Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Progressive Paradox: Small Changes

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 Eight

After 15 years as Burlington’s Progressive mayor, Peter Clavelle retired in 2006 – but not before returning to the Democratic Party for a gubernatorial race in 2004. His opponent was the incumbent Republican Jim Douglas, an archetypal, tight-lipped political bureaucrat who had already served as Secretary of State and State Treasurer. Clavelle was blunt and uncharacteristically passionate in that race, often looking miffed as he talked about lost jobs or the 63,000 Vermonters without health insurance. Watching the two men debate was like eavesdropping on a labor-management negotiation destined to end in a strike.

Unlike Bernie, Clavelle often seemed vaguely uncomfortable in the role of candidate, and when we spoke during the 2004 race admitted that he probably enjoyed governing more than campaigning. “What gets me excited is to bring people together,” he said. He was a bit defensive when asked about his move back from Progressive to Democrat. “Nothing has changed in terms of who I am and what I stand for…I come from a family and tradition of ‘Yellow Dog’ Democrats,” he explained, recalling how his mother once defined the term. “We’d vote for a yellow dog before a Republican,” she told her six-year-old son. “The truth is that most Progressives are Democrats,” he claimed. “And unless we find common ground, the only winners will be Republicans.”

That November, Clavelle was decisively beaten by Douglas (recently a prominent GOP supporter of Barack Obama’s stimulus plans). In 2005, Clavelle experienced another defeat: his bold plan to let the Greater Burlington YMCA turn the decaying Moran generating station on the city’s waterfront into a state-of-the-art recreational facility was rejected by local residents in an “advisory” vote. The opposition included Kurt Wright, a local Republican with mayoral ambitions, and Sandy Baird, a Green-turned-Democrat. That alliance apparently lasted, given Baird’s 2009 endorsement of Wright for mayor.

Waterfront plans had frequently met resistance. In the 1970s, Mayor Paquette, with strong Democratic and Republican backing, had pushed a highly commercial plan that envisioned high-priced condos and underground parking at the water’s edge. That idea was greeted with protests, particularly by residents of the adjacent King Street neighborhood who feared redevelopment would lead to higher rents and drive them out of their homes.

Although the project didn’t get far, it did open the spigot to government funds for housing rehabilitation and subsidies in the nearby low-income area. Many people saw this as an attempt to buy off critics, but also as an offer that was difficult to reject. Already dreaming about a marine museum near his operation, Ray Pecor, owner of Lake Champlain Transportation and a force in waterfront planning, stepped in to fund a needed renovation of the King Street Area Youth Center.

Waterfront redevelopment also served as a rallying point for the electoral movement that coalesced around Bernie Sanders. When he first ran for mayor, Bernie was pointing directly at the shoreline when he said, “Burlington is not for sale.”

After a few years in office, however, Bernie’s attitude became more pragmatic. With Clavelle running the new Community and Economic Development Office, the city nurtured a $100 million project that dwarfed all previous visions. Known as the Alden Plan, it included everything from a boathouse and modest bike path to condos and a seven-story hotel. At the time Clavelle called it “a unique model for urban development.”

The first criticisms centered on “secret meetings” between the developer and officials. When a citizens’ group pushed for open negotiations and a much larger bike path, Bernie labeled it a Democratic front group, but eventually supported its main idea. Environmental critics also geared up, demanding more open space. Then came a public bond vote. Due to persistent criticism and coalition of Greens and Democrats, the measure fell short of the required two-thirds majority and the project died. Twenty years year, many of the players in the ongoing waterfront debate remained the same. Even the criticisms had a familiar ring.

By 2006, Clavelle had had enough. But he and a number of other local progressives didn’t believe that another Progressive could be elected or that the local party would long survive, and thus decided to endorse Hinda Miller, the Democrat running to succeed him. The leaders of Burlington’s Progressive Party weren’t willing to accept the idea that its time had passed, however, and nominated Bob Kiss, a veteran human services bureaucrat. Kiss ended up beating Miller by about nine percent and became the first Burlington mayor elected using instant runoff voting. Rumors circulated that Wright, the GOP candidate, advised supporters to give Kiss their second place vote. In any case, the public apparently rejected Clavelle’s conclusion that the progressive era was over and that the smartest move was to strike a bargain with local Democrats.

In office, Kiss continued along a pragmatic, moderately populist path – lean budgets, “modest growth,” and practical innovations like municipal cable television. Business Week recently called Burlington one of the best places “to raise your kids,” and the Centers for Disease Control has crowned it the nation’s “healthiest city.” Kiss even helped craft a “redevelopment” plan for the Moran plant that local residents could accept, a public-private partnership combining a community sailing center, a children’s museum, and a for-profit recreation facility. The city will retain ownership of the building.

The Greens still aren’t happy, and their candidate for mayor in 2009, James Simpson, argued that a proposed skate park and splash park would negatively impact nearby wetlands. But without a broader base of support, and with Democrats, Republicans and Progressives lining up behind the project, such criticism has achieved little traction.

The journey has been easier, though no less ironic, for Sanders at the national level. As he put it in one fundraising letter, he has been fighting “not only the reactionary Republican agenda but the move to the right” by the Democrats. To do that, however, he sometimes has had to ally himself with congressional conservatives whose goals are very different from his own. Defeat of a late 1990s bailout of the International Monetary Fund, for example, was seen both as a victory for human rights and for racist critics of foreign aid. Opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other trade and investment deals also had a double edge. For some, the object was to continue the economic blockade of Cuba, hand Bill Clinton a defeat, or prevent the development of international mechanisms for the resolution of disputes. Although Bernie’s goals were considerably more altruistic, defeat did also serve the interests of economic nationalists and reactionaries whose ultimate aim was states’ rights and isolationism.

The notion of building a left-right coalition against the forces of centralized power and wealth can be seductive. When this was briefly attempted in Vermont in the late 1970s, the two ends of the political spectrum found common ground in some areas. Both preferred small scale energy production to mega-plants, widespread ownership of land and business, and removal of “government barriers.” But things got sticky when the discussion shifted to welfare, environmental regulation, affirmative action, and abortion – none of them trivial topics. The rub is that the same arguments for “decentralization” and sovereignty that sound progressive in certain cases can be used in support of unfettered capitalism and discrimination.

The heart of the nation’s progressive movement in the early 20th century was an attempt to control concentrated wealth and widen democratic participation. For a quarter century, reforms addressed workers’ rights, monopoly excesses, political corruption, uncontrolled development, and the devastating impacts of the early industrial era. Yet, most of the efforts quelled popular discontent rather than producing basic changes. The resulting reforms were mainly co-opted by business groups to serve their own long-range interests. Rather than leading the country toward some form of social transformation, early progressivism ended up heading it off.

In the process, many people did get relief from the worst effects of uncontrolled capitalism, a considerable accomplishment. The same can be said of the recent progressive era in Burlington and, by extension, Vermont. But the price of the bargain was high. In the birthplace of Vermont progressivism, it led to commercial homogenization, environmental triage, and the continued commodification of housing and other resources. 

The attempt to balance “sustainability” with a pragmatic acceptance of market forces assumes that an economic system based on continuous growth and profitability can be effectively harnessed to serve human needs and respect the natural world. If that has happened, it is capitalism’s best kept secret.

Postscript: Thinking Globally

Stopping corporate rip offs may sound ambitious enough. But as Bernie Sanders has stressed, the underlying issue is how to make powerful institutions accountable – and to whom. Following the logic of progressivism, real change thus involves, at the very least, a stronger role for government. But if the goal is to control mega-corporations that transcend national boundaries – in fact, they already compete with some national governments and dominate others – in the end even federal reform won’t cut it.

Progressives obviously don’t want institutions like the World Trade Organization to run the world economy. But what’s the alternative? The free market, regulated or not? If you still think that option sounds viable, consider most underdeveloped countries or the US economy’s recent crash. Will job creation, stronger enforcement and more accountability really be enough, or does the current international dis-order need to be overhauled and replaced? And if so, with what?

The United Nations could be made stronger, but this Cold War creation was flawed from the start, and has been marginalized and manipulated for more than half a century. The times seem to cry out for more radical ideas, maybe even something like a global parliament somehow linked to communities. This may sound utopian at the moment, but if the Corporate World Order inflicts much more damage it may start to look pretty attractive. And if social and economic justice are truly the driving forces of progressive politics, how far is it to an agenda for change that fundamentally challenges market control and links the global with the local? After all, one of the movement’s favorite slogans is “Think Globally, Act Locally.”

But that’s another story, and not currently on the radar of most progressives, in Vermont or almost anywhere else.

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

Chapter Seven: Mixed Messages

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