Monday, February 23, 2009

Progressive Paradox: Mixed Messages

On March 3, 2009 voters in Burlington chose a mayor. Incumbent Bob Kiss, the third progressive to hold office over the previous 28 years, defeated Democratic, Republican, Green and Independent challengers. To put the election into perspective, this eight-part essay looks at the movement that began with the election of Bernie Sanders on March 3, 1981 and subsequently changed the face of Vermont politics.

Chapter Seven

If history is truly written by the winners, the story of Vermont during the 20th century should at the least be co-authored by the three progressive movements that transformed its politics at the close of the last millennium. The first, and least known, was the early 1900s reform era led by Burlington’s fiery Irish Catholic mayor, James Burke. Uniting the city’s growing ethnic and immigrant groups, he ushered in public power, experimented with independent politics, and – in the words of a Burlington Free Press eulogy – stirred “the smoldering embers of democracy when they seemed to be dying out.”

Despite Burlington’s breakthrough, however, the state remained a Republican bastion until the next progressive surge. It began officially in 1962 with the election of Phil Hoff, the first Democratic governor since 1853. Like the earlier movement, it was sparked by a passion for reform and an influx of immigrants – in this case ex-urbanites looking for a higher quality of life. Before it was over, Vermont became a two-party state with a reputation for environmental innovation and independent thinking.

In the early 21st century, the third progressive era was still in progress. After redefining Vermont politics in the 1980s, Bernie Sanders moved onto the national landscape, forming a Progressive Caucus in Congress and leading battles to mitigate the impacts of corporate globalization. In 2006, after 16 years as Vermont’s sole representative in the US House, he replaced retiring US Senator Jim Jeffords, who had concluded his own political career by leaving George W. Bush’s Republican Party and becoming an independent. Electing another Independent to succeed him, especially when Bernie’s main opponent was a wealthy Republican, came as no surprise.

Back in Burlington, the Progressive Coalition that emerged from Bernie’s early victories continued to dominate the political scene. Writing about the impact in the late 1990s, labor organizer Ellen David Friedman, a long-time Sanders associate, argued that the result was a “definitive shift to the left in Vermont’s center of gravity.” The evidence? Friedman mentioned the dominance of Democrats in state politics, the second highest minimum wage in the country, delay of utility deregulation, “best-of-the worst” welfare reform, and the failure of reactionary wedge issues to gain a foothold. From this she concluded that democratic socialism had gained a significant following, becoming “a fact of life in Vermont politics.”

Despite claiming such a debatable victory, she did admit that the movement hadn’t been a complete success. After dozens of campaigns, for example, the Progressive Coalition (which became the Vermont Progressive Party in 1999) had yet to elect a single “progressive independent” to the state legislature from outside Burlington. By 2004, it had six state representatives, including three from beyond Burlington’s borders, but had lost ground on the City Council. In the 2009 elections, the Progressives, who currently have three seats on the 14-member Council, entered candidates in only two of the seven races. With six seats, the Democrats had six candidates. Though long shots, there were five Green Party challengers.

“After nearly two decades of work,” Friedman wrote a decade ago, “we bind ourselves together with only the loosest of structures.” Although that problem was addressed by the formation of a statewide political party, debates have persisted since then about how much emphasis to place on elections, and how to relate to Democrats. In fact, some Burlington progressives say they prefer dealing with Republicans, despite the ideological differences, than negotiating with unpredictable, fence-straddling Democrats. Frustrated by the way things were working out Friedman briefly considered forming a Vermont chapter of a new Labor Party launched by several unions in 1996.

Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle’s agenda, expressed in various public statements, was a city that struck a balance between “economic development, environmental protection, and social equity.” Among his long-term goals was making affordable housing “a basic right, not a commodity,” and “an economy that is primarily locally owned and controlled.” That certainly sounded like democratic socialism, but the likelihood of either occurring was increasingly remote.

Clavelle’s analysis illustrated both the movement’s idealism and flaws. Like most progressives, he wanted to increase wages, preserve open spaces, protect the community from social breakdown, and promote political engagement. He also appeared to share Bernie’s distress about unfair distribution of wealth and commitment to a more fair tax system. On the other hand, he felt that the route to such a “livable” future was adaptation to the requirements of the market. Thus, despite concern that “our economy is no longer controlled by people who live in our community,” he welcomed expansion of the city’s downtown mall, a department store owned by the 400-outlet May Company (later replaced by Macy’s), and Borders. No doubt there were considerable benefits, notably a greater line of consumer items. But their arrival also intensified the local economy’s dependence on out-of-state owners and global trends, precisely what Clavelle hoped to avoid.

Housing posed a similar conundrum. The Progressive administration wanted to provide more options, improve substandard units, and return abandoned buildings to productive use. But none of this would alter the market conditions making apartment rentals in Burlington almost as expensive as they were in Los Angeles. Finding the right balance between commerce, equity and the environment proved difficult indeed.

Next: Small Changes

Chapter One: The Sanders Revoluton

Chapter Two: Rhetoric & Reality

Chapter Three: Identity Crisis

Chapter Four: Beyond Bernie

Chapter Five: Quality Control

Chapter Six: Pragmatic Populism

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