MARLBORO—“It’s a larger crowd than usual,” remarked Woody Bernhard as he surveyed the 20 audience members gathered in the Community Center.
The main attraction at the Oct. 28 “Let’s Talk About our Democracy” meetup was the visit by county chairs of four major parties represented in the Vermont public sphere: Spoon Agave (Progressive), Aaron Diamondstone (Liberty Union), John Hagen (Democratic), and Rick Morton (Republican).
Hagen said that such gatherings allow people to see the thinking, feeling humans behind the party name.
In an age where conversations about policy consist of hurling opinions on social media and then retreating to comfortable political feedback loops, the meeting felt like an oddity. Here were four county party chairs, each respectively sharing information — for the sake of a healthy democracy — about their party’s platform, and what policies they’d like the state to enact.
Marlboro Town Moderator Steven John had to step in only a couple of times to return the meeting to order from a conversation whose heat in both incidences stemmed from the Trump administration and national Republican Party.
The speakers drew pens to decide the order they’d speak: Hagen, Morton, Agave. Later, Diamondstone joined the conversation.
Democrats: workers and health care two priorities
Hagen grew up in the Burlington area. He and his wife, Rebecca Hagen, moved to southern Vermont in 2014 after his two decades on active duty with the Air Force. He still teaches national security policy at several colleges.
“Vermonters tend to be eyeballs on the target,” Hagen said, observing that they appreciate and expect to have direct contact with their elected officials and see them as individuals. In other parts of the country, voters tend to have a deeper affiliation to a political party.
Hagen outlined for the audience the Windham County Democrats’ 2020 goals, which the committee members approved at their October meeting.
The party leaders are looking get out the Democratic vote in 2020, host events that connect candidates and sitting lawmakers to county voters, identify local issues to bring to the attention of lawmakers and the Democratic State Platform Committee, and identify and mentor potential leaders in the party as they cultivate a diversity of perspectives.
“By the way, when I was looking at the our party platform and the Republican Party platform online, there wasn’t a whole lot of difference in the big issues,” Hagen said.
Despite political and ideological differences, “We all want safe and secure communities, we all want strong economic development, we all want good schools. There is that same desire to have strong healthy communities and individuals can feel empowered and take advantage of opportunities.”
For the upcoming legislative session in January, the Democrats want to focus on those policies that empower workers and support dignified work, he noted.
Access to medical care “is a public good,” Hagen said. Slowing and reversing the effects of climate change is also important to the Democrats.
He said the state’s efforts to create a culture of fair and impartial policing is also on the Democrats’ watch list — “So all are treated the same under the law.”
Republicans: ‘candidates run their own race’
Rick Morton, explaining that the Republican Party brings together a lot of different viewpoints under one banner, said the Vermont GOP’s 2020 platform reflects many of the platform issues from 2018.
“It’s a two-pager covering a lot of the high points and not a lot of super wonky detail,” he said.
The big-picture issues on the party’s platform include fiscal responsibility, protecting Second Amendment rights, and “a pro-life position,” he said.
Morton stressed that the National Republican Party, the state party, and candidates running with an “R” next to their names are separate entities.
Voters and donors can support one candidate without supporting another, he said. So if voters don’t like a particular candidate, they can still support the state or national platform.
Money is kept separate between the three groups, he said.
“Candidates run their own race,” Morton said. He added that candidates shouldn’t expect automatic endorsement from the GOP.
“[Candidates] will emphasize and de-emphasize various aspects of the platform that really resonate with them,” he said. “That’s their prerogative.”
“They may even in their own way have a different point of view than the state party,” he continued. The state party members must then decide to what degree they will align themselves with the candidate.
Morton said he joined the Republican Party because its platform aligned the most with his points of view, specifically its opposition to abortion.
“I am unabashedly of that viewpoint,” he said. “I realize in this state — and especially in this state — there will be contrasting points of view about that, but that’s where my conscience is, that’s where my convictions are, that’s where my background is, [and] that’s where my faith leads me, so that’s where I stand.”
“But there are other people in the Republican Party who don’t have as strong a connection to that issue and they’re going to be brought together in the same room for different issues, and that’s OK,” Morton said.
Progressives: a ‘high political bar’
Spoon Agave said that, while many people in Windham County might hold small-P progressive views and beliefs, not all will put the official Progressive Party “P” by their names — especially candidates.
“Essentially, the Progressive Party maintains the high political bar,” Agave said.
He read from the party’s statement of principles, which focus on the party’s goals, including promoting economic, environmental, and social justice. The party also seeks to protect “minority rights and individual rights and opportunities.”
All Progressives must hold these values as “fundamental beliefs,” said Agave. “Every human being is equal.”
“The Democrats often characterize their party as having a big tent,” he continued. “The Progressives’ tent is open to everybody, but you’re not welcome if you can’t appreciate and subscribe to these very fundamental principles.”
Agave noted some of the differences between the Progressive Party and the other parties. First and foremost is taking corporate money to run a campaign.
“No candidate that wants to put a ‘P’ first after their name can take any corporate money for any race,” he said. “No amount, zero.”
The party is small, he said, with seven members in the House, three in the Senate, and two statewide officeholders. He expects more young people will join the party because they’re realizing that the older generations haven’t left them much of a future.
In Montpelier, minimum wage, paid family leave, and universal health care were big issues for the Progressive Party, he said.
Another big emerging issue, according to Agave, is a bill to create a local self governance pilot program. This program would give 10 towns — to be determined by a committee created by the legislation — the opportunity to experiment and test authority traditionally held by the state, such as changing speeding limits or creating new revenue streams.
“That is a piece of legislation which I think is perhaps the most radical piece of legislation that has been put in front of the Legislature in more years than I’ve been in Vermont — it shifts power from the state to the towns, and that goes back to the core of all of Vermont’s political tradition,” he said.
“It’s going to bring into the question ‘Why is the political system [in Vermont] set up the way it is now?’ in which the state has all the power and gives to the town only that which it wishes,” Agave said. “As opposed to most [other] states in the Union, in which the people, the towns, have all the power and they choose what power the state has.”
One of the reasons he believes that the Legislature needs to relinquish more of its control to the towns is because it can’t keep pace with the number of bills that pass through the various committees.
Every session, the Legislature, which is in session for five to six months per year, receives more bills than it can deal with in a single session, Agave said, and that means that more needs from municipalities are going unmet.
He invited people to the Progressive Party’s next meeting on Nov. 17.
Liberty Union: an alternative to capitalism
Aaron Diamondstone spoke on behalf of the state’s Liberty Union Party. His father, the late Peter Diamondstone, co-founded the democratic socialist party in 1970.
“My personal belief — and I think most of the people in Liberty Union feel the same way — is that the capitalist system is leading us down a road to destruction,” he said.
In his opinion, capitalism’s emphasis on growth, whether that is increasing the gross domestic product or building population centers, depletes resources.
Yet, he added, many people on this planet are already not getting their needs met. Increasing the population of humans to keep up with capitalism’s need for growth will only make matters worse, he said.
“I’ve lived with a different political perspective than most people have,” said Diamondstone, noting that his own personal philosophy is still evolving.
“Currently, I’m leaning towards a definition of ideal communism, where everybody’s time is valued equally and everybody’s working toward the common good,” he said. “I believe that’s the only way the human race is going to survive.”
“As we’re all snowflakes, we’re not all the same, we’re all human beings, we all have a different shape, and the Liberty Union is different shape from the other three capitalist parties [Democrat, Progressive, Republican],” he said.
Diamondstone said he believes part of the Liberty Union’s role is “waking people up to other perspectives.”
For people to survive on this planet, he continued, “We have to treat each other better.”
The audience followed up with a few questions.
Bernhard said he didn’t believe in party politics and asked why the country couldn’t do away with the party system completely.
Hagen drew on his experience working on conflict resolution for the United Nations in Kirkuk, Iraq.
In his experience, without some kind of a party system, communities became detached from the national political process.
State statute outlines how political parties are expected to organize starting with town caucuses, then county committees, and finally forming a state committee. Political parties allow citizens to move issues to a higher level and turn those issues into policies, Hagen said.
Morton said that even if the current parties were disbanded, people would naturally create new ones.
Agave noted that the country’s founders disapproved of political parties. In his opinion, instituting ranked voting would allow more political parties — and therefore more political viewpoints — to exist.
Ranked voting — sometimes called preferential voting — is a system where voters indicate their preferred candidates by first, second, and third choice. A losing candidate’s votes would then be reassigned to the voter’s next choice, allowing people to vote affirmatively for candidates instead of strategically against their opponents.
Maine has recently instituted such a system.
Diamondstone, claiming that the Democrats and Republicans are basically the same party, said that the more points of view at the table, the better.
As one of the meeting participants, Jean Gordon, left the Meeting House, she noted how important the group discussions were to her.
The group’s conversations provided space to discuss the issues facing the country’s democracy and also connect those issues back to her local community, she said.
The group allows people to express their views without criticism, she said — and, as a result, attendees experienced their democracy rather than political views.
Let’s Talk About our Democracy meets on the last Monday of every month, bringing interested people from Marlboro and beyond together to discuss civics and issues facing democracy.
The group is the brainchild of Bernhard, a Marlboro resident who organizes the gatherings.
“I think it’s really important to talk about our democracy in these times,” he said.