Wyoming and Vermont- two similar states at the extremes of America
Updated: Jan 14, 2021
Vermont and Wyoming- two small states that couldn't be more similar, but also that couldn't be more different. Geographically, both are largely rural states dominated by mountains. In population, both are among the smallest of US states, both well under a million residents, and with the smallest congressional representation. Racially, both states are dominated by white people (over 90%), with almost no racial or ethnic diversity to speak of. But politically, Vermont is the most liberal state in the US, giving Joe Biden his biggest margin of victory, while Wyoming gave Donald Trump his largest margin of victory.
How is this possible? And what does it tell us about the political divides that tear apart the rest of the country? Sometimes it's helpful to look at the outliers to get some perspective on the system as a whole.
Let's start with Vermont. It hasn't always been a Democratic bastion. Vermont voted reliably Republican for almost a century from the time of Lincoln onwards. Now the state supports the most liberal politician in America- Bernie Sanders, and tends to support Democrats in national elections, going blue in all elections since 1988. Part of the reason for Vermont's switch has to do with other New Englanders migrating northward during the last half of the 20th century. (In fact, Vermont is currently offering $10,000 to people who move there from other states.) But a bigger part of its switch has to do with the realignment of Democratic and Republican parties since the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Vermont is a beautiful, rural state with a few small towns and not much industry besides maple syrup and milk production. They were the first US state to legalize marijuana, the first to declare slavery illegal, and were one of the first states to allow same-sex marriages. But Vermont is no Democratic stronghold- it is more independent than anything. The current governor is a Republican, and Bernie Sanders considers himself an Independent. Bernie Sanders has made Vermont famous, and his brand of Democratic Socialism wouldn't fly in almost any other state.
Now look at Wyoming. Since it achieved statehood in 1890, Wyoming has gone the opposite way of its counterpart, Vermont. Wyoming voted for Democrats regularly during the New Deal days, but started swinging to the right in the late 20th century. Lyndon Johnson was the last Democratic presidential candidate to carry Wyoming, and the last Democratic senator from Wyoming was defeated in 1976. Since then they have become a one-party Republican state.
Wyoming is one of the minority of states that still has refused to expand Medicaid, and with nearly half of the state owned by the federal government, they have fought hard to open up more lands to mining and drilling. Slavery was never a factor in Wyoming, but Native Americans were, and the last half of the 19th century was dotted with bloody conflicts all over the state. Wyoming was at the forefront of the women's suffrage movement, giving its women the right to vote in 1869, more than 50 years before the rest of the country would follow, and electing the nation's first female governor in 1924.
So with all this in mind, why such extreme voting differences? Some think that the influence of French immigrants made Vermont more liberal than elsewhere. Perhaps it's New England's peculiar culture of town meetings, where entire communities gather to discuss politics and come to an agreement. New England is an outlier, more liberal than the rest of the country, and its tight knit culture has a lot to do with why the rugged individualism, so popular with conservatives and libertarians, hasn't caught on there.
Early Vermont settlers were lucky in that most of the Native Americans were wiped out by viruses before the state was widely populated. Slavery was never an issue there either. In many ways Vermont is a lot like Scandinavia, and as the Republican party became more of a white people's grievance party, independent minded Vermonters recoiled and veered left.
On the other side of the country you have a Wild West situation where rugged individualism is very much in vogue and cowboys are the state symbol. But the biggest driver of Wyoming politics has got to be its economic dependence on oil and mineral extraction. Wyoming citizens recoiled from the environmental regulations brought on by the Democratic party in the late 20th century, and will be among the last climate change deniers even as Florida starts sinking into the Atlantic. The state's long-time dependence on cattle production doesn't help it either, as urban areas turn away from beef for health and climate reasons.
In summary, we've got to figure out how to transcend the blue state/red state dichotomy. There's a lot of history and economics that goes into that determination, and it's always changing. People are still people and we have to understand where they're coming from, even if we don't agree 100%. It's a shame when single issues like racism or environmentalism can trigger huge divides that sabotage agreement across the board on all issues. But it is what it is.
Wyoming citizens are stuck with a mostly barren landscape (less than 10 inches of rain makes growing things very hard), and they rely heavily on mining and oil, plus a bit on tourism. Necessary environmental crackdowns on the mining industry have turned Wyoming (and other mining states) red, and they would need extra help in transforming their economy into a greener version if they were ever to be able to elect a Democrat again. Vermont citizens are lucky enough to have a fertile landscape, (40 inches of rain per year), little racial strife, a remote corner of the country, and New England community values. The land where "Keep Vermont Weird" is a popular slogan is not a land that translates well into the nation at large, even though that very weirdness helps us cut through some of the problems that hold us back. Somehow, we need to create a consensus that accommodates both Vermont and Wyoming, both big cities and small towns, both liberals and conservatives, and that's the challenge of the next decade and beyond.
The best things about small states like these is that they seem immune from the big money politics and nasty campaigning that battleground states have to endure. No matter how much money you threw into contests there, it wouldn't move the needle much. Neither state is good nor evil, nor are the other 48. As the US keeps squaring off in a duel to the death of two opposing forces, we need to remember what unites us, and appreciate the diversity and dilemmas we each face that make us what we are.
I close with words from Love is the Way, a new book by Bishop Michael Curry.
"In the United States, and in the world, we have different cultures, different politics, different experiences that have shaped our beliefs. But if we can establish that we're working toward some common good, whether we like each other or not, then we can be brothers and sisters even when we want to fight like hell. Let's all stop worrying about whether we like each other and choose to believe instead that we're capable of doing good together. That doesn't solve all our problems, not by far, but it at least gets us in the starting gate. It gets us unstuck. It's how human beings can live together in profound difference."