Dare to Win: A Brief History of Vermont’s Progressive Party

by Tim Horras, Philly Socialists on January 5, 2013

Eric Davin’s recent book Radicals In Power should be required reading for socialists who want to compete with bourgeois forces at the ballot box. It chronicles the disconnected hodge-podge post-1960s attempts by American leftists to gain implement progressive policies by running in local elections, either as progressive Democrats or under the aegis of locally-rooted left-wing parties. There’s a wealth of information here; both a string of common pitfalls, as well as reasons for hope that a social democratic party could build on the successes of the past.

While Davin’s book is national in scope, the author goes into great detail on the struggle of activists to build a left alternative to the Democratic Party in Vermont with the capacity to win and to govern. This essay will reflect on this particular attempt, using Davin’s material as a springboard. I will put political questions aside for the moment. Line struggle, in the sense of inter-party debate over program and strategy, will be decisive in determining whether or not any third party plays a progressive role in social struggle. There are important discussions to be had around line struggle; but this essay will rather opt to contribute to the recent historical summations of U.S. party-building attempts, in the same spirit as Katherine Isaac & Mark Dudzic’s recent piece on the U.S. Labor Party, or Adam Hefty’s overview of progressive third parties in national elections.

The organization that emerged out of those decades of struggle is known today as the Vermont Progressive Party. This Party stands as the most successful third party attempt in recent U.S. history. Vermont’s Progressives are worthy of serious consideration, since although they have yet to break out of its regional mold, they have met with more electoral success than most national third party formations.

The Progressive Party emerged from the broader leftist milieu of Vermont politics. One of the state’s most famous political exports is U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders: the only self-identified socialist in U.S.Congress, and generally acknowledged to be the most liberal member of that elected body. Sanders, while technically an independent, is regularly identified with the Progressives, and his career and fortunes of the Party are closely linked.

The Progressive Party’s origins mirror many previous third party formation attempts. Sometimes a number of different, even competing, parties are created before one catches on with the vicissitudes of the moment and the movement of the people; the most successful example of such a third party would be the Republican Party. During the nineteenth century, there were several successive formations and collapses of third parties which embraced a radical abolitionist agenda: the Liberty Party, the Free Soil Party, finally coalescing into the Republican Party in the 1850s, which eventually surpassed the then-dominant Whig Party after the latter split over the issue of slavery. This same logic played out in miniature in Vermont, where the Progressives were preceded in the 1970s by the Citizens Party and the Liberty Union before that (the Progressives were an electoral coalition before they became a political party).

The Progressives tout their strategic approach to elections. The Progressive Party has elected more state legislators than all other third parties in the rest of the nation combined. The political realignment of the state has been so thoroughgoing that a recent article asked if the state’s GOP would survive the last election cycle. Progressives elected their first statewide candidate (Auditor) last year, who ran on a combined Democratic-Progressive ticket. With state Democrats, they work to move the public discourse to the left. As one article put it: “Democrats have reached a partial détente with the Vermont Progressive Party, which is shifting its focus toward growing its ranks in the legislature. Rather than dividing the left-leaning vote in statewide races, the two parties this year collaborated on the candidacies of their lieutenant governor and state auditor nominees — and kept a Progressive candidate out of the gubernatorial race.”

Interestingly, the party does reasonably well in traditionally conservative rural areas. As former Burlington Mayor of Burlington Bob Kiss put it, “It was not so long ago the Republicans were the party of Teddy Roosevelt (and more recently that Democrats were the party of Strom Thurmond). When we engage those traditional New England Republicans, many come to understand that the modern Republican party has left them behind. Our message of protecting individuals rights and pushing back against corporate domination of our government resonates with them in a way that the Republican party resonated with their great-grandparents.” Is it possible the Progressive Party model offers a way forward on the question of building a political coalition between working-class rural voters and traditionally “liberal” urban-dwellers? The party’s website notes: “In 2002, Anthony Pollina, the Progressive candidate for Lt. Governor, received 25% of the vote in a statewide race, the largest percentage of any third party candidate for statewide office in the country in recent history. Pollina is an advocate for farmers and his best showings were in rural, traditionally Republican areas. In 2004, we elected three additional legislators, all from rural, traditionally Republican areas of Vermont.”

There are numerous shortcomings to the Progressive Party model. The long-term threat is that the party will be co-opted into the Democrats, as a recent article warned. However, even if such a prospect were to come about, as it did in Minnesota with the merger of the Farmer-Labor Party and the Democrats in 1944, this would still move the state political discourse much further to the left; Minnesota today has a rich populist heritage which has produced a number of left-leaning politicians including Al Franken, and the late Paul Wellstone.

Possibly more serious, the Progressives built up power over decades during a period of relative political quiescence, which is likely to be very different from the years ahead. How closely this model will apply to future realities is an open question.

The most useful sections of Davin’s book detail the many problems posed by winning elections within a larger capitalist framework. These include, but aren’t limited to: difficulties replacing charismatic leadership (e.g. Bernie Sanders) with party loyalty or class consciousness, the perils of geographical isolation, the threat of unity between liberals and conservatives against a leftwing alternative, etc. Without a doubt Socialists will have to face many if not most of these problems ourselves if we are to organize on the national level.

While there are a number of issues and peculiarities with the model, the example of the Progressive Party in Vermont is, at very least, a living, breathing attempt to combat the American political duopoly. Its activists have attempted to apply leftist principles in the concrete, real-world context of Vermont’s specific conditions. If poor and working-class Americans truly wish to build a party of our own over the coming decades, we should diligently study the experiences of Vermont’s Progressives.

Tim Horras is Chair of the Philly Socialists.

  • http://www.appeal-to-reason.info/ Andrew Ray Gorman

    Good article. I just ordered the book “Radicals in Power” for my university library (hopefully providing others with help when I graduate).
    One thing I would caution about though are those parties that have engaged in fusion voting in the past, such as the Populists and Republicans in NC. This resulted in a reactionary Democratic Party taking the right to vote away from blacks for decades, along with other Jim Crow laws. I’m not so sure if this is due to fusion voting in itself, or if there is something deeper.

  • Ben D

    Thanks for writing on this book. I would like to read the book but holy shit it’s expensive. What you write about the rural support for progressive politics is significant. During the Wisconsin Uprising people came from all over the state including rural areas. I talked with one guy from a tiny town. Another day a tractorcade of 30 tractors or so circled the capital. I also distinctly remember reading the Farrel Dobbs account of the Teamster Strike in Minneapolis and learning of the support of the neighboring farmers coming in an donating food as well as being allowed to come sell their wares during the strike by the workers who had shut the town down. The two parties offer nothing good for the majority of us, rural and urban. Hopefully we can continue to unite our struggles for a better society. Learning about past efforts will always be a part of that.

  • Eric Leif Davin

    Tim: Thanks for the kind comments and astute observations in general. I apologize for the high price of the book, over which I have no control. Encourage your local public or college library to buy a copy for you to use. In addition, if enough libraries buy copies, my publisher will issue a much cheaper paperback edition. Check the site: worldcat.org to find out which libraries near you may already have a copy for you to check out. There are several in the Philly area that have copies.

  • Tiki Archambeau

    Cool write-up. You and your commenters are far better versed about political history than moi. However, as the Burlington Progressive Party Chair, I would contend that the party’s challenges first and foremost revolve around branding. Currently, Dems & Republicans receive free publicity daily – both bad and good – whether there be news about a fiscal cliff or Congressional nomination battle. This constant barrage reinforces in voters’ minds that there are only two parties from which to choose. And in many cases, that’s true. But here in Vermont – and especially Burlington – Progressives actually put up reasonable, smart people from the community. In fact, we held the mayor’s office for 30 years until last Spring. Without constant reminders and an abundance of resources (Progressives do not accept corporate donations), voters will either not know there is a viable third-party or will lump our party candidates with non-viable, one-timer party candidates like the Marijuana For All Party, etc.

    Bottom line: Without electoral reform or better attention by the media, third parties like Progressives will continue to struggle their way into voters’ minds.

    • http://www.planetanarchy.net Pham Binh

      I agree with your comments wholeheartedly. “Branding” and positive publicity is a big reason why I’ve been arguing that the Green Party should nominate prominent, smart, and honest Occupy folks like Shamar Thomas in NYC or Scott Olsen out in Oakland to run against Ds and Rs for local office. The radical left in this country really does lack personable, charismatic, and popular leaders rooted in their communities and constituencies. The only figure I can think of off hand who might come close to fitting this description is Democratic NYC councilman Charles Barron, a former Black Panther (who was elected after a previous failed bid) in 2001. He spent the previous 20 years in the trenches doing community organizing at the grassroots level in Harlem and so when he stepped into the electoral arena he had a following, some credibility, and some name recognition. Sometimes the left tries to take a shortcut by nominating a celebrity (like the California Peace and Freedom Party did by nominated Roseanne Barr for president in 2012) but there really is no shortcut to building an effective alternative to the two existing parties.

  • http://www.planetanarchy.net Pham Binh

    This overview by Horras sheds new light on why the Debs-era Socialist Party was so dominated by its state sections, something I puzzled over after recently re-reading Ira Kipnis’ American Socialist Movement.

    The fact of the matter is that there never has been a mass socialist movement in a bourgeois democracy that did not successfully compete with capitalist parties at the ballot box. The existing socialist movement in the U.S. is more focused on competing with itself than uniting to defeat the enemy (see for example: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=4990), so we are a long way off from the glory days of Debs. But at least we can point ourselves in the right direction even as we acknowledge how far realistically we need to travel.

    Horras raises an interesting issue, which how do you know whether the Democrats are co-opting us or are we co-opting them? The case Horras cites is murky at best: a deal with the Dems to keep the VPP candidate out of the governor’s race seems to me to be questionable. On the other hand, if deals like contribute to the GOP no longer being a viable party (imagine that, a world without Republicans), then maybe it’s worth it.

    The VPP example also reinforces Dan Dimaggio’s point in another thread (www.thenorthstar.info/?p=4428) that the likelihood of a clean simon-pure break with the most powerful political institution that dominates left politics is close to nil. (It’s worth remembering that Debs was a Democratic legislator for years before he went to prison and became a socialist.) I really hope the Green Party takes the time to study the VPP example. Powerful local and state Greens are a necessary precursor for a respectable presidential run in 2016 or 2020.

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