Nation & World

Vermont and New Hampshire, geographic twins, cultural aliens

5 min read

Ever wonder about Vermont and New Hampshire?

Just a few decades ago both were bedrock Republican states. But since the days of Calvin Coolidge, Vermont has taken a turn to the left as a haven for progressive politics.

New Hampshire is still leaning to the right. It’s now even a celebrated haven for libertarians.

The cultural and political divergence of these two neighboring states caught the eye of historical sociologist Jason Kaufman, Harvard’s John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences. What, he asked, explains the difference?

He talked about his research Oct. 26 at Harvard’s Center for Government and International Studies. Joining him was project co-author Matthew Kaliner, a Harvard graduate student in sociology. (The lecture was sponsored by the Harvard Center for American Political Studies.)

Said Kaufman, “The central empirical puzzle here is, ‘How the hell did it happen?’”

There is no simple answer, but, he said, there were many wrong turns in a search for illuminating data, which had to span at least 50 to 100 years.

Can demographics explain why the two states diverged? Nope. A century of census data on Vermont and New Hampshire shows that both states remain “extremely white” and largely Christian, said Kaufman.

How about economics? Another false lead, Kaufman said. Vermont is somewhat more agricultural, though not enough so to explain the cultural divergence. And both states have a small manufacturing base.

Educational profile? “Really no difference,” he said.

Kaufman and Kaliner looked at trends in the political makeup of the Vermont and New Hampshire state houses. After 1950, the number of Republicans elected in Vermont, in contrast to its neighbor, went into steep decline. Still no smoking gun, said Kaufman.

To help refine how the two states are different, he and his research partner this year used online research to track a list of “sociocultural indicators” that had cultural resonance.

Included were the number of Birkenstock dealers (per capita, Vermont has twice as many); vegetarian restaurants and hemp product dealers (Vermont is ahead); Harley-Davidson dealerships (New Hampshire wins); and Dairy Queens (Vermont, the land of Ben & Jerry’s, has none).

These quirky indicators helped sketch an outline of cultural differences. But they still failed to supply a reason why the states diverged so widely in just a few generations.

To answer the question, Kaufman and Kaliner came up with what they call their major academic contribution to a debate among sociologists about why culture changes.

Their concept, “idio-cultural migration,” avers that inter-state migrants move for cultural reasons, and not just for economic reasons, as commonly thought. And that this cultural migration has reinforced two diverging portraits — an upscale counterculture Vermont and a blue-collar New Hampshire.

“At least part of the change has to be exogenous” — from outside the two states, said Kaufman. (Census migration data does exist, he added, but does not include the lifestyle reasons people move.)

There are other forces behind why the states so recently diverged. For one, in the 1920s, Vermont began to market itself in specific ways — a deliberate re-branding to convey “a sense there must be something clean or pastoral about Vermont,” said Kaufman.

At the same time, starting in 1927 after massive flooding, Vermont began to accept federal money — which helped demythologize the evils of big government.

Vermont’s re-branding also frankly avowed progressive culture. Dorothy Canfield’s 1932 pamphlet “Vermont Summer Houses,” published by the state, was “full of cultural talk,” said Kaufman — intimations of an anti-modernist land where books were more important than cars and where writers, dancers, and artists were welcome.

Around the same time, by contrast, one official New Hampshire state guidebook began by offering a welcome to manufacturers.

There were other signs of the cultural divergence, said Kaufman, including Vermont’s Depression-era progressive colleges (Bennington opened in 1931, and Goddard in 1938). And the power of the 1954 classic “Living the Good Life,” by Helen and Scott Nearing, which told the story of their escape in 1932 from the city to a farm in Vermont. (They eventually moved to Maine.)

New Hampshire held onto its tourist industry, which began in the 19th century with “carnival towns” for the working class. But it emphasized hunting and fishing over Vermont’s ski slopes and plush vacation homes.

The media and other social forces took note of how the two states were different, said Kaufman, and helped with what sociologists call “stereotype aggrandizement and perpetuation.”

Burlington — Vermont’s one major city — “became a sort of magnet for political radicals,” said Kaufman, and drew high-tech jobs and third-party political candidates.

New Hampshire, with more cities, could maintain “urban party machines” that kept Republican dominance alive — in sociological terms, “boundary maintenance,” said Kaufman.

Meanwhile, Vermont’s Republican machine withered, starting with a turnaround gubernatorial election in 1952 in which Democrats made their first strong showing. By 1958, the state had sent its first Democrat to Congress.

In sum, Vermont engineered a new brand for itself — a hybrid culture of the old and the new. New Hampshire held on to a brand that was a variation of the old one.

All this took “an unintentional concatenation of forces,” said Kaufman. “[But] Matt and I think the migration factor is the key.”