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Clash Consciousness: Have Progressives lost touch with their blue-collar constituents? 

While Burlington's Progressive Party alienates working-class constituents on social issues, Bernie Sanders remains skillful at bridging class and cultural divides.

Even before the votes are counted in Burlington’s Town Meeting, it’s clear the Progressives have been lucky on two big counts: this is not a mayoral election year, and the Progs’ hold on the City Council is being challenged by a pair of political weaklings.

Had fortune been less friendly, the Progressives could well be facing an electoral disaster on March 7 similar to what happened to them in 1993 — and for strikingly similar reasons.

Seven years ago, a decisive segment of Peter Clavelle’s working-class base was cleaved away as a result of his move to permit city employees to sign up their domestic partners for taxpayer-funded health insurance coverage. Clavelle lost that election primarily by alienating older and non-college-educated constituents. Those are the swing voters who usually side with the Progs on economic class issues but bolt when elections pivot on the cultural causes championed by ‘60s-style leftists.

The same split is again evident. This time, the breaking point is the downtown supermarket controversy that pitted the Onion River Co-op, backed by Progressive councilors, against the Shaw’s chain — the choice of a big portion of the Progs’ low-income constituency. Some Old North End residents who usually vote Progressive are clearly set to oppose the party’s City Council candidates next Tuesday in order to send a message.

The warning could prove thunderous indeed if culturally conservative working-class voters also choose to use Town Meeting as an occasion to protest the Progressives’ endorsement of same-sex marriage. Technically, that’s not a local issue, but people make decisions in the privacy of the voting booth for all sorts of reasons.

But even if the Progressives’ Old North End base should be shaken by a cultural counterrevolution next week, it’s still unlikely that the entire edifice will come tumbling down. Phil Fiermonte and Bill Stahl, the Progs’ candidates in Wards 2 and 3, are blessed with opponents so burdened with personal baggage that they’ll probably be unable to sweep to victory on a wave of blue-collar resentment.

Fiermonte is taking no chances, however. He’s emphasizing the party’s traditional class agenda, along with his own ties to Bernie Sanders, as he campaigns door-to-door for the seat currently occupied by the Progressive who’s leaving office. “After six and a half years [as a congressional staffer] with Bernie,” Fiermonte says, “I’ve learned the importance of putting economic concerns front and center. When I tell people I’m fighting for a livable wage and more affordable housing, they’re really on my side.”

Fiermonte says he’s willing to give the co-op a chance to make good on its promise to function as a more mainstream grocery store. But he says he understands some local residents’ resistance to the co-op’s sometimes higher prices and comparatively limited selection. “It’s not a very welcoming place,” Fiermonte suggests. He’s heard from plenty of Old North Enders who fear the downtown co-op is going to be a yuppie health food store.

“There’s a lesson here that Progressives should have learned from Bernie,” he adds, noting many of the voters angered with the Progs over the co-op issue tell him that “Bernie is different.” They see the congressman as a fighter for pocketbook issues who doesn’t challenge their social or cultural views, Fiermonte observes.

Sanders didn’t win four terms as Burlington mayor and another five as a U.S. Congressman by alienating his core supporters. In fact, his political instincts lead him to lie low on questions like the co-op, which are well outside his bailiwick, anyway.

Sanders is no crusader for same-sex marriage rights, either, or other causes that some Progs take up even though a large section of the party’s grassroots feels quite differently about them. You don’t hear him opposing state lotteries, for example, or advocating stricter gun controls.

Bernie’s own political coming of age also predates the social upheavals of the ‘60s. Ideologically and personality-wise, he has little in common with that era’s New-Left, gender-bending longhairs.

Despite his outspoken approach, Sanders is skillful enough as a politician to know when to shut up and listen to what voters are telling him. That’s a trait the Progs were lacking in 1993, says Republican City Chairman Kurt Wright¸ and which some of them are lacking again.

Wright, himself a blue-collar politician, thinks many of the Progressives’ traditional supporters in the Old North End see the co-op as “a store with an attitude.” But more disturbing to these voters, Wright adds, is that “they feel the Progressives simply haven’t listened to their concerns.”

The Progs may be listening more closely as the election nears, but some of them are still intent on explaining their reasons for backing the co-op.

“Political leadership is not just about testing the winds,” says Clavelle. “It’s sometimes about taking positions that are not immediately shared by many of the voters.” The mayor applies that standard both to the current co-op debate and to his own stand in 1993 in favor of domestic partnership rights.

Clavelle believes much of the opposition to the co-op has been manipulated by Shaw’s, which, he says, has spread misinformation about its own proposal and the Onion River alternative. In Clavelle’s view, the co-op is undoubtedly the right choice for a downtown market. And he says many Shaw’s backers can be brought around to that view if the details of the two plans are clearly explained to them.

Clavelle also acknowledges a degree of irony in the way domestic partnership has become a middle-ground position in the debate over definitions of marriage. “It’s interesting how much things have changed in the relatively brief space of seven years,” he comments, resisting a temptation to gloat.

The Progressives are once again out in front on this sexual politics controversy. One of their State Representatives, Steve Hingtgen, has played a highly visible role on the side of same-sex marriage, likening its opponents to the past defenders of South Africa’s apartheid system.

Progressive campaigners in Burlington say, however, that they’re not detecting any looming revolt among their constituents on this issue. “It slices in many different ways,” says Progressive City Councilor Tom Smith. “There’s a very strong libertarian view in the Old North End, and you can’t say there’s a uniform Catholic view on this, either.”

The extent of voter disaffection from the Progressives on cultural questions will be known in a few days. What’s already apparent, however — and will remain so far into the future — is that the Progressive Party is a coalition, just like the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. Office-holders and –seekers in all three camps must learn to balance competing interests and to maximize commonalities with their constituents, even as they take care to appear unprincipled or opportunistic.

The Democrats lost their balance in the ‘60s after having virtually monopolized American politics for most of the preceding three decades. Civil rights, the Vietnam War, the women’s movement, gay liberation — all these “wedge issues” split the Democratic New Deal constituency along racial, gender and cultural lines. And there was little the Democrats could do about it, since there was no way to duck those issues.

The Progressives are experiencing the same dynamics today. The difficulty of bridging class and cultural divides will remain a problem for almost all of them — except Bernie Sanders.

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About The Author

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley is a contributing writer for Seven Days, Vermont Business Magazine and the daily Nation of Kenya.


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