Vermont is a tiny state, but Charlotte author Stephen P. Kiernan thinks it can do big things, and even lead the way for the rest of the nation.
In June, Kiernan published his manifesto, “Vermont to the Tenth Power: How a Small State Thrives in a Time of Federal Collapse” on his website.
In it, the novelist, journalist and Middlebury College alumnus, claims that the state of Vermont can and should exercise its 10th Amendment rights to take its own path in public policy, especially in a time when the federal government has left many people disenchanted.
Kiernan, 59, researched and wrote the 8,300-word essay while finishing work on his next novel due out in 2020.
The former Burlington Free Press reporter, editor, and editorial writer last November completed the manuscript for his next book and then began interviewing dozens of Vermonters to research essentially the biggest editorial he’s ever written.
He begins with the crux of the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that stipulates how states have powers not specifically given to the federal government. He then quotes U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who in 1932 wrote: “A state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”
What follows is a call for what Kiernan calls “state-level activism” meant to “shield our state from the worst of Washington’s difficulties, to learn from other states, and to strengthen Vermonters’ capacity to determine our shared fate.”
The essay in just a couple of months has sparked conversation across Vermont — on radio, cable TV, online and in newspapers.
The Times-Argus editorial page declared the piece “A bold idea” and suggested that all Vermonters read it to “conclude for themselves how far we have come, and just how far — potentially — we can go.”
VTDigger commentator Jon Margolis took a more skeptical reading of Kiernan’s work questioning the need to invoke the 10th Amendment and criticizing its lack of suggestions for how to pay for its ideas. But he applauded the author for launching the discussion.
The essay has garnered dozens of co-signers among them former Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle, who called the piece a “positive approach to addressing public policy in the era of Trump,” and suggested similar thinking be applied to the relationship between state and local governments.
“We can bemoan the problems or we can take action,” Clavelle said. “The local piece of this deserves more discussion.”
In a recent interview at his home in Charlotte, Kiernan discussed what inspired this project, the feedback it has gotten, and what might come next. Here are excerpts from that conversation condensed for space.
Q: Did “Vermont to the Tenth Power” come out of the blue, or have you been sitting on this idea for a while?
Kiernan: What I do is get interested in something, learn about it, and write about it.
One of the things I’ve enjoyed [after newspapers] is I can be involved in boards of nonprofit organizations to try and give back to the community. And what I’ve found is that every nonprofit has an increasing caseload, diminishing financial support from the state and federal government, and gradually deteriorating philanthropic support and the next generation of successful people is not stepping up to fill that role.
That began the research process — I had no idea that it was going to lead this effort that I’m a part of now. That emerged as I began to look at the frustrations that people have with our political system, a federal government that is very much broken, and that this small state that is particularly at risk.
I [asked] 100 Vermonters or more: “Tell me about times in our past, where we’ve stepped aside from the federal government, how we did it, and what worked or not.”
I found that when we chose our own path, it worked wonderfully. In fact, that was some of the stuff that we were most proud of: no billboards, no slavery, no highway on the spine of the Green Mountains, health care reform that is really innovative, same-sex marriage.
Q: How did co-signing work?
Kiernan: I spoke to over 100 Vermonters. People were saying, “This is terrific.” So I let them cosign. I made a decision not to invite anyone who is currently in elected or appointed office — not because I wanted to separate them from this — but because I didn’t want to be connected with their politics. Like if someone cosigned and then later did something [contrary to what the document suggests]. The aspiration of this document is not political — I’m not trying to run for governor — I’m just trying to put ideas out there.
Q: The article makes the case that Vermont can lead its own way apart from the federal government. Do you think a small state might need federal assistance in some areas economically?
Kiernan: The four major auto manufacturers in the world [recently] struck their own deal with California on emissions independent of the federal government. California has enormous clout that Vermont will never possess. At the same time, most of our institutions and problems are human-scale. That gives us the potential for responsiveness that California and the other high-population states could only dream of.
Vermont sends more money to Washington than it gets back. I’m not saying we shouldn’t pay for defense, of course we should; I’m not saying we shouldn’t pay for the EPA.
But what decisions should we make on our own path, and what happens when a state takes the lead and more states follow?
Q: Can you talk about some of the feedback you’ve received?
Kiernan: The response has been overwhelming, incredibly generous, some of it really constructive.
One person said, “You didn’t say enough about poverty,” and I think he was right. One person said, “You didn’t say enough about local control and what cities and towns can do,” and I think he’s right.
Some people disliked this document because they are vehemently pro-Trump, even though this is not an anti-Trump document. They don’t feel that we’re in any kind of federal collapse.
I also heard from a fair number of climate-change deniers. I am respectful of people who write to me, but I gotta say, look — whether it’s my lawn or my garden or my heating bill or the lake or any of the manifestations around me, plus what’s happening all over the world — we see that climate change is here now, and I’m not interested in debating that any more than I’m interested in debating whether the sky is blue.
Q: Your proposal is more than just a conversation starter; it’s a call to action. Where does it go from here?
Kiernan: I can’t remember somebody in Vermont ever doing something like this before. It takes half an hour to read it. And we live in the age of the tweet. So I felt like it would be really kind of presumptuous and arrogant for me to say, “and then I want these four things to happen.” I was just glad people read it.
I’m starting to get invitations to speak. I spoke with a person from the Scott administration; there are a couple of legislators that I’ve spoken with or have meetings set up with.
I would consider this document and the work I did on it a success if, in the election cycle a year from now, there are a bunch of people arguing about ideas that have 10th Amendment principles in them.
Q: What would you say would be Vermont’s greatest challenge? Its greatest strength?
Kiernan: I don’t see us leading on climate. I see an effort.
I think our healthcare efforts pretty darn good. Very promising. But not perfect. I think we have a long way to go on climate change.
Q: So do you think there is something that can be done at the individual level?
Kiernan: Yes, absolutely.The most important thing is the public.
Most legislators will tell you, if they’re if they’re working on a bill, and they get 15 phone calls, that is considered a spectacular amount of feedback — only 15 people.
So can we just get people in the habit of picking up the damn phone?
The best thing the public can do is run for office, if people have the time and capacity and something to offer besides their opinions.
The public can [also] be a source of ideas. It’s not that hard now to get on Google and ask, how do other states fill open jobs? What are other states doing on climate change? What are some transportation ideas that other rural states have?
Let’s be humble and say they know something. And let’s try and apply it here. I think the public could totally do that.
Q: Do you have any advice for younger folks reading this?
Kiernan: Let’s not just make this a great idea, let’s make this a great reality.
Let’s have the cleanest election system in the world.
Let’s have the best health care system in terms of access and controlling costs.
Let’s have spectacular schools. That’s a really hard one.
Let’s not spend all our time being driven crazy by what’s happening in Texas, or in Washington, and instead spend our time being excited about the great things that we are helping to make happen right here.
Read Kiernan’s essay online at stephenpkiernan.com.
Community News Service is a collaboration with the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.