Scott, Sanders, Balint

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and Vermont Sen. Pro Tem Becca Balint, delivers remarks about the need to support and grow the state's health care workforce.

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On January 3, Governor Phil Scott posted some pictures on his social media that caught my eye. The purpose was to draw attention to an effort to grow Vermont’s health care workforce, a worthy goal indeed in these stressful and frightening times. But it was the images that struck me, as a reflection of something we see far too seldom in politics, even here in Vermont.

The scene was our windy Statehouse steps, and the three politicians standing in the cold there were our Independent U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, Windham County’s own Democratic Senate Pro Tem Becca Balint, and our Republican Governor Phil Scott. All three looked pleased to be standing side by side, despite the frigid scene surrounding them, and they looked happy to be working together to promote a commonly recognized need in Vermont.

Call it a convenient photo op if you will, since it was. The governor was anxious to highlight part of his budget that will play well across the political spectrum. Senator Sanders is always one to jump in to efforts that will be seen as supporting essential workers, and Senator Balint is running for a House seat in Washington. But there’s more important symbolism going on here when you take a moment to reflect.

We have gotten to a point in our country where pictures like these, of three elected public servants from vastly differing beliefs and backgrounds, don’t take pictures together. Sure, it still happens here in our brave little state, where discourse is happily still a thing at the local level, but increasingly I’ve noticed those difficult conversations in Vermont being avoided in favor of easily digestible bullet points and simplified position statements.

It’s easy to think that Vermont is immune to national-level polarized rhetoric and animosity, but I’ve been noticing even our proud history of respectful political dialogue being chipped away at by the same extreme language, from both the right and from the left. This digital dogma has definitely increased in our current national climate of pandemic frustrations, a polarization brushfire that is given more fuel by our reliance on social media for connection.

During these turbulent times, we need our leaders to step up efforts to reject the appeal of what I will call “announcing and denouncing” – crafting press releases and social media posts with the primary intent of winning likes and shares. Instead, we should hold those with elected power to the task of doing their jobs: describing the problem, proposing solutions, and working toward policy fixes.

I’d love to see our elected Vermonters spend a little less time on the easier task of stoking outrage amongst their base supporters, and more time reaching across divides to make progress on policies that will truly benefit all of their constituents. Let’s face it, crafting a social media post that rages against the dysfunction in Washington is hitting the “easy button.” The work of actually sitting down with someone who disagrees with your position is the real work that needs to happen here to make progress and craft good policy. Once elected, that is, in fact, the job of elected representatives.

In 2022, I hope to see more of these cheerful pictures of our elected leaders from different political perspectives, working together to represent their constituents, and getting down to the business of serving us all.

Tim Wessel currently serves in his fifth year on the Brattleboro Select Board, after serving as both Chair and Vice-Chair. He writes occasionally on the convergence of politics and policy in Windham County. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.