Freeway Vermont, Two-Lane Vermont

Something struck me in last night’s election returns. Specifically, the two-seat switch from R to D in the state senate, the Republicans losing their last remaining seats in Chittenden and Washington Counties.

Those two seats had been held for years by moderate Republicans Diane Snelling and Bill Doyle. In the absence of those popular stalwarts, it’s hard to see the R’s being competitive in Chittenden or Washington anytime soon. Meanwhile, the VTGOP strengthened its grip in Franklin and Rutland Counties, which used to be prime D/R battlegrounds.

I see a clear political topography emerging. There’s Freeway Vermont, which stretches along I-89 from northern Chittenden County to White River Junction, and along I-91 from Thetford or thereabouts all the way to the Massachusetts border. That’s solid Democratic territory, with Republicans struggling to even recruit candidates, let alone win.

Then there’s Two-Lane Vermont, the back roads and small towns plus a few cities that have been, to a large extent, left behind by the tide of progress. Rutland is the prime example. I include St. Johnsbury, St. Albans, and Barre in that number.

This isn’t 100 percent applicable. Saints J and A are located near freeways, but they still have the air of Left Behindedness. They are the urban outposts of Two-Lane Vermont. The Mad River Valley is on a two-lane highway, but has more in common culturally with Burlington or Montpelier than with other rural areas.

This is not purely a liberal/conservative breakdown. A lot of Two-Laners are hostile to government and taxation and protective of their gun rights. But some are old-line Vermont liberals and aging hippies motivated by a love for the Vermont they know and opposition to anything that might threaten it, whether that be a Dollar General store, a cellphone tower, a growing opioid crisis, or a renewable energy installation. Or mandatory vaccines, for that matter.

You find a lot of these folks in the Route 14 corridor from East Montpelier to Hardwick and meandering up to Craftsbury. Bennington is another redoubt, reliably sending Democrats to the Legislature but voting down fluoridation of the water supply and dubious about wind and solar siting.

Freeway Vermont is on the move. Its population is growing (some faster than others), its economies diversifying, entrepreneurialism thriving, startups growing into established employers (and some, eventually, getting sold to out-of-state corporations).

The prime exemplar of Freeway Vermont at work: the “Yes” votes on the redevelopment of the Burlington Town Mall. The majority of Burlingtonians embraced the project, whatever changes it might mean for the ambience of downtown. (Mayor Miro Weinberger was one of Tuesday night’s big winners, although his name was not on the ballot.)

Two-Lane Vermont is stuck in time, its residents fearful of what they are losing. Opportunities are lacking, incomes are stagnant; the kids move away after graduating, the schools are threatened by declining enrollment and Act 46, even its general stores and post offices are endangered species.

You might say that Two-Lane Vermont is home for a new version of “Take Back Vermont.” But this time it’s not about civil unions; it’s a broader existential fear of change and the looming presence of the unfamiliar.

In his unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign, Matt Dunne sought to bridge the gap between the two Vermonts. He may have lost the primary, but his ideas are worth considering as the Democratic Party ponders its post-Shumlin future. They need to find ways to broaden their appeal outside of Freeway Vermont and bring our two cultures closer together.

These are broad themes I’m outlining. I realize there are exceptions to everything I say. I just find it a valuable way of thinking about the cultural and political landscape of Vermont, which are more complicated than they appear.


8 thoughts on “Freeway Vermont, Two-Lane Vermont

  1. Robert Maynard

    Hi John,

    Have you considered the possibility of a coming political shift where “Freeway Vermont” embraces libertarianism? In an Information Age, the speed at which voluntary associations can opperate may make government bureaucracy obsolete. With Trump in the WH, younger progressives may rethink their commitment to bigger government. I heard of a poll the other day showing Democrats as more in favor of free trade that Republicans. The future most likely does not belong to Trump’s European brand of conservatism, but I do not think it wll favor a big government apporach either.

    BTW, I consider Trumpism another brand of big government politics.

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      I think there’s a relatively small number of young people who will go libertarian. They run up against the limitations of “voluntary associations” and the free market in terms of secondary education opportunity and cost, and housing availability, plus they tend to have a strong interest in good schools because many of them are starting families.

      And just wait till Trump repeals Obamacare and all those under-25s get booted off their parents’ health insurance.

      1. Troy N.

        Nope, he ain’t doing that. Neither are they removing the pre-existing conditions bit. But Obamacare and Obama’s legacy is toast.

  2. walter carpenter

    “And just wait till Trump repeals Obamacare and all those under-25s get booted off their parents’ health insurance.”

    As well as those that will get booted off of medicaid and then confront the costs of libertarian private health insurance. I doubt very few of them when they experience this will go to the libertarian side

  3. walter carpenter

    I do think you’re right, though, about the two Vermonters. There might even be three: Bernie Sanders Vermont, tourist/Normal Rockwell, Vermont, and backroad Vermont still stuck in time. One thing that Sue Minter mentioned was that during her campaigning she was struck by the amount of poverty she saw in some of these backroad communities.

  4. Troy N.

    You think White River Junction, Springfield or any part of Windsor County (minus Norwich which feeds off the Dartmouth College enterprise right across the river) is “on the move” with diversifying economies, thriving entrepreneurialism, startups growing into established employers? Or for that matter Windham county? Have you ever even visited that part of the state??

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      WRJ and the surrounding area definitely is. As for the rest of your question, did I ever claim that all parts of Freeway Vermont are thriving? I don’t think I did. But there’s a common cultural thread born of easy transportation and connection to the outside world. The continuing struggles of places like Windsor and Springfield and Bellows Falls don’t prevent them from voting reliably Democratic.

      Also, if you poke hard enough at any overarching theory, you’ll find some holes. I admitted as such in my post.


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