Library Dissertation Showcase

What can the Mayorship of Bernie Sanders in Burlington, Vermont, tell us about the nature of politics in President Ronald Reagan’s America, 1980-1989?

  • Year of Publication:
  • 2021

In an era of American politics dominated by the presence of grassroots, local, political organisations, where mayors have increasingly taken up the media spotlight, this paper explores the historiography of such a phenomenon. Using a focused methodology, I concentrate on the example of Bernie Sanders’ Mayorship of Burlington, Vermont. I argue that Sanders took an inter-governmental approach to opposing President Ronald Reagan’s administration, from nineteen-eighty to nineteen-eighty-nine. Using a mixture of primary material, chiefly Vermont newspapers such as the Burlington Free Press, as well as the recently re-surfaced, cable-access television series, Bernie Speaks with the Community, I examine the achievements and limitations of Sanders’ Mayorship in two areas: foreign and economic policy. While engagement with foreign policy is atypical of mayors, I argue that Sanders symbolically re-defined the parameters of American mayorship, even if his accomplishments were often limited in effectiveness. Equally, I study Sanders within the historiography of sewer-socialism, a historiography often limited to coincide with the existence of the Socialist Party. However, I study Sanders as an example of a successful sewer-socialist within the post-Socialist Party landscape, thus representing a revival of the ideology. Regarding economic policy, I suggest that Sanders faced practical limitations to his economic ambitions, owing to the limitations of municipal office, but achieved practical accomplishments, such as the Waterfront project, that challenged Reaganomics ideologically. Equally, I argue that Sanders used municipal office to challenge economic policy beyond Reaganomics, frequently contending with the Vermont state government. Summarily, while acknowledging the shortcomings of Sanders’ Mayorship, I conclude that Sanders represented a tangible shift in the typical attitudes and approaches of mayors, a shift that has become pertinent in our present era of American politics.

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