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