The Left-Wing Freak Show

Analyzing Liberalism in Vermont

Seminar Paper, 2008

18 Pages




1 Introduction
1.1 The Puzzle and Hypothesis
1.2 Methodology

2 Theoretical Background: Liberalism in the American Context

3 Liberalism in Vermont
3.1 History of Liberalism in Vermont
3.2 Bernie Sanders and the Phenomenon of Socialism in Vermont
3.3 The 2006 Midterm Elections
3.4 Interim Conclusion

4 Explaining Liberalism in Vermont
4.1 Political History of the State
4.2 Political Culture within the State
4.3 Laws that provide a legitimating effect to one side of a public opinion issue
4.4 Migration patterns to and from the state and current state demographics

5 Conclusion and Perspectives for 2008


1 Introduction

1.1 The Puzzle and Hypothesis

In a campaign ad aired in early 2004 by the conservative Club for Growth, Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, was scolded by two supposedly average American people who advised him to “[...] take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times- reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs.”[1] The quote became quite famous for it apparently hit the nail on the head with its characterization of the divide between conservative and liberal America, the latter being perfectly epitomized by the state of Vermont.

While the dramatic exaggerations of campaign ads are rarely based on facts but on feelings, the notion that politics in Vermont are decidedly liberal still prevails among Americans and observers from abroad. They are supported by such facts as a self-declared democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders, being elected United States senator in 2006, after already having served as a member of the House for 15 years. Sanders defeated his Republican opponent by an impressive 2-to-1 margin in the 2006 midterm elections. Voting records and public opinion polls on issues such as gay marriage or environmental issues indeed suggest that Vermont is not only a stronghold for the Democratic Party, but for liberal ideology in all its forms.

Even though everyone seems to acknowledge that Vermont is a liberal state, one crucial question has not yet been given much attention by media outlets and researchers alike: Why is it, that Vermont is so liberal? In fact, it seems quite puzzling that such a small, rural, and landlocked state should be a stronghold of cosmopolitanism and political awareness. This research paper therefore intends to analyze whether political liberalism is in fact a prevalent political view in Vermont and, if so, why.

1.2 Methodology

To solve the puzzle proposed in section 1.1, the paper will be divided into three blocks. In order to establish a strong theoretical foundation for the analysis, I will first define the term “liberalism” in the American context and describe how the concept of liberalism evolved to describe a fairly recent American political and cultural phenomenon.

I will then trace the development of liberal thought and politics in the state of Vermont. The results of the 2006 midterm elections and electoral success of Senator Bernie Sanders will be covered separately to define the current political climate in Vermont. The analysis will show that political independence linked with liberal thought has a longstanding tradition in Vermont and that current election results, candidate positions, and public opinion polls underline the persistence of liberalism in the state. One methodological difficulty - nevertheless a resolvable one - is how to correctly evaluate the strength of liberalism in Vermont as a result of this section. Although a directly comparative study between Vermont and another state is not intended, my research is based on the understanding that the strength of liberalism in Vermont can be determined by comparing it to the national average within the same period of time.

In a third step, after having established the fact that liberalism is indeed popular above the national average in Vermont, I will introduce four criteria that help explain the liberal phenomenon in Vermont: (1) the political history of the state, (2) the political culture within the state, (3) laws that provide a legitimating effect to one side of a public opinion issue, and (4) migration patterns to the state and current state demographics. In this research paper, the explanatory power of these four criteria can only be confirmed for Vermont. Analyzing their applicability to other states and finding other explanations exceeds the limitations of this paper and calls for further research. However, the case-specific combination of all four factors in Vermont suggests that the criteria are not transferable to other states without alteration.[2]

To conclude on this paper, I will sum up the results of my analysis and give an outlook for the 2008 presidential election. The paper is based on some primary sources and mainly secondary sources as well as demographic data provided by the U.S. Census and the state of Vermont.

Note: Whenever the word “liberal” or “liberalism” appears throughout the paper without any further explanation, it is to be understood in the contemporary sense of the word, referring to the modern political phenomenon involving the American political left.

2 Theoretical Background: Liberalism in the American Context

Though the term ideology has long been regarded as the domain of the extremist, the political revolutionary, it remains the primary means by which people relate to political life.[3] Ideologies provide the lenses though which we view political events, they provide us with a set of standards we use to evaluate the social and political order we live in, and they provide guidelines that help us act according to our conviction as members of society. In short, “[...] an ideology is simply a practical political theory“.[4]

Contemporary political ideologies are often significantly different form their original variants, even though the versions share a certain resemblance. The driving forces for this change are political and cultural circumstances as well as new philosophical influences, which continuously modify and transform ideological traditions. The evolution of liberalism is powerful proof for the flexibility of political ideologies.[5] However, it is exactly this flexibility and ambiguity, which makes it quite hard to define the term liberalism.

The two aspects that shaped the meaning of the term liberalism are time and space. First of all, liberalism changed in its meaning over time during the last centuries. Second, during the last decades, liberal ideology developed new aspects in the United States and therefore the term came to mean something else entirely in the American context.

As a political ideology, the liberalism includes beliefs about the role and extent of government, ideas about public policies, and notions about which group in society should properly exercise power. The concept of modern liberalism in the United States started to form in the late 19th and early 20th century, which was marked by industrialization, urbanization, government action, and the arrival of a new reform-minded middle class and the progressivist movement.[6] Until then, liberalism had always been understood as classical laissez-faire liberalism, which stood for individualism, minimum involvement of the national government, localism, private enterprise, property rights, and free-market policies.[7] The process of redefining liberalism in terms of the social needs of the 20th century was conducted by Theodore Roosevelt and his New Nationalism, Woodrow Wilson and his New Freedom, and Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal.[8] Starting with the New Deal era, the national government assumed a stronger role and steadily increased its reach on economic and social issues. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. described it by saying, "there emerged the conception of a social welfare state, in which the national government had the express obligation to maintain high levels of employment in the economy, to supervise standards of life and labor, to regulate the methods of business competition, and to establish comprehensive patterns of social security."[9] The process of redefining liberalism continued throughout the first half of the 20th century and after World War II, it became increasingly apparent that the American people were split on ideological issues. While progressives felt that the interventions of the government were long overdue and not yet sufficient, many others considered them a violation of their freedom and individual rights.[10]

In the American context, the term liberal has come to imply support for political reform, extensive governmental intervention in the economy, the expansion of federal social services more vigorous efforts on behalf of the poor, minorities, and women, and greater concern for consumers and the environment. In social and cultural areas, liberals generally support abortion rights and oppose state involvement with religious institutions and religious expression. In international affairs, liberal positions are usually seen as including support for arms control, opposition to the development and testing of nuclear weapons, support for aid to poor nations, opposition to the use of American troops to influence the domestic affairs of developing nations, and support for international organizations and cooperation.[11] Needless to say, these are generalizations, as there is a great deal of variation between the beliefs and convictions of individuals who categorize as liberals. However, a certain degree of generalization is needed to properly analyze the status of liberal ideology in Vermont.

Since the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson in 1912, progressive ideas were introduced the Democratic party platform and the interconnection between liberalism and the Democratic Party was solidified during the Great Depression and the New Deal era. Since hen, liberal and progressive elements have been present within the party with varying but definite strength.


[1] Frank, Thomas (2004). What’s the Matter with Kansas. How Conservatives Won the Heartland. Henry Holt and Company: New York, p. 17.

[2] Landman, Todd (2003). Issues and Methods in Comparative Politics: An Introduction, 2. Ausgabe. Routledge, London und New York, p. 35.

[3] Williams, Leonard (1997). American Liberalism and Ideological Change. Northern Illinois University Press, DeKalb, p. 15.

[4] Ibid., Williams also uses the terms “philosophical and cultural tradtions“ and “practical philosophy“ to describe what he means by “ideology“.

[5] Ibid., p. 4.

[6] Ibid., p. 41.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Although the three politicians were not what we would nowadays call liberals and their policies had different objectives, they all worked to significantly extended the influence of the national government, to reshape the economy in the interest of social justice.

[9] Schlesinger Jr., Arthur (1962). Liberalism in America: A Note for Europeans, in: The Politics of Hope, Riverside Press, Boston, online at: Last accessed April 5, 2007.

[10] Singh, Robert (Ed.) (2003). Governing America. The Politics of a Divided Democracy. Oxford University Press, p. 7.

[11] The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press (2005). Beyond Red vs. Blue, Survey Reports, online at, last accessed March 23, 2007. Also: Petersen, Hans (1992). Liberal im Amerikanischen. Eine Studie zur historischen Semantik im gesellschaftlichen Kontext. Kassel, p. 205-214.

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The Left-Wing Freak Show
Analyzing Liberalism in Vermont
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