How Burlington's Creative Class Explains Bernie Sanders

Like the presidential candidate, Vermont’s largest city has long prized education, innovation, and tolerance.

Image Brian Snyder / REUTERS
Bernie Sanders at his campaign kickoff rally in Burlington, Vermont. (Brian Snyder / REUTERS)

The Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is fond of citing Scandinavian and Nordic countries—often socialist democracies with huge shares of the creative class—as his models for economic prosperity. Countries like Sweden, Denmark, and Finland, for instance, all rank high on my Global Creativity Index. These nations are prime examples of what the political scientist Ronald Inglehart calls “post-materialist” nations, which, unlike traditional socialism, value self-expression over material goods.

They also bear a strong resemblance to Sanders’ own Burlington, Vermont—the state’s largest city and a prominent university hub—where Sanders served as mayor from 1981-1989. Home to the University of Vermont and private institutions like Burlington College and Champlain, the Burlington metropolitan area punches above its weight as a talent magnet despite its small population. Like Sanders, Burlington “has long embodied the earthy progressivism and can-do independence that define the state’s spirit,” as an August article in The New York Times put it. In fact, the city was the first in the U.S. to fund a community land trust and run entirely on renewable energy.

As it turns out, Burlington has an ample share of creative class residents—more than the national average (where the creative class makes up roughly a third of the workforce), on par with cities such as Boston or San Francisco, and even ahead of creative class hubs such as Seattle, Baltimore, Denver, and Austin. Overall, Burlington ranks 20th in the U.S. in terms of its creative class share, with creative class members making up 38 percent of the total workforce. Burlington also ranks 15th in the U.S. on my Creativity Index, a composite measure of talent, tolerance, and technology. Individually, the metro ranks 11th in technology.

Burlington’s share of creative employees exceeds the national average in fields such as architecture and engineering; arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media; business and finance; computers and mathematics; education; and healthcare. Burlington also appears to have a more active population, ranking 8th in terms of the share of the population that walks to work and 334th in terms of the share that drives to work alone.

In short, Burlington is a creative class stronghold—complete with an active, open, and tolerant environment, a highly urban structure, and a healthy share of workers in fields such as architecture, engineering, and high-tech. While Burlington’s service class still makes up the majority of the workforce (nearly 50,000 employees), its creative class (41,560 employees) far exceeds the size of its traditional working class (25,970 employees). Part of this workforce distribution can of course be explained by the fact that more than 90 percent of Burlington residents are white, and roughly eight in ten (80.9 percent) creative class jobs in the U.S. are held by whites.

Still, when it comes to indicators of widespread prosperity, the Burlington metro is less inclusive than the Scandinavian countries that Sanders likes to cite. Although Burlington’s income inequality (based on the Gini coefficient) rivals that of the U.S. as a whole (around .45), it is substantially worse than in Sweden, Denmark, and Finland (with Gini coefficients of around .25 to .30), making these countries far more equal places to live.

Ultimately, what’s interesting to me about Sanders’ brand of “socialism” is that looks more like a creative class variant than a more traditional working-class kind of socialism. His focus on economic equality combined with innovation help explain how a “socialist” candidate resonated strongly with Burlington’s creative class residents—so much so that he was re-elected by the city three times.

It’s clear that support from the creative class helped to foster Sanders’ initial success in Burlington and no doubt shaped the trajectory of his career. On this Super Tuesday, the question remains whether or not mobilizing a base of young, creative class workers nationwide will be enough to carry Sanders all the way to the presidency.

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