President Bush’s 2,920 days in office are mercifully drawing to a close. During Dubya’s two terms he has visited every state in the Union but one. That lonely outcast is Vermont, the small wedge-shaped and land-locked New England hideaway home to the most cows per capita of any state. The President’s no fool. He knows that visiting such a staunchly progressive bastion would be an unwise moo-ve.
It wasn’t always so. The Green Mountain State, an independent republic for fourteen years before being admitted as the 14th state in 1791, was once resolutely conservative. It was one of only two states—Maine being the other—to vote against FDR in his historic landslide of 1936. The balance of power in the state for decades favored Protestant Republicans, who outnumbered French Canadian and Irish Catholic Democrats. Things began to change in 1963, a date which will live in bovine infamy, in Vermont at least. That year the number of residents in the state finally surpassed that of cows. Call it a coincidence, but the demographic shift away from heifer hegemony coincided with a change in the state’s politics. Vermont became increasingly liberal.
Actually, it was no coincidence. The influx of “flatlanders,” or urban refugees like Ben Cohen, the Brooklyn-born founder of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream and another Brooklyn native, Bernie Sanders, the state’s Junior Senator and only avowed socialist in Congress, transformed Vermont. Thus, it went from being a conservative redoubt into perhaps the most liberal state in the country, much to the consternation of some died-in-the-wool Vermont Republicans whose mantra, “Take Back Vermont,” gave vent to their desire to wrest control of their state from foreign interlopers besotted with notions of the pastoral country life.
To date, theirs has been a losing battle. Civil unions and medical marijuana are permitted in Vermont but billboards and rooftop air conditioning units are not. Spending for public education funding is, with spotty success, equalized through the tax code and a state trust buys development rights to farmland to preserve family farms. New housing starts face tough environmental criteria—for years there were no Wal-Marts in the state, though today there are four—as do automobiles, which are taxed if they don’t get at least 20 miles per gallon. The progressive bent is mirrored in electoral politics.
This most homogenous state in the country (96.2 percent white) voted overwhelmingly for Obama. Only Hawaii, the candidate’s birth state, and Washington, DC, which is heavily black, gave him a larger margin of victory. Vermont was one of two states where President Bush’s percentage of the vote decreased between 2000 and 2004. Local conservatives fare no better. The State Senate and House are Democratic-controlled, the two senators and one at-large house member are Democratic, and its Republican governor is to the left of most national Democrats.
Given the dominance of unabashed liberalism in this green nook in the northeast it’s perhaps no surprise that President Bush has not made time for a visit. Still, Vermonter’s are a polite breed, hospitable to a fault. They’re not apt to cause a stir by giving the nation’s highest elected official a rude welcome. Creating such hullabaloo is not in keeping with the understated New England Presbyterianism that still predominates. A tee shirt sold in one of Vermont’s many country stores says it best. “What happens in Vermont stays in Vermont,” its heading reads. And just below, “But nothing ever really happens here.”