Friday, February 6, 2009

Progressive Paradox: Rhetoric & Reality

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 race into perspective, this series offers a look at the movement that began with the election of Bernie Sanders on March 3, 1981 and subsequently changed the face of Vermont politics.

Chapter Two

When Vermont progressives sum up their accomplishments in Burlington, the list invariably includes innovative projects and programs launched during the Sanders administration – the Community Land Trust, a people-friendly waterfront, a vital arts community, programs for women and children, Sister City relationships, and more. In a letter of support for Peter Clavelle, who succeeded Bernie Sanders as mayor in 1989, Sanders offered a list of successes that included rebuilding streets and sidewalks, sewer reconstruction, alternatives to the property tax, improving tenants' rights, award-winning programs, and various public amenities. More recently, Burlington has ranked as the “greenest” city in the country, the healthiest (according to the CDC), a great place for beer and early retirement, and, according to British Airways, the “third-funkiest city in the world.”

There were also more profound accomplishments: changes in consciousness on issues such as disarmament, intervention, and the local community's role in meeting human needs. In a subtle way, the emergence of an activist political generation helped to reverse the widespread distrust of government. Writing in Monthly Review in the late 1980s, Beth Bates concluded that the Sanders administration had successfully "navigated the turgid waters of free-enterprise Reaganomics and spawned a few progressive seeds."

On the other hand, if the measure of success is the nature and impact of fundamental reforms, the portrait isn't as rosy. In many cases, attempts at change were blocked by a combination of structural impediments and divisions within the community. Quite a few progressive solutions, such as viable alternatives to the automobile, never made it to the top of the agenda. In a few instances, the ideas couldn’t even be classified as "moving forward."

In the current race for mayor, most candidates embrace the combination of progressive rhetoric and conventional practice that first emerged during Sanders’ time as mayor – and has changed little since then. Although the Republican candidate, Kurt Wright, talks about leadership and the Democrat, Andy Montroll, argues that the city is “coasting along,” neither challenges the basic assumptions or the cultural status quo. In fact, Montroll says that the best course is to focus on “what we have.”

In a 2009 mayoral debate, the only substantive criticism of incumbent Progressive mayor Bob Kiss revolved around his handling of accounting and personnel matters. Independent challenger Dan Smith stressed the need to “reinvent ourselves” in a “post-partisan” era, yet adopted a similarly booster-ish tone. Meanwhile, Kiss joined his opponents in touting the city’s many tourist-friendly amenities and the results of urban renewal, while promising to push for completion of the Southern Connector. It was as if the change that Sanders once talked about had morphed into the redevelopment plan initiated by the conservative regime he overthrew.

Limitations and contradictions were apparent from the start, as the Sanders regime found itself confronting state officials, legislative resistance and its own ambivalent nature. Vermont government sought to regulate and sometimes negate changes in city structure and practice. Burlington was bullied into reassessing its Grand List, and even threatened with loss of public funds when local officials initially tried to obstruct the building of the Southern Connector highway. The legislature's 1989 attempt to strip local communities of the power to choose alternatives to the property tax was only one episode in a struggle which began with Burlington's Gross Receipts Tax.

By the end of the 1980s, the bottom line, at least in tax matters, was that the progressives held the line. Use of fees and cost-saving reforms at least postponed increases. But, basically, what the Progressives had managed to do was "out-Republican the Republicans."

Some progressive initiatives – notably the Land Trust and, during Clavelle’s tenure, creation of a municipal cable TV service – did challenge the logic of capitalism. Others simply provided benefits but left the system unchanged. A few initiatives, however, were reactionary responses that contradicted the progressive rhetoric . Most people agreed, for example, that a Gross Receipts Tax, like a defeated tax on alcohol and cigarettes to fund affordable childcare, was actually regressive. Likewise, property reappraisal shifted the burden from businesses to homeowners. The problem, explained Sanders again and again, was that state and federal policies severely limited the available options.

More difficult to rationalize was Sanders' resistance to pleas from the peace movement to embrace peace conversion, or his administration's willingness to settle for a waterfront plan that included expensive condominiums and a hotel. These flashpoints raised doubts about Progressive priorities, creating divisions that endured.

Economic development presented especially complex problems. Sanders had promised "real change," yet faced a variety of obstacles. Conservative opponents accused him of being anti-business, while left-wing critics said he was selling out to build the tax base. The basic limitation, however, was the pro-growth leanings of most residents. Thus, it wasn’t surprising that most Progressives agreed with Democrats and Republicans on the need for "balanced growth." The result of these tensions is a development posture based on striking deals to extract some benefits for the public – a gentrified waterfront in exchange for public amenities, the right to build luxury housing as long as "affordable" units are also provided, and so on.

Bea Bookchin, a Green leader of the fight to stop a controversial 1980s plan for the waterfront, noted that Sanders' initial rhetoric about development didn’t match his subsequent actions. His approach, she argued, was "that the way to do the best for people is to make the most money possible...the land is being used as a resource, a cash crop."

In practice, limits to growth were never set. They simply changed with the terms of each trade-off. Two decades on, things are pretty much the same.

Beginning in 1983, protests at the local General Electric plant also produced arguments on the left: activists wanted a city commitment to peace conversion, Sanders and other progressives wanted to turn the heat on Congress instead. The timing was wrong, Bernie believed, and the movement couldn’t avoid "blaming the workers" for producing rapid-fire Gatling guns at the local plant. The basic worry was that protests, and particularly civil disobedience, would "force" unionized workers to the right.

It was a disagreement on tactics, but the implications went deeper. By opposing the GE protests, some felt that Sanders was protecting the corporation and the military-industrial complex behind it. His position seemed to contradict the city's strong pronouncements on intervention in Central America. At the very least, Sanders' commitment to an industrially-based socialism had collided with the community-based peace movement's commitment to ending foreign intervention. The casualties were some mutual trust – and the workers who ultimately lost their jobs as demand for the guns waned.

Usually, the working relationship between City Hall and the peace movement was smoother. The results were clear and significant. Burlington developed, and, to a limited extent, implemented a foreign policy. A series of citywide votes established the framework for local initiatives – cooperation and exchange with the Soviet Union, protests against intervention, people-to-people programs. Designed to change consciousness and challenge the dominant anti-Communist logic, they did just that.

Between 1981 and 1987, Burlington voted to cut aid to El Salvador, oppose crisis relocation planning for nuclear war, freeze nuclear weapons production, transfer military funds to civilian programs, condemn Nicaraguan Contra aid, and divest from companies doing business with apartheid South Africa. Buttressing the efforts of the independent peace movement, Sanders was a consistent and compelling voice for a new foreign policy.

Did such resolutions, statements, and even diplomatic links with Nicaragua pose a threat to capitalist interests? Hardly. But they did contribute to a change in attitudes, and meshed well with the efforts of other activists around the state. By the end of the 1980s, most Vermont politicians supported efforts at disarmament and a non-interventionist foreign policy. Peace and, to a limited extent, social justice had become "mainstream" issues.

Coming up: Identity Crisis, and Burlington after Bernie.

Chapter Three: Progressive Paradox: Identity Crisis

Chapter One: Vermont’s Progressive Paradox

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