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Is Vermont a Model for Anything?

Sean McElwee

My newest article at The Atlantic examines Vermont’s push for universal healthcare. Rather than reform the individual market and leave the employer-based healthcare system largely intact, Vermont is working towards a Medicare-for-all system. All Vermont citizens will be enrolled in Green Mountain Healthcare. Vermont is also one of two states that have already developed a Genuine Progress Indicator. It is working towards green energy and it has an ambitious healthcare plan.

Vermont’s enigmatic political preferences have baffled political scientists for decades. The state voted Republican in every presidential election for over 100 years, the longest streak in history (1854 to 1963), and had no Democratic governors from 1854 to 1963. The state voted for Reagan twice and then elected a Democratic-Socialist, Bernie Sanders to Senate. After Obama’s home state of Hawaii, no state voted for Obama in a larger margin. Vermont is rural and white, normally a Republican and its next-door neighbor, New Hampshire, is a bastion of libertarian politics.

Former John G. McCullough Professor of Political Science at the University of Vermont (UVM) Dr. Frank Bryan told me that geography played a key role. New Hampshire’s outlet to the sea allowed for industrialization, while Vermont’s mountainous terrain kept the population sparse and rural, as well as preventing the development of big cities like Concord and Manchester. Soil, strangely enough, may have played a role as well. “Soil in Vermont, because of the glacier has an alkaline base to it, while soil in New Hampshire has an acidic base,” he explained, “that means farmers in Vermont can grow clover and grasses very well, in much of New Hampshire you can’t, the soil is too acidic. So Vermont was perfect for the small farm, and it’s that small farm culture that New Hampshire never had.”

Dr. Arthur Woolf, an associate professor of economics at the University of Vermont, tells me that now the state, “is very much like a Social Democratic Western European country,” both economically (because of its equality and prosperity) and demographically (because of its homogeneous population). It’s small size makes more direct democracy viable.

Vermont’s small size and direct democracy make it the perfect state for bold experiments. The government can discuss policies with stakeholders and the homogenous population creates a shared solidarity. People are willing to weather the inevitable uprooting that comes with change. If the experiment works, other states will certainly be interested in replicating the system.