Thesis by Catherine Alison Hill


This thesis is the story of Bernie Sanders, the socialist mayor of Burlington and his campaign for governor of Vermont in 1986. The campaign is used as a prism to explore his version of socialist politics and policies within a capitalist state. The policies which Sanders developed in this campaign for lowering property taxes for middle and lower income people, increasing social spending, increasing citizen participation, and raising the taxes for wealthy people and corporations are examined in detail. Sanders claims that city governments can work for poor and working class people; however, this thesis demonstrates the difficulties leftists have in getting elected and in implementing policies whenever they do win. In conclusion, I examine the questions about left participation in the electoral process, the autonomy of the state, and what socialist municipal and state policies should be.

The data for this work includes coverage of the campaign in the Burlington Free Press, The Rutland Daily Herald, and Montpelier’s Times-Argus. In addition, I used the position papers of all three candidates, interviews with Sanders and his campaign workers, and national coverage from leftist publications such as North Star and In These Times. Statistical research was drawn from the summary of the election results by town published by the state of Vermont. Information from the U.S. Census 1980 was also used for background information.


I wrote this thesis from altogether biased perspective.

If you are looking to read an in-depth voting analysis of the candidates for governor of Vermont in 1986, this isn’t it. Nor is it a play by play account of Sanders’ administration in Burlington; Renee Jacobs’ thesis on the early years of Sanders’ administration may be more useful in this regard. This thesis is an exploration of one man’s version of class politics in the 1980s and the story of his campaign to bring that vision to the people in Vermont. At each turn, it is juxtaposed to the argument that the left should not engage in the government at all and that government, even local ones, are merely the instrument of the ruling class.

In this thesis, I hope to clear government of the charge that it is a mere “committee for the management of the whole bourgeois class” and explore the role of the local government in supporting working-class political identity. I contend that, as leftists have carved appropriate technology out of the capitalist scientific establishment, so too should leftists in government create an “appropriate bureaucracy” out of the capitalist state. We have a responsibility to understand the existing state with historical and critical eye while exploiting whatever political and organizational opportunities we find in it.

Left organizations have argued, often very persuasively, that participation legitimates the myth of democracy and pluralism and demoralizes socialists who necessarily become disillusioned with socialism in one city (or state). I take this argument very seriously. Yet I am also aware of the marginality of the left in the United States. While I accept the arguments concerning the limitations of electoral politics, I also believe we must look at the limitations of non-electoral politics. By refusing to engage in elections, American leftists cut themselves off from the arena in which most Americans look for politics. The Democratic Party has proven to be a poor conduct for the voice of poor and oppressed Americans, being ineffective as well as too conservative. As the power of our unions declines, the workplace too became depoliticized. Meanwhile, our major cultural institution – the television industry – remains firmly in the hands of the ruling class and squarely in the center of every working class living room.

And so American leftists ask themselves, again, what is to be done?

In the summer of 1984, I chose to work for a different kind of mainstream politician. I had read a newspaper article about Bernie Sanders, socialist mayor in the Burlington, Vermont and with the help of Pierre Clavel obtained an internship at the Community and Economic Development Office of the city of Burlington. In the summer of 1984, and again in the summer of 1985, it was my honor to work with a dedicated, progressive team of planners and organizers who make up the Sanders’ administration.

Retrospectively, as a planner for the city of New York, I can say that the vitality and dedication of Burlington’s city workers is very unusual. Burlington’s city workers create and enforce policies from the perspective of what is good of working and poor people.

Worker ownership, city-funded day care, access to the waterfront, women’s economic opportunities are not terribly radical demands; but in Burlington they are taken seriously. They are taken seriously because poor and working people are understood as the constituency of the administration, not a problem to be solved humanely. Working for the city of Burlington I came to recognize that government, while not the powerful tool I once hoped, could work for poor and oppressed people. Writing my thesis on this vision of government, I hope to lay the groundwork for a concept of the state which, while not losing sight of the controlling hand of the ruling class, suggest ways for the left to participate in the government.

In this thesis I will use Sanders’ 1986 campaign for governor as a prism through which to view Sanders’ socialism. As his theory is part and parcel of his practice. Sanders is not a theoretician and yet I believe his work is vitally important to radical theory. Sanders does not work with Marx’ definition of class. Rather than explicitly reworking the concept of working class, Sanders starts his analysis from the other direction. He explores the interests and behavior of the ruling class of Vermont. What are the interests of the shareholders of the public utility board? How does corporate bypassing of taxes affect the rest of us? Perhaps his success is due to his ability to ignore the problems of definitions and to forge these definitions as they emerged from practice.

Throughout this work a number of terms will be employed loosely. I define a socialist perspective to be an analysis which uses the category of class and which advocates the overthrow of the ruling class, whether by peaceful or revolutionary means. By this criterion, Sanders is a socialist. I will also refer to the “American Left” by which I mean individuals who describe themselves as being farther left than the Democratic Party. Generally, they advocate economic equality, democracy, local control, social equity, and claim to fight racism, sexism, and against the ruling class.

As the American left is not organized into a single party or even a series of parties, I believe it is appropriate to employ the term loosely. I have specified “progressives” within this category by which I mean those who work within the arena of municipal socialism. Again, this is a self-defined category; those who consider themselves to be part of a progressive city administration are included. The term was used this way by Pierre Clavel who documented the emergence of “the progressive city” in the late 1970s and 1980s. Sanders’ campaign for governor is a culmination of his work as a progressive mayor and it is important to examine this movement as part of an introduction to the campaign.

Bernie for Burlington, 1981 campaign


In this thesis, I will record the story of a campaign which lost but which nonetheless contributed significantly to the history of progressive participation in American electoral politics. When Bernie Sanders, socialist mayor of Burlington, Vermont, became what incumbent governor Madeleine Kunin termed “a second credible candidate”1 in the 1986 race for governor of Vermont, he broke a barrier rarely surmounted in American politics. Winning 15% of the statewide vote constitutes a challenge to the two party system, suggesting that third-party or unaffiliated candidates can be serious contenders for political office. Moreover, by winning a sizeable percentage as a socialist, Sanders brings into question the conservative argument that socialism has no constituency in the United States.2 Sanders’ support came from both middle class and working class areas, demonstrating that socialists can have an appeal for the American “masses,” as well as middle class progressives.

One outgrowth of Sanders’ political success is an exploration of the rarely confronted questions concerning socialist policies in a capitalist city or state. Rather than engaging in the vague rhetoric of mainstream politics, in his campaign for governor Sanders laid out specific policies for the state building on his administrations’ policies in Burlington. This included a progressive tax reform program, new controls over utility and telephone rates, raising the state minimum wage increase, and increasing social spending for farmers and poor people financed by an increase tax on the wealthiest Vermonters and the large corporations. Sanders’ campaign represents one construction of socialist policies for local governments; a construction which has demonstrated appeal for many working class and middle class voters.

Sanders’ decision to run for governor developed from his experience as a socialist mayor and his work as mayor lay the groundwork for the campaign. Sanders’ record as an efficient and progressive mayor ensured that he was taken seriously by the electoral establishment as well as by the voters. George Thaubault, Sanders’ campaign manager, explains:

“We also had the record of pretty good government. There hadn’t been any scandals. He hadn’t raised taxes too much. We’d been portrayed as very efficient and businesslike, and innovative.”

The history of this and other progressive cities is then an important prelude to our discussion of the campaign. Sanders is often touted by the press as a curio; in reality, Sanders’ work as mayor of Burlington, while unique in many ways, is also part of a larger progressive movement. While Ronald Reagan and the conservatives have controlled the national government throughout the 1980s, progressives and liberals have won local office in many cities. Sanders’ election as Mayor of Burlington in 1981 was one of a number of victories in the 1970s and 1980s by third-party coalitions which fought for city hall and won. For 10 years, between 1969 and 1979, a progressive city council majority controlled Hartford, Connecticut. During this same period in Cleveland, a powerful neighborhood movement and a sustained concern with planning developed into a radical agenda under the leadership of Dennis Kucinich. Kucinich served one term as mayor between 1977–1979. In 1979, Berkeley Citizen Action gained four of the nine seats on city council and the mayor’s office; given the tentative support of city councilwoman Carole Davis, Berkeley Citizen Action was able to govern Berkeley. With the exemption of one two-year period, the Berkeley Citizen Action retained leadership with majorities as high as 8 of 9 seats through 1988. In 1981, progressive coalitions won in Santa Monica and in Burlington.

These administrations share a number of characteristics.

Unlike Democratic city administrations, they tended to be independent of local business interests. In the preface to The Progressive City, Clavel defined the progressives:

“The main features of progressive politics as practiced in these cities included attacks on the legitimacy of absentee-owned and concentrated private power on the one hand, and on nonrepresentative city councils and city bureaucracies on the other. These attacks led to programs emphasizing public planning as an alternative to private power, and to grass-roots citizen participation as an alternative to council-dominated representation.”3

Progressives interfered with business as usual, replacing private corporate decision-making with planning and community control. Rent control, linking public benefits to the concessions awarded developers, support for worker-owned businesses, and land trusts are some of the economic initiatives which have come out of progressive cities.

The Progressive Coalition in Burlington appears to have a longevity not enjoyed by other progressive administrations, with the possible exception of Berkeley Citizen Action. Bernie Sanders has won four elections over a period of seven years and progressive candidates have consistently held the working-class wards of Burlington. When Sanders was first elected in 1981, he had only two supporters on the council. In the following aldermanic election, the Progressive Coalition won three additional seats, destroying the Democrats’ control of the council, and breaking the city council into thirds: 5 Progressives, 5 Republicans, and 3 Democrats. The formation of the Community and Economic Development Office (CEDO) in 1983 established a stronghold for progressives within the administration of the city. The new department, together with Sanders’ appointments to the city’s commissions, made it possible for Sanders’ to develop effective policies.

Renee Jacobs in her thesis Planning and Politics documented Sanders’ administration in its early years. She describes the opposition Sanders faced from the top city personnel, and the innovative mechanism he employed to circumvent it:

Though Sanders’ initial victory can be seen as a protest vote against an inefficient and unresponsive city administration, his re-election two years later was a tribute to his hard work and down-to-earth style, his effectiveness as an administrator, and his appeal as a defender of the common people.4

Sanders was successful in bringing disenfrancished groups into process of governing the city. The Sanders administration, led by neighborhood activist Michael Monte, generated an effective mechanism for neighborhood participation which left the decisions for how to use the federal Community Development Block Grants to Neighborhood Planning Assemblies. Monte and the CEDO office simply facilitated meetings, and followed the direction dictated by the neighborhoods. The neighborhood assemblies funded youth programs, park improvements and other local concerns.

Sanders generated more avenues for citizens participation through the creation of the Youth Office and the Arts Council. The Youth Council would grow to help establish a daycare center for downtown Burlington, a newspaper written by and for young people and a training program for young “hard to employ” people interested in construction. The Arts Council is best known for the free concerts in the parks and occasionally in City Hall itself.

A third avenue for participation, perhaps Burlington’s most innovative, is its Women’s Council. The Women’s Council is one of the most militant and independent of the city councils as well as one of the most powerful. The Women’s Council brings together women from all of the women’s organizations in Burlington to represent women’s interests. The Council includes young and old, conservative and radical women and has produced numerous conferences, sexism speak-outs, free clinics, and other educational events. Its first major initiative was an affirmative action ordinance which reserves 10% of all city-funded construction jobs for women. The ordinance was passed by the City Council in 1983 and the Women’s Council Coordinator (a city-funded position) runs a job bank of available trained and/or interested women. Its second major initiative is a transitional housing project for low income women, which is currently underway. While the Women’s Council has taken the lead in the fight for employment and housing, it retains its role as the forum for voicing women’s issues within the city government. By incorporating the interest of these groups into city administration, Sanders substantially increased public participation in Burlington.

Sanders’ record in terms of economic development, which was considered to Sanders’ original ticket into office, was more mixed. Sanders stood firmly opposed to the Southern Connector, the highway which the previous administration and downtown businesses had called for while the affected neighborhoods and other anti-development advocates denounced. However, Sanders and the CEDO office negotiated on the waterfront issue, and came to support a mixed use private development plan which included both public access and condominiums. This compromise was not supported by the voters and the bond act for the waterfront proposal was defeated in 1986. Generally by the end of his first term Sanders came to be seen among some business leaders as supportive of development. Nick Wylie, manager of the Burlington Mall and a downtown business leader, took this position:

“First, he is competent. He is running the city. Second, he is pro-development. He really wants it. He has figured out that it is a cow to be milked. He wants to build his tax base. Previously there was this lurking presence… low-income people who could rise up and stop any project. Paquette was not dealing with them. Sanders has dealt them in.”5

Sanders wanted to represent the interests of low income, working people. In his estimation, an anti-development stance which ignored the need for creating new jobs did not achieve this end.

The conflict between middle class concerns and working class interests surfaced at several points of Sanders’ administration. Sanders identified with what he considered to be the working class position. For example, Sanders did not support the efforts of middle class radicals in Burlington to close down the General Electric (GE) factory which produced Gatling guns for the military, despite the fact that many of his staff were involved. His position was that until the workers of the plant were involved in the protests and in the creation of a viable conversion scheme, he would oppose the efforts. Sanders asked the peace activists to talk to the workers and to gain their confidence.

Sanders worked for reforms which he saw as emerging from a working class agenda, and rejected middle class activism which was the life blood of other progressive city administrations such as the movement in Santa Monica. In these ways, Sanders’ administration is more akin to the “gas and water” municipal socialists of the 19th century than to his contemporary counterparts. The United States has a rich history of municipal socialism which is long ignored by historians.

Milwaukee is the best known example beginning with the election of socialist mayor Emil Seidel in 1910 through World War I to the defeat of Mayor Dan Hoan in 1940. Socialists were also elected in other smaller cities such as the election of George Lunn in 1911 in Schenectady and important socialist movements in cities as disparate as Oklahoma and New York. In his introduction to Socialism and the Cities. Bruce Stave describes these socialists:

“Often coming to power as a consequence of voter reaction to corruption within major party administrations, fearing programs that would raise taxes and alienate business and the public, limited by city charters and at loggerheads with hostile state legislatures, believing that a socialist municipality in a capitalist nation had little chance of success, the city Socialists determined to be ‘in the world and of it.’”6

Sanders and the other progressives of the 1970s and 1980s can also be said to be “in the world and of it”; Sanders was an honest and effective administrator as well as a committed socialist. Sanders’ bid of governorship was a consequence of his “loggerheads with state legislatures” in particular over the issue of taxation and his run for the governorship was an attempt to break out of the limitations of constraining city charters and the hostile state legislatures.

While Sanders recognized the capitalist interests of developers and businessmen, he also saw the need to work with them.

From his experience as mayor, Sanders brought an ability to identify working class positions and to make them his own; at the same time, he recognized the need to work with the ruling class.

The policies which Sanders developed in this campaign serve as a model of American municipal socialism. They are an example for socialists and progressive city and state workers of a compromise with capitalism which also challenges ruling class ideological hegemony. All told, the campaign offers a compelling argument for progressives to work in the state.

Traditionally, Marxists have claimed that the progressives should not participate in electoral politics because the state is dependent on the ruling class and thus bound by their agenda. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels described the state as, “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” and the Marxist viewpoint has focused around this position. Since the 1960s Marxists have begun to explore the relationship of the state and the ruling class more closely.

Why does a democratic state remain in the hands of the ruling class?

How does the local and state government serve “the ruling class”?

Two complimentary arguments have developed around these questions. The first relies on the notion that powerful elites control elections directly through contributions and control of the Democratic and Republican parties. In the race of governor, Sanders’ opponents were able to raise half a million dollars each,10 while Sanders was only able to raise $60,000. Obviously, a candidate who explicitly condemns the powers of the very wealthy cannot hope to solicit their financial support. One lesson afforded by Sanders campaign for governor is that city elections are much less expensive and thus easier to win than state or national campaigns. The remaining question is whether the cost is prohibitive or whether it merely makes campaigning more difficult.

The second argument which supports the hypothesis that the ruling class controls the state focuses on the structural and ideological constraints. Proponents of this position claim that the state must ensure the accumulation and reproduction of capital and thus it is bound to policies and positions which support a ruling-class agenda. For example, the threat of capital flight which local progressive administrations face is often cited as the rationale for conservative policies. If progressives attempted real redistribution of wealth, businesses and their wealthy owners and administrators will simply move on to a city with a better “business climate.”

Sanders’ defeat in the race for governor reflects these arguments; wealthy elites controlled the election through campaign contributions. In addition, structural and ideological factors limited his policies as mayor, and thus limited the list of accomplishments Sanders could point to during the campaign.

If elites use ideological as well as structural constraints, then an “Achilles heel” may exist. Progressive politicians have intuitively sensed this. First some politicians simply refused to play ball.11 Dennis Kucinich, progressive mayor of Cleveland from 1977–1979, was such a politician and he saw his very presence as disruptive:

“The establishment is accustomed to winning all elections. When they don’t succeed in electing their preferred candidates they readily co-opt the winner into their preferred circle. But what if he won’t make the book? An elected official who has no price is too dangerous to be permitted to survive.”7

Secondly, some have argued that political office could function as a new structural niche for the emergence of working class consciousness. Clearly this is a different vision of class consciousness from the notion of the workplace as the focus of class formation, although it is not necessarily in opposition. This expanded notion of class formation, with its attendant expanded definition of class, is suggested by the work of Antonio Gramsci and others; however, Sanders’ understanding of class and political practice must be understood as original work.

Sanders was able to successful bring socialism into the picture in Vermont politics and to draw the line between working class and ruling class interests persuasively. In his campaign for governor, Sanders developed policies for the state which reflect a working-class analysis and which captures the idea of non-reformist reforms. By this, I mean that his policies whose immediate impact may be simply reform but which by their nature challenge ruling class ideology. For example, as mayor Sanders supported an affirmative action ordinance, initiated by the Women’s Council, which helped bring women into the well-paying construction trades. Affirmative action is an important reform, but essentially liberal. In this case, while women benefit materially, ideological assumptions about women were challenged. Sanders’ administration did not merely fight for women’s right to jobs, they fought for the right to any job, including jobs requiring unfeminine qualifications and paying a “family wage.”

In the main body of this thesis, I explore Sanders’ positions using the campaign as a prism into Sanders’ political thought and his work as mayor. There are two overriding questions: first what evidence is there of Sanders’ class analysis and secondly, what was the resulting practice? Since the 1960s, the American left has been turning away from class as an analytical category while sex and race have attained equal prominence as tools for understanding oppression. Sanders uses class as his analytical tool and focuses on understanding the ruling class and its behavior. This allows him to bypass the problem of defining who constitutes the working class. The remaining question is whether Sanders’ version of class analysis is radical in the 1980s.


Unlike their European counterparts, American leftists do not participate in electoral politics to any great extent. In their infrequent ventures, they usually claim to be conducting educational campaigns which are not intended to actually capture office.

Sanders himself had run four educational campaigns for statewide office Vermont with the Liberty Union Party in the 1970s. At that time he had stressed the educational aspects of the campaign. The purpose of an educational campaign is simple – to channel people’s attention, captured by the legitimacy of elections and maintained by the media, into a particular issue or perspective. Participation may be perfectly opportunist and does not invoke the complicated questions concerning the endorsement of an existing system of government. However, educational campaigns place “candidates” in an awkward, seemingly hypocritical position of running for an office which they have no intention of holding; voting for such a candidate is an equally obscure act. While elections do offer an opportunity for educating the masses, voters are logically more interested in the ideas of candidates who genuinely want to take office and have concrete ideas for change.

Sanders entered the 1986 race for governor with an eye to educating people and to win office.9 His opponents, Madeleine Kunin the Democratic Governor and Peter Smith her Republican challenger, are in many ways typical of their respective parties. Kunin considers herself to be a conservative Democrat, and in the campaign stressed her role in retiring the state deficit during her first administration. In her first two years, she took a strong stance for environmental protection, winning approval for laws regulating underground storage tanks, protecting groundwater, and creating a state fund to finance clean-ups of hazardous waste.10

Kunin also considered herself to be an advocate for education. The Free Press summarized Kunin’s campaign, as “highlighting education, the environment and keeping the state in good fiscal shape.”11 Kunin projected an image of moderation and fiscal conservatism, and ran a low-key campaign.12 She was criticized for a lack of leadership ability, as well as, in the minds of some liberals, being overly concerned with retiring the deficit. While most of the papers endorsed her, they did so criticizing her first two years in office for lacking leadership.

Smith criticized Kunin along somewhat different lines. In announcing his candidacy, Smith promised to halt increases in state spending and the growth in the state’s bureaucracy. He claimed that the message of his opponents was, “more government, more regulation and more bureaucracy.”13 He felt that the state should limit itself and return control to the local communities. The theme of the campaign was that government close to the people can do the best job and Smith stressed the fact that he was a native of Vermont.

In one of his television ad, Smith is portrayed riding on a ferry on Lake Champlain saying, “This boat is no stranger to me, I scrubbed these decks as a kid, sold newspapers, I learned what Vermont self-reliance is all about.”14 Smith saw himself as reinvigorating Vermont’s traditions of self-reliance and local control.

Yet Smith was unable to ground this image in substantive issues. In Montpelier’s Times-Argus, the editor noted the Republican candidate’s limitation:

“Even Republicans admit that Smith has not latched onto an issue that has caught the attention of the public. Smith has criticized Kunin for being a heavy spender. However, during her first term, the state paid off a $35.6 million deficit and ended the last year with about an $8 million surplus.”15

Smith opposed Kunin’s tough stance on environmental issues, arguing that it was time for a “re-evaluation” of environmental legislation. He also opposed Kunin’s support for increased spending for education, claiming that “you can’t regulate your way to excellence.”16 Smith even tried to persuade voters that Kunin had a secret plan to raise taxes after the election; yet none of these positions struck a responsive chord with the voters.

In as much as Kunin and Smith were typical of respectively the Democratic and Republican parties, Sander’s campaign has even greater potential as a model for third party or independent candidacy. For a cursory look at their positions, this seems to be the case. Kunin stressed liberal issues such as the environment and education while keeping an eye on the budget. Smith called for a return to local initiative and a general reduction in the government. While Smith did not have the strength which has typified his party for the past eight years, his perspective parallels that of the Republican party nationwide.

In keeping with the recent practices of their parties, Kunin and Smith both used television advertisements in the campaign. They both spent close to half a million dollars on their campaigns which primarily went to pay for television advertisements; Kunin spent $400,000 and Smith spent $500,000. In comparison, Sanders spent only $60,000. The difference between the campaigns is further demonstrated by the location of the campaign headquarters. Smith, the son of a prominent banker, located his office in swank accommodations above a Montpelier bank; Kunin’s headquarters were located above a sporting goods store; while Sanders’ headquarters were located above a pizza parlor in the working class section of Montpelier.16

The three candidates literally came from different sections of town.

Sanders ran the campaign as an independent socialist, claiming that “for every person we lose…we gain at least as many more. Many will tell us, ‘I don’t know what socialism means, but if you’re not a Democrat and you’re not a Republican that’s good enough for me.’”18

In my interview with Sanders, he reiterated these sentiments:

“I think we are the only state in the United States where the word socialism is not automatically thought of as a negative. I think that’s primarily because we’ve been alive here seven years and accomplished certain things… I think the positive of it is that it indicates to people that I am not a conventional politician. If they are not happy with the status quo then that is a positive thing… I would say that it indicated in the campaign an unorthodoxy and a willingness to take on the system.”18

As well as invoking the label, Sanders took positions in the campaign which emerge from a socialist perspective: for example, in the Burlington Free Press Sanders is quoted as saying that, “wealth and power are synonymous,” and that “half of 1% of the population in this country owns 35% of the wealth of the nation.”19 Kunin responded, in the same article, with a typical Democratic Party position – her administration tried to help “those in need.” While Kunin saw herself as running a compassionate administration, she did not consider ending inequalities as a serious goal. Moreover, she did not respond to Sanders’ claim that wealth and power are synonymous, which is a direct confrontation with a liberal understanding of democracy. Smith responded by claiming that Sanders had merely issued a vague statement without substance and then restating a need for economic vitality in the region.

I will discuss the specific character of Sander’s positions in more detail in the following sections, but at this point it is important to note that Sanders ran as a socialist and discussed issues from that perspective. By running a campaign to win as a socialist, Sanders was embarking on an unusual project.

Sanders faced opposition to his campaign from both leftists such as the editors of In These Times and his some of his local supporters in the Progressive Coalition. George Thabault, Sander’s campaign manager, noted that the Progressive Coalition was only marginally involved in Sander’s campaign for Governor; “in the beginning there were a few meetings…but to expect that the organization would be that effective in a governor’s race was not the right perception.” Thabault described the Progressive Coalition as unable to function effectively on the statewide level for two reasons. First, the coalition was tired from recent aldermanic elections. Secondly, coalition members were jealous of their time in short summer of Vermont. Generally there was very little energy in the coalition. Secondly, Thabault noted that the organization is Burlington-based and ward-oriented. Even if the coalition had gotten involved, it is doubtful that they could have functioned effectively. Their contacts were local, and their strategies – such as leaflet drops and door-to-door canvassing – more appropriate for citywide elections.

There were other reasons for the lack of support from the coalition. Some coalition members, such as Micheal Monte, felt only partial support for the effort. Monte felt that the campaign stretched the organization and Bernie’s energy too far. Moreover, structurally the coalition had no mechanism for choosing candidates for statewide office. Sanders made his decision and then came to the coalition for support. This process might have raised some suspicion or resentment from coalition members who had not chosen a candidate but had been chosen by one. The Progressive Coalition officially supported Sanders campaign, yet the low number of volunteers from the coalition indicates that the concerns of Monte were shared by other members of the group.

In These Times editors opposed the campaign on more theoretical grounds. First and principally, they claimed that Sanders divided the left. Their logic went as follows: Madeline Kunin was a better candidate than her Republican opponent, therefore people on the left should support her candidacy in order to avoid a Republican victory. This question is an old one for the left, and one which has received much attention. In an “Address to the Central Committee of the Communist League” in 1850, Marx discussed this question:

“In this connection they (the workers) must not allow themselves to be seduced by such arguments … as, for example, that by doing so (putting up their own candidates) they are splitting the democratic party and making it possible for the reactionaries to win. The intention of all such phrases is to dupe the proletariat. The advance which the proletarian party is bound to make by such independent action is infinitely more important than the disadvantage that might be incurred by the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.”

In many ways, Marx’s comments seem appropriate to this situation.

It is not clear that Smith’s policies vary substantially from Kunin’s; both advocate conservative state spending and saw economic development as the result of attracting big business to the state.

More generally, both are members of parties which believe capitalism, with a little help from the state, is a fair and prosperous system. While Kunin supported more environmental regulations and more funding for education than Smith, their differences are of degree rather than kind. In my interview with him, Sanders scoffed at the idea that he was dividing the left, noting that Kunin was a moderate Democrat at best. He noted that the Kunin administration had conservative policies, particularly with regard to minimum wage and taxation issues.

The editors of In These Times raised a second, related argument against Sanders’ campaign for governorship; they claimed that because women are underrepresented in government, a progressive should not run against a women candidate. Sanders’ response to this claim was that he felt he was better on women’s issues, particularly child care and employment than Kunin. Sanders’ claim is that women’s issues are what is at stake, not the gender of the candidate. However, in general, Sanders seems skeptical of feminist politics. He believes leftists should fight the ruling class. In our interview, Sanders became particularly annoyed by the concept of classism, stating that class is not an attitude problem but a division of power. While Sanders supports women’s issues, particularly their poverty and the lack of child care, he does so as a socialist rather than as a feminist.

It is unclear how much the desire to support a woman candidate and Sanders’ ambivalence toward feminism detracted from Sanders’ support. Lynn Vera, a member of the Burlington Women’s Council explained her position thusly:

“I think I’m going to vote for Kunin…Sander’s has not been good on women’s issues in Burlington, we’ve had to push him every step of the way and then he takes the credit.”

Her claim, however, was not that one should vote for a woman candidate “at all costs,” but that Sanders was not in fact good on women’s issues. Ellen David-Friedman, Sanders campaign manager for the early portion of the campaign, stated that Sanders’ fund-raising efforts were hindered in part by the reluctance of progressives to contribute to a campaign against an incumbent woman.

Sanders tried to counteract this sentiment by proposing measures to make child care more available, to end discrimination against women with respect to business loans, and pledged support for poor women’s right to abortion. One indication that Sanders was not successful in overcoming the gender issue is that there is a negative correspondence between counties that voted in support of the statewide Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and support for Sanders. I will address Sanders’ position on women’s issues in more detail in the following section. At this point it is important to note that the issue of gender seems to have had at least some negative implications for Sanders’ campaign.

In Sander’s view, there was no left to divide. The Democratic Party was not, in his estimation, part of the left; moreover, Kunin was not even to the left within the Democratic Party.

Reasoning and strategy behind the campaign was somewhat more vague. In his interview, Sanders cited a need for growth, claiming that to do otherwise would risk isolation. As I have noted earlier, others in the Progressive Coalition felt differently and wanted to avoid spreading themselves too thin. Moreover, they felt an embarrassing loss would undermine future efforts.22 In this respect Sanders was simply more confident.

Furthermore, Sanders and his campaign manager Thabault both felt that there were issues which could only be addressed at the state level. Specifically they cited the taxation issue. I will go into this at greater length in the following section, however, it is important to note that this issue was formative in Sanders decision to run. Burlington had attempted to enact a series of tax reform proposals which were cut down by the state legislature. The distribution of the tax burden is a fundamental issue for a candidate interested in income redistribution and Sanders was frustrated by the legal limitations of the city charter. Education was a second issue, also controlled primarily by the state government, which Sanders mentioned as important in his decision to run for governor.

In other ways, Sanders’ rationale for the campaign seemed to be more of the same. Sanders describes the influence of a socialist at the state level would have the same character as a socialist as a mayor; both could effect policies which effected people’s lives while getting the media to expose the public to socialist view. Sanders views the power of propaganda at the state level as a very power vehicle. In an interview with North Star. Sander’s contends that, if even two governor’s called a special session of their legislatures on Nicaragua, Washington could be bludgeoned by popular opinion into halting the war against that country. In other words, he sees the leverage of the state level as much more extensive than the local level. Sanders waged his campaign for governor to extend the powers he had enjoyed as mayor.

There were decisive differences between the campaign for governor and the campaigns for mayor. Most important were the financial constraints. Sanders was unable to raise the kind of funding necessary to spend even half what his opponents spend. In fact, he was outspent 10-to-1 by both Peter Smith and Madeleine Kunin. Sanders had to rely entirely on newspaper ads and on the newspaper and radio coverage while his competitors placed ads on television. While his campaign manager notes that the quite fair in their coverage, not being able to fund television ads put Sanders at a distinct disadvantages. Sanders was not able to fund even a skeleton staff by the end of the campaign.

There are several systematic reasons for Sanders’ lack of funding. Firstly, Sanders ran as an independent. Unlike the Democratic and Republican candidates, there was no internal structure for fund-raising in place. Where Smith and Kunin received support from the local party machines, Sanders had to rely on individuals from the Progressive Coalition and from the statewide Rainbow Coalition. The Progressive Coalition donated its computer, but it simply could not contend with the well-entrenched parties in terms of fund-raising. And as I have noted earlier there is evidence that it did not lend its full, enthusiastic support, and volunteer help was not overabundant. The Rainbow Coalition was also unable to provide adequate support for Sanders’ candidacy. Moreover, it is clear that there was also some hesitancy within the Rainbow Coalition over Sanders positions. Ed Stanak, a member of the Coalition in Barre, claimed that he did not support Sanders because, “I don’t see Bernie moving anywhere in terms of a willingness to develop a consciousness on environmental and land use issues.”23

While the Rainbow Coalition was initially important in organizing support for Sanders, by the end of the campaign their support as an organization had dwindled down to virtually nothing. In many ways, Sanders was a third-party candidate without a third party. Lacking a party apparatus, Sanders campaign staff worked without volunteer help and without adequate funds. I have mentioned this earlier, but would like to stress its importance to Sanders and Thabault. In their interviews, both Sanders and his campaign manager George Thabault cited financial constraints as severely hampering their prospects for victory. Sanders went as far as to claim that had he only been outspent 2-to-1, he would have won the election. Hoff and Wright, voting analysts, agreed with Sanders’ claim that he would have constituted a serious threat had he had more money.24

Sanders was, from the beginning of the campaign, well aware of the financial difficulties they would faced. Sanders and his campaign staff tried to come up with resourceful ways of getting their message across. For example, Sanders made the announcement of his candidacy through letters to people’s homes rather than through the media. The idea was to communicate directly to people, and this was to set the tone for a non-traditional campaign. Chris Wood, a campaign spokesman, said, “the leaflet drop announcement is symbolic of the campaign. He (Sanders) wants to talk directly to the people. He likes going door to door.”25 Wood went on the say that increasing voter turn-out and getting “those who do not vote to cast a ballot for Sanders” would be a key element in the campaign. This emphasis on increasing voter turnout and speaking directly to the people was dropped later in the campaign as the participation of the Rainbow Coalition declined, although Sanders’ campaign staff tried a number of unorthodox tactics to get their message across. In an interview, Thabault described one tactic in which advertisements would include coupons which would request funds for the next advertisement. Each advertisement would list the supporters who made the advertisement possible. This tactic was also unsuccessful; according to Thabault, people just did not take the time. Sanders seems to have been more successful in more traditional campaign strategies – making public appearances, seeking favor from local groups, and participating in debates with the other candidates.

So who supported Sanders? It is often assumed that progressives get support from liberals and disgruntled ex-Democrats. In Santa Monica, for example, this seems to be a direct relationship between liberal and progressives; Ruth Goldway describes the leaders of the movement as influenced directly by democratic leadership and liberal issues:

“When we had Carter for president, a certain national direction of democratic issues, allowed people to focus in on local issues… We all felt some shared value system about the war, about the environment, about consumer issues, women’s and civil rights issues.”

In Middle Class Radicalism in Santa Monica. Mark Kann claims that the progressive coalition in Santa Monica was almost exclusively concerned with a middle-class agenda. He notes that middle-class radicals benefit from their activism around quality of life issues and have little incentive to work for redistributive policies which might encroach upon their privileges.

While Sanders also participated in the anti-Vietnam protests and civil rights movement, his politics are explicitly socialist. Sanders claims that he has a working class rather than a liberal constituency; he also claims that he took away as many votes from Republicans as from the Democrats. Christopher Graff, chief of the Vermont Bureau of the Associated Press, followed the campaign and came to the same conclusion.

Regarding Sanders’ performance in the election, Graff states:

“It isn’t just the size of Sanders total; it is the fact that it came from the conservative hill towns, the Republican strongholds, the farming communities. Windham County, Vermont’s fastest growing area for progressive candidates, gave Sanders his lowest county total – 8% – while his greatest countywide support – 19% – came in the conservative Northeast Kingdom county of Orleans.”26

It is clear that Sanders drew some of his support from progressives, but it is equally clear that there is a receptive audience for his call to arms.

“It takes money to be a liberal,” claims Sanders. As I noted earlier, Sanders’ support showed no correspondence with support for liberal issues such as the ERA. The counties Lamoille, Orleans, and Washington which gave Sanders his highest ratings statewide all voted against the ERA. Windham, Addison, and Bennington, which supported the ERA bill, gave Sanders some of his lowest levels of support.

There is no direct relationship between the income of a town and the support Sanders received; for example, the southern part of Vermont is as poor as the northeast Kingdom, yet they did not vote for Sanders in the same numbers. The level of support seems to be regional and reflects exposure as well as ideological differences between the regions of Vermont. One thing is clear: Vermonters were interested in this race. More people cast ballots in the gubernatorial contest (196,716) than in either the U.S. Senate race (196,532) or the ERA. referendum (184,973). And for the first time since 1912, none of the candidates won the majority of the vote required under the state constitution and the race was determined by the state legislature. By winning 15% of the electorate, Sanders received enough support to seriously challenge his Republican and Democratic opponents.

Sanders faced two formidable established opponents in the race for Governor. He did so with a faction of his opponents’ budgets and without the support of any organized progressive organization. He drew criticism from the left as well as from the right; he was literally a third-party candidate without a third party. Nevertheless he was able to effectively challenge the Democratic establishment and to win a sizable portion of the vote. He was able to bring a working-class agenda to the campaign and to generate widespread support.


Sanders prides himself on representing working-class interests and his campaign represents his attempt to create a working-class agenda for Vermont. While Sanders’ campaign and his tenure as mayor are part of a broader movement of progressive cities, in many ways his political position is unique. Sanders, unlike other progressive mayors in the United States, openly avows socialism. Moveover, his socialism is grounded in class analysis and, in the eyes of his detractors, is more akin to the socialists of the 19th century than to the current progressive movement. Murray Bookchin, a local rival, argues that Sanders is an opportunist who is more interested in self-aggrandizement than in socialism:

“To spoof him for his unadorned speech and macho manner is to ignore the fact that his notions of a ‘class analysis’ are narrowly productivist and would embarrass a Lenin, not to mentionn a Marx…The tragedy is that Sanders did not live out his life between 1870 and 1940, and the paradox that faces him is: why does a constellation of ideas that seemed so rebellious 50 years ago appear to be so conservative today?”27

The focus of Bookchin’s argument with Sanders is around his “productionist politics” which he claim lead Sanders into negotiating with developers, supporting growth, and concerning himself with running an efficient government to the exclusion of more radical policies. Bookchin fails to outline what these more radical policies might be, although he does suggest that Burlington develop a system of citizen participation similar to Berkeley’s.28

The question Bookchin raises is important, but I would ask it differently. The question at hand is not why a constellation of ideas which seemed rebellious 50 years ago appears to be so conservative today, but if these ideas are truly conservative?

Given that Sanders is a socialist, is he a radical? The campaign for governor is an ideal summary of Sanders “constellation of ideas” which we can examine in terms of this argument.

Are class politics a radical politics in the 1980s?

Some of the material that follows is drawn from position papers; the rest is drawn from newspapers and journals which covered the campaign. For each issue, I will look at how Sanders defines working class and ruling class interests and explore the positions this generates. It is my conclusion that class analysis was able to generate a radical agenda for the state and Sanders politics – an uneasy blend of Marxist theory and progressive strategies – is the wave of the future for the American left.

1. Taxation

I will discuss tax reform first because it seems to have been a central issue in the campaign. Sanders considered tax reform as a central motivation for the campaign and it was cited by his campaign manager as their most successful issue. In a nutshell, Sanders proposed a comprehensive tax reform program through which the state could break its dependency on the property tax. The program would provide the following:

A reduction in property taxes for homeowners and renters by providing a 20% cut in residential property taxes and expanding the “Renter Rebate” program to provide a rebate of 20% of the property taxes tenants pay indirectly through their rents.

Stop property tax increases by providing a 20% increase in state aid to education under a reformed state aid formula and by providing 12 million dollars in state revenue-sharing for cities and towns to replace federal revenue-sharing.

Improve state programs by providing an immediate 10% increase for human services and appropriately $2 million for family farms.

The program would be financed through progressive taxation as follows:

An increase of the state income tax rate for persons with incomes over $50,000 a year to recover one-third of the combined federal and state income tax cuts over the past five years.

Increase the state corporate income tax rate to recover the cut in state taxes due to the federal tax cuts in corporate taxes.

Establish a statewide tax on vacation homes whereby the local community would receive the taxes it would levy on such properties and the state would receive the excess taxes up to the average tax rate for all Vermont.

Increase the Property Title Transfer tax by 0.5%. This program is summarized in the appendix.

Briefly, the program is a redistribution of the wealth, or more exactly of the burden of government services. Wealthy individuals and corporations would pay a larger share in order to provide tax relief to homeowners and renters, as well as expanded aid to education, human services, and the family farm.

In his position paper, Sanders explains the need for tax reform by describing the history of the present tax structure. He notes that Vermonters pay more of their income in property taxes in all but four states. While the figure is dropping nationally, in Vermont it has increased. Sanders juxtaposes this increase with the tax breaks enacted under Reagan’s administration. He notes that on the national level 50 of the largest corporations in the nation earned $56.9 billion in profit and paid no federal corporate tax. In Vermont, the tax system is coupled with the federal system and there for the tax breaks enacted by Reagan have been reproduced at the state level. It has been estimated that between the years 1982–1987, the state of Vermont will have lost over $291 million as a result of Reagan’s policies and the fact that Vermont’s tax system is coupled to the federal system. In sum, Sanders claimed that the property tax had risen sharply while the personal and corporate taxes paid by upper income people and corporations had decreased sharply. Sanders’ proposal addressed this inequity head on and coupled increases in taxes for the rich with relief for middle income homeowners, renters, farmers, and those who depend on state assistance.

Thabault cited the taxation reform program as the high point of the campaign, “that much of Bernie’s campaign had gotten through to them (the voters).” In some ways, the program was quite respectable. After all, as Sanders noted, many of the tax increases for corporations and wealthy individuals merely made up for cuts imposed by Reagan. The corporate income tax recovery program would raise $6 million in 1987 which is, in fact, what corporations would have been paying in Vermont before the Reagan tax breaks of 1981.

In other words, the program did not create anything new. Yet the structure of the proposal itself was radical. Sanders related tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy to an increased tax burden for the rest of the people. The program suggested what it did not proclaim – a confrontation between classes.

Sanders believes that the United States is controlled by a small minority of individuals whose economic power translates into political power as well.29 The owning class is a ruling class in the most literal understanding of the term. The tax reform proposal cuts into the wealth of that class for the benefit of the rest of society. Instead of pitting property owners against people depended on social services, or money for education against money for farmers, Sanders pits them all against the biggest corporations and wealthiest individuals. It is a strategy which – in the estimation of Thabault – improved Sanders’ standing in the polls considerably.

Obviously neither Kunin nor Smith supported Sanders’ proposal. Kunin felt that some taxation reform was in order, but proposed no specific plan. Smith felt that the standing taxation system was fine and “warned against making big business the victim of the tax structure.”30 Again, Kunin and Smith took positions typical of their parties. The Democratic candidate recognized the existence of the injustice, but balked at the possibility of change and the Republican candidate did not recognize the need for change at all.

Sanders’ taxation proposal contains radical policies which aid poor people while it educates them. Sanders took the opportunity afforded by the injustices of the taxation system to point to larger injustices in the system and to bypass the usual detours into in-house fighting. A class analysis in this instance seems well-placed; it enables Sanders to draw the line between

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