racial equality is certainly a hallmark of his progressive contribution.
     A brief flashback… In the early 1950s, when Phil arrived from Massachusetts just out of Cornell Law School, he heard that the Black captain of UVM’s football team, who had brought his girlfriend up for a weekend visit, was refused a motel room. Outraged, he joined forces with some local clergy and UVM faculty – at a time, by the way, when such discrimination was commonplace.
     Later, a Black Air Force officer was refused the right to buy a home when a real estate agent met vocal, local opposition. As Phil put it, the “positive forces” fought back and launched the state’s first anti-racist coalition. Phil said later: “We would go to the neighborhood with a priest, a minister, and a rabbi. And you know, we won every time.”
    In the 60s being a Vermont progressive meant supporting changes in the nature and scope of state government. A keystone achievement was, of course, legislative reappointment, which profoundly altered the balance of political power. Those years also brought a major expansion of the state college system, state takeover of welfare, urban renewal, the first rehab programs at Vermont prisons, and the reluctant acceptance that a regional approach to planning was needed.
     Other initiatives didn’t fare so well, or were ahead of their time. Regionalized school districts and fair housing legislation came later. As Joe Sherman put it in Fast Lane on a Dirt Road, “Vermonters seemed willing, at least for a while, to go with the irresistible tug of the American century. They were just climbing on board 60 years late.”
     Phil Hoff’s rhetoric was clearly progressive, with a strong emphasis on fairness and equality. During his time outside money and Great Society programs poured in. He also encouraged recreational development and welcomed out-of-state investment in manufacturing. On the other hand, he also felt that, to keep government closer to people, regional solutions should be considered more seriously. He was sensitive to criticism of “uncontrolled” growth and argued that dependence on local tax revenues to support schools was one of the main culprits.
     And he pushed for a statewide development plan. “It probably wasn’t very good,” he admitted later, “but no one had ever done it before.”

That’s one kind of progressive – moderate, expansive in outlook, strong for equality, growth and good government. But the definition has evolved over the years, in Vermont and generally. Tonight I would like to discuss a series of progressive eras -- each with a distinct image, program or approach -- and talk about some of the people who played key roles.
     People like James Burke, elected mayor of Burlington seven times between 1903 and 1933. George Aiken and Ernest Gibson, Republicans who challenged their party’s orthodoxy in the 1930s and 40s. Ralph Flanders, who stood up when it counted during the McCarthy Era. Clarina Nichols, a feminist pioneer who left the state to pursue her dream, and of course Bernie Sanders.
     But first, let’s return to the early 19th century and the birth of the first truly alternative political party in US history, a party that had its greatest success in Vermont but also created a constitutional crisis that led to the birth of the Vermont state senate. I’m talking of course about….the Anti-Masons, an early example of populism rooted in a desire for transparency and suspicion of elites.

NEXT: The First Third Party

No comments:

Post a Comment