Vermont’s Cautionary Tale

The Vermont Progressive Party must choose between challenging the two-party system and being absorbed by the Democrats.

Now that the Democratic Party’s funders, elected officials, and apparatchiks have successfully quelled Bernie Sanders’s insurgent campaign, his supporters are looking for a way forward.

Sanders argues that they should vote for Clinton, hold her accountable for enacting the Democratic National Committee platform — which he calls the most progressive in the party’s history — and donate to his new organization, Our Revolution, to back progressive candidates in down-ballot elections. Their ultimate goal is to take over the Democratic Party and transform it from inside.

But the much-lauded platform is — to quote Hamlet — “more honored in the breach than the observance,” and any attempt to take over the Democratic Party at a local level will run into the same roadblocks Sanders encountered at the national one.

The whole history of the Democratic Party documents how its leadership has incorporated, disciplined, or stymied liberal and left insurgents. For anyone who imagined this time would be different, the DNC’s emails prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the party is theirs, not ours.

Successful electoral challenges to Democrats at the local and state level seem to point a different way forward. Kshama Sawant’s successful campaign in Seattle and Howie Hawkins’s and Brian Jones’s Green Party bid for New York governor and lieutenant governor show that starting down ticket can be an effective strategy for garnering public attention.

Jill Stein’s newfound support among young people — one poll found that 16 percent of millennials plan to vote Green — indexes their growing discontent with the Democrats and hints that they can be won over to a new party with a working-class program.

Creating such a party, however, is a daunting challenge and it’s worth debating different routes to a better sort of politics. In “Lessons from Vermont,” Luke Elliott-Negri holds up Vermont’s Progressive Party (VPP) as an example for the Left to emulate, arguing that its members have taken advantage of a predominantly small-town state to successfully forge an independent party that has “championed policies that distinguish it from Vermont Democrats and built a distinct third party identity in the process.”

Undeniably, the Progressive Party established itself as the most left-wing, pro-labor electoral party in Vermont. But contrary to the case for small-state exceptionalism, the party has run into the same temptations and obstacles that have bedeviled similar initiatives elsewhere.

Now it must choose between standing up for working-class independence against both of the state’s capitalist parties and — following the example set by New York’s Working Families Party (WFP) — essentially fusing with the Democrats.


In 1999, an alliance of trade union activists, leftists, and liberal reformers — who came out of Bernie Sanders’s successful campaigns for mayor, congressmember, and senator — launched the VPP.

They wrote a prohibition into their constitution that prevented them from endorsing or running on the ballot line of either major party. And they established themselves through successful down-ticket campaigns for Burlington city council as well as the state legislature.

All of this is true, but Elliott-Negri exaggerates their successes and downplays their compromises. For one, he claims that the VPP controls Burlington’s city council, but they only have four out of twelve council seats.

Also, they cut a deal with the Democrats and independents in order to get Jane Knodell — perhaps the most right-wing Progressive on the council — selected as its chair.

Even more troubling, however, the vast majority of Progressive candidates are running as fusion candidates who represent both their own party and the Democrats.

As Elliott-Negri notes, many VPP members dislike this development, and their most left-wing leaders worry that fusion is a slippery slope that ends with the party’s absorption into the Democratic Party itself.

Sanders’s own political evolution has shaped the Progressives’ slide into fusion. Sanders started as a member of the Socialist Party of America and helped build the Liberty Union Party when he first moved to Vermont. But following several unsuccessful runs for office, he opted to run for mayor as an independent.

As he progressed to national office, he moved closer to the Democrats. While in Congress, he supported their national candidates in exchange for a promise that they wouldn’t challenge him in the elections.

Though formally independent, he caucused with the Democrats in the House and Senate. And, of course, he registered with the Democratic Party to contend for the party’s presidential nomination.

This evolution is striking and it seems to be mirrored in developments within the Vermont Progressive Party. Sanders’s example and influence, when combined with the challenges of winning statewide office as a third party in a majority Democrat state, have pushed the Progressives away from their original commitment to challenging Democrats at the local, state, and national level with an independent progressive party.

New Tactics

The roots of this turn far predate Sanders’s presidential run, however. In 2000, the VPP endorsed Ralph Nader for president, going so far as to put him on their ballot line.

But in response to the Democrats’ scapegoating attacks on Nader following Bush v. Gore, the Progressives refused to put Nader on their ballot in 2004, even as some of their leading members — like Anthony Pollina — agreed to share a speaking platform with him.

The first real crack in the Progressives’ coherence began in 2003, when Peter Clavelle — who had been the party’s standard-bearer as mayor of Burlington from 1995 to 2006 — sought and won the Democrats’ endorsement during his run for governor against Republican Jim Douglas.

The VPP had to amend their bylaws to allow Clavelle to run as a Democrat, replacing it with a rule that candidates who had run once as a Progressive can accept endorsements from other parties.

But the real turning point came in 2008, in the aftermath of Pollina’s second run for governor. The three-way race between himself, Democrat Gaye Symington, and Douglas gave the win to the Republican. Just like Nader, the Democrats turned on Pollina, calling him a “spoiler” and blaming him for their own defeat.

In the aftermath, the Progressives retreated further from independence. In 2008, Progressive Tim Ashe blazed the path when he opted to run as both a Progressive and a Democrat for state senate. Sanders endorsed Ashe and his turn to fusion.

The pro-fusion Progressives have justified this fateful decision by arguing that the strategy avoids the spoiler charge and enables statewide wins. Elliott-Negri seems to agree, arguing that fusion can advance working-class politics today, just as it did for the nineteenth-century Populists.

But he misremembers this history: when the Populists gave up their status as an independent party of and for impoverished farmers and workers, they created the conditions for their political disorientation and eventual demise.

In states like North Carolina, the Populist Party ran fusion candidates with the Republicans, making significant electoral gains. But when it joined the Democrats and endorsed William Jennings Bryan in his failed 1896 presidential run, it destroyed those Southern inroads.

The Democrats had no problem co-opting and neutralizing the Populists nationally, and — thanks to Jim Crow restrictions on voting rights — destroying them in the South.

Today’s best-known example of a third party that uses fusion tactics is New York’s Working Families Party, which was established by union officials and progressives with the hope of influencing the Democratic Party and pushing broadly social-democratic politics in the state.

But the Democrats know that when push comes to shove the WFP will back them. So Governor Andrew Cuomo and his fellow party bosses use it to take over and neutralize forces that might challenge them.

This was made crystal clear in the last gubernatorial election, when the WFP — afraid of losing its status — put Cuomo on its ballot line instead of backing Hawkins and Jones or running Zephyr Teachout as an independent candidate. Just as it did for the Populists, fusion led not to success but to surrender.

Fusion Blues

In Vermont, the VPP’s use of fusion risks similar dissolution. It has gone so far that State Senator Ashe, himself a Progressive-Democratic candidate, warns that members of the two parties “may come eventually to form a de facto caucus in the legislature that could have the effect of undercutting the Progressive Party’s raison d’etre.”

The dynamic of incorporation, subordination, and discipline has already produced worrying compromises.

In 2013, when a popular movement opposed to basing the F-35 fighter bomber at the Burlington Airport presented a resolution to the city council, Progressive Jane Knodell broke ranks with her party members and joined the Democrats and Republicans to defeat it.

In 2016, Progressives joined the rest of the city council to back Democratic mayor Miro Weinberger — who is, for all intents and purposes, the agent of real-estate capital in city hall — in two boondoggle development plans.

In the vote on a proposal to spend over $200 million on redeveloping the existing downtown mall, only one Progressive, Max Tracy, dissented.

But there was no opposition to Weinberger’s plan to build a new private marina to service yuppies and their boats, which amounts to putting a giant parking lot in Lake Champlain. The Burlington Progressives have thus tailed the Democrats’ program of gentrification.

They also disregarded the local Black Lives Matter activists’ opposition and unanimously backed Weinberger’s appointment of former New York City cop Brandon del Pozo, a fan of notorious NYPD commissioners Ray Kelly and William Bratton.

At the state level, some key Progressives betrayed their party’s commitment to single-payer health care, giving Democratic governor Peter Shumlin cover to abandon his campaign promises.

Activists in the Health Care is a Human Right Campaign built a statewide movement to compel Vermont to adopt a single-payer system, eventually pressuring Shumlin to support the initiative. The Progressives, hoping that the Democrat would deliver on his promise, opted not to challenge him in the 2010 gubernatorial race.

Unsurprisingly, when push came to shove, Shumlin abandoned the plan, claiming that there was inadequate financing — precisely because he refused to consider taxing the rich to pay for it.

While the VPP rightly condemned the decision, some of its key representatives joined Shumlin in declaring single payer “impractical.” For example, Tim Ashe came out before the governor to declare that single payer could “put small businesses out of business.”

Similarly, Pearson issued a statement in support of the governor’s decision, declaring, “the way we pay for health care today is so complicated and illogical that shifting to a fair system all at once is too much to swallow. It would simply create too much economic dislocation.”

Fork in the Road

In the wake of these compromises caused by fusion tactics, the Progressives are now caught between challenging the two-party system and becoming absorbed into the Democrats.

The 2016 presidential election will again test them. In a departure from their agnostic posture toward national elections they adopted after Nader, the party voted to endorse Bernie Sanders in his primary run against Hillary Clinton for the Democrat’s presidential nomination.

Now they must choose between abstaining from the November election, backing Clinton, or endorsing Stein, whom a network of activists managed to get on the ballot in Vermont. Some lean toward abstention to keep peace with the Democrats. Some on the Left are agitating to back Stein.

Thus, contrary to Elliott-Negri’s argument, small states do not make it easier to organize independent, working-class politics. The Progressives have faced and in part succumbed to all the same political, programmatic, and organizational challenges that similar efforts have encountered nationally.

Instead of romanticizing them, we have to draw out the real and cautionary lessons of those experiences.

In doing so, the point isn’t to attack the party, its leadership, or its members, many of whom are deeply committed to workers’ and social movements, but rather resist a drift back to failed corporate politics.

If they can do so, while also rallying to support the national challenge to the Democratic Party that Jill Stein’s presidential campaign represents, they can become central to building a national third-party movement.

Meanwhile, the Left must put electoral work in in perspective. Elliott-Negri proceeds from the premise that elections should be our focus.

But as Sanders’s and the Progressives’ cautionary tales prove, the Left’s real power does not come from the ballot box, but rather our capacity to shut the system down with strikes and demonstrations.

In the coming years a workers’ party will have to lead those struggles and represent them at the ballot box in cities, states, and the federal government. We cannot build that kind of formation by fusing with or taking over the Democrats, but only through organizing the working class independently from the bottom up.