Politics

The Two Vermonts

The politics of Uphill and Downhill

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VTDigger.org examines the ideas of Paul Searls, a Vermont historian who has an interesting framework for understanding his state's politics (with some obvious analogs, though they aren't explored here, for politics elsewhere in the world):

The flag of a radical militia

Searls, a professor at Lyndon State College, calls the two sides of the divide "Uphillers" and "Downhillers," terms he borrowed from historian Robert Shalhope. Searls ran into them years ago while writing his dissertation and found they neatly described the opposing factions he was seeing in his research….The Uphillers arrived in Vermont first and settled hillside farms to be safe from valley floods. After the Revolution, another wave of settlers arrived in the state. These newer arrivals, the Downhillers, tended to be from the professional class—lawyers, merchants, craftspeople and the like—and they settled in the valleys.

The differences between Uphillers and Downhillers were clear from the beginning. In the 1790s, Vermont Congressman Matthew Lyon, a staunch defender of Uphill interests, bemoaned the fact that Downhillers were trying to change how Vermonters governed themselves. Lyon criticized this "new set of gentry who are interested in keeping the government at a distance from, and out of the sight of the people who support it." Indeed, that is one of the main characteristics that Searls ascribes to Downhillers.

Searls described the differences between Uphillers and Downhillers in his book "Two Vermonts: Geography and Identity, 1865-1910." Uphillers, he wrote, preferred "localized, informal, (and) cooperative communities," whereas Downhillers were inclined toward "competitiveness, formality, contractual relationships, and comfort with the concentration of power in increasingly large institutions."

Downhillers fought for eugenics, school consolidation, hunting and fishing regulations, and "a federal government effort to move 13,000 Vermonters off farmland it deemed 'submarginal,'" among other intrusive and centralizing policies. They pushed through prohibition over Uphill objections; later, the two groups' attitudes toward alcohol flipped, with Downhillers trying to ease the rules while Uphillers held firm. (That is the one place in the article where Downhillers take the more libertarian position.) And then there's this conflict, whose details may be specific to Vermont but bring battles all over the nation to mind:

Downhillers looked at the condition of Uphill communities and decided the state was suffering through a period of malaise. Their remedy was to promote the state as a tourist destination, starting in the late 1800s. But Downhillers recognized that the state's charm was its very backwardness, Searls says, so they advertised Vermont as a pre-modern society, while simultaneously attempting to modernize it. Searls sees those contradictory impulses still at work today. "Downhillers want the state to look like Uphill, but they want Vermonters to be Downhill," he explains.

The rest of the article is here. Searls' book, which I have not read, can be acquired here.

[Hat tip: Bryan Alexander, who says the argument reminds him of James C. Scott's book The Art of Not Being Governed.]