Abbott: Progressive Politics In Vermont

Jul 25, 2017

Congressman William Meyer represented Vermont in 1959 and 1960. He was the only member of the US House to vote against one of the earliest appropriations to send military aid to South Vietnam, which he saw as a step toward active US military involvement. Senator George McGovern once called him "the conscience of the House."

Mayer supported banning nuclear weapons testing and ending the military draft. And because these positions were out of step with the times both in Vermont and nationally, he became the first statewide Vermont Democratic incumbent to face a primary challenge from within his own party.

In 1970, with the Vietnam War in full swing, Mayer left the Democratic party because he disagreed with their lack of opposition to that war, formed the Liberty Union Party, and ran unsuccessfully on its first ticket as a third party candidate for the US Senate.

A decade later, in 1981, when Bernie Sanders was elected mayor of Burlington, his supporters formed the Progressive Coalition as a way to support the new mayor, who was under attack by both Democrats and Republicans on a wide range of issues. This Coalition in turn, became the precursor to the statewide Vermont Progressive Party, formed in 2000 to advance progressive issues statewide.

Issues were again at the forefront on May 24, 2001 when Senator Jim Jeffords formally resigned from the Republican Party to become an Independent. In announcing his decision, Jeffords said he felt the Republican Party had left him behind in its flight to the right, and that he found himself increasingly at odds with his Party and the President on "the issues of choice, the direction of the judiciary, tax and spending decisions, missile defense, energy and the environment... and education."

Both Meyer and Jeffords were at the end of their political careers and both hoped to influence their parties to return to the values that attracted them to those parties in the first place.

While others work to provide an alternative to the two party system in order to more boldly promote the issues that matter most to working people, Bernie Sanders is now allied with the Democratic party to – he says - "return it to being a grassroots party that is clear about whose side it represents."

To which I say - it’s going to be interesting to watch the results.

Correction: an earlier version of this commentary said Bernie Sanders had joined the Democratic Party. While he ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016, Sanders remains an independent member of Congress.