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Vermont and the Contradictions of Place

The Green Mountain State, with its natural beauty, small towns and traditional lifestyle, sometimes seems too good to be true. In some ways, it is.  

Panoramic,View,Of,Topsham,Village,In,Vermont
Topsham, a village in Vermont.
(SNEHIT PHOTO/Shutterstock)
Imagine the kind of state that a right-wing Twitter troll might describe as utopia. It’s full of picturesque small towns. Many traditional ways of life are still alive there. It’s a patriotic place, with American flags hanging from the light poles. It’s a “constitutional carry” state where no permits are needed to walk the streets with a concealed weapon. It’s full of natural, unspoiled beauty hearkening back to a “purer” age. It’s so safe and crime-free that cafés leave outdoor tables and chairs in place without any chains or locks. Towns leave nice toys in the sandbox at their park for kids to play with, assuming they won’t be stolen. And it’s overwhelmingly white. There aren’t many immigrants or refugees either, perhaps just a few thousand over the last 30 years.

This place actually exists. But it’s a utopia of the left, with a socialist as its senior U.S. senator. It’s called Vermont.

Vermont illustrates many of the cultural contradictions of place in America. It reveals that the preferred environments of many on the left and right actually overlap. Don’t be fooled by their rhetoric; leftist whites also prefer largely white environments. Portland, Ore.; Boulder, Colo.; and Austin (the whitest major city in Texas) are hot destinations for white progressives. There’s also long been a rural component in the modern American left, recalling the “back to the land movement” of the 1960s and 1970s. This left-right overlap in Vermont was humorously pointed out in a Saturday Night Live skit in which a neo-confederate group in Virginia decided to have their annual retreat there.

Actually, it is the left that has been better able to produce this kind of place. Next door, more conservative “live free or die” New Hampshire has similar natural beauty to Vermont’s, but is noticeably junkier. There are quaint New Hampshire towns too, of course, but also many more clapped out, decayed towns than in Vermont. Small town and rural areas run by the left are often quite nice, while those run by the right are often run down. This is true even when both have wealth and decent incomes, as in Vermont and New Hampshire.

Vermont has far less advertising clutter than most states. Billboards are completely banned and there are few pole signs anywhere in the state. The state’s mountains host a multitude of summer and winter outdoor activities, especially skiing. The US 4 corridor in Vermont along the Ottauquechee River is similar in many ways to the US 191 corridor along the Gallatin River near Bozeman, Mont.

Yet Bozeman is booming and Vermont is offering cash incentives for people to move to the state. Montana’s population grew by 9.6 percent in the last decade (with Bozeman itself up 43 percent), while Vermont’s growth was much more anemic at only 2.8 percent.

Despite its superb natural environment and many place-based progressive policies designed to protect it, Vermont is demographically and economically stagnant. Conservatives might be quick to point out the governance difference between libertarian Montana and left-leaning Vermont, but there are plenty of red states in the East that are also relatively stagnant, such as Indiana and West Virginia.

It’s practically a truism today that people are attracted to natural amenities and quality of place in the built environment. That seems to be true to some extent. But Vermont (and northern New England generally) illustrates the limits of natural amenities and place-based policies to trigger growth. So much of population growth is regional, happening in the South and West. There’s a heavy correlation of population growth with warm weather. There’s not much that places in the north can do about that. But the recent growth in places like Idaho and Montana, where it does get cold in the winter, show that climate can’t be the only answer.

Growth is more mysterious and more out of our control than any of us, myself included, would like to admit. There is no magical public policy that can cause a fundamental change in a state’s growth curve. Neither public investment nor tax cuts seem to make much difference.

That doesn’t mean public officials should do nothing. But policy should be made more in the interests of existing residents and businesses rather than oriented toward speculations around the growth they will induce. Vermonters seem content with their state, even with its economic limitations; maybe they get the last laugh after all.
An urban analyst, consultant and writer. He can be reached at aaron@aaronrenn.com or on Twitter at @aaron_renn.
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