Vermont: Backpack Socialism


In March 1989, Bernard Sanders of Burlington, Vermont, the nation's only admitted socialist mayor, having declined to run for a fifth term, ended his eight-year tenure. He was replaced by one of his appointees, not an admitted socialist, who has vowed to continue Sanders's agenda.

Upon leaving office, Sanders announced that he would be "writing and lecturing," which means talk shows and campus forums. He has cut an album of folk songs. He has a dream of establishing a third political party, a leftist coalition outside the Democratic and Republican parties. He says his Burlington experience proves that it is possible. He will be seeking publicity and getting it.

For nearly a decade, Sanders, 47, has enjoyed generous attention from an indulgent media. U.S. News and World Report cited him as one of the nation's 20 best mayors. Newsweek termed him "the popular mayor of [a] prosperous New England city." The New York Times ran his opinion pieces. He is photogenic and always good for an eye-grabbing quote like, "I am not now, nor have 1 ever been, a liberal Democrat."

Neither is he a native Vermonter. Sanders grew up in Brooklyn and attended the University of Chicago. He spent time on an Israeli kibbutz, then in 1968 moved to the Vermont countryside to get "back to nature." Before winter was over, Bernie was in the city of Burlington, where he began producing educational filmstrips and videotapes.

In 1970 he was a congressional candidate for the now-all-but-defunct Liberty Union Party—a leftist group that espouses guaranteed incomes, nationalized industry, and disarmament. He discovered that he had a talent for paranoid oratory and a knack for getting attention. He ran twice for governor of Vermont and twice for U.S. Senate but never earned more than 6 percent of the vote. He left the Liberty Union Party in 1976, accused of building a "cult of personality." He began nurturing a martyr complex.

During the Carter era, when many leftists found a home in the Democratic Party, Sanders disdained the Democrats—a disdain he still nurses. He joined the Socialist Workers Party, serving as a presidential elector on the SWP ballot in 1980. He styled himself as a 1930s Socialist and cultivated a folksy image. He kept his name before the public by making documentaries (including a biography of Eugene Debs) and showing them on Vermont Educational Television.

In 1981, Sanders and 23 other left-wing activists met and nominated Sanders to run for mayor of Burlington. Significantly, he did not run as a Socialist. He ran as an "independent" against a weak Democrat and a weaker Republican. His timing was good. Burlington's conservative Democratic administration was vulnerable, while a new constituency—personified by Sanders and his "marpies" (middle-aged rural professionals)—was ready to flex its muscles.

Sanders won by 10 votes. Immediately, he announced that he was a socialist, and the news media loved it: in the wake of the Reagan landslide, Vermont elects a socialist! Sanders and the People's Republic of Burlington became perennial subjects of offbeat feature stories. Explains University of Vermont political science professor Garrison Nelson: "We get a lot of attention because we are within [the vicinity of] two of the most media-sensitive cities in America—New York and Boston—who send reporters up here for yucks."

Besides being good for yucks, it's hard to imagine a city easier to manage. Burlington is tiny—500 U.S. cities are bigger. Its population of 38,000 is 95 percent white, mostly middle class, with several thousand college students. Located on Lake Champlain, it is a very pretty college town, with even prettier outskirts. The living is easy in Burlington. Unemployment is less than 2 percent.

In addition to the University of Vermont and the affiliated Medical Center, Burlington boasts an IBM facility and a General Electric munitions factory nearby. The city's homeless shelters—a Sanders initiative—can sleep 80 people and always have vacancies. Since 1984, Vermont has been administered by a liberal Democratic governor who is generous with handouts. If any town could afford a few years of backpack socialism, Burlington could.

In fact, Sanders inherited a vital downtown and a stock of affordable housing. The major shopping districts and malls were in place. The city was poised to take off. When Sanders says he made Burlington thrive, businesspeople say that the city prospered in spite of him and that Burlington's economic success was due more to Reaganomics and increased defense spending than to local leadership.

The business community learned to accommodate Sanders and his bureaucrats, the self-described "Sanderistas." Truthfully, Sanders's record as mayor was basically, er, liberal. He talked like a flaming radical, but his everyday administrative policies were warmed-over New Deal stuff. He visited Nicaragua (loved it) but refused to allow peace protesters to block the entrance of the GE munitions plant. He increased taxes on businesses, but he also introduced reforms that saved taxpayers money. His folksy style—frizzy hair, no tie, rumpled clothes—was deceptively laid-back, because Sanders never relaxed, especially his mouth.

He campaigned for Jesse Jackson in 1988. He made friends with leftist big shots like I.F. Stone, Barbara Ehrenreich, and former Berkeley mayor Gus Newport. He ran for governor in 1986 and for Congress in 1988. In the latter race, fueled by a national fundraising effort and a relative absence of Marxist rhetoric, he finished ahead of a blundering Democratic candidate 38 percent to 19 percent. The Republican won. Sanders blamed the Democrats and within a month announced his retirement from city hall.

That's Sanders in a nutshell—the martyr complex, the showy style, and the substantive failures. After eight years and two statewide Sanders campaigns, there is still no third party in Vermont. Sanders's progressives do not even hold a majority on the Burlington City Council. His "rainbow coalition" has fewer than 300 paying members. His paranoid refusal to play along with the Democrats has made bitter enemies in the powerful New England faction of the party. He cannot dependably deliver any sizable bloc of voters. He has no conspicuous protégés. Except for achieving celebrity status, what has he accomplished?

Bernard Sanders will try to persuade a national audience that leftists can make American cities livable. To prove that "progressives" or "rainbows"—he is phasing out his use of the "S-word"—can run a government, he will invite people to examine his record in Burlington. He risks the chance that they will examine it more closely than Bernie himself has yet been willing to.

Jim McIntosh watches Vermont from the safety of New Hampshire.