How the Back-to-the-Land Movement Paved the Way for Bernie Sanders

The back-to-the-land movement had a transformative effect on politics in Vermont, where Sanders moved in 1968

Bernie Sanders, then mayor of Burlington, in 1981. Sanders moved to Vermont in 1968, buying 80 acres of forest and renovating an old sugarhouse. Credit: Donna Light/AP

When Bernie Sanders established a new campaign headquarters in Brooklyn a few weeks ago in anticipation of this week's New York primary, his supporters celebrated it as a potentially triumphal homecoming for a native son.

But Bernie is not a New Yorker anymore, he's a Vermonter.

And the story of how he left New York in the first place — of how a Jewish Brooklynite came to represent one of the most rural and least diverse states in the country — also helps explain how a self-proclaimed socialist rose through local politics to take a place on the national stage.

Starting in the late 1960s, as many as a million young Americans — mostly white, college-educated and from middle-class backgrounds — left their homes in the suburbs and cities and moved, often sight unseen, to farmhouses, remote mountaintops and woodland clearings, with a goal of building their own shelter, growing their own food and living closer to the earth. A young Bernie Sanders was among them.

Far from being an eccentric anomaly, Bernie is in fact a classic example of a distinct, specific, historical phenomenon: the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s. The quirky details of his early bio — buying 80 acres of Vermont forest in 1968 and renovating an old sugarhouse into living quarters — are in fact shared by thousands of ex-urbanites across the country during the same period. My own parents moved from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to a northern Vermont hilltop in 1971 and, following advice from the residents of a local commune, began building the house in which I was raised, a geodesic dome.

As I explore in my new book We Are as Gods, so many people went back to the land in this period that they helped bring about one of the most unusual demographic shifts in American history, briefly reversing 200 years of steady urbanization.

Noticing so many of their peers rushing for the boondocks, two Yale Law students decided to explore the potential implications. In a 1970 article, they considered the feasibility of a large number of people migrating to a single state "for the express purpose of effecting the peaceful political take-over of that state through the elective process." 

"The goal of this takeover," they wrote, "would be to establish a truly experimental society in which new solutions to today's problems could be tried, an experimental state which would serve as a new frontier and encourage imaginative local innovation." The article's authors, James F. Blumstein and James Phelan, never specified a particular state (though Playboy later expanded on their idea with a 1972 article, "Taking Over Vermont"), but they did make clear what group they had in mind: "‘Alienated Youth', ‘Hippies', ‘Student Radicals', ‘Organic Farmers.'" In other words, the same disaffected young people who were already pouring out of the cities and into rural areas around the country.

In a "you can't make this stuff up" twist of historical coincidence, an early draft of the original article published in the Yale Review of Law and Social Action was reviewed by the journal's associate editor: Hillary Rodham. She reportedly dismissed the authors' ideas as "mental masturbation." If it seemed that way at the time, a little bit of distance lends the proposal a kind of eerie prescience.

Though the back-to-the-land movement took place across the country, from Oregon to Maine, in no other state did it have as transformative an effect on politics as in Vermont.

For over a century, Vermont was a solid red state, opting for the Republican candidate in every presidential election between 1856 and 1960, and consistently electing Republican governors. 

With the back-to-the-land influx of the Sixties and Seventies, this began to change. Vermont's population surged by 30 percent in those decades, and the majority of the newcomers brought with them into the ballot box the same idealistic, environmentally oriented priorities that had brought them to Vermont in the first place. 

It also brought an influx of individuals like Bernie — not hippies, exactly, but forward-thinking rebels passionately committed to progressive social change. Bernie's original political party, the anti-war Liberty Union Party, was founded in 1970 by a group made up in large part of recently arrived, ex-urbanite activists like himself.

"A lot of the activism, when people got up here to Vermont, really was community-based," explains Jackie Calder of the Vermont Historical Society, which has begun an extensive project documenting Vermont's transformation in the 1970s. "It's left-leaning. It's a democratic movement. It's boots on the ground. It's going house-to-house, talking to people, finding out what they're thinking.

"That's how they got things done: They went out and talked to people. They mobilized people, got them to come vote."

By the time of Bernie's first major political success — his famous ten-vote victory to become mayor of Burlington in 1981 — he had registered as an independent, though his politics remained firmly on the left. Though the back-to-the-land movement itself had faded out, many of the newcomers had settled in permanently, and they continued to support him, helping elect him first to the House as Vermont's sole U.S. representative, and then to the Senate. Today, they and their children make up a significant portion of the 86 percent of Vermont Democrats who voted for Bernie in the presidential primary — almost six times as many Vermonters as voted for Trump, the Republican victor.

Though the Yale Law students' article is sometimes cited by conservative bloggers as evidence of a deliberate liberal conspiracy to turn Vermont , there is absolutely no sign of an intentional, unified "takeover" plan. The city people like Bernie and my parents who resettled in Vermont during the late Sixties and Seventies did so as a response to pollution and chaos and to the violence of the Vietnam War. Most were not even aware that they were participating in something that would later be classified as a "movement" — they felt they were acting as individuals, obeying a yearning for a "simple" life closer to nature.

In formulating their proposal, the article's authors were simply following the idea of the existing back-to-the-land phenomenon to its natural conclusion: What would the political landscape look like 40 years after a flood of liberal young people rushed into a sparsely populated state? 

It would be hard to imagine a scenario more in line with their assessment than the national ascendance of the only self-proclaimed socialist in the U.S. Senate, a lifelong radical, a Vermonter with a heavy Brooklyn accent. "If successful," the article's authors predicted, this demographic shift "would, by its example, spur change in society as a whole." In Bernie's presidential campaign, no matter its eventual outcome, perhaps it already has.

It would be hard to imagine a scenario more in line with their assessment than the national ascendance of the only self-proclaimed socialist in the U.S. Senate, a lifelong radical, a Vermonter with a heavy Brooklyn accent. "If successful," the article's authors predicted, this demographic shift "would, by its example, spur change in society as a whole." In Bernie's presidential campaign, no matter its eventual outcome, perhaps it already has.