NEWPORT CENTER, Vermont — There’s an important political lesson here in the soft green hills of this state.
Over centuries, Vermont has held to its traditions. Its communities govern themselves through town meetings in the slushy first week of March, when often it is treacherous to venture outside. Its governors face the voters every two years, a departure from 48 other states that have four-year terms. Its citizens revere higher education, even though the number of Vermont high school seniors is in such steep decline that only one out of five students at the state university is actually from Vermont. Its prevailing ethos, dating from Ethan Allen and his 18th-century Green Mountain Boys, is independence.
And, until recently, its inclination was a flinty conservatism, and its devout loyalty was to the Republican Party.
That’s evaporated, along with much of Vermont’s singular language and Yankee aphorisms. A Vermonter who “pestled around” was acting hastily, while someone who “trotted around all day in a bushel” spent a busy day making no progress. And around here, on Canada’s front door, where Lake Memphremagog shimmers in the sunshine of late spring, someone standing apart from the crowd was “like a blackberry in a pan of milk,” and a poor, tired hired man — an occupational category used today only when schoolchildren recite a 1914 Robert Frost poem — might be described as “looking for salt pork and sundown.”
In the first 34 presidential elections since the Republican Party’s founding, Vermont deviated from the party only in the 1964 Lyndon Johnson landslide. The state voted for the first Republican presidential candidate, John C. Fremont, in 1856, and didn’t vote for a Democratic presidential candidate, governor or member of Congress for almost a century.
Now Vermont has voted Democratic seven presidential elections in a row, its onetime governor was the Democratic presidential front-runner briefly in 2004 and later served as national party chairman, and its socialist senator is a leading presidential candidate.
Here, in a Northeast Kingdom town settled in 1781 and with a population of 1,511, an important point with vast significance for American politics is clear:
No state is in an unvarying political state.
For a time, Vermont seemed that way. “This place was 100 percent Republican for so long that the old-timers wouldn’t recognize our politics today,” said Peter Gilbert, former executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. “But we’re not all Democrats or socialists up here. Our governorship now alternates between the parties, and it tends to go to the candidate who is more likable.”
Today Vermont — which produced Republican presidents Chester Arthur and Calvin Coolidge and was, in the words of emeritus University of Vermont historian Garrison Nelson, “far and away the most successful Republican state in the country” — is a solidly Democratic state in presidential elections. But several states are in transition.
These transitions often have shaped American history. The transformation of the 11 states of the Old Confederacy from the Solid South of the Democrats to the Solid South of the Republicans eroded one party’s national base and created the base of the other. Democrat William Jennings Bryan swept the region three times, Woodrow Wilson did it twice, and Franklin Roosevelt did it four times.
But there was erosion under Harry Truman (who lost four of the states in 1948) and again under Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, and by the time John Kennedy ran in 1960, the region was increasingly competitive. The Southerner Lyndon Johnson, who signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, lost five Southern states to Barry Goldwater; and Richard Nixon, who ran a “Southern Strategy,” split the area with former Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, an independent candidate. By Ronald Reagan’s time, a new, Republican Solid South was firmly established.
Now several states are in transition. Arizona, which has voted for a Republican presidential candidate 16 of the last 17 elections, could move to the Democratic column soon. North Carolina, which has given its electoral votes to a Democrat only twice since 1968, could do the same in the near future. Texas, too.
And though Minnesota — home of Democratic presidential nominees Hubert H. Humphrey (1968) and Walter F. Mondale (1984) — is regarded as a sturdy part of the Democratic calculus, it increasingly is a serious Republican target. Even if it does not flip in 2020, Minnesota has undergone a remarkable internal transition: Onetime Republican suburbs now are congenial to the Democrats, and onetime Democratic-Farmer-Labor strongholds in the Iron Range and the rural southern part of the state increasingly are comfortably Republican.
This is not to say that regional characteristics have disappeared in contemporary America, with its ingrained geographic mobility and mass-media influence. Some qualities remain the same. Take this one, from John Gunther’s classic “Inside U.S.A.,” a 1947 bestseller: “Vermont has smooth and gentle dulcet hills — yes. But underneath is slate, marble, granite. This granite is solid in the state character. Hit a man with an ax; he will practically chip off like a block of stone.”
Gunther employed the word “man,” but the state has been a leader in electing female public officials, with a mid-20th-century organization called the OWLS (Vermont Order of Women Legislators) promoting women in politics; with the first elected female lieutenant governor in the nation, Consuelo Northrop Bailey, taking office in 1955; with Madeleine Kunin serving as governor from 1985 to 1991; and with about 40 percent of the state’s General Assembly being female.
Robert Frost, who moved to this state in 1920 “to seek a better place to farm and especially grow apples,” was peculiarly resistant to change, once noting (in a poem titled “New Hampshire”) that “Vermont mountains stretch extended straight.”
But Frost also understood change. Take his poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” written in 1923 and published in a collection awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Critics have noted the poem’s allusions to Eden and to the fall, but what applies in the political context is the immutable notion of change. “Nature’s first green is gold,” the poet said in the opening line, a reference to the color of new leaves; that tint, he explains in the second line, is the leaf’s “hardest hue to hold.” For soon the gold will turn to green because, in nature as in politics, “Nothing gold can stay.”
Some things are constants in American politics — until they aren’t anymore. That’s the lesson of Frost, and of Vermont.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.