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Christopher Ketcham

Christopher Ketcham

Posted: August 30, 2010 10:01 PM

The most radical antiwar candidate in the US is not Dennis Kucinich or Rand or Ron Paul or any of the usual suspects. It's a 42-year-old Vermonter named Dennis Steele, who is running for governor of his state as an open secessionist. From what I can tell, Steele is just an average dude. He wears Carhartts and a baseball cap and drives a pickup truck and lives with his wife and two kids in a little Vermont village called Kirby (pop. 500), off in the wild hills of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. On occasion, he feeds his family by hunting deer and butchering the meat himself. He served three years in the US Army -- working for "the Empire," as he puts it -- and he tells me his main reason for running is that he doesn't want his kids serving in the Army. Or any other branch of the Empire. He wants the Empire to drop dead. And he thinks the best way to start that process is by getting Vermont to secede from the union. Destroy the empire by undermining it from within. That's the goal.

Steele is no Tea Partyer, not a Palinite, not a Paul drone, not a liberal or a conservative, not a Democrat or a Republican, is endorsed by no official party, has no corporate donors. He's the kind of candidate who, spending his own money and taking time out from his work and family, drives around the state crashing gubernatorial debates to which he is clearly not invited. Last April, organizers for the Democratic Party in Barre, gathered in that town's Old Labor Hall, called the state police after Steele repeatedly shouted out from the crowd to his fellow candidates on the rostrum: "$1.5 billion dollars -- our pro-rata share of a failed foreign policy -- the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- what could be done with all that money right here in Vermont?" The cops grabbed him by the arms and hauled him away, amid fearful yells from the crowd that he might be tasered. He wasn't, but instead was booked on disorderly conduct -- for saying something no one among the Democrats wanted to hear.

So much for the vaunted political tolerance in granola-eating, tree-hugging, gay-marriage-condoning Vermont.

The liberal progressive machine that runs the state -- its chief beneficiaries Senators Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy -- tends to have a lighter view of empire. When Vermont National Guardsmen are called to arms to be killed or maimed in the wars, Sens. Sanders and Leahy are there for the send-off, the photo-ops, the patriotic gibberish and the bowing of heads. When it is proposed that squadrons of killer drones and the newest F-35 fighter jets, costing taxpayers $115 million each, are to be deployed out of the military airfields at Burlington International Airport, they're for it. When nuclear weapons developer Sandia Corp. expresses interest in setting up operations in the state, bringing to Vermont good jobs in service of the imperial arsenal, Sanders lobbies in favor.

Unsurprising that Steele, who views Sanders and Leahy as "collaborationist," is shut out from the debates about the political future of Vermont. Still, he's not so lone a voice as might be expected. His running mate, for the position of lieutenant governor, is an ex-Subaru salesman named Peter Garritano, who keeps it short and simple in his campaign statement: "I do not want my tax dollars," says Garritano, "being used for war and killing." Seven other secessionist candidates are contending for seats in the state legislature (these include a consultant to Oracle, a former U.S. Army lieutenant, and an executive from one of the largest solar energy companies in the Northeast). A professor emeritus of economics from Duke University, Thomas Naylor, 74, a Southerner by birth and a bombthrowing contrarian by nature, is the white-haired intellectual voice of the movement, founder of the thinktank Second Vermont Republic (the name is homage to the fact that there was a first Vermont republic, founded in 1777 as an independent nation and enduring for 14 years, until 1791). The secessionists have partnered with a successful publishing base, the Chelsea Green Publishing Company -- the company's founder, Ian Baldwin, is a raging secessionist - and they have a bi-monthly newspaper, Vermont Commons: Voices of Independence, with a circulation of 11,000, the latest issue of which features on its cover a pig attempting to fornicate with a sheep (the caption reading "Wall Street Hog Jumping Main Street Sheep"). They even have their own silver "independence coin." And they have a surprising degree of support from the street: when last polled on the matter of secession, in 2007, 13 percent of Vermont voters were for it.

The Vermonter secesh, particularly Thomas Naylor, have been hammering for political disunion for more than a decade -- Naylor was converted, he says, when Bill Clinton in the mid-'90s completed the sale of the Democratic Party down the river to the corporatocracy. The point is: These people aren't the playthings of the two-party game, and they're smart enough to understand that a violent, racist empire functions today just as nicely with a dash of melanin in the Oval Office. (By contrast, as recently as last Apirl, 80 percent of typical liberals approved of Obama.)

Granted, we've all heard in recent years the secessionist jabber from the right-wing, mostly as tantrum in the wake of Obama's election. You hear it from Glenn Beck and the 9/12ers and the Tenthers and the Oathkeepers and the neo-Confederates and even from Christian separatists, and you hear it as a kind of sepia-tone sentiment among Texans like Gov. Rick Perry and Ron Paul, who, Saran-wrapped in the Constitution, won't dare take it beyond sentiment (the good Dr. Paul, for his part, gets re-elected year after year to continue not seceding during his service in the imperial city). No one knows where the right-wing secesh, clutching the sacred parchment, were hidden during the eight years of George W. Bush. Apparently the Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act, the Homeland Security superstate, massive increases in federal spending and debt, warrantless wiretapping and executive secrecy, the institutionalization of torture, the erecting of our very own gulag archipelago, state-sanctioned kidnappings sweetly dubbed "rendition," state terror unleashed overseas in the form of two illegal wars, Congress whored out more than ever to corporate America, corporations preying more than ever on Americans with the help of government -- none of this was enough to inspire a rebellion against federal power. Then Obama was elected. And everything changed: The military budget for 2010 climbs to $1 trillion from $700 billion, the wars go on and on (and get expanded in Afghanistan), big government and big business are undisturbed in their marriage vows, the empire unfazed except for some inklings about money troubles. But now a Democrat was chieftain of the empire. That was simply unacceptable to visionaries like Glenn Beck. Wake up, people! Let's secede! The upshot is that secessionism has been captured by the mindless right as a talking point on Fox News.

What the Vermonter secesh present is something altogether more serious, a new paradigm in American politics: the rise of a left-wing populist peacenik secessionist movement, a leftism that rejects big government, that seeks not a take-over of the federal center but an end to centralized power altogether. Call it a kind of Green Tea Party, shorn of the gun fetishism, the blind rage, the know-nothingism. Or call it the thinking man's secession, arising as a reasonable answer to the cold facts of our national impasse. What's gone wrong with the US government, argue the Vermonters, is that it has been totally captured by the corporatocracy, corrupted to the core, a lost cause, unreformable. Its laws are written by and for the rich and the powerful, whose predatory business models -- Walmart, Monsanto, Goldman Sachs et al -- operate against the interests of average Vermonters. It blows Vermont's precious tax dollars in bailing out insolvent banks and piratical financiers, bombing children in Pakistan, kidnapping and torturing foreigners, slapping military bases on every continent (over a thousand of them across 153 countries), etc. etc. ad nauseum. The Vermonter secesh see no good future for the US. Instead, the country will likely flush itself down the toilet of its own corruption and hubris -- ruined by unsustainable debt, unwinnable wars, military overstretch, pathologic dependence on cheap oil.

So what's a proud Vermonter to do? "Rebel and say hell no," says Dennis Steele. "The gods of the Empire are not the gods of Vermont." Kicking the U.S. out of his state, in Steele's view, is a matter of life, liberty, happiness for himself, his family, his community. In the short term, it's about ending Vermont's involvement in the wars, bringing home Vermont soldiers -- who happen to suffer the highest per-capita casualty rate of any state -- cutting off the tax base that helps fund the wars, ending the moral support of war that tacitly defines the continued association with the empire.

Objectors will say that Steele and his ilk are treasonous and crazy, that secession is illegal and unconstitutional, that Vermont would shrivel and die as a free republic, that it couldn't survive on its own. To which the secessionists answer that they're no more crazy than the colonists who founded the United States, who asserted a natural right of revolution, and who didn't wait for English parliamentarians and courts, the established law-givers of empire, to rubber-stamp their revolt. They just went ahead and did it and damned the consequences. The Vermonter secesh stand for a return to an aboriginal American idea: the right of revolution against unaccountable power. As Steele tells me, "Let's always remember that the Declaration of Independence is a secessionist document."

Christopher Ketcham has written for Harper's, Vanity Fair, GQ and many other magazines, and is currently writing a book about the Vermont secession movement. Reach him at cketcham99@mindspring.com or find more of his work at www.christopherketcham.com.