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REFLECTIONS FROM VERMONT

by BERNARD SANDERS

The following is an edited version of remarks made by Bernard Sanders at a


meeting sponsored by the National Committee for Independent Political Action
(NCIPA) at New York City on June 22, 1989.-Ed.

I'm here to give you some good news. I know that many of
you are in desperate need of good political news, so let me start
off by giving you some reasons as to why you might want to be
somewhat more optimistic politically than you might otherwise
be.
I'm from Vermont, and in Vermont the political world
seems a little bit different than most other places in the country.
I'm here tonight not to provide you with grandiose theory but
to tell you about our experience so you can learn something
that's practical, what we have done, and maybe we can talk
about how we can do it around the rest of the country.
Let me begin by giving you the end of the story, and then
we'll get back to the beginning. The end of the story is that
today, in Vermont, a state whose residents are primarily low-
and moderate-income people, overwhelmingly white, largely
working-class-induding farmers being driven off their land-
the largest city in the state, Burlington, has had an indepen-
dent, progressive government for the last nine years. I was
elected mayor on four occasions and served from 1981 to 1988.
My successor, Peter Clavelle, who had been a member of my

Bernard Sanders, mayor of Burlington, Vermont, for four terms, was the only
independent socialist mayor in the country. He is currently a Fellow at the Institute of
Politics at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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14 MONTHLY REVIEW / DECEMBER 1989

administration for seven years, won a smashing victory in


March against a candidate who had the combined support of
the Democratic and Republican parties. He received 54 per-
cent of the vote, she received 43 percent, and a Green candidate
received 3 percent.
Further, the Progressive Coalition has had strong repre-
sentation on our Board of Alderpersons for the last seven years.
Right now there are six progressives, four Republicans, and
three Democrats on the Board. Unfortunately, while we have
had a plurality on the Board, and mayoral veto power for the
last seven years, we have never yet had a majority.
In some parts of the country there still exists a debate, I
suppose, as to whether or not there are real ideological differ-
ences between the Democratic and Republican parties. In
Burlington, very few people engage in that debate any more
because the political reality of the city, demonstrated on an
almost daily basis, shows that there is no serious difference
between those two parties. When, in two straight mayoral
elections the Democratic and Republican parties combine
around one candidate; when, on almost every important issue
facing the city, the Democratic and Republican members of the
Board combine to defeat or water down progressive initiatives;
when, with one exception in nine years, every Democrat and
Republican on the Board combines to elect their own Aldermanic
President; when, every year, the two parties combine their
aldermanic strength against the progressive plurality to select
city commissioners; when all this occurs, one begins to get the
feeling that there is not much of a difference between these two
parties.
In fact, increasingly in Burlington, the political factions
are differentiated by two labels-the Progressive Coalition and
the Conservative Coalition (Democrats and Republicans). In
any case, the good news from Vermont is that a progressive
political movement has had power in Burlington for nine years,
taking on and substantially defeating the local Democratic and
Republican parties.
Further, in Vermont, independent politics has gone be-
yond the city of Burlington. In November 1988 I ran for the
REFLECTIONS FROM VERMONT 15

United States House of Representatives which, in Vermont, is


a statewide position as we have only one Congress person. The
Republican candidate, a moderate, won with 41 percent of the
vote; I came in second with 38 percent and a liberal Democrat
who was the Democratic Leader in the State House of Repre-
sentatives came in third with 19 percent.
In that election I carried almost every working-class area
of the state, sometimes getting more votes than the other two
candidates combined. We not only won areas that had tradi-
tionally been Democratic but we also won in "conservative"
(often farming) Republican areas. In fact, I received more
votes than either of my opponents in the northern ten counties
of the state. The election was lost in the southern three counties
where I and the Burlington record were not well known, where
we were weak organizationally and people tended to remain
within the two-party system.
Now people sometimes think that there is something very
special about Burlington. As I just mentioned to one of the
reporters over there, we're not Madison, Wisconsin. We don't
have a particularly large or active student population. We're
not Berkeley, California, with a very politically conscious
electorate. In Burlington the Progressive Coalition does best
among working-class and poor people. There are six wards in
the city. In the two working-class and low-income wards the
Progressive Coalition has all four aldermanic seats and, in the
elections that I've been in, I've always received over 60 percent
of the vote there, often against two or more candidates.
So the first point that I want to make is do not believe what
people often tell you when they say that the United States is a
two-party system and that progressive politics outside of the
Democratic Party is an exercise in futility. Speak to the Demo-
crats in Burlington and statewide and see what they think
about that "futility."
Now, we can argue 'til the cows come home as to whether
Vermont is unusual, or whether the experience of Burlington
and Vermont can be a useful model for political efforts in other
cities and states and, perhaps, for the country. My own view is
that while Vermont clearly does have some unique characteris-
16 MONTHLY REVIEW J DECEMBER 1989

tics, there is nothing that we have done in our state that cannot
be accomplished elsewhere in the United States. It is true that
Vermont is a much smaller state than most and that you have a
much greater opportunity to talk to people directly. It is also
true that because of the smallness of the state, the media
coverage will probably be more extensive than in a more
populated area. So there are some real advantages. But in
terms of who the people are, especially the working people and
poor people, they are no different than anyone else. In my view,
the success of the progressive movement in Vermont is based
on a simple concept. The contempt for the Democratic and
Republican parties, and status-quo politics, is overwhelming.
Almost no one feels positive about these parties. In Vermont we
have been able to present the people with a progressive alterna-
tive, primarily based on a class analysis, and the people have
supported us. That's Number One.
The second point I want to make has to do with the word
"socialism." As we all know, during the recent presidential
campaign the candidate of the Democratic Party had a very
difficult time confessing that, deep down, he really was a
liberal. In Vermont everybody knows that I am a socialist and
that many people in our movement, not all, are socialists. And
as often as not-and this is an interesting point that is the
honest-to-God truth-what people will say is, "I don't really
know what socialism is but if you're not a Democrat or a
Republican, you're OK with me." That's true. And I think
there has been too much of a reluctance on the part of progressives
and radicals to use the word "socialism."
It seems obvious to me that there is no way that we-can
deal with the enormous economic, social, and environmental
problems facing this country without making radical changes
in the economic system, and we've got to be honest about that. I
believe that democratic socialism is the appropriate framework
for making those changes, and we should be upfront about our
beliefs.
Yes, it is true that a result of the tremendous political
ignorance in this country created by the schools and the media,
there are many people who do not know the difference between
REFLECTIONS FROM VERMONT 17

"socialism" and "communism." Yes, on more than one occa-


sion I have been told to "go back to Russia." But, if we
maintain a strong position on civil liberties, express our contin-
ued opposition to authoritarianism and the concept of the one-
party state, I am confident that the vast majority of the people
will understand that there is nothing incompatible between
socialism and democracy. That has been the case in Vermont
and I believe, with proper effort, that it can be the case
nationally. Further, given the fact that in Burlington we have
almost doubled voter turnout and have significantly increased
citizen participation, it is very hard for our opponents to argue
that we are not "democratic."
Now, let me touch upon some of the issues, some of what's
going on in the country today that, because of corporate control
over the media, doesn't get a whole lot of coverage. Let's start
offwith the whole question of the quality of democracy in the
United States today.
We all went to elementary school, and we took civics and
we all learned that we are a democratic society, that it is the
people who control the government. That's, at least, what we
were told in school. As all of you know, however, half of the
American people made a very profound statement in the 1988
election. Given a choice between Bush and Dukakis they said,
"Thank you, but no thank you." They didn't vote. Everybody
here is outrged that in South Africa black people don't have the
right to vote. We should be equally outraged that in this
country the overwhelmingly majority of poor people no longer
vote. They no longer see any reason for casting a ballot for a
Bush or a Dukakis, and that's a fact. Half the American people
don't vote. The rich vote, the upper-middle class votes, many
middle-class people vote. The poor people don't vote. I have
campaigned in low-income housing districts, gone and knocked
on one door after the other, and people say: "I don't vote. I
don't believe in it. It doesn't make a damn bit of difference to
me." So under our "democratic" system a near majority of
people no longer see the relevance of elections as a mechanism
to improve their lives. They're told by the League of Women
Voters to vote, they're told by the schools to vote, they're told
18 MONTHLY REVIEW I DECEMBER 1989

by hundreds of commercials that they should come out and


vote, and yet half the people resist it. They don't want to
participate in a process which is increasingly irrelevant to their
lives. Elections take place. Somebody wins. Somebody loses.
But the lives of the people remain unchanged.
Another extremely important development that all of you
are familiar with: In the last election, 99 percent of incumbent
congresspersons were re-elected; that's higher than the Polit-
buro in the Soviet Union. That means that the system of
representative democracy in our country has broken down and
we've created a government which cannot be recalled by the
people. It's a government which is now self-perpetuating and
immune from citizen pressure; something like a House of
Lords. Essentially, as a result of an incumbent's ability to raise
corporate money, the use offranking privileges, name recogni-
tion, etc., we have a government in Washington which cannot
be removed by the people. Ninety-nine percent of these guys
won-and some of them were under indictment. So the
question is: What does "democracy" mean when you have the
right to vote, but when elections can't change the government.
It sounds a little bit like Guatemala or EI Salvador. You can
vote-but it doesn't mean much. Further, for years political
observers in this country made fun of, correctly, the elections in
the Communist-block countries where candidates would win
with 99 percent of the vote. Somebody should check elections in
the United States today and find out how many congresspersons,
state representatives, mayors, and city councillors now win
with 99 percent of the vote, or with very limited opposition.
Now I'd like to touch briefly on three or four issues on
which I think we as progressives have got to concentrate. Sure
as hell the Democrats and Republicans won't talk about them.
In terms of the distribution of wealth in this country one
percent of the population now owns over half of the wealth in
the United States (excluding private home ownership). The
richest 10 percent now own over 80 percent of the wealth. You
pick up a paper every day and what you see is another huge
corporation buying out a smaller corporation, a trend which is
especially dangerous in terms of the media. Weare living in a
REFLECTIONS FROM VERMONT 19

country which is being increasingly controlled by a very small


number of very powerful and super-rich individuals. Ordinary
people understand that. They want to see a movement which
speaks up against that and which has proposals to change it. In
terms of the distribution of income, it's the same old story. The
people on top are making a fortune. The people down below are
sleeping out on the streets.
In terms of the standard ofliving of the American people,
the average worker has seen a significant decline in his/her
standard ofliving. A 30-year-old worker today, you know that
this is absolutely incredible, is earning 25 percent less in real
dollars than that worker earned 20 years ago. It's no secret. We
see the factories, the decent paying union jobs being transport-
ed to the Third World where hungry workers are being paid $5
a day. We are seeing our standard ofliving radically decline.
The reason that unemployment is not a major problem today is
that many families now need two bread winners in order to pay
the bills, so the husband and wife are now both working at low
wage jobs.
Housing: you understand what's going on. You see it all
around you. Right in this neighborhood. It's not just that up to
three million people are now sleeping out on the streets. That's
just part of the story. Poor people are now paying half of their
income for housing. In fact, now is the first time since the Great
Depression that the percentage of Americans who are home-
owners has been declining. A basic necessity oflife. Housing. A
disaster.
The health-care situation is even worse. We are one of two
nations in the industrialized world that does not, in one form or
another, have a national health-care system that guarantees
health care to all its citizens. I live in Burlington, Vermont.
Fifty miles north of us is Canada which has a totally different
system. They did a poll recently. I don't know how many of you
saw it. They asked people in Canada, in England, and in the
United States how they felt about their respective health-care
systems. The results were staggering. In this country 90 per-
cent of the people feIt that the system here is seriously flawed
and needs change; far higher than in Canada or in England.
20 MONTHLY REVIEW / DECEMBER 1989

Who is speaking out in this country for a national health-care


system which says that health care is a right of the people and
should not be run as a business in which some people make
huge sums of money? People want to hear that. In Burlington
we put the issue on the ballot. We asked the people if they
wanted the Congress to move forward in establishing a national
health-care system. We won 2-1, and in the working-class
wards 4-1. People want to see a national health-care system,
and they want to see a movement in this country which is
determined to take on the medical establishment and create
one.
In terms of education, in our country today, 30 percent of
the kids are dropping out of high school. In the ghettos 50
percent of the kids are dropping out of high school. That's the
future of the country. And many of the kids who graduate from
high school really don't know very much. Some of them are
functionally illiterate. In terms of the entire nation, no one is
quite sure how many functionally illiterate people there are
here. The estimates that I've read vary between 20 and 60
million people. An enormous number of Americans are unable
to read the front page of a newspaper.
The environment: you're all familiar with that, and there
is not enough time now to go into that whole issue at length.
Essentially, how do we create an economic system which
provides a decen t standard ofliving for the people and which is
not based on production methods that destroy our planet?
There is, perhaps, no issue more important than that. And I
could go on and on. The military budget, the never-ending
political scandals, the incredible bailout of the banks, the illegal
and immoral war against Nicaragua while we spend $3 billion
on the neo-Nazi government of El Salvador. It never stops.
When the rich are getting richer while the poor and middle
class are getting poorer; when the standard of living of the
average worker is in rapid decline; when people can't afford
health care, can't afford housing, can't afford to send their kids
to college, and the environment is being destroyed for quick
profits, when you put it all together, what do you have? You've
got a disaster. And the people understand that. They know
REFLECTIONS FROM VERMONT 21

what's going on, and they want a movement which will speak to
these issues, the issues that are wrenching out the guts of this
country, but which the Democrats and Republicans and the
corporate media will never honestly deal with.
Now, who do we hold responsible for these problems? I
know that's a strange question, very rarely asked, but let's
pursue it. Well, what's in vogue now, you see, is: "Gee, that
Ronald Reagan was a terrible president, what a reactionary
guy." Well, he was. But let me give you some interesting news
that most of you already know. Throughout the eight years of
the Reagan presidency another political party, it's called the
Democratic Party, controlled the U.S. House of Representa-
tives, controlled every important committee in the House of
Representatives. For six out of the eight years of the Reagan
presidency the Democratic Party controlled the U.S. Senate.
The "Reagan Revolution" was not brought about by Reagan
and the Republicans. It was brought about by Reagan with the
active support of the Democratic Party. It was a truly biparti-
san effort. Democrats and Republicans working together-
protecting the interests of the rich and the powerful.
Now what I think is crying out in this country is the need
for a new political movement which talks truth and common
sense to the ordinary people. I often speak on campuses and
other places around the country, and the disgust with the two-
party system is incredible. Very, very few people have faith or
belief in either of those parties. People will vote for one of their
candidates because they'll say that this guy is better than that
guy, but it's very much a question of the "lesser of two evils."
The people know that the present political system is failing.
They want an alternative.
Now I know that there are people, good and honorable
people, people who are friends of mine, who believe that the
Democratic Party can be turned around. I don't. I believe that
what we have got to do right now is create a progressive,
independent political movement which brings together all of
the single-issue groups who are currently banging their heads
against the wall. The unions, the minority groups, the women's
organizations, the environmentalists, the senior citizens, the
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youth, the peace activists-and all the people who know that
we need fundamental change in this country. More than
anything, I believe that we've got to bring those people together
and articulate the real reality of America-not the TV reality.
We've got to make people understand that the enormous
problems that they are facing are not primarily personal prob-
lems, but social problems. Further, we've got to articulate a
democratic vision which is based on social justice, peace, and
respect for the environment.
Now the argument, and I'm sure that we'll discuss this
later on because some of you will disagree with me, the
argument for working within the Democratic party is that,
presumably, that's where the people are. You've got to go
where the people are. All I can tell you is two things. In
Burlington, in Vermont, the people have shown that they are
not dumb. They can read and they can think and they are quite
capable of voting for someone who is not a Democrat or a
Republican. They discovered that their fingers didn't fall off
when they pulled the lever for someone outside ofthe two-party
system. People can do that. Not only in Vermont but all over
the country. It is absurd to believe that, for some mysterious
reason, people will only vote for a Democrat or a Republican,
and that we will always have to support the two-party system.
Secondly, and equally important, if we are interested in
getting people excited about politics and the possibility of real
social change, how can you do that within the Democratic
Party? I think that it's impossible to get people excited, to get
people motivated, when you say to them, "Come on into the
party of Jim Wright, Lloyd Bentsen, and worse. We're really
going to change things around and here's my good friend Lloyd
Betsen." You can't do it.
I'm not here to tell you that I have a magic solution to the
problem and that everybody else is a jerk. I have no easy
solutions. Nobody does. There are enormous obstacles that will
have to be overcome if we are going to build a successful third
party. But I do believe this: Winning elections tomorrow is
important, but it's not necessarily the most important thing. In
a country which has such a low level of political consciousness;
REFLECTIONS FROM VERMONT 23

in a country where the level of political "debate" is so patheti-


cally low, it is absolutely imperative that the progressive
movement raise the issues and the analyses which will educate
the people of our nation to begin to understand what the hell is
going on. And I honestly don't believe that that can take place
within the Democratic Party.
In Canada, as many of you know, there are three major
parties including the New Democratic Party. Now I have no
great illusions about Canada or, for that matter, about the
NDP. However, what seems pretty clear, is that the presence of
the NDP in Canadian politics, and their raising of working-
class issues, takes the whole political discussion in Canada far
to the left of what goes on in our country. In Canada today the
Conservative Prime Minister is, in terms of ideology, the
equivalent of a moderate Democrat in the United States. And
the Liberal Party and the NDP are to the left of that. The same
thing is true in Scandanavia and many other European countries.
To my mind, it is absolutely imperative that we build an
independent, democratic socialist left which has the guts to
raise the issues that all of us know to be true, but which are very
rarely even discussed within establishment politics. Our major
task is to change the entire nature of political discussion in the
country. In my view that's just not going to happen within the
Democratic Party. It seems to me that if you add up all of the
people who are getting a raw deal from the system today you're
talking about a majority of the population. That's our potential
constituency, and I think we've got to form a political move-
ment which brings these people in.
So I guess that the news that I'm here to tell you is that in
Vermont we're doing pretty well. Not as well as I'd like-we
have an enormus amount of work in front of us-but pretty
well. We have laid the foundation now for a three-party state-
and I believe that most of the working people, poor people,
young people, environmentalists, and peace activists will be
with us. Finally, I want to repeat my view that nothing that
we've done in Vermont cannot be done elsewhere in the
country.
Thank you.