By Terry Bouricius
This is Chapter 4 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.
Extensive literature exists on the functions of political parties that focuses on public issue debates, formulating policy, mobilizing the electorate and organizing government once in office. Virtually none of these functions are performed by parties in America generally or in Vermont in particular. Parties in Vermont are more akin to competing sports teams – they provide their players with colored jerseys but little else.
A two-party system with winner-take-all elections pushes politics toward the center of the political field.1 The strategy for winning such elections is to avoid alienating too many voters, rather than gaining devoted supporters. This generally means side-stepping controversial issues. Students of democracy may bemoan this failure to offer genuine alternatives as dereliction of responsibility, but partisans are able to cast it in a positive light, saying their party is like a big tent that has room for all diverging opinions. The big tent analogy may be a desirable image for a society but is inappropriate for parties since it completely undercuts the ability of parties to actually stand for something that voters can understand.
Savvy voters, recognizing that parties don’t consistently stand for anything, have learned to judge individual candidates rather than relying on their party label for guidance. Indeed, a majority of Vermonters do not identify themselves as Democrats or Republicans. They proudly say “I vote for the person, not the party.” This approach may be perplexing to many Europeans who see real choices embodied in their multi-party systems. Unfortunately, individual candidates in Vermont follow the same strategy as their parties and seek to avoid taking clear positions on issues. Thus voters must use available information to judge a candidate’s character and competency. The epitome of this strategy can be seen in many campaign brochures that stress a candidate’s biography, that he or she is a good listener, and that he or she is “effective” (toward what goal doesn’t seem to matter). Rather than blaming voters for being apolitical, we must recognize their attitude may be the most reasonable approach to an apolitical electoral system.
In Vermont the parties play a small role in fund-raising and candidate recruitment. But most of the electoral functions one would expect to be filled by the parties are actually carried out by individual candidates. U.S. Senator Democrat Patrick Leahy, for example, maintains his own separate contributor list and voter identification database, which his campaign sells to selected other efforts. The party has no comparable lists of its own. It is as if each candidate had his or her own separate party which sometimes cooperated with others.
Even the basic task of recruiting new candidates for local legislative races generally falls to existing elected officials. For example the Speaker of the House, Democrat Ralph Wright, has an informal organization that recruits candidates and raises funds separate from the State Party.2 In 1992, the Vermont House included 75 Republicans, 73 Democrats, and two Progressives. In a secret ballot to elect the Speaker of the House, Wright got 80 votes. The Republicans who regularly support Wright are not ideologically aligned with him but are protected and provided with favors by the powerful Speaker.
Party significance and discipline are extremely weak in the Vermont House and Senate. Unlike the U.S. Congress, seniority and party affiliation are largely irrelevant in committee assignments and chairmanships. In the Senate these are made by the bipartisan Committee on Committees, and in the House by the Speaker alone. The party caucuses are open meetings that are almost exclusively informational in nature. The majority and minority leaders3 have virtually no power in the House – all power resides with the Speaker.4 Tom Smith and I were not stymied by being outside the two parties. As outspoken activists skilled in the use of media, we had more impact than most Representatives other than Committee Chairs.
- That political field is defined to a large extent by the ruling elite. Thus I do not mean the center of the full political spectrum, but of the “acceptable” range, however defined.
- Speaker Wright hosts an annual “Speakers Soiree” at which legislators and lobbyists are pressured to donate $1000 to his political fund. The speaker uses this money to assure that he will be reelected as Speaker. This includes helping particular candidates necessary to maintaining a bipartisan majority.
- These terms have been at least temporarily retired since, with three caucuses, no party has an actual majority.
- The Speaker insists that he must maintain his power in order to do good thigns, but avoids actually using his power on controversial legislation for fear that if he loses, like the Wizard of Oz, he will be revealed. To maintain his power he will use it almost exclusively where it is not actually needed to prevail, and avoid using it where actually needed to avoid losing credibility. The Speaker does use his power to punish challengers and reward friends, however.