Vermont has two electoral systems. The traditional one we all know and a shadow cabinet of older men who, over the years, have provided many great services to Vermont, but who also have definite ideas about who should lead the State. These men vet and bless candidates of their choosing and will, as often, see to the funding and scripting of their campaigns. This is not unique to Vermont or even to States.
This plutocratic Star Chamber approach to candidate selection and marketing has long been a part of our democracy, especially where a weakened press corps and a disengaged electorate don’t question and challenge candidates on their positions and proposed solutions. The chosen candidate is easy to market to an electorate fearful and confused about the many economic and social ills facing them. He’s marketed less as a leader and source of ideas, and more as a defense against voter’s inchoate fears of tax increases, expanded government, runaway costs, crazed legislators, liberal courts, trust funders, and immigrants or whatever the fear of the day happens to be.
There are several problems with shadow campaigns. One is that the candidates knighted by the Star Chamber seem to be mostly men. Two is that in order for the elders to maintain control over their candidate they must choose someone tractable who returns their calls, feels beholden and, by definition, is not a leader himself. It doesn’t do for the candidate to be full of ideas about how to initiate change or solve problems. That’s not his role. His appeal is to be a defense in a fatherly sort of way. But he must, above all, stay on the leash and be responsive to his patrons. To voters, he must sell himself as a backstop against an onslaught of new, bad things. Unfortunately, this usually includes diverse opinions, debate, compromise, testing creative solutions and risk. It is a defensive governing strategy and sells well to an electorate buffeted by fear and doubt.
Here in Vermont, our fears are probably worse than the dangers that actually beset us. If I lived in Florida, Michigan or California now, I’d be scared witless. As the larger states are whipped about on the roller coaster of massive economic fluctuations, corruption and budget and revenue imbalances, we in Vermont bounce along our roads full of familiar potholes and washboards and somehow muddle through, managing to stay at or near the top in many of the metrics that define wellbeing, if not always wealth. We have major challenges but they’re not going to be solved by continued years of defensive governing.
Vermont needs leadership now more than ever. Our challenges will only be met by experienced men and women leaders willing to attract, entertain, assess and deploy new ideas. Another guardian government will not take us anywhere. This time around, we Vermonters need to elect our own leader.