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Bernie’s Red Vermont

How Sanders’s brand of American socialism emerged from the crucible of the Green Mountain State’s squabbling counterculture

Donna Light/Newsday/Getty

It was in a Burlington coffee shop known as a hangout for “alternative” people—as well as an occasional FBI observation spot for new-left activities—that Bernie Sanders told Greg Guma, the editor of the radical Vermont Vanguard Press, that he wanted to run for mayor. 

Guma was in the midst of organizing his own mayoral candidacy in the upcoming 1981 election as part of the Citizens Party, a newly formed left-wing band of reformist candidates and activists that had already run a candidate for Vermont’s sole congressional seat in 1980, getting a quarter of the vote in Burlington. But Sanders convinced him otherwise. “I think I’d make a good candidate,” Sanders said. It was apparent, Guma told me, “that [Sanders] was a better politician and he wasn’t going to step aside. I decided to let the politician be the politician.”

Sanders eventually won by ten votes, garnering national attention as a self-described socialist who triumphed in the same year Ronald Reagan was inaugurated. Now, of course, Sanders is the most famous socialist in the country, placing second in most polls for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. And his brand of left-wing politics has proven far more influential than he or Guma or anyone else in Burlington’s tightly knit leftist world could have dreamed.

Sanders’s ideology is the product of the winding circumstances of his long career, tracing an unlikely trajectory from radical New England gadfly to U.S. senator. But the patterns that have defined—and limited—his politics were first evident during his time in the Liberty Union Party in the 1970s and his tenure as mayor of Burlington in the 1980s. His focus on “bread and butter” issues, clashes with left-wing activists, and strategic alignments with the Democratic Party came together during those formative years—alongside a crash course in the compromises that are necessary to win elections and govern. 

Amid all these rolling challenges, it was hardly guaranteed that Sanders would prevail. Back in Burlington in 1981, Sanders’s vision was one of several radical ideologies on offer. His tensions with his fellow travelers may seem just another classic instance of the comically esoteric arguments that are the obsessive currency of the fringe left. Upon closer examination, though, they show how Sanders was able to move beyond fixed, uncompromising leftist dogma and embrace instead what might be called the left wing of the possible in American politics—a living, breathing ideology that he incubated, often alone, over the course of his 36 years in elected office.

Vermont is “the only state in the United States where the word socialism is not automatically thought of as a negative,” Sanders said in a 1986 interview. “I think that’s primarily because we’ve been alive here seven years and accomplished certain things.” Sanders has indeed kept socialism alive as a viable political ideology. The question for America’s burgeoning leftist movement is whether the version of democratic socialism that Bernie Sanders first forged in Vermont can survive without Bernie Sanders. 

The Citizens Party was just one of the left-wing groups partially populated by former members of Sanders’s old Liberty Union Party, which he had joined in 1971, after first moving to the state in 1968. Vermont, despite being one of the most Republican states in the country at the time, had seen its demographics and culture shift in the 1960s and ’70s, opening up the space for more radical political movements at the high tide of protests against the Vietnam War.

What was radical then, in some respects, might sound all too familiar to big-city lifestyle liberals or residents of the Hudson Valley. “A counterculture population has emerged in Vermont, consisting of ex-urbanites who have chosen the rustic life, busying themselves with gardening, chopping wood, baking bread, weaving, doing yoga and astrology, smoking pot, and eating organic foods,” Michael Parenti, a Liberty Union member who had been denied tenure at the University of Vermont because of his radical politics, wrote in a 1975 essay.

But Liberty Union was, at its core, a left-wing, antiwar, anti-establishment grouping. It was able, as Parenti wrote, to garner the support of “many low-income, working class people,” and its support was “as high as 25 percent” in poor parts of Burlington. In 1974, at the height of the party’s influence, it ran 43 candidates locally and statewide and was getting between 5 and 7 percent of vote. It was able to peel off a few union locals traditionally allied with the Democratic Party, and even got a union worker, at the urging of Sanders, to run for lieutenant governor. 

The 1974 vote, Sanders told The Boston Globe, “show[ed] that the majority of our votes came from working people.... It gives us a certain legitimacy and shows we’re not just a ‘hippie’ party.” Sanders was already figuring out that, despite Liberty Union’s reputation for radicalism (as well as his own: in that same election he called for abolishing the CIA), the so-called hippies would never be at the core of a Sanders coalition. That spot was reserved instead for “working people.”

After an unsuccessful run for governor two years later, Sanders left the party, lamenting its ineffectiveness. “He got frustrated, it seemed not to be growing, and there were people that had no practical political sense,” said Terry Bouricius, a local political activist who would serve on what was then known as the Burlington Board of Aldermen while Sanders was mayor. He pointed to activists like Peter Diamondstone, a co-founder of the party who was dedicated to giving children the vote among other crypto-utopian crusades. “Bernie would say, ‘Prioritize,’” Bouricious said. 

It was the last political party Sanders would ever be a member of.

“[Sanders’s] attitude has always been he doesn’t want self-appointed, middle class, college-educated people who have leisure time to write articles and go to meetings telling him what the correct policy on this or that issue is,” Bouricius said. “If they’re not part of the working class and don’t have 9-to-5 grunt jobs and don’t understand personally what it’s like,” he isn’t interested. “He used to use the term ‘activist’ as not exactly pejorative, but almost,” Bouricius added.

The next year, Diamondstone said in an interview that now that Sanders and other popular members had left Liberty Union, it could “no longer be seen as a fan club.” Now, he insisted, “we’re a real political party.” Diamondstone would continually run for office in Vermont, never getting more than 8 percent of the general election vote and even losing to Sanders several times in congressional races between 1990 and 2012.

It wasn’t Sanders who first saw the potential for a successful independent run in Burlington in 1981. Instead, he ran mostly at the suggestion of one of his close friends, an Orthodox Jewish scholar at the University of Vermont named Richard Sugarman. The pair went into the Burlington city clerk’s office and inspected a “musty binder” of the results of the 1976 gubernatorial election, which Sanders lost with a paltry 6 percent of the statewide vote. “He showed me a ward-by-ward breakdown of the election results,” wrote Sanders in his memoir, Outsider in the House (recently re-released as Outsider in the White House). “Even though I received only 6 percent of the vote statewide, in Burlington I carried 12 percent, and in the two working-class wards of the city, over 16 percent.” 

Here, again, was the cornerstone of Sanders’s emergent brand of twentieth-century democratic socialism: a base of working-class voters, upon which you could layer other constituencies. “By the time Election Day rolled around,” Sanders writes, “we had brought together leaders of the low-income community, college professors, the Burlington Patrolman’s Association, environmentalists, and conservative homeowners worried about rising property taxes.” 

At the time, Guma’s Citizens Party seemed like the more logical alternative to the traditional parties in Vermont, especially in Burlington. The scientist Barry Commoner, who had become famous for his warnings about the danger of nuclear testing, ran a third-party presidential campaign as a leading voice of environmental protest and could attract people to the cause. “A lot of people from the left rallied to the Citizens Party,” said Bouricius, who would end up being one of two Sanders allies on the Board of Aldermen. “There were some folks who were early organizers who were frustrated Democrats and frustrated with the Democratic Party, largely leftists.”

But the 1980 presidential election had badly damaged the Citizen’s Party, which only got on the ballot in 30 states and fell far behind John Anderson’s independent run. It eventually withered away, its members in Burlington becoming part of Sanders’s Progressive Coalition, the group of independent leftists who served in the city government while Sanders and his successor were in office in Burlington.

As soon as Bernie won the 1981 mayoral race, he quickly acquired a dual identity. There was the wild-haired socialist who garnered national attention far beyond what was typical for a mayor of a city of 38,000 people. There was also the nuts-and-bolts local government official, who at the beginning was largely hemmed in by a Board of Aldermen largely made up of Democrats and Republicans who had no interest in helping Sanders succeed and win reelection. The board barely let him make appointments, let alone seize the means of production.

Sanders never truly distanced himself from his Liberty Union radicalism—it was, after all, what separated him from other potential leftists who could have won the office. At the same time, though, he didn’t dwell on the exact nature of his socialist beliefs—a philosophical tic that continues in many ways to mark his later career. 

He told The Boston Globe after his election that he “stayed away from calling myself a socialist because I did not want to spend half my life explaining that I did not believe in the Soviet Union or in concentration camps.” He added, “We cannot afford, whatever my personal feelings might be, to go to war with the business community.”

Still, he was not unaware of how novel his victory was, especially coming so soon after Reagan’s inauguration. “Burlington will be on center stage because the country has gone in one direction and we have gone in the other,” Sanders told The New York Times. “People will be paying $10 a head to see the freak Mayor of Burlington and what we do can have an effect.” 

This split between Sanders’s association with the global left and his everyday style of governance became a theme in media coverage of him. One Vermonter told The Hartford Courant after his first reelection in 1983, “He talks El Salvador, but simply runs the city.” In other words, Sanders was not running away from his socialist bona fides, but also didn’t see them as always relevant to his day job.

Sanders raises his arms in victory after defeating Republican Representative Peter Smith in the race for Vermont’s lone House seat, Nov. 6, 1990.
Rob Swanson/AP Photo

He told the Courant that he was concerned that “half of the U.S. Senate is composed of millionaires and ... half of the major decisions in this country are made by banks and corporations.” But he admitted, “What does that have to do with Burlington? Not a whole hell of a lot.” Instead he was eager to talk about some basic city management, including putting out contracts to bid, finding a $1.9 million surplus, and improving the city’s cash management to earn more interest on its accounts.

It is, of course, perfectly possible to run a city effectively while showing solidarity with leftists in Central America, whatever the Board of Aldermen might say. Whether Sanders could do so while also showing solidarity with unionized workers in a weapons factory was another question. 

The antiwar movement had died down following the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, but many leftists were re-energized in the ’80s by U.S. support for right-wing regimes and paramilitaries in Central America. Sanders was no exception. Central America was near the heart of his effort to the give the small city he governed its own foreign policy, culminating with Sanders visiting Nicaragua and meeting with its left-wing strongman president Daniel Ortega in 1985.

Soon after his reelection in 1983, however, Sanders’s commitment to a more dovish, anti-imperial foreign policy and his commitment to the workers of Burlington came into conflict. 

Despite its reputation for small-scale agriculture and green hills, Vermont was one of the largest recipients of Defense Department weapons contracts in the early ’80s, thanks to the production of Gatling guns at the General Electric plant in Burlington. 

That summer, a group of peace activists met with Sanders to tell him about their plan to block the gate to Burlington’s General Electric factory. Sanders was upset with them, Guma says in his book, The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution, for “blaming the workers” and not focusing their attention on the federal centers of strategic thinking on U.S. foreign policy. Sanders accused the activists of pointing “the finger of guilt at working people,” according to the Burlington Free Press. He reportedly came around to opposing the sit-in after meeting with the workers’ union leaders. “Not everyone has the luxury of choosing where they are going to work,” he told the Press. His position flew in the face of increased local activism around war and peace issues, especially in Vermont, where 159 out of 180 towns had passed nuclear freeze resolutions. 

Sanders was unmoved by the activists’ arguments and said he would “have no choice but to order their arrest,” according to Guma’s account. Soon after the protest began the morning of June 20, dozens of activists were arrested as, Guma says, “the mayor watched from the side of the road.”

There was thus a split between Sanders and part of his activist base. Sanders “viewed his key constituencies as the unions and the poor,” Guma writes. “‘Bread and butter’ economics framed his analysis, pushing long-term issues such as peace conversion to the margins of society.” 

One of the activists organizing against the plant was the Bronx-born anarchist cum ecological theorist Murray Bookchin. He had recently retired from his teaching job at Ramapo College in New Jersey, allowing him to live full-time in Vermont and throw himself into writing and cultivating the activists and acolytes who had gathered around him. 

When Sanders was first elected mayor, Bookchin was excited, pointing out the “ten anarchist votes” that put Sanders over the top, according to a biography of him by his companion and student Janet Biehl. Bookchin saw in Sanders the potential seeds of a movement that could integrate his anarchist ideals of non-domination with his belief in the essential sociality of humankind—ultimately producing a kind of town meeting–based model of governance. While Sanders was not the ambitious intellectual synthesizer that Bookchin was, he had always advocated for greater public participation in governance as well. 

But the two left reformers soon split, not just over the GE protests, but also over Sanders’s advocacy for a plan to develop the Burlington waterfront that a group of businessmen put forward in 1985. Sanders had earlier campaigned against a prior waterfront development plan, and so his seeming reversal on the question sparked some of the hardest left-wing criticism of his tenure.

Sanders’s detractors formed a protest group to oppose the plan—among its leaders were Bookchin’s former wife, Bea, and Sandra Baird, a former Liberty Union member. One of its slogans—“Our waterfront is still not for sale!”—echoed Sanders’s own insurgent campaign motto: “Burlington is not for sale!”

As the bond measure to fund the plan went down in defeat, Bookchin condemned Sanders for “collusion with business interests.” Left-wing activists had been at odds with Sanders before on issues like the GE plant, but the bond measure was the first time Sanders had lost a battle against forces largely from his left—only a Republican ward had voted in strong numbers for the plan. (Today the waterfront is home to a large park and a bike path. Sanders would launch his 2016 presidential campaign there.)

A year later, Bookchin formally laid out his objections to Sanders in a pungent and unforgiving essay for Socialist Review, which has had a long shelf life online as a reference for left-wing criticisms of Sanders.

If Sanders was a “socialist,” Bookchin argued, he is of the kind “whose preference for ‘realism’ over ideals has earned him notoriety even within his closest co-workers in City Hall.” Sanders did not just possess a “well-known paranoia and suspicious reclusiveness,” Bookchin said, but was also “a centralist, who is more committed to accumulating power in the mayor’s office than giving it to the people.” And, anticipating criticisms of Sanders today, Bookchin considered his ideas to be already dated, a throwback to industrial worker–centered radicalism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Sanders, Bookchin wrote, had a “thirties’ belief in technological progress, businesslike efficiency, and a naive adherence to the benefits of ‘growth.’” Sanders would dismiss “democratic practice” as “secondary to a full belly,” while the “earthy proletariat tends to be eulogized over the ‘effete’ intellectuals, and environmental, feminist, and communitarian issues are regarded as ‘petit-bourgeois’ frivolities by comparison with the material needs of ‘working people.’”

“The tragedy is that Sanders did not live out his life between 1870 and 1940,” Bookchin continued, “and the paradox that faces him is: Why does a constellation of ideas that seemed so rebellious fifty years ago appear to be so conservative today?”

The scornful, sour tone of Bookchin’s essay could be read as a disappointment, a lament—as well as a warning, that if leftists in the United States were going to take their cue from a New York transplant in Burlington, it should be the mustachioed anarchist, not the bespectacled socialist. Bookchin seemed to think that if he could convince leftists that the Debsian, worker-centered socialism was an intellectual, political, and moral dead end, it might open the door to his own ecologically inflected anarchism.

Bookchin’s allies would try their own hand at electoral politics, running as the Burlington Greens for several seats on the Board of Aldermen and even putting up a candidate for mayor in 1989.

Bookchin’s emerging theory of “libertarian municipalism,” Bookchin’s student Biehl writes, was supposed to avoid the perilous compromises of conventional politics without giving up the chance to make lasting collective change.

In a freewheeling interview in 1985, Bookchin said that he was “concerned with developing local institutions—neighborhood assemblies, neighborhood councils that will be thrown into dynamic opposition to the centralized state.” He said his vision of politics stood in contrast to “statecraft,” which he described as “operating as a party within the state with the view toward having control of the state.” His politics came from a “sense of polis and community, decentralized, confederal, built around rotation, built around sortition and hopefully approximating consensus as much as possible—in which you have an active citizen body managing its own affairs.”

If Sanders’s quasi-leftism was a failure, maybe Bookchin’s Burlington Greens could, Biehl writes, “create that democratic Left; regionally, to epitomize New England democracy as a model for Greens in the rest of the county; and nationally, to spark a decentralist, bottom-up Green movement that could spread through the country.” 

The Greens ran a council candidate, Bookchin’s ex-wife and longtime friend Bea, in the 1987 Board of Alderman election, where she got more than 20 percent of the vote but still lost.

When Sanders said that he would not run for reelection as mayor in 1989, the Greens saw their opportunity to take on what they saw as a fatally compromised Progressive Coalition in Burlington now that it was deprived of its popular figurehead. Along with two aldermen candidates, they ran Baird, the feminist lawyer who helped organize the opposition to Sanders’s waterfront plan, for mayor.  

“Now was our chance, we thought, to establish a real Green left, in this city,” Biehl says, describing a campaign that was almost a mirror image of Sanders’s 1981 run. It even attracted the attention of Newsweek, which quoted Bookchin describing the Progressive Coalition’s growth plans as “only progressive if you’re a 1930s Marxist.” The Greens called for more direct democracy and citizen participation in government; they demanded rent control; and they inveighed against plans to develop the waterfront. 

To the Progressive Coalition, the Greens were “intransigent spoilers,” Biehl writes. Guma writes that the Greens “proclaimed themselves as the only remnant of a self-conscious Left,” and that their harsh criticisms of the Progressive Coalition “often left the impression that they saw no difference between Progressives and Republicans.” 

Baird would, like Sanders in his early Liberty Union days, get just a few percentage points of the vote. She eventually served in the state legislature as a Democrat.

True disaster would only come the next year, in a local alderman’s race. After a Democrat won that contest, defeating an incumbent Progressive, the Burlington Greens announced that the Green candidate in the race, Stephen Sheehy, had colluded with the Democrat to ask each other pre-written questions at a debate that would mostly serve to help them explain their respective platforms. While Sheehy only got 37 votes, that was more than the 25-vote margin by which the Progressive, Erhard Mahnke, lost. 

“I believe the election was tainted,” Bookchin said in a statement to the Burlington Free Press, “I am told repeatedly by politicians in this community that this is the name of the game. If so, this is not my game, and I don’t think it should be the Greens’ game.”

It was “statecraft” at its most tawdry and Bookchin was deeply ashamed, Biehl writes. The old man approached Mahnke at a public meeting: “I have worked all my life for a new politics,” Biehl recounts him saying, “for an ethical politics. People in my group have behaved unethically, for which I apologize. If such behavior is to be identified with my work, if that is to be its conclusion, then my life has been a waste.”

While Sanders has never been associated with such alleged shenanigans, he’s made a number of alliances and compromises that have drawn harsh denunciations from a more demanding faction on his left. Diamondstone called him a “quisling” after Sanders endorsed Walter Mondale for president in 1984. Parenti split with him over his support for armed intervention in the former Yugoslavia. And some members of his own government joined the protest at the GE factory. He has called repeatedly over the years for a third party, only to run for president as a Democrat and remain somewhat aloof from the Vermont Progressive Party.

But precisely because he’s not a rigorous intellectual or theorist, these evolutions and changes do not wear on his soul. He is, in other words, a politician, as Guma observed in that Burlington coffee shop all those years ago. And he wins.

The Greens, by contrast, evaporated as an electoral force in Burlington. After the collapse of the Greens, Bookchin’s political world got smaller and smaller. He was exhausted and alienated by his long-running and harsh dispute with radical “deep ecologists” in the U.S. environmental movement. The Green Party would evolve into a more conventional political party, while few anarchists adopted his political ideas. Wheelchair-bound in his later years (he died in 2006), Bookchin told the longtime Burlington political activist and former city attorney Gene Bergman, “I don’t have the energy to fight anymore.” 

Biehl herself, while studiously tending to Bookchin’s legacy, described Sanders as a “superb” senator, who was “fighting tenaciously on behalf of the downtrodden.” 

That is not to say that Bookchin’s political vision died somewhere in Burlington in the 1990s. While Sanders was serving in Congress, Bookchin’s work made its way to the Turkish jail cell of Kurdistan Workers’ Party leader Abdullah Öcalan, eventually leading the party to explicitly model itself on Bookchin’s ideas. Öcalan, previously a Marxist-Leninist militant, now describes his political beliefs as “Democratic Confederalism.” Today, the area of northern Syria under Kurdish control is governed along Democratic Confederalist lines, based on Öcalan’s interpretation of Bookchin. The region is also home to some of the fiercest and most loyal fighters against ISIS in Syria. If Sanders were to win the presidency in 2020, some 40 years after Bookchin’s anarchists helped him win the Burlington mayoralty, it would be a great twist of fate that their two “people’s republics” would be allies once again.

When Sanders burst onto the national stage in 2015, mainstream liberals didn’t quite know what to do with him. Hillary Clinton and her supporters could not simply portray him as a radical ideologue with foolhardy plans that could never be implemented—as Sanders likes to point out, many of his policy proposals poll quite well. So he wasn’t just hopelessly left-wing, Clinton and her allies contended, he also was hopelessly out of date with how Democrats talk and think about race and gender. He was, at best, tone-deaf to the specific grievances and issues faced by people of color and women and, at worst, actively hostile to any form of politics that wasn’t his type of class-based, “bread and butter” progressivism. 

Clinton assailed Sanders as a “single issue” candidate, while she was “the only candidate who’ll take on every barrier to progress.” Or as she put it in a remark that best sums up how the longtime triangulator positioned herself on both the right and left of Sanders: “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow ... would that end racism?” The political figure most associated with Democratic moderation in pursuit of electoral success (besides her husband) was now both the liberal establishment and Bookchin, with Sanders caught in the middle, hammering away at inequality and universal health care. For the first time in nearly 30 years, he lost. 

But so did Clinton eventually, and she lost in the exact places where Sanders’s persistently populist message might resonate the most: the Rust Belt. The not-so-unreasonable supposition that Sanders could have beaten Donald Trump, along with a new solid base of activist support, made him an instant frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in 2020. 

His subsequent campaign can be seen as one long correction to this critique that he wasn’t all the way there on race and gender, while not giving any ground on the policy questions. His staff is more diverse and he’s been prompted to talk about his personal history, which includes his time in college as a civil rights activist in Chicago. He’s still polling a distant second to Joe Biden—who has been leading in polls among older and African American voters—and has been splitting the support of ideological left-wing Democrats with Elizabeth Warren, who has exceeded him in putting out detailed, progressive policy proposals.

But no matter what happens in 2020, Sanders has distinguished himself from past leftists who tried to make their mark on national politics. He’s no Norman Thomas or Gus Hall or Barry Commoner. He’s not a beautiful loser, a protest candidate, or a spoiler. Still, he’s not part of any larger movement or tendency either. His distance from both the Democratic Party and any sectarian left organizations has given him the flexibility to contest and win elections for four decades. But it also means that his socialism is his alone. At the moment, the only way to establish what socialism can mean in the twenty-first century is for Sanders to win.