The Steady State

In 1936, Vermont was one of only two states to reject President Franklin Roosevelt’s reelection bid and throw its support to the Republican Party. By snubbing Roosevelt’s New Deal, this corner of New England earned a reputation for conservatism as solid as the state’s famous granite stone. Now, 60 years later, Vermont sports some of the nation’s strongest environmental and historic preservation laws. It was one of the first states to elect a liberal woman governor, and its sole member of the House of Representatives is an outspoken socialist.

What happened? Some political observers point to how Vermont has changed, especially after a steady influx of idealistic young people wanting to live closer to the land. Bernie Sanders, the socialist Vermont voters have elected to Congress three times as an independent, moved to the state from New York City in the 1960s. Yet it’s possible that Vermont has changed a lot less than the shape of American politics. Old-fashioned New England virtues like conserving resources and solving problems at the local level are now more likely to be championed by the left than by conservatives.

As one of the least populated states in the union, Vermont has always conducted its political business on an informal basis. This is the home of those fabled New England town meetings, where the citizens of a community still gather at the town hall or schoolhouse once a year to make many of the decisions that affect their lives.

During the 1930s, Vermonters were skeptical about the New Deal because they worried what would happen to their communities under the weight of government programs implemented in an assembly-line fashion. And they suspected that the social engineers down in Washington looked on rural areas like Vermont as backward and in need of an injection of progress.

Vermonters still worry that the comforts of home might be trampled by outside forces. Now the chief threat comes not from government planners, but from big business. The state’s citizens have seen how chain stores, shopping malls, and unchecked business development rip away at the fabric of local communities, destroy the natural beauty of the region, and suck wealth out of the state.

In response, Vermont has enacted laws that are firm in their protection of the natural environment and local communities. It is the only state to offer much resistance to the advances of Wal-Mart, a chain of discount stores that has wiped out traditional shopping streets in thousands of small towns. (There is one Wal-Mart store in the state, but it is half the size of most stores in the chain and is located in an old Woolworth building in Bennington. Another is planned for Rutland.) Developers who propose new housing developments or shopping malls must show that their projects won’t put a strain on neighborhoods or ecosystems. These are the sorts of regulations now opposed by conservatives, who rail against anything that restricts the activities of corporations. Yet a lot of old-time Vermonters who once thought of themselves as conservatives support these measures in hopes of protecting their familiar way of life.

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