Vermont is a magical place, of rugged hills, fertile valleys, thriving local food systems and (not very many) people tough enough to withstand the harsh winters. It’s a hotbed of the secessionist movement as well, or the bio-regional autonomy movement, which sounds a lot more positive. The folks at Vermont Commons are actively fomenting that kind of proud revolution, and they are some of our great local partners.
Here’s the latest in their series of excerpts from our recent book, Bye Bye Miss American Empire, by Bill Kauffman.
Bill Kauffman, resident of New York state, is the author of Bye Bye Miss American Empire (Chelsea Green, 2010), a book that explores the unaffiliated secession movement in the U.S. With the author’s permission, Vermont Commons: Voices of Independence has been publishing excerpts from the book focusing on Vermont’s participation and leadership in secession from the U.S. Here, we present our fifth installment from Kauffman’s book.While many seek the truth by scanning galaxies through powerful telescopes, my eyes have been glued to a microscope—looking down, not up, inward, not outward. America has often seemed transfixed by big. I am captivated by small. —Frank Bryan
We have come back, time and again, to Vermont, our virid little inspiration, the state that is not island or peninsula or archipelago or Francophone or Polynesian and yet breathes independence like no other of its 49 sisters. We will speak more of the Second Vermont Republic, but just as William Carlos Williams said there are no ideas but in things, I believe that there are no ideas but in people, and who better to introduce us to Vermont than its native-son avatar and intellectual and my candidate for its first president?
Frank Bryan is that rare political scientist who can begin one statistics-dappled tome by describing his wife as “the sexiest wench in the galaxy” and enliven another with footnotes recounting his first gun, cows he has milked, getting beat up in a dance hall over a girl, and the abandoned farms of his Vermont boyhood: “The only trace of the old McEachearn place is in a faraway corner of my heart.”
He once ran afoul of the town ordinances of Starksboro, where he lives in a converted deer camp on Big Hollow Road, by having 20 junker Chevettes in his yard. (As a communitarian, not a libertarian, he disposed of these parts-cars with only moderate grumbling.) Bryan is a legendary character at the University of Vermont, where he teaches political science: He is the horny-handed son of toil who does regression analysis, the regular-guy intellectual who prefers the company of “working-class people . . . the old Vermonters.” The irrepressible Bryan made a major contribution to his field (and his country, which is Vermont) with Real Democracy (2004), his magnum opus, the most searching and sympathetic book ever written about the town-meeting democracy of New England. The book is a veritable four-leaf clover of academia: a witty work of political science written from a defiantly rural populist point of view. If we are going to conclude this book [Bye Bye Miss American Empire]with a look at the Second Vermont Republic, the sophisticated, down-home, and generously localist secessionist band in the Green Mountain State, we need first to meet the archetypal – the exemplary – Vermonter.
I met Frank Bryan over breakfast at the Oasis Diner on Bank Street, the working-class Democratic eatery in downtown Burlington that for 50-plus years, until its sale in 2007, was owned and operated by the Lines family, making it an oasis of family ownership in the desert of Applebee’s and Olive Gardens.
Former governor Howard Dean may be the best-known living political Vermonter, but Dean, Bryan notes, is a cosmopolitan flatlander who was “raised in an environment as completely estranged from town meetings as one can imagine.” Although Dean has displayed spasmodic heterodoxy, notably in his 2004 presidential campaign, he does not embody the “curious mixture of radicalism, populism, and conservatism” that Bryan says has defined Vermont politics since the days when Anti-Masonry and abolition were in vogue. If the Green Mountains had a face, it would be Frank Bryan. He is the real Vermont, the enduring Vermont, not the picture postcard, not the New York Times reader in her air-conditioned summer home, but the Vermont of Robert Frost (a Grover Cleveland Democrat who placed his faith in “insubordinate Americans”) and craggily iconic Republican senator George Aiken, who explained that “some folks just naturally love the mountains, and like to live up among them where freedom of thought and action is logical and inherent.”
“My mother raised me a Democrat. Vermont raised me a democrat. This book springs from a life of fighting the dissonance between the two,” writes Bryan in Real Democracy. Son of a single mom who worked in the mills, Bryan has that “redneck’s chip on my shoulder” essential to a healthy, authentic populism. His Class of ’59 at Newbury High totaled seven, which led to his politics: “Keep it small. The basketball isn’t good, but everybody gets to play,” as he told the Vermont Quarterly.
After graduation, “I went off to school and heard about how poor and destitute and dumb people like me were because of the size of my community.” One summer he hiked Mount Moosilauke with his brother, who was studying for the priesthood. “I went up that mountain a Kennedy Democrat and came down a Goldwater conservative because my brother convinced me that the Democrats were going to destroy the small towns; they didn’t care about small farms or town meeting.”
Bryan has since shed his illusions about the commitment of Republicans to any small-town value not reducible to the bottom line on an annual corporate report. The modern GOP is the party of war and Wal-Mart (four of which deface Vermont, the last state to have been infected by the Arkansas Plague). Bryan now calls himself a “decentralist communitarian” whose heart “is with the small is beautiful crowd.” Yet he is no dewy-eyed idealizer of The People: “Jefferson said rural people are the chosen people of God. That’s a bunch of crap. But forced intimacy is good for society; it makes us tolerant. The reason I’ll stop and help you out of a snow bank on Big Hollow Road isn’t because I particularly like you. But I might see you tomorrow at the store and have to explain why I didn’t. And I expect reciprocity.”
Washington–New York conservatives despise Vermont for its “liberalism,” though I cannot see how Bernie Sanders is any more destructive of American liberties than, say, Rudy Giuliani. Or perhaps they hate Frank Bryan’s state because, lacking any sense of place or local loyalties themselves, they fear communities organized on a human scale. Burlington, Vermont’s largest city, has fewer than forty thousand residents, and the state leads the nation in the percentage of its population living in towns of under twenty-five hundred.
Frank Bryan calls himself a “Vermont patriot.” One recalls G. K. Chesterton’s dictum that a patriot boasts never of the largeness of his country but rather of its littleness. As Bryan and John McClaughry wrote in The Vermont Papers (1989), their blueprint for a devolutionary overhaul of state government: “Vermont matters most because it is small, not in spite of it.”
The proposals that Vermont secede from the United States and Kingdom County secede from Vermont were moved and passed, as they had been annually since 1791, when the Green Mountain State first joined the Union. These were the only two measures the people of Lost Nation ever agreed upon unanimously.
—Howard Frank Mosher, Northern Borders (1994)
Mosher, Bryan’s favorite Vermont novelist, depicts town meeting as a blend of cussedness and community, radicalism and renewal. Elsewhere Mosher has written of Northern Vermont as being “full of fiercely antiauthoritarian, independent-minded individualists” for whom “independence, rooted in local land ownership and local government, seems to have remained the chief objective.” Ecce Frank Bryan.
Bryan views town meeting as the palladium of this independence. His research into its workings and meaning has been his “life’s work,” says Harvard’s Jane Mansbridge. Real Democracy is the result.
Every March since 1969, Professor Bryan has sent his students at St. Michael’s College and later the University of Vermont to the school gyms, auditoriums, church cellars, and fire stations of the 236 Vermont towns holding annual meetings at which the citizens present – about 20 percent of a town’s population, on average – vote on budgets, elect officials, levy taxes, and otherwise decide whichever governmental business has not been usurped by the central authorities in Montpelier and Washington, D.C.
Bryan’s sample is enormous: almost fifteen hundred town meetings “encompassing 238,603 acts of participation by 63,140 citizens in 210 towns.”18 This mountain of data is vast and unique, for as Bryan notes incredulously, “No article on town meeting has ever been published in a major political science journal. Never . . . We know much more about the Greek democracy of twenty-five hundred years ago than we do about real democracy in America today.”
Why the neglect and nescience among political scientists?
“They don’t trust common people,” he says of his confreres. “They were trained by professors who were trained by people who were terrified by fascism and the ‘tyranny of the majority.’”
Transient suburbanites and hyper-mobile city dwellers fear nothing so much as the unlettered rural man with a voice and a meaningful vote. They cannot see that the diffusion of power inherent in town meeting is the best defense against tyranny. Bryan quotes Goldwater speechwriter turned Wobbly Karl Hess, who “once said that Adolf Hitler as chancellor of Germany is a horror; Adolf Hitler at a town meeting would be an asshole.”
Yes, localized direct democracy is majoritarian, but the citizen unhappy with a law may appeal to her neighbors, who are often kin or lifelong friends. At the national level, however, she is just a single vote in a mass of anonymous millions – not even a brick in the wall. A Vermonter who dislikes his town’s junk-car ordinance can remonstrate with his landsmen; a Vermonter who dislikes the Wall Street bailout or the Iraq War can shut up or get drunk, but he can’t get within a Free Speech Zone of Barack Obama.