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Henningsen: Two Elections

We’ve heard a lot about “two Americas” recently: haves versus have-nots, “makers” against “takers”, natives versus immigrants, those convinced government is evil against those believing government can help. At election time Americans otherwise comfortable with grey areas group at either end of the spectrum. If you’re not with me you’re against me, if you’re not part of my solution you’re the problem. Today’s contest reduces political discourse to an unimaginably low level, widening our divisions and elevating our fears.

Yet people who can barely be civil to each other about national politics are having cordial, thoughtful, discussions about our governor’s race. The issues are real and the candidates experienced; each can be trusted with the office. Yet their their long-term visions of Vermont’s future resemble historian Paul Searles’s “Two Vermonts”, with Sue Minter as the standardbearer of suburban-urban “Downhill” and Phil Scott carrying the flag of local, traditional, largely rural “Uphill” interests.

We’re discussing those differences thoughtfully, disagreeing with each other politely, and – every so often – changing each other’s minds. People who might like Minter’s stand on gun safety, for example, may find her position on wind power off-putting. Those attracted by Scott’s call for fiscal restraint may worry about just what he intends to rein in. Around the state, people who can barely tolerate the notion of a Clinton presidency, or a Trump one, are happily debating state politics – and listening to each other.

Is Vermont a parallel universe? Or have we held on to a face-to-face democracy embracing disagreement because, after all, we have to live together? Those people down the road whose politics you can’t stand pulled you out of the ditch last mud season and their daughter is goalie on your child’s soccer team.

Let’s be clear. Vermonters can’t afford to be smug. At the moment the lack of civil discourse on the national level seems evenly balanced by common-sense back-and-forth here at home. But that’s easily lost. Local political debates could become as debased as what passes for discourse nationally. But it’s also not hard to imagine that the day-to-day practice of democracy by an engaged citizenry here might, in the long run, spread to revive and revitalize a sadly dispirited nation.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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