The Secessionist Campaign for the Republic of Vermont
By Christopher Ketcham / Montpelier
January 31, 2010 "Time" -- The President on Wednesday may have reassured Americans that the state of the Union is "strong," but, just the week before, a group of Vermont secessionists declared their intention to seek political power in a quest to get their state to quit the Union altogether. On Jan. 15, in the state capital of Montpelier, nine candidates for statewide office gathered in a tiny room at the Capitol Plaza Hotel, to announce they wanted a divorce from the United States of America. "For the first time in over 150 years, secession and political independence from the U.S. will be front and center in a statewide New England political campaign," said Thomas Naylor, 73, one of the leaders of the campaign.
A former Duke University economics professor, Naylor heads up the Second Vermont Republic, which he describes as "left-libertarian, anti-big government, anti-empire, antiwar, with small is beautiful as our guiding philosophy." The group not only advocates the peaceful secession of Vermont but has minted its own silver "token" — valued at $25 — and, as part of a publishing venture with another secessionist group, runs a monthly newspaper called Vermont Commons, with a circulation of 10,000. According to a 2007 poll, they have support from at least 13% of state voters. The campaign slogan, Naylor told me, is "Imagine Free Vermont." In his fondest imaginings, Naylor said, Vermonters would not be "forced to participate in killing women and children in the Middle East." (See how the Beans of Egypt, Maine sprouted a militia.)
Second Vermont Republic's gubernatorial candidate is Dennis Steele, 42, a hulking Carhartt-clad fifth generation Vermonter and entrepreneur. He owns Radio Free Vermont, an Internet radio station, and honchos an online venture called ChessManiac.com. Steele says that, if elected, his first act in office would be to bring home Vermont's National Guard from overseas deployments. "I see my kids going off to fight in wars for empire 10, 15, 20 years from now," said Steele, who served three years in the U.S. Army. "People in Vermont in general are very antiwar, and all their faith was in Obama to end the wars. I ask people, 'Did you get the change you wanted?' They can't even look you in the eyes. We live in a nation that is asleep at the wheel and where the hearts are growing cold like ice." (See Michael Grunwald's opinion of Vermont and its politics.)
Steele and the secessionists have nothing but contempt for Vermont Senators Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy, who are otherwise considered among the most liberal members of Congress. "They've done nothing to stop the wars," says Steele flatly. Thomas Naylor was more pointed: "Every time a Vermonter serving in the National Guard gets deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, likely to be hurt or killed, Bernie and Patrick are there to commemorate the departure and have pictures taken."
With 20 or so mostly middle-aged attendees looking on, the candidates each stood at the podium to deliver a remarkably unified message: The U.S. government, they said, was an immoral enterprise — engaged in imperial wars, propping up corrupt bankers and supersized corporations, crushing small businessmen, plundering the tax-base for corporate welfare, snooping on the private lives of citizens — and they wanted no more part of it. "The gods of the empire," Steele told the room, "are not the gods of Vermont."
"It's an abusive relationship we have with the central government," says Peter Garritano, a square-jawed 54-year-old Subaru sales manager who is running for lieutenant governor. "We know it's scary to leave the abusive nest. It's a comfort zone in its own way. But we think we'll do better leaving."
An independent Vermont, the group believes, would expolit its already highly developed local small-scale agriculture, its "locavore" farm exchanges, with a tax structure reformed to incentivize small business and industry (and to make life difficult for large out-of-state corporations). By 2020, they foresee Vermont producing at least 75% of its own electricity and heat, using wind-, solar-, biomass- and hydro-power. They want to establish a Bank of Vermont owned by the people of Vermont — freed from the arbitrary controls of central bankers — as well as a local alternative currency, with Vermont pension and operating funds invested not in Wall Street but in locally owned financial institutions. "We favor devolution of political power from the state back to local communities, making the governing structure for towns, schools, hospitals and social services much like that of small, decentralized states like Switzerland," declares the group's "21st Century Statement of Principles."
Seven secessionist candidates declared for seats in the state senate. Among them is Robert Wagner, 46, an economist who is also a computing consultant with Oracle Inc. Wagner, who homesteads with his wife and six-year-old son in the Green Mountains, says that current U.S. law enables multinational corporations to abuse Vermont as a "resource colony." Citing a 2008 study by the University of Vermont, Wagner says the state stands to gain over $1 billion a year in revenue by taxing equitably the corporate behemoths that exploit Vermont's "commons," which includes everything from the state's groundwater, surface water, wildlife and forests, to the public spectrum of the airwaves. According to the UVM study, for example, Coca-Cola, Nestle and Perrier and other refreshment manufacturers avoid $671 million in taxes for the environmental damage incurred by their siphoning of state groundwater.
But what about that comfort zone of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps, plus the infrastructure currently funded by the federal government, including bridges, roads and particularly the interstate highways? One analysis by a researcher at the University of Vermont found that the state only gets 75 cents back for every dollar it hands over to the federal center. The secessionists say they'd prefer to save their money and keep it at home. "Not only would an independent Vermont survive," says Naylor, "It would thrive, because it would free up entrepreneurial forces heretofore held in abeyance. We're not preaching economic isolationism. We want to confront the empire, and that doesn't mean just owning a Prius and keeping a root garden."