The Magazine

Vermont Stands Alone

Hi ho, the derry-o: the obsessions of a single-party state

Aug 8, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 44 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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Dorset, Vermont

The country may have turned right in the 2010 election, but Vermont, manifestly, did not. The state is small, with a population of slightly more than 625,000 souls and a landmass that could be swallowed up by, say, Wyoming. But Vermont is feisty. If it were a dog, it would be a Jack Russell terrier. Vermont was the first state in the union to legalize same-sex marriage by a vote of the legislature as opposed to judicial fiat, and it routinely sends a socialist, Bernie Sanders, to Congress. In fact, Senator Sanders gave a long, filibuster-like speech in opposition to the tax bill passed during the 2010 lame duck session that was hundred-proof class warfare, potent enough to inspire a Sanders-for-President website and to be published in book form so that people who can’t get enough of progressive rhetoric can go to the bookshelf at any time and thrill to Lincolnesque passages like this:

[W]e can put people to work improving our water systems, our wastewater plants. It is a very expensive proposition to develop a good wastewater plant. … It is an expensive proposition for roads, bridges. Furthermore, I do not have to tell anybody here, our rail system, which used to be the greatest rail system in the world, is now falling way behind every other major country on Earth.

The same impulse that sends Sanders to the Senate elected Peter Shumlin governor of Vermont in November 2010. The office had been held for the previous eight years by Jim Douglas, a moderate Republican who somehow managed to transcend that awkward fact in the minds of an electorate who, for the last of his two-year terms, nevertheless took the precaution of burdening him with a veto-proof legislature. The Vermont Republican party went into decline while Douglas was governor, and by the time he announced that he would not run for reelection, it was on life support. 

So in November 2010, while the rest of the nation was voting its remorse for what it had done in 2008, Vermont went the other way, reaffirming the faith it had demonstrated when it gave more than 67 percent of its vote to Barack Obama. Now the state once again has a Democratic governor. Both houses of the legislature have veto-proof Democratic majorities. There is even a robust Progressive party presence in the state house. And, of course, there are the state’s three representatives in Washington: in the Senate, Sanders and Patrick Leahy, a partisan warhorse first elected in the Watergate backdraft of 1974 who just won a seventh term, and in the House, Vermont’s lone member, Peter Welch, a bland and reliably liberal Democrat.

The Republican party’s senior officeholder is the lieutenant governor, Phil Scott, who is colorful and energetic—he drives race cars and does symbolic, one-day turns at various forms of labor, like dishwashing, to better understand the lives of voters—but also believes in consensus and considers himself a “partner” in the Shumlin administration.

In Vermont, then, the left is on a roll, with no serious opposition and nothing to keep it from achieving its goals except, perhaps, its own overreach.

Many of those goals, as it happens, had already been achieved even before the last election. In 2000, the state recognized “civil unions” under a law signed behind closed doors by Governor Howard Dean. In 2009, both houses of the legislature passed a bill making same-sex marriage legal. Douglas vetoed the bill and was overridden. 

By 2010, then, not much was left to do when it came to the social issues, except to legalize marijuana, which doesn’t seem to excite the passions it once did, perhaps because hardly anyone ever gets busted these days for smoking the stuff. In other areas, however, there remained an unfinished agenda, and one of its most important items was the killing off of nuclear power. 


The story of Vermont and nuclear power resembles the long, acrimonious breakup of a bad marriage. Mutual suspicions, angry recriminations, conflicts over money—nukes and Vermont were probably never compatible. 

A nuclear plant has been producing electricity in Vermont since 1972, and even before it went on line, some citizens were determined to shut it down. They proved to be in for the long haul. For them, nuclear power was a defilement of the natural world. In their view, it not only caused cancer; it was cancer. The salvation of the human race depended on the eradication of all things nuclear, starting with the Vermont Yankee plant on the Connecticut River in the southeast corner of the state.

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