By Brett Yates
The weird, inclusive Vermont gubernatorial debate held on Oct. 9 has managed—at a time when political debates tend to be dispiriting and unpopular—to become something of a national phenomenon. The complete broadcast is available on YouTube.
Reddit was responsible for drumming up some of the initial fascination when a user who had actually attended the debate posted an image of the seven candidates, and only three of them were short-haired white men wearing suits—how zany! Since then, the event has drawn comment from sources as diverse and unlikely as Time Magazine, Buzzfeed, the Washington Post, and Jimmy Fallon. Who knew that democracy could be so exciting in northern New England?
Some of the attention, it must be said, has come about for what serious people might call “the wrong reasons.” For example, the candidates were sporting some noteworthy attire: one came dressed (you might say) as Cruella Deville, another as Yosemite Sam. One guy was wearing jean shorts and suspenders.
The personalities diverged from mainstream expectations no less dramatically than the clothing. The first sentence spoken by any of the candidates was “I am a revolutionary non-violent socialist, and I’m a secessionist.” These words came from by Peter Diamondstone of the Liberty Union Party, who, two months away from his 80th birthday, was the star of the night. In his introduction, Diamondstone—one of those bearded New York-born intellectuals who moved to Vermont so that they’d be able to quote Marx in peace—confessed that “most of what we have to discuss tonight will not be relevant for me, because most of what I will be talking about will be how we overturn what’s destroying our society and our environment, which is capitalism.”
Asked how he would increase wages in Vermont, Diamondstone stated that he would “start with the people of the state of Vermont rising up and taking over every major industry.” Asked how he would deal with the much-publicized heroin epidemic, he prefaced his comment by implying that the United States government was importing heroin from post-Taliban Afghanistan to our streets, and then went on to clarify that private enterprise—not drugs—is the real enemy: “Everybody should be allowed to take what they want and get it from a government service.”
(His opponent Emily Peyton—who spoke all evening in the mistily optimistic tone of an instructor at a yoga studio that’s about to go out of business—suggested that, in place of heroin, we encourage the use of marijuana, hypnosis, and meditation.) Fatigue appeared to set in for Diamondstone later on, and he began to rant disconnectedly about “the Zionist regime in Gaza.”
Fortunately, the other debaters picked up the slack. Cris Ericson—a single-issue candidate whose concern is the cleanliness of the water in Lake Champlain, which she believes may be jeopardized by “nanoparticles of aluminum” emitted by military jets flying overhead—strayed from her main subject long enough to excoriate Governor Shumlin for closing Interstate rest areas (which he has not done) and told him to expect a lawsuit from state employees whose medical conditions require frequent bathroom breaks. “You are uncivilized!” she shouted, with Blanche Dubois theatricality. Earlier, asked how she would decrease tuition costs at Vermont universities, Ericson decried the public funds given to the University of Vermont, which, in her words, is “a private, for-profit college. All the money should be given to state colleges.”
Answering the same question, Dan Feliciano (a smart-alecky Libertarian true believer running on a “destroy the environment, cut corporate taxes, and trust the free market” platform) blamed flaky college students for wasting universities’ resources. The independent candidate Bernard Peters—who seemed stronger on common sense than he did on policy—admitted, with amiable candor, that he didn’t know how to fix the problem.
Here, once again, Peter Diamondstone really had the best answer: “This issue of paying to go to school begins with an absurdity, and if you accept it, you’ve accepted the absurd. We should be paying people to go to school. School is work. Every economist from the far left to the far right agrees that a society’s level of education is part of its wealth. If a student goes to school and learns that two and two is four, that student has contributed to the wealth of the society and should be paid.”
Governor Shumlin—who came across as competent and polished and more human than his aloof, robotic opponent Scott Milne from the Republican Party—kept his cool in a room full of people who probably made him uncomfortable, and he talked a lot about healthcare, advocating a single-payer system. (For her part, Emily Peyton preferred to address “the root causes of ill health,” emphasizing that “a clean earth, clean air, and clean water are why we’re healthy” and referring to doctors as “healers.”)
Shumlin is expected to win the gubernatorial race pretty easily, which means that one could argue this debate is interesting only insofar as it serves as a kind of rural freak-show display of minor candidates. But, really, it was full of wonderful things that most political debates lack, including honest, transparent candidates and respectful attention given to alternative points of view—not to mention humility, hopefulness, and occasional agreement. I suspect that viewers responded to these qualities. Including third parties is a good thing: these people are trying to talk truthfully about things that matter to them and are not trained in electability or sound bites.
Emily Peyton, who spent much of the debate lamenting that one minute (the allotted time for each answer) was not enough long for her to explain her views, concluded the evening by asking, “If you could have all the money in the world or all the love in the world—which is more valuable to you?” She then implored us to “improve the quality of the love in your life.” They probably don’t even realize it yet, but I think a few people just fell in love with Vermont.