As Vermont Goes, So Goes the Nation?

By Molly Worthen for The New York Times

When most liberals hear the words “third party,” they have nasty flashbacks to Ralph Nader’s spoiler campaign in 2000. The history buffs among them might think of the populist Greenback Party’s feckless protests against the gold standard in the 19th century or the five presidential campaigns of the Socialist Eugene V. Debs — the last of which, in 1920, he ran from prison.

Third parties seem out of touch with reality, the refuge of idealists with dreams too fragile for the trenches of major party politics. But Democratic skeptics, at least, shouldn’t be too quick to judge. One state is now on the way to single-payer health care, and a third party deserves much of the credit.

Three years ago, Peter Shumlin, the governor of Vermont, signed a bill creating Green Mountain Care: a single-payer system in which, if all goes according to plan, the state will regulate doctors’ fees and cover Vermonters’ medical bills. Mr. Shumlin is a Democrat, and the bill’s passage is a credit to his party. Yet a small upstart spent years building support for reform and nudging the Democrats left: the Vermont Progressive Party. The Progressives owe much of their success to the oddities of Vermont politics. But their example offers hope that the most frustrating dimensions of our political culture can change, despite obstacles with deep roots in American history.

Green Mountain Care won’t begin until at least 2017, but Vermont liberals are optimistic. “Americans want to see a model that works,” Senator Bernie Sanders told The Atlantic in December. (Mr. Sanders is an independent, but a longtime ally of the Progressives.) “If Vermont can be that model it will have a profound impact on discourse in this country.”

Before you dismiss that prospect as wishful thinking, consider: That’s how national health care happened in Canada. A third party’s provincial experiment paved the way for national reform. In 1946, the social-democratic government of Saskatchewan passed a law providing free hospital care to most residents. The model spread to other provinces, and in 1957 the federal government adopted a cost-sharing measure that evolved into today’s universal single-payer system.

It seems natural that America’s experiment in Canadian-style health care should begin in Vermont, a state with a long history of cross-border contact. In Derby Line, Vt., the border runs through the town library. Decades ago, pregnant women from Quebec often drove to Vermont to give birth, preferring American hospitals. Not anymore. When it comes to health care, two countries that share so much have diverged profoundly.

Between 1870 and the Great Depression, Americans and Canadians both worried about the growing gap between the mega-rich and the poor. Their disillusionment fueled the rise of dissenting parties. In Canada, the most successful of these, the social-democratic Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, won control of Saskatchewan in 1944. Canada never passed reforms to match the New Deal, and the C.C.F. capitalized on voters’ frustration with the federal government’s inaction — just as liberals in Vermont are now doing.

It’s risky to compare 1940s Saskatchewan to Vermont today, but “Vermont has some of the features that Saskatchewan had in the 1940s and 1950s. It’s a rural state in which voices from the left have been more legitimate than in other parts of the country,” said Antonia Maioni, a professor of political science at McGill University in Montreal. “Saskatchewan was the last place where you would have expected to have this bold innovation. It was the poorest, most rural, most sparsely populated province. And yet it was the mouse that roared.”

The Vermont Progressives have only eight seats in the State Legislature, but they played a decisive role in the 2010 gubernatorial election. They promised not to play spoiler if the Democratic candidate supported single-payer health care. “Shumlin was very clear on his stance, and it pulled him through a narrow primary — a lot of Progressives were volunteers on that — and then he narrowly won,” Chris Pearson, a Progressive state representative from Burlington, told me. “He kept his promise.”

What explains the success of the Progressive Party? Vermont is small, and “it was expected that I’d knock on every door in my district,” Mr. Pearson said. “Progressives are dedicated to that style of campaigning. It’s also affordable. You can run a House race for $5,000.”

Despite their urban origins in Burlington, the Progressives have won crucial support from rural, traditionally conservative parts of the state, where lifelong Republicans have responded to the same argument that the Populists once used: Without regulation and a public safety net, capitalism will grind the independent farmer into the ground.

The trouble is that the Progressives have no national colleagues pressuring President Obama from the left. The Saskatchewan social democrats and their national successor, the New Democratic Party, forced the ruling Liberals to move left in the 1950s and 1960s as other provincial governments came to favor national reform.

American third parties face many obstacles in national elections, not least financial disadvantages and the ability of the major parties to co-opt dissenters by forming factions (in Canada, rules requiring tight party discipline mean insurgents like the Tea Partiers would probably have to form their own organizations).

But there is a deeper ideological reason. Canada inherited something else from Britain besides the Westminster system. It retained the full spectrum of English politics. This includes the socialist left and the Tory right — both traditions that, despite their differences, call for a strong central government and the restraint of individual liberty in the interest of the community.

The United States, by contrast, is a revolutionary state. The founders feared both kingly tyranny and the rule of the mob, and they bequeathed to us a political spectrum that is the narrowest in the Western world. With few exceptions, even left-wing dissenters have preached some version of free market ideology. The Vermont Progressives’ promise to “promote cooperative, worker-owned and publicly owned enterprises” is a far cry from Debs’s demand that “the capitalist system must be overthrown.”

In times of crisis — during the Civil War, the Great Depression and World War II — Americans have tolerated a radical expansion of the role of government. Harry Truman tried to seize the moment in 1945 by pushing for universal health care, only to be stymied by conservative opponents and the American Medical Association.

American doctors succeeded where Canadian doctors failed (despite multiple doctors’ strikes) because the American political system left individual politicians vulnerable to lobbying. They capitalized on the rhetoric of the Cold War, insisting that “socialized medicine” was one step short of Soviet tyranny. There is also no denying the ugly role that race played in this story: Too many white Americans have rejected reforms for fear that their tax dollars would help black Americans.

Yet the main lesson that Americans can learn from Canada is that political cultures can change. In 1950 Canada was, in many respects, a more conservative country than America, and each step of reform was hard-won. But as Canadians watched new policies produce results, skeptics became supporters. “Many policies that emerged in postwar Canada have changed Canadians’ conception of their relationship to the state,” Professor Maioni told me. “Policies feed political culture.” If the Vermont experiment works, other states will follow. American pragmatism will trump ideology.