by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
October 24, 2003
AT THE NATIONAL REVIEW, VERMONT IS HELL
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- What exactly is it about Vermont that moves conservatives to sputtering rage?
Is it because people here are generally tolerant and non-judgmental? Is it because we've put a premium on sustainable development and protecting the environment? Or is it because they're jealous that we live in one of the most beautiful places on earth?
My guess is that conservatives hate us because Vermont is, in the words of economist Thomas Naylor, "smaller, more rural, more democratic, less violent, less commercial, more environmentally friendly, more egalitarian and more independent than most states."
These are things that National Review's Jonah Goldberg doesn't seem to like. He wrote a piece in the Oct. 13 issue, "The 'Flatlanders' and Their King."
Goldberg slammed Vermont as a "whatever-floats-your-boat Epcot Center exhibit of Green Socialism." The reason why Vermont is this way is because of "flatlanders," a local epithet applied to anyone who was born south of the state line. That a writer who lives in Manhattan would rise to defense of native Vermonters seems inconsistent, but that's the least of the inconsistencies in Goldberg's article.
He said that flatlanders - epitomized by former governor and current Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean ("who hails from Park Avenue and East Hampton") - have ruined Vermont. This conclusion was based on a couple of recent visits to Burlington and Montpelier.
Goldberg focuses his diatribe on Burlington, a typically liberal college town that's surrounded by the worst examples of suburban sprawl in the entire state. He apparently didn't notice the Wal-Marts, Home Depots and McMansions that have gobbled up the farm land outside Vermont's only city. Instead, he rolls out the usual stereotypes.
He calls Burlington - and by extension, Vermont - a place "with open-toed shoes and closed minds" where "the kids can name 50 different espresso drinks but not one reason to cut a tax, a tree or their hair." Naturally, if Howard Dean is elected president, Goldberg believes that "Vermont's biggest export, "awful politics," would ruin America. Vermont, in Goldberg's words, is a "madrassa for eco-jihadists;" an "alpine kibbutz" with a "Sweden-like economy."
So, let's look at the record.
Take Act 250, known nationwide as one of the most thoughtful and successful of planning laws. Act 250, enacted by the Vermont Legislature in October 1970, is why the Sierra Club singled out Vermont as one of the few states that have kept sprawl (aside from the Burlington area) in check.
Goldberg calls the law "an attempt to make the state hospitable to red-diaper babies from New York and gay couples whose idea of farming is renovating a barn so it can appear in Architectural Digest," and that the "gauntlet of regulations" for getting a building permit "is similar to the barrage of kicks and punches gang members receive when they try to leave the gang."
Goldberg fails to note that Act 250 was signed into law by Deane Davis, a conservative Republican governor who was horrified at the out-of-control development that popped up around the state's ski resorts in the late 1960s.
As for the "gauntlet" that developers must run, Act 250 merely requires developers to obtain a land use permit to construct a development or subdivision. Applicants must complete a detailed application and submit it to one of nine District Commissions around the state. Public hearings are then held to consider whether the project meets the 10 criteria set down by Act 250.
The criteria aren't hard to achieve. A project meeting these standards will not result in undue water or air pollution, it won't cause an unreasonable burden on an existing water supply, or cause unreasonable soil erosion or runoff. It will not cause traffic congestion, or place an unreasonable burden on educational or other municipal services. And it will not have an undue adverse effect on scenic beauty, aesthetics, historic sites, or rare and irreplaceable natural areas, or destroy necessary wildlife habitat or any endangered species.
Act 250 doesn't try to stop all growth as much as it put limits on growth. Most developers learn that if they follow the criteria and consider the effects of what they are planning to build, they will likely get approval. That's why the "big box" stores (except for the Burlington area) are few in Vermont, and why much of the state remains mostly untouched by development that's ill-planned and ill-suited.
The influx of out-of-staters that started coming to Vermont in the 1960s made Act 250 necessary. But Goldberg quotes Hal Goldman, a conservative lawyer and historian, who calls this "perhaps the most complete case of internal American colonialism since the destruction of the Indian."
The facts are that from the 1830s until the 1960s, Vermont was an economically stagnant place. The combination of the opening of the Plains, the industrial revolution and the Civil War sent Vermont into a downward spiral that took decades to recover from.
Anyone that had the means to leave the state did. Farmers sick of scratching out a subsistence living from stony, barely fertile soil moved west. Many Vermonters who left to fight in the Civil War never returned. What little manufacturing existed was small in scale compared to the mill cities that mushroomed in southern New England.
Vermont limped along for decades until it found it's second calling as a tourist destination. And one of the biggest boosters of tourism was the state itself. "The Beckoning Country" was the slogan the state's tourism department coined decades ago, long before anyone had ever heard of hippies or yuppies. Until the 1960s, the state used to send out catalogs of farms for sale to lure flatlanders to move to Vermont.
Goldberg would have us think that Vermont was a conservative utopia before the flatlanders came. It wasn't. Even though the Republican Party dominated Vermont until the 1960s, it was a enlightened Republicanism epitomized by the people who preceded Jim Jeffords into the U.S. Senate - men such as Ernest Gibson, Ralph Flanders, George Aiken and Robert Stafford.
Most Americans don't know the stories behind these four names. Gibson's career in the Senate was short, but as governor in the years after the end of World War II, he helped to begin the transformation of Vermont from forgotten backwater into a progressive state. Flanders was the among the first senators to take on Joe McCarthy and his reckless witch hunt for alleged communists in the government. Aiken, another former governor who served six terms in the Senate, was the man who helped create the School Lunch Program and the St. Lawrence Seaway. If you are a college student, you've heard of Stafford - he was the senator who created the low-interest government loan program that bears his name.
What all these men had in common besides being Republicans was that they voted their consciences rather than the party line. Often, that meant they ran counter to the GOP's stance on many issues. But in the end, they did what was best for Vermont rather than what was best for the party. That's the political philosophy that's long been a part of the Vermont tradition, and a big reason why Jeffords left the GOP in 2001 to become an independent.
Jeffords' decision angered conservatives like Goldberg, but what he did was another example of Ethan Allen's famous statement about Vermont: "The gods of the hills are not the gods of the valley."
Independence is our proudest tradition. From being the first government in the world to outlaw slavery to being the first state to allow gays to marry, Vermont has always been a place that isn't afraid to be contrary in the name of liberty and freedom. We don't follow the gods of the valley, and never will.
Vermont may be in the nation's bottom fifth in per capita income and in the upper fifth in tax burden, but most people here don't mind taxing themselves heavily to pay for quality education, medical and social welfare services. With our part-time citizen legislature, we don't have professional politicians wasting the money, and ours is one of the few states that's not running a deficit (a fact unnoticed by Goldberg).
A person who chooses to live here does so not because they want to get rich. The cost of living might be slightly cheaper than the rest of the Northeast, but the wages are substantially less. They choose Vermont because it is a beautiful place to live and a place where life is still lived at a human scale.
"Flatlanders" aren't the problem plaguing Vermont. It's the American ills of big business, big agriculture, big markets and big government - all things celebrated and cherished by conservatives. The qualities that make Vermont unique - independence, self-sufficiency, resourcefulness, perseverance and a strong sense of community - are slowly eroding under the relentless pressure of cultural conformity. In a world where big-box stores and fast food joints are signs of economic progress, Vermont is woefully out of step.
Vermont is different, and thank God that it is.
Randolph T. Holhut was a journalist in New England for more than 20 years and has lived in Vermont since 1989. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.