What Would It Look Like If Vermont Seceded?

Nov 3, 2017

We aren't endorsing it, but ... if Vermont did manage to secede from the United States, how would we fare?

That’s what Katie Dooley, of Hinesburg, asked Brave Little State recently. Katie isn’t a secessionist, but the topic has been on her mind since last year’s presidential election.

Here's why: Katie works for Efficiency Vermont, which is a utility intended to help Vermonters save energy. She works on rebate programs, and often uses the website for EnergyStar, which sets national standards for energy efficiency. (You may have seen the EnergyStar logo on washing machines or air conditioners.) EnergyStar, in turn, is run by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. And President Donald Trump has targeted the EPA for major cuts. That's worried Katie.

“A lot of things that the EPA does I feel like are really important for our environment, and I wouldn't want that to be lost,” she says. “A lot of losses have already occurred, and things like that do affect my job.”

And then one day recently, it seemed like changes at the federal level were really going to have a direct impact on Katie’s day-to-day work.

“The EnergyStar website was down, and it was kind of a question as to if it was going to come back online," she says. "So at that point we weren't sure.”

The website did come back. But this moment got to something Katie had been wondering about since November: If the federal government is going to change so much, and maybe shrink, would it be so different if Vermont … just … went it alone? What would that look like?

Brave question-asker Katie Dooley, of Hinesburg, asked us: "What would it be like if Vermont could actually secede from the union?"
Credit Henry Epp / VPR

Once again, we are not advocating for secession here. And yes, we recognize that this is a very loaded topic and it has in the past led to a horrific Civil War on our home soil. And presumably more horrific things could happen if Vermont actually tried to extract itself from the union. We are not recommending this, nor are we going to go into the history of the Vermont secession movement, or its past entanglements with white nationalism, or whatever degree of support secession has in the state today. Instead, we’re going to undertake a giant thought experiment. And just imagine that we did, for various reasons, end up as an independent nation. How would that go?

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‘Radio Free Vermont’

To set the mood, we talk with someone who very recently did a similar thought experiment. His vision involves a lot of craft beer.

Environmentalist and writer Bill McKibben normally publishes terrifying articles and books about climate change. But this month he’s out with a work of fiction: a fanciful new book called Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance.

“It must be said, I’m a first-time novelist, and parts of this book are drawn fairly directly from my life, the love of Vermont beer chief among them,” Bill says. “I actually don’t think that we’re ready to secede and go our own way, but I do think that we’d do just fine in the beer department were that to happen.”

Bill’s book is about a boozy underground secession movement led by a man named Vern Barclay. The book is quirky and fun and there’s a chase scene involving snowmobilers and Nordic skiers. In this passage, the idea of Vermont as an independent nation is starting to take hold around the state.

Like our question-asker Katie, Bill says he felt drawn to this topic after last November’s presidential election.

Bill McKibben's debut novel imagines that an underground secession movement takes hold in Vermont.
Credit Penguin Random House

“Well, I actually had been working on the book for a long time, in little pieces here and there. It was after the dawn of the Trump era that it seemed to make sense to kind of finally bring them all together and publish it," he says.

But in Bill’s book, the political idea of resistance is deeply intertwined with the more basic idea of self-reliance: local economies, small-scale governance.

"I've always been extremely interested in the idea of a more localized economy," he says. "For me, that's more fun than ideology, really."

And that’s the direction we’re going to take, too, as we imagine an independent Vermont.

Plan V

“In some ways I'd like to think and I think many of us would like to think that it wouldn't be radically different. But in other ways of course it would be,” says Rob Williams, who teaches in the University of Vermont’s College of Agriculture & Life Science.

Rob also runs The Vermont Independent. The news aggregation website is the publishing arm of the Second Vermont Republic, or 2VR, which advocates for Vermont’s peaceful secession. We reached out to Rob because we figured he's someone who’s put a lot of thought to what independence could look like.

'Brave Little State' is VPR's people-powered journalism podcast.
Credit Aaron Shrewsbury

Rob reads aloud from a blueprint for secession called Plan V (the V stands for Vermont): “Imagine peace, secure civil liberties, small towns, small farms and small businesses. Human scale.”

It’s a rosy vision — and it also sounds a lot like present-day Vermont. But Rob says some things would change.

“The big three for me really are what I call lovingly called the three F's,” he says. “You know, it's about finance, it's about fuel, and it's about food.”

Rob thinks there are ways we could be self-sufficient in these areas — he talks about a public bank, and a decentralized energy grid. But he also doesn’t imagine secession as Vermont sealing itself off from the world.

“It starts with recognizing that really what secession is about is Vermont engaging the world on its own terms rather than terms dictated to Vermonters by the federal government,” he says.

Rob figures we could trade our most successful products with other countries and provinces. That includes — you guessed it — beer.

“You know, our craft beer is legendary, our maple syrup is legendary, ice cream, our cheese is legendary. So that's really I think what we're talking about — not building a wall around Vermont but actually knocking walls down and opening up trade on our own terms with the rest of the world.”

And that sounds pretty good, right? Who doesn’t want to export IPA and aged cheddar and engage with the world on their own terms? Well, it turns out it wouldn’t be quite so simple.

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International recognition

If Vermont really tried to split off from the U.S, we’d probably face some pretty strong pushback from most of the international community. Josh Keating is a writer for Slate, focusing on world news and foreign policy. And he says there’s an international emphasis on keeping borders the way they are.

“I think that it's sort of hardwired into the multilateral institutions we have, whether it's the EU or the U.N.,” he says. “And it's it's been a point of U.S. foreign policy as well.”

So what would it take to start a new country? Josh says it's all about getting international recognition.

“What actually makes a country a country in the modern world is recognition by other countries,” Josh says. “I mean … there are places like the Principality of Sealand, which is a self-proclaimed territory that exists on a former British military platform in the North Sea, and they've declared themselves an international country. And, you know, good for them, but it doesn't mean that much if other countries aren't going to recognize you as independent.”

So how do you get recognized? You go to the United Nations.

“If you want to be a member of the U.N., the Security Council must refer you to the General Assembly, which then must determine by a two-thirds majority that you are a peace-loving state that can carry out the duties of the U.N. Charter,” Josh says, citing membership requirements. 

Here’s the catch: You need the support of nine out of the 15 Security Council members, including all five permanent members of the council: China, Russia, Britain, France and … the U.S.

"[Declaring independence] doesn't mean that much if other countries aren't going to recognize you.” — Josh Keating, Slate

“Given that Vermont would be seceding from the United States, that could be a problem,” Josh says.

So, the chances of an independent Vermont getting formally recognized by the international community are slim. But even without recognition, Vermont basically meets the internationally accepted criteria for being an independent country. Those criteria came from something called the Montevideo Convention, according to Josh Keating.

“What those criteria are is it has to have a government, it has to have a permanent population, it has to have defined borders and it has to have the capacity to enter into relations with other countries,” he explains.

Vermont pretty much checks all those boxes — even the foreign relations part, at least with one other country.

This is a video put out last summer by the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing, aimed at enticing Canadian — specifically Quebecois — tourism to the state.

Canada is the top foreign destination for Vermont exports. And there’s a concerted effort by state economic development officials to get Canadian companies to expand to Vermont.

So, we’ve got some foreign relations experience; we have borders, a population, and, of course, a well-established state government.

“It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to appoint a secretary of state and just go from there,” says Malka Older, a Ph.D. candidate at SciencePo in Paris, studying governance and disaster response.

Since we’re imagining what an independent Vermont government could look like, Malka is a good person to turn to.

“I’m the author of the science fiction political thrillers Infomocracy, and Null States, and coming out next year, State Tectonics,” she says.

Malka’s science fiction books are set in a future where the entire earth is split into what she calls “microdemocracies.”

“The basic unit of jurisdiction is something called a 'centenal,'” Malka says, “which is based on a population of roughly 100,000 people.”

Each of those centenals chooses their own form of government. Malka's books are political thrillers, so not everything works out perfectly. But the idea is that democracy works better at the local level. With a small population, you can try things out and see how they work, she says.

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“I mean, there's there's a lot of innovation in democracy going on now around the world,” she says.

One of the innovations Malka’s particularly interested in is what’s called direct democracy, “where people can vote on every policy directly.”

“And that's another place where sort of the tech that we have now that we didn't have in 1776 is coming in,” Malka says. “To allow us to do different things and to try to have more representation.”

Vermont, of course, has a long tradition of direct democracy through Town Meeting. But in an independent Vermont, perhaps it could be updated or done in new, statewide ways using technology. Maybe we all vote on the annual budget on our phones? Though, there are big challenges to that, too.

“Part of direct democracy, but also really any democracy, is figuring out how to get people the the information or the data that they need to make informed decisions without spending all their time on it and without being having to devote a lot of energy into arcane bits of policy,” Malka says. “Because people won't and people can't. You know, people are working, they have their own lives.”

So, if Vermont were independent, we’d have to figure out how best to govern ourselves, how to tackle big issues as a society, how to figure out what public services to offer, and ... how the heck to support ourselves without the federal government.

Finances

Getting by without support from the federal government would be really hard. We asked someone who would know: Democratic State Senator Jane Kitchel.

Sen. Kitchel is the chairwoman of Senate Appropriations Committee, which means she helps write Vermont’s state budget. When we asked her what she imagines it would be like trying to put together a state budget with no federal funding, she paused for several seconds and sighed.

“It would be something that I have tried to avoid thinking about,” she said “It really is one of those areas that is almost unfathomable.”

“Our budget for FY18 is just approximately $5.8 billion,” Sen. Kitchel continued. “Two billion dollars of that would be federal in source, which would be maybe 35 percent.”

More than a third of our state budget is made up of federal money. And maybe you think, well, if Vermont seceded we’d save all the money we pay to feds in taxes, right? Wrong.

“Generally speaking, a study looked at recently suggested that for every dollar [in taxes], we’re getting a dollar and a half back,” Kitchel said, referring to data collected in 2014 by the personal finance website WalletHub. Other studies over the years have found we get even more than that, some have found we get less. But the point is, Vermont is what you call a “net importer” of federal money.

According to Jane Kitchel, “those federal dollars are marbled throughout state government."

"I just don't know how we would be able to replace those federal dollars. The impact would be so enormous, particularly on our lowest-income and most vulnerable Vermonters." — Sen. Jane Kitchel

The biggest source of federal funding is for Vermonters’ health care — about $1 billion. That’s for Medicaid — but the money also funds a lot of programs that concern the health of all Vermonters.

“I would suspect most people would not know that we do mosquito control and spraying with those Medicaid dollars,” Kitchel says.

Another big area is in human services — about $400 million.

“And that’s for our mental health system … We have federal funding to support our child welfare, our child protection, foster care, fuel assistance.”

Then there’s transportation — money for our roads and bridges. (“All of the above, to support our infrastructure. And that’s about $330 million.”)

Do a control-F search for “federal funds” in the FY-18 appropriations bill, and you’ll get back more than 90 line items.

“Education, public safety, state police, water quality,” Kitchel lists. “So everybody’s life is really impacted in some way.”

Jane Kitchel is super comfortable talking about the budget. But when she starts to imagine the hypothetical disappearance of federal funds, you can almost hear the panic in her voice.

“I just don’t know how we would be able to replace those federal dollars,” she says. “The impact would be so enormous, particularly on our lowest-income and most vulnerable Vermonters.”

“I feel a bit like Scarlett O’Hara, or Rhett Butler,” she jokes. “It’s like, ‘I’ll think about it in the morning.’”

(That’s a reference to Gone with the Wind, which is about the Civil War. Very apropos for a story about secession.)

The other thing to remember is that for Jane Kitchel, the loss of federal funding isn’t entirely hypothetical. She’s thinking hard about these possible cuts — just like our question-asker Katie.

Food

It’s also worth mentioning if we did pull a Verexit, Vermont’s farm economy would lose support. Vermont farmers have received hundreds of thousands of dollars this year through federally funded programs. So, could an independent Vermont feed itself?

We put that question to Daniel Keeney, the farm and food business specialist at the Center for an Agricultural Economy in Hardwick.

“Depending on how you look at it, it could be feasible,” he says. “But there are some very significant trade-offs.”

For example, Daniel says that while Vermonters would be able to get enough calories every day, we’d be looking at a much narrower diet.

“It would be sort of a bleak – or maybe, for some, an exciting diet,” he says. “Milk, maple syrup and apples all day long.”

The tradeoff for an abundance of apples and cheese is a lack of some staples.

“We don’t have, really, the processing capacity, the cereal/grain production,” Daniel says. “[And] where would we get our oils from?”

Daniel says we could also make a shift from growing so much hay and feed corn to raising wheat and sweet corn — “But then, of course, We would have less dairy and that’s, you know, a major tradeoff.”

"It would be sort of a bleak — or maybe, for some, an exciting diet. Milk, maple syrup and apples all day long." — Daniel Keeney, Center for an Agricultural Economy

On the plus side, Daniel says Vermont’s food distribution system is in pretty good shape. And with all of Vermont’s farmers markets and CSAs, many farmers are well versed at cutting out the middlemen and dealing directly with consumers.

“Our farmers are better at selling directly to customers than any other state, nationwide,” he says. “Strolling of the Heifers did a study of that. We’re at something like $43 or $44 per capita. The next state on the list is around $18. So it’s a very significant thing. I think that shows, sort of, the entrepreneurial spirit among farms ...That said, to get a fair amount of money for your food, certainly the prices will go up. I think.”

Still, Daniel says more Vermonters would be making a living off of agriculture.

“You would see a much higher-profile food economy, I think. So, it’s hard to know, given all those ramifications in one direction or another, how it would all shake out.”

Daniel says maybe the question shouldn’t be if Vermont could feed itself, but rather if it should.

“You know, I think it’s worth considering that in the 19th century, Vermont was feeding itself a lot more substantially in terms of the percentage of food derived locally,” he points out. “And the environment suffered from that.”

Back then, Daniel reminds us, much of northern Vermont was cleared for sheep pastures for wool production.

“[In] the 19th century, we saw a lot of land erosion,” he says. “So there’s some sort of hard choices you make when you start turning forest back into food production.”

Daniel also points out that many of us are cultivating lawns instead of food on our own properties. And if more people decided to grow gardens instead of grass, it would have a big impact on the food supply.

“That’s a whole lot of cultivable land that we could turn into food production. And they did it in World War II, so what’s to say we couldn’t do it again?” he says. “Victory gardens.”

'Vermont On Its Own'

This brings us to our last vision of an independent Vermont, as imagined by a farmer. Taylor Katz runs Free Verse Farm & Apothecary in Chelsea with her husband Misha Johnson. Taylor is also a poet and a poet for hire, so we asked her to write something for this episode. Here’s what she came up with.

  Vermont On Its Own

For the holidays, everyone's road would receive new culverts

and everyone's driveway would receive gravel and a grating

because our government would understand that roads and rivers

are the lines that man and nature sketch on these hillsides

and the water that rushes alongside us

is the water that fills our pipes

and the water from the sky

is the beverage of the plants

grown with grim reverence for three short months

into the food that fills our pantries and our cellars and our bellies  

Beyond no billboards there'd be no roadsigns at all

and the highways that bisected pastures would be returned to pastures

and if anyone tried to visit us the'd become lost at once

with no cell service or internet service or gasoline service

because all our services would be password-protected

passed from mouth to mouth by neighbors

all necessary information kept to ourselves unless absolutely necessary

And our chest freezers would be our banks

where all currency would be kept and kept cold

for all goods could be purchased with goods

hay for hamburg, gas for green beans, coffee beans for Jacob's cattle beans

a half-day's work at my farm for a half-day's work at yours

and all the donut grease would be collected for biodiesel

and the fields of corn would butt up against the fields of hemp

And no one would agree on how to fund the cemeteries

and no one would agree on how to fund the schools

and no one would agree on what to name the new store

and everyone would agree to table the issues again until next year

when we'd hopefully finally dear god fingers crossed

get the right amount of rain and the right amount of sun

and the right about of hay and the right amount of corn

to feed all the animals and all the people each day of the year

and it would be on Town Meeting Day of the perfect year

that a brawl would break out over pies

distracting everyone from the absolute lack

of anything to complain about

and as the strawberry rhubarb splattered on the town mural

and the blueberry lemon was speared into the hair of the town clerk

the newest residents of the town

the tiny babies in their neighbor-knitted hats

would look at each other and smile in unison

before breaking out into a chorus of screams

that could be heard far past the borders

of the nation of Vermont

Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from the VPR Innovation Fund, and from VPR members. If you like this show, consider becoming one.

We have egineering support from Chris Albertine. Our editor is Lynne McCrea and our theme music is by Ty Gibbons. Other music in this episode was used under a Creative Commons license:

This post has been updated. Editor’s Note: Efficiency Vermont is a VPR Underwriter.

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