The Vermont Way, Jeffords leaves the Republican Party (6/01)

With all the hoopla surrounding the decision by US Senator James Jeffords to bolt the Republican Party and become an independent, his home state of Vermont has lately attracted considerable attention. As a result of this break away, the Democrats have a fresh chance to effectively challenge the Bush agenda, and the president-select may be forced to deliver on some of the promises he made during his campaign. Meanwhile, pols and pundits have struggled to explain away this unprecedented development as the action of a quirky politician from an equally quirky place.

For most people who live in the Green Mountains, however, Jeffords’ choice represents an affirmation of where the state has been heading for years. As the Senator himself put it, “Independence is the Vermont Way.Ó This is the state that last year adopted a law permitting civil unions for gay couples, and has elected Bernie Sanders, the only independent in the US House, to national office for six terms. Twenty years ago, Republicans held all three of Vermont’s congressional seats, and most statewide offices. Today, the only statewide GOP officeholder is State Treasurer Jim Douglas, a mild-mannered moderate gearing up for a gubernatorial race in 2002.

As a publication based in this state, Toward Freedom often attempts to incorporate a Vermont sensibility in its coverage of world events. While not always sanguine about the positions taken by Jeffords, fellow Senator Patrick Leahy, or even Sanders, we frequently find inspiration in the tolerant and progressive streak that runs through most debates here. In April, for example, many Vermonters responded sympathetically to the protests surrounding FTAA talks. Governor Howard Dean issued a supportive statement, and hundreds opened their homes for visiting activists.

In making his switch, Jeffords sent a message that most of his constituents embrace: The Bush administration is heading in the wrong direction on everything from energy and the environment to defense and a woman’s right to choose. After the announcement, a state poll showed that the senator’s approval rating was 25 points higher than the president’s.

Now, with the Senate under Democratic control, Vermont’s view – one actually shared by millions across the country – may at least receive a fair hearing. Leahy, a stalwart defender of civil liberties and human rights who helped lead the campaign to ban land mines, will chair the Judiciary Committee. This could derail the appointment of extremists to judgeships. Jeffords, who began introducing a national bottle deposit law immediately after his first congressional victory in 1976, will take over Environment and Public Works. This is a fellow who, more than 20 years ago, joined a Greenpeace expedition to halt the slaughter of baby seals. How do you think he’ll deal with the Bush plan to exploit the environment for short-term energy supply?

In the House, Sanders has led the fight to rein in institutions like the World Bank and IMF, and built unusual coalitions that helped stop “fast trackÓ authority and the Multilateral Agreement of Investments. His status as an independent (and self-proclaimed democratic socialist) hasn’t undermined his effectiveness or limited his appeal. In fact, like Leahy and Jeffords, he’s almost invulnerable politically.

Vermont politicians often talk about the Vermont Way, a sense that this small state is somehow different. Although the exact nature of the “way” is rarely articulated, it seems to include a mixture of tolerance, independence, and respect for the environment, among other core values. But is this really a unique agenda, or, rather, part of an emerging national consensus that has yet to be fully acknowledged? More importantly, will more politicians use the current opening to think outside the box? 

Vermont’s essential message to the nation, delivered this time by a career politician with deep roots in the Republican Party, is that conscience and principle are more important than any label. Further, when it comes to change, it’s not size that counts, but guts and timing. If that’s quirky, let’s have more of it.

Out of the Shadows

Due to recent incidents in Peru and Colombia, private military companies (PMCs) are getting some much-needed scrutiny. In February, armed employees of DynCorp., which provides security assistance and pilots to Colombia under a contract with the US State Department, flew a helicopter into a firefight to rescue police under guerrilla attack. In April, Peru shot down a plane carrying missionaries with information from a DynCorp. surveillance plane.

Such incidents make the low-intensity war unfolding in South America more difficult to ignore, and underscore the growing privatization of US foreign policy (TF, August 2000). In response, Rep. Jan Schakowsky has introduced legislation to curtail the use of PMCs as surrogates for the US military in the Andes. With the private security sector generating more than $50 billion annually worldwide, the Andes is obviously just the tip of this iceberg. But at least some questions are being asked.