By Terry Bouricius
This is Chapter 5 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.
Ideological labels rarely have pinpoint accuracy. Political people with the same beliefs may describe themselves with the labels “socialist,” “liberal,” “progressive,” “anticapitalist,” “populist” or countless others. A consensus seems to have formed in Vermont and nationally that the word “progressive” best describes our movement. It is important to know what, if anything, this word means to most Americans. Is it simply a safe code word for those in the know (as with the professor who teaches “political economy” instead of “economics”)? My guess is that the word is still subject to definition in the public mind.
The meaning of party labels, both to the public and to the candidates themselves is also of critical importance. Taking a step back, we should first understand the meaning of the word “party” itself. Because of Americans’ experience with the Democrats and Republicans, “party” has become a dirty word for many. The current popularity of the “independent” label reflects this.1 Parties are viewed as manipulative, backroom gathering places for dishonest politicians. Yet there is still a broad assumption that parties are the appropriate vehicle for politics and polls show most Americans feel the need for a new party.
Labels in Burlington and Vermont Politics
For generations the label Republican was akin to Yankee or Vermonter. Many voters could not conceive of voting for a Democrat. Phil Hoff’s election as the first Democratic governor in more than 100 years demonstrates the importance of labels. Through fusion Republicans found a way to vote for Phil Hoff without voting for the Democratic Party. The Independent Vermonter Party was created for that sole purpose. Since that time the taboo about voting for a Democrat has waned and the Democratic Party is equal to the Republican Party in most respects.
Bernie Sanders ran with the Liberty Union label for years before winning the mayor’s office as an “Independent” in 1981. Bowing to praxis rather than theory Sanders has continued to “Independent” label in all subsequent elections. In Sanders’ case this seems to be more superstitious than practical since everyone knows he is a leader of the Progressive Coalition and a socialist. After the Citizens Party disintegrated nationally, Progressive Coalition candidates in Wards 2 and 3 ran with the label Progressive Coalition on the ballot. In other wards of the city, where Sanders was not as overwhelmingly popular, Progressive Coalition candidates used the “Independent” label on the ballot, even though their literature stressed support from Sanders’ and included endorsement by the Progressive Coalition. These candidates believe that even a handful of voters who are more inclined to vote for a safe-sounding “Independent” must be catered to in a close race.
Since the formation of the statewide Progressive Vermont Alliance in 1990, all of its candidates outside of Burlington’s Wards 2 and 3 have used the “Independent” label rather than “Progressive.” Activists hope to establish the Progressive Party of Vermont by 1994 that will run candidates as “Progressives.” Although members of the Progressive Vermont Alliance refuse to endorse a candidate running as a Democrat, they may continue to endorse some candidates running as “Independents.”
Party labels are important for two reasons. One is that, over time, parties can develop a popular following. Some Burlington voters now look for the Progressive label, just as many vote a straight Democratic or Republican ticket. Secondly, parties influence the behavior of elected officials. Left-wing politicians who get elected as Democrats often feel constrained on policy issues because of a nagging belief that they have tricked the voters into electing them. They are inclined to hide their true preferences, arguing that they need to stay in office in order to good work. But somehow they never get around to the best work, for fear of exposure. When one has publicly advocated socialism and won election as Progressive these constraints are obviously gone. Each elected Progressive is worth more than a dozen good Democrats in term of changing society.
Fusion strategy, the use of dual party nominations, has not been formally practiced by either the Burlington Progressive Coalition nor the Progressive Vermont Alliance. The frustrating experience of the Vermont Rainbow Coalition with endorsing Democrats was a basis for these decisions.
The Rainbow Coalition was not a party and it is not possible to measure its contribution to a candidate on the ballot. Thus, its endorsements were not “fusion.” Nonetheless, the Rainbow did find out that Democrats endorsed by the Rainbow Coalition remained loyal Democrats, and some eventually shunned the Rainbow. Thus, the choice of label and allegiance is a practical concern2 fraught with rationalizations. A junior party in a fusion arrangement would need an unmistakably clear litmus test for who deserves support.
- In New York where a party label is required for the ballot the Perot campaign came up with the name the “No Party” party.
- The current democratic Governor of Vermont, Howard Dean, is an eminently practical politicians. According to University of Vermont political science professor Frank Bryan, shortly after Dean first arrived in Vermont he approached Bryan saying he wanted to get into politics and asked which party label he should run on.