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Half a century ago, Vermont was among the most conservative U.S. states.

Vermont, like neighbouring New Hampshire, voted persistently and proudly Republican election after election. In 1924, the state had produced its only president, (Silent) Cal Coolidge, who once opined that "I have never been hurt by what I have not said." As president, he snored through the Roaring Twenties and retired to his homestead near Plymouth, Vt.

Vermonters, like Mr. Coolidge, were known to be taciturn, to talk a lot about the weather and cows, which it was said outnumbered the people. They also retained a healthy skepticism about New Yorkers, whom they considered abrasive and too loud.

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The Republicans they elected with quasi-religious regularity were nothing like the fire-breathing ideologues that now dominate the GOP. They were Yankee Republicans, surprisingly internationalist in their thinking about the world, tight with a dollar but not unaware of the government's importance for what was then a poor state.

Yankee Republican names have passed into history – senators George Aiken and Robert Stafford, congressman James Jeffords – but they were all of a piece: gentlemen, soft-spoken, as politicians go, and, like their fellow citizens, skeptical of flowery language. Mr. Aiken, asked by president Lyndon Johnson what to do about the Vietnam War quagmire, advised: "Declare victory, and get out."

As the 1960s and 1970s unfolded, Vermont began to change. Newcomers arrived, fleeing the riots and upheavals of major cities, bringing their skills and in many cases more progressive thoughts than the state's traditional ideas.

IBM set up a plant near Burlington, the largest city in the state, and it in turn attracted feeder industries. Bombardier located in Vermont to build subway cars for New York. Communications improved by air and road.

Into this altered demographic and sociological landscape, Bernie Sanders from Brooklyn arrived, a fish out of water if ever one existed. Democrats – by the 1970s there were no longer an endangered species – tended to be moderates, a bit like their Republican friends.

Mr. Sanders spoke with a very thick Brooklyn accent, completely different from the clipped accent of New England. He was brash, very left-wing, a child of the counterculture that has arisen during the turbulent 1960s, the currents from which had reached Vermont with its bucolic geography.

Slowly, a curious cross-pollination emerged. Voices on the radical left, who fell in love with their adopted state, disliked free enterprise whose machination threatened family farms, small businesses, the environment. Traditional Yankee Republicans, like these new voices, liked Vermont as it had always been, and were suspicious of change.

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Disputes broke out about land use – new ski developments, a Wal-Mart near Burlington, consolidation of farms, water use, effluent into Lake Champlain. In these and other disputes, the left and the traditional right joined forces.

The phenomenon of Bernie Sanders, the radical from Brooklyn, cannot be understood without that historical context. He was, and remains, a phenomenon in Vermont who both reflected the changes in the state, now among the most liberal in the union, and abetted them.

He could never have been elected on left-wing votes alone. Something in his railing against Big Business and antipathy to free trade, and his campaigning for the "little people," resonated across political boundaries in the New Vermont.

He rose from being mayor of Burlington, or what his critics called "Red Burlington," to congressman and finally to Senator, even winning areas downstate that had been Republican forever.

He did it by being himself: no spin doctors, ad men, or garnishing of words. He called himself a "socialist" or a "democratic socialist," never once diluting the descriptions into something more politically palatable.

He remained abrasive in tone and personality. Those who have lunched with him remember a figure fixated on himself and his ideas, without many social graces, which is what reporters have noted when he flees rallies without pausing to shake hands.

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Vermont is manifestly unrepresentative of the United States, as is New Hampshire, where Bernie thumped Hillary Clinton in the primary. The two states are overwhelmingly white, whereas the Democratic Party winner must capture an ethnic and racial coalition.

But the Granite State, like Vermont, is small enough to want authenticity in its politicians. With Bernie you get what you get, which in this year of the outsiders, in a country upset at its prospects and uncertain about the future, can push a candidate surprisingly far.

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