By Terry Bouricius
This is Chapter 8 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.
Progressives made gains in November 1992, but not of the magnitude that had been hope for when the bulk of this manuscript was written. Bernie Sanders was reelected as the only independent socialist member of the U.S. House of Representatives by an even greater margin – topping 58% of the vote. Progressive State Representatives Tom and Terry Bouricius were reelected. Tom Smith represents District Chittenden 7-2, a low-income, working-class district. Terry Bouricious represents District Chittenden 7-4, a low-income area with a significant number of university students in its southern portion. Progressives picked up one additional seat with the overwhelming victory of independent Dena Corren, who represents District of Chittenden 7-3, a mix low- and middle-income area which includes all of the dormitories at the University of Vermont.
We seriously expected (as did the media) to win more seats. We ran 12 candidates for the State House and Senate in addition to Bernie Sanders. Not fulfilling our expectations gave us a sense of failure. This sense was shared by the media. The most significant aspect was our inability to elect any of our candidates from outside of Burlington. Shoshana Rihn of Brattleboro came painfully close, losing by a mere 42 votes. If a few people had voted different and Rihn had won, the post-election attitude would eb reversed. The Progressive movement would have broken a tremendous psychological barrier, and would be perceived as having “momentum.” Belief and perception are the stuff of which politics is made, and the importance of a victory of Rihn or Nancy Cressman or some other Progressive from beyond Burlington cannot be overstated.
A positive outcome is that most, or possibly all, of the Progressive candidates are planning to run again in 1994. Persistence is critical to winning campaigns. Many or most candidates lose at least once before winning. In most cases candidates pick up from where they left off in terms of gaining name recognition, credibility and vote totals. Dean Corren lost by eight votes in 1990, and then won by a substantial margin in 1992. Shoshana Rihn, though not victorious, dramatically narrowed the margin of defeat between 1990 and 1992. In Bernie Sanders’ 11 campaigns for various offices, win or lose, he has increased his vote total each time. This is one aspect of the high success rate of incumbents – in addition to media exposure and office advantages, they have simply been at it longer in most cases. The benefit of a particular handshake in one campaign carries over into future campaigns.
Some candidates, such as John Gritter in Bristol and Jim Court in Burlington started from almost total obscurity of their campaigns. Both did quite respectably, even defeating one of the major party candidates. 1994 looks bright.
One very clear lesson for Vermont Progressives is that independents have no “cottails” which can help fellow progressives. In the two seat district where Tom Smith, using the Progressive label, was running for reelection with Lindol Atkins, a union leader running as an independent, this was abundantly clear. Every piece of campaign literature, posters, and banners, and mailings totally linked Bernie Sanders, Tom Smith and Lindol Atkins. It was a unified team campaign effort. A complication was that there was an unaffiliated independent in the race as well. Sanders took the district by a huge landslide, Smith won reelection, but Atkins barely came in fourth in the five-way race.
“Coattails” refers to the behavior of voters who choose a party (or quasi-party) near the top of the ticket and follow that lead lower down on the ballot. The fact that the word independent itself implies no coattails is clearly part of the problem we face (most of our candidates, including Sanders, used that label rather than Progressive). But more fundamentally, coattails voting reflects a kind of voter that independents simply don’t attract.
Some voters are ticket splitters and some are party loyalists. Many ticket splitters return to their general party preference whenever they don’t know much about the particular race. Thus coattails voting is usual among less informed voters. Coattail voters in Atkins race didn’t even look at the literature that tried to link Sanders and Atkins. These voters couldn’t help but know about Sanders and Atkins. These voters couldn’t help but know about Sanders, but when they got to the lower offices they reverted to the Democratic Party candidates.
I believe individual voters don’t much vary their style of voting. A vital consideration is simply which of them come out of the vote. Presidential election years bring out more of these marginal voters who have no firm opinions about the lower races and thus fall back on party-line coattail voting which doesn’t benefit independents.
To be a beneficiary of coattails it is necessary to have a party. Party loyalty develops over time. No one will be loyal to the independent label (there were several right-wing independents running Vermont this year as well). In certain wards of Burlington there are individual families that have a second generation of voters who look for the words “Progressive Coalition” on the ballot for minor officers. Of the dozen candidates run by the Progressive Vermont Alliance in November 1992, all but two used the independent label. The incumbents, Tom Smith and I, used the label “Progressive.”
The Party Question
Over the next two years we must do far more than simply recruit candidates. The organizational question of forming a formal party is coming to a head in Vermont. If we had won one or two more seats outside of Burlington we would have near unanimity on the issue. As it is there remains significant doubt. Taking a mature attitude we recognize that patience is important. We must not repeat the mistakes of the past (Citizens Party, etc.) where a handful of people form a party and invite others to join. Broad constituencies must be involved in the launching of a party. Unions, minorities, women, low-income, etc. must feel ownership from the outset.
With the election of Bill Clinton and the capturing of a huge majority of the Vermont House by the Democrats, the perception of progressive momentum is lost. Why would unions cast their lot with us at this time? It seems more likely that they would prefer to have a choice between two parties. Vermont now has sufficient experience with Independent and Progressive candidacies that the unions are quite willing to endorse our candidates, and generally do. Although Bernie Sanders has made significant inroads among union political action contributions, the bulk of union money continues to flow to Democrats. The Progressive Vermont Alliance was able to gather significant support from some unions, but many unions limit their contributions to statewide campaigns.
There are, of course, other disadvantages to forming a party. In some people’s minds we lose the moral high ground. Seeing what the major parties in America are, many people proudly despise the general concept of “party.” Some independents uttered phrases like “I’ll be listening to you rather than some party bosses.”
To prepare for the formal creation of a third party we are preparing legislation to amend the Vermo0nt law which regulates minor parties. Current law seems to practically prohibit membership requirements since any three voters can convene a caucus of a new party. The level of regulation of parties in Vermont may be unconstitutional (right to freely associate). Discussions with the new Secretary of State and Attorney General are on the way.
Those Vermonters committed to forming a third party believe there are advantages that outweigh these concerns. These advantages range from mundane (party chairs get free copies of voter checklists) to profound (changing society and governing requires coordinated policy and action best provided by such organization). Some hold the notion that a well constituted third party can result in a “paradigm shift.” It may be that those who advise more patience are suffering from the “paralysis of analysis.” IF we wait for the planets to align exactly we will wait forever.