Vote your hopes, not your fears
by Alexander Cockburn
The Nation magazine, October 30, 2000
Take this as a national parable. Once upon a time-in the early
eighties, actually-there was a progressive coalition in Vermont
designed to become a third force in politics. One of its prime
spokesmen was Bernie Sanders, who became mayor of Vermont's largest
city, Burlington. Sanders duly became a leading proponent of the
idea that America needed a third party of the left.
In 1988 the coalition backed Sanders for Vermont's single
seat in Congress. Then as now, orthodox Democratic liberals accused
the radical progressives of being wreckers. The radicals said
that yes, some creative destruction was necessary. A Sanders candidacy
might put Republican Peter Smith into Congress over liberal-populist
Democrat Paul Poirier, but that wasn't the concern of an independent
force. Just as he's now bashing Ralph Nader, Barney Frank bashed
Sanders' candidacy as bad for gays (whose legislated well-being
Frank regularly conflates with the fortunes of the Democratic
Party) and liberals. And so it came to pass. Sanders swept up
Poirier's liberal base and denied Democrats the victory they would
otherwise have obtained. Smith won with less than 50 percent.
The progressive coalition had a long-term strategy. It knew
Sanders would not win on that first outing. The essential victory
was to persuade progressives to vote, finally, for their beliefs,
to stop deluding themselves that the Democratic Party would fulfill
even a sliver of their expectations. Two years later, Sanders
again made a bid, this time against the incumbent Republican.
The Democrats effectively quit the field. Sanders swept to victory.
Creative destruction worked. The progressive coalition matured
and expanded. It replaced Sanders with Peter Clavelle as mayor
of Burlington and took numerous seats throughout the state. Last
year it formally constituted itself as the Progressive Party of
Vermont and put up Anthony Pollina, a leftist with years of grassroots
activism in the state, as its gubernatorial candidate for November
Once again, the state echoes with the anguished bellows of
liberals that Pollina's candidacy will install Republican Ruth
Dwyer and take Vermont back to medieval darkness. The Progressive
Party has refused to stand down. Incumbent Governor Howard Dean
is a DLC-type Democrat who never met a corporation he didn't like
or a mountaintop he wasn't willing to sell to a ski-resort developer.
Pollina, who had led Vermont's successful fight for public financing
of statewide elections, became the first to benefit from it. As
required by law, he raised $35,000 (from donations averaging $22),
then qualified for $265,000 in public money, the only funds he
can spend. Pollina was on an equal money footing with Dean. But
not for long. A court threw out the law's spending limit, and
immediately Dean inoperated years of pious blather about campaign
finance reform. Five days after lauding such reform at the Democratic
convention, he rejected public financing and put himself back
on the block for corporate contributions and soft money from the
Pollina and the Progressives have taken the | Democrats' scare
strategy straight on. They say, Vote | Your Hopes, Not Your Fears.
The campaign is rich I with proposals on healthcare, environmental
protection, a living wage, stability for small farmers and small
businesses. Pollina has plenty of ammunition against Dean, who
has been running Vermont longer than Clinton/Gore have been in
the White House. It's the pathetic national story. In Vermont,
95 percent of men under 22 in prison do not have high school equivalency.
In the past ten years prison spending has increased by 135 percent,
while spending on state colleges has increased by 7 percent. One
of every seven Vermont men between 18 and 21 is under the supervision
of the Corrections Department.
And Pollina doesn't shrink from reminding voters that at the
very moment in the early nineties when Vermont was poised to become
the first state to have universal healthcare, Governor Dean, a
physician by trade, killed off all such hopes, as he did a bill
this year that would have established prescription-drug price
Democrats of the stripe of Dean and Gore know how to talk
the talk. They don't move a finger to expand human freedoms or
opportunities, then boast that they alone are the bulwark against
right-wing attacks on such freedoms and opportunities. After undermining
choice and gay rights for much of his Congressional career, Gore
now tells women and gays that he is the prime defender of choice
and gay rights. At a gay event in Los Angeles, Dean claimed the
hero's mantle for signing Vermont's civil union law giving gay
couples the same state benefits as married couples. But he was
never out front on this issue, moved only under direct order of
the courts and then, in an act of consummate cowardice, nervously
scribbled his signature to the law secluded from press or camera.
So what does our Vermont parable add up to? Independent in name
only, Sanders sold out to the Democratic machine long ago. He's
no longer part of a movement. He's not a member of the Progressive
Party and has not endorsed Pollina. In his reelection race for
November, he's outflanked on both politics and gender, facing
a Democrat to his left (Peter Diamondstone) and a transsexual
moderate Republican (Karen Kerin). But the big story is not Sanders'
dismal trajectory; it is that third-party politics in Vermont
has moved out of his sad shadow and is changing the face of the
state. The Progressives have also endorsed Nader.
"This race, a lot like Nader's nationally, has posed
the question: If we want good people to run, and they get on the
ballot, what do we want to do with that? Do we wish to use their
campaigns to build up a progressive movement, or do we once again
want to squander our power on business as usual?" Thus Ellen
David Friedman, a long-term Progressive organizer in Vermont.
"People under 30 don't give a damn about the spoiler stuff.
Most of Pollina's campaign workers are under 25. They want to
be able to work for what they believe in. Demographically, these
are the people who will be making the difference, organizing progressive
campaigns in the years to come."