Where the hippies won
How long-haired ‘flatlanders’ changed Vermont
By Rick Holmes
June 16, 2017
Montpelier, Vt. – Vermont and New Hampshire share the same page of most road atlases: a rough rectangle between Massachusetts and Canada, split diagonally by the Connecticut River. They are so similar in size and shape, I can understand why people outside New England might have trouble telling them apart.
They share similar demographic profiles – mostly white with French Canadian seasoning and a few recent arrivals from all over. The landscape is similar, with the White Mountains covering most of New Hampshire while the Green Mountains make up the spine of Vermont.
But different they are, especially when it comes to politics. Their border makes Vermont wider at the top and New Hampshire wider at the bottom. The river is not that wide – lots of bridges cross it– but the cultural gulf is huge.
“New Hampshire is upside-down” is how former Vermont Gov Jim Douglas describes the difference between the two states. Other Vermonters contend that their soil is sweeter than New Hampshire’s and their water makes better beer. Writer and radio commentator Willem Lange contends New Hampshire people have less sense of humor, but he’s from Vermont.
For most of its history, Vermont was more Republican than New Hampshire. Through 1988, Vermont voted for the Republican candidate for president in every election but one (1964).
Vermont elected its first Democrat governor in 1962. It didn’t send a Democrat to the U.S. Senate until 1975.
For decades, Vermont politics was dominated by George Aiken, who served four years as governor and 34 years in the U.S. Senate. He was the model of the Yankee Republican, conservative but not crazy. Vermont is a good place to find traditional conservative virtues: moderation in tone, skepticism about new ideas, a preference for letting other people do what they want, whether you like them or not.
Vermont is small – the 49th least populous state, just ahead of Wyoming – and rural. Its largest city, Burlington, has fewer than 45,000 people. Montpelier, with less than 8,000, is the nation’s smallest state capital. Vermont has a lot of farmers, a lot of poverty, a severe opioid problem, and a lot of guns. In some ways it looks like Trump Country.
But it isn’t. Hillary Clinton won Vermont last fall by 29 points. Vermont’s culture and politics feel more like coastal Oregon than New Hampshire.
Vermont’s transformation started with that great disrupter, the Interstate Highway System. Interstates 91 and 89 made weekends in Vermont possible for people in New York and Boston. Skiing and autumn leaf-peeking boomed, replacing lost jobs in agriculture and manufacturing, and its population grew.
Then came Woodstock, the 1969 rock concert that inspired a generation of footloose hippies to go back to the land. Vermont was, for awhile, a prime destination for urban youth with dreams of communal farming. It attracted people like Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, who combined Vermont milk, hippie sensibilities and left-wing politics into an ice cream phenomenon. Young Bernie Sanders moved from Brooklyn to Burlington, where he did odd jobs and preached revolution.
Popular culture moved on, but Vermont’s hippies stayed. They took root and multiplied, giving their children unusual names and letting them grow their hair real long. They rode bikes and drove Subarus and grew more zucchinis than anyone could consume. They flew rainbow flags, talked a lot about sustainability and voted for the most liberal candidate on the ballot.
Gradually, Vermont’s politics shifted to the left. It elected its first Democratic governor in 1962, and its first Democratic senator in 1974, when liberal Patrick Leahy replaced Aiken. Sanders won a close election for mayor of Burlington by just 10 votes in 1981, running as an independent socialist. He never went mainstream, but Vermont’s mainstream came to him, electing him to the U.S. House, then the Senate.
The backlash came in 2000, when signs reading “Take Back Vermont” sprouted up on barns and roadsides across the state. Upset by a move by the state legislature to legalize same-sex civil unions, conservatives mounted an effort to evict the “flatlanders” from power. But they were too late. Their main target, progressive Gov. Howard Dean, won re-election handily. Civil unions survived and, over time, the Legislature has grown even more progressive.
“The hippies won,” says John Gregg, a Vermont journalist whose office is a short walk from the Connecticut River. In a small enough place, the influx of new citizens, even in modest numbers, can change a state’s political trajectory.
Back in the ‘70s there was a lot of talk about how the hippies – the serious thinkers called it the counterculture – were going to change the world. For the most part they didn’t.
But they changed Vermont.