By Terry Bouricius
This is Chapter 1 of Building Progressive Politics: The Vermont Story, a 1993 pamphlet by Marxist Terry Bouricius, that chronicles how the only successful left third party in the U.S. today was built over the course of three decades. The remaining chapters will be published on this blog in the coming days.
Having a “third party,” or more than two parties, has been the norm rather than the exception in Vermont’s history. Some of these parties have been national in scope and some have been Vermont grown. Some of the national “third parties,” which I shall refer to as alternative parties from here on, did especially well in Vermont. Many of these parties could be described as single-issue parties.
Early in the 19th century the Anti-Mason Party arose to challenge the power and influence of the secretive Masonic order which was seen as an anti-democratic conspiracy. The Anti-Mason Party became the majority party in Vermont, winning legislative seats and the governor’s office repeatedly in the 1830s. Indeed, Vermont gave its electoral college votes to the Anti-Mason Presidential candidate in 1832.
The “two-party system” of the time consisted of the Whig Party and the Democratic Party. The Whig Party dominated Vermont elective offices from 1837 and 1852. During this period there were two abolitionist parties active in Vermont. It is interesting to note that Vermont was the first state to ban slavery constitutionally. These abolitionist parties were thus focused on a national issues. The first of these parties was the Liberty Party, consisting of largely disaffected Democrats, which grew to nearly 14% of the electorate1 by 1845. The Free Soil Party, which replaced the Liberty Party in 1846, garnered 30$ of the vote in 1848.
Parties at the time were much more fluid and informal coalitions. Indeed, at two factions of a party would each run a candidate for governor – both with the same party label. In 1849 the Free Soil Democrat Coalition candidate won 44% of the vote while the Democrat got 6% (and the Whig won). In 1853 no candidate received a majority in the governor’s race (a frequent occurrence in the early pre-party days of Vermont), throwing the election to the General Assembly. Democrat John Robinson won 38.3% of the vote, Whig 43.9%, and the Free Soil candidate 17.5 percent. On the 26th vote, the General Assembly turned Democrat.2 This represented a coalition government akin to the European parliamentary system. The Free Soilers and Democrats joined forces after the election.
The Republican Party of Vermont was formed in 1854 and in 1856 elected the first of a century-long string of Republican governors. It is easy to forget that the Republican Party was a “third party” based largely on abolitionist sentiments. As the national Republican Party evolved into a right-wing party, Vermont’s Republican Party remained a bit less conservative.
A long series of alternative parties appeared and disappeared over the years. Some of these parties had success at electing local officials and legislators, but none could touch the duopoly of the Democratic and Republican Parties (perhaps better described as a Republican monopoly) on the state-wide level.
Using the governor’s election as a yardstick, the following is a list of alternative parties up to the present. In 1855 the Temperance Party received 3% and the American Party (Know Nothings) received 8%. The short-lived Union Party got 13% of the vote in 1861. The Greenback Party garnered 5% in 1878. In the 1880s, the Prohibition Party averaged around 2%. The 1890s saw the rise of the populist People’s Party. The People’s Party was based in the agricultural west and never got much more than 1% for its gubernatorial candidates in Vermont.
The closest any party came to ending Republican ownership of the governor’s office came in 1902 when Percival Clement of the Local Option Party won 40% of the vote to the Republican’s 46%. The Local Option Party entered the debate on prohibition by advocating local community choice on the issue. This platform fits neatly with the stereotype of Vermont decentralism and suspicion of big government.
The Socialist Party had some success in local races, most notably in Barre, among Italian immigrants. From 1904 to 1916 the Socialists never broke the 2% mark in the gubernatorial race. In 1918 the Progressive Party reached 3%. In 1926 the Citizens Party got about 1%. In that same election Herbert Comings received 56% of the vote on the Democratic Party label and 2% on the Prohibition party label. This is an example of what is known as “fusion” strategy – more than one party nominating the same candidate. The junior partner, the Prohibition Party, never grew.
In the early 1930s, the Socialist Party reemerged in gubernatorial politics. Fred Suitor, who had last run in 1912 topped out at 11% this time. The Communist Party made an appearance in 1934 and 1936 receiving a mere 0.3%. Between 1938 and 1960 no parties other than the Republican and Democratic ran candidates for the governor’s office.
Phil Hoff’s elections in 1962 and after as the first non-Republican governor in more than a century is especially interesting to advocates of the fusion strategy. In that year some Republicans from the liberal Aiken wing of the Republican Party had a falling out with Governor Keyser, which apparently was much a personality conflict as an issue-based dispute. They decided to help elect Hoff. Since many Vermonters would no sooner vote for a Democrat than swap religions, a vehicle was created to allow them to vote for Hoff without voting for the Democrats. In 1962 Hoff received only 46.3% of the popular vote on the Democratic Party line on the ballot. However, his name appeared on the ballot on two additional lines. Hoff received 2.7% as an Independent and 1.5% as an Independent Democrat for a grand total of 50.5. This strategy was formalized with the creation of the Independent Vermonter Party, which always nominated the Democratic Party’s candidates. While founded by Republicans, the new party quickly became a captive of the Democrats and was never more than an electoral ploy.
Vermont’s election laws which allowed this strategy and ended it in 1978 are deal with Section 6 of this paper.
The early 1980s saw the formation of the left-wing, antiwar Liberty Union Party. The name was a compromise and none of the participants at the founding meeting were aware that Vermont had once had a Liberty Party and a Union Party. Both Bernie Sanders and I chaired the Liberty Union Party in the mid 1970s.
Bernie Sanders was the Liberty Union’s first candidate for governor, receiving 1% of the vote in 1972. Martha Abbott, Progressive Coalition candidate for Burlington City Council in 1992 and key campaign coordinator in Sanders’ 1990 Congressional race, won 5% in 1974. Sanders was again the candidate in 1976 and reached 6%. Sanders concluded that the Liberty Union Party had lost momentum and was at a dead end. He resigned as chair and from the Party in 1976. The Party dropped to 3% in 1978 and has generally hovered below 1% since then.3 The Liberty Union has developed into a tiny club of idealists with no interest in gaining political power.
The Liberty Party came on the scene in 1982 but in the decade since then hasn’t broken the 1% mark in the governor’s race.
The Citizens Party was founded in 1980 around the presidential candidacy of Barry Commoner. Again, the founders of the Vermont Party, including the author, were unaware that there had been a previous Citizens Party in Vermont. Robin Lloyd, the Citizens Party candidate for Congress, did reasonably well against the Republican incumbent, but only because there was no Democrat in the race. I ran for the State Senate and did somewhat better than I had on two previous tries on the Liberty Union ticket. In 1981 I became the first Citizens Party candidate elected to office in the United States, as a member of the Burlington Board of Alderman (City Council). In the same election, Bernie Sanders was elected mayor as an independent.
The Citizens Party evaporated after the 1984 elections, receiving only 0.3% in the governor’s race. After several successful terms as mayor, Sanders ran for governor in 1986. Sanders had no formal party structure, but has been committed to building such a party. In that election Sanders earned 14.4 percent of the vote, the incumbent Democratic governor received 47%, and the Republican Peter Smith got 38.2 percent. Sanders and Smith tangled against in both 1988 and 1990 in the race for U.S. House of Representatives.
- I am using the percentage for Governor as a convenient yardstick for measuring party support. National parties ran presidential candidates, but these races seem less relevant to gauging the strength of Vermont parties. Of course individual State Legislators may have won victories in their districts even when the state-wide Governor’s total was not overwhelming.
- The Vermont Constitution is interpreted to require a majority popular vote to be elected to state-wide office, or else the General Assembly elects from the three top vote-getters. This was, incidentally, the first Democrat ever elected Governor of Vermont. Another Democrat would not be elected for over a century. Phil Hoff, elected in 1962, is often mistakenly referred to as the first Democratic Governor.
- Again I am referring to the Governor’s race. The Liberty Union Party has often exceeded 5% of the vote since then for lower constitutional offices such as Auditor of Accounts, or State Treasurer when a Republican was running without Democratic opposition.