U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I - VT)
The Progressive Interview
By John Nichols
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders talks these days about how the United States is becoming a plutocracy. It's serious stuff, with facts, figures, and poignant tales of full-time workers struggling in poverty while billionaires bank their federal bailouts. Sanders is engaging in a discussion that the politicians and the media generally ignore. But as crowds pack the events where he speaks, it's obvious that the democratic socialist from Vermont is striking chords that connect with the American people. He certainly connected in early September when he argued that, instead of rushing to war in Syria, the White House and Congress should be fighting unemployment, low wages, and income inequality.
In a series of discussions during those heady days, Sanders opened up about the degeneration of our politics and the media, and about his frustration with the Democratic Party that he works with but refuses to join
Q: You caucus with Senate Democrats. In the last several Presidential elections, you have supported the Democratic nominee. How do you sort that out? Where do you draw the line between yourself and the Democrats?
Sanders: When I was elected mayor of the city of Burlington in 1981, I ran as an independent. I defeated a Democrat and, in fact, during the eight years that I was mayor, my strongest opponents were the Democrats. What we did was put together a non-party; it was called then the Progressive Coalition. The Progressive Coalition was a grassroots organizations of working families, lower-income people, unions, women's groups, environmentalists and so forth.
We ended up having a very good presence on the city council, and I was elected four times. At that particular moment, in that particular context, moving in a third-party way was what made sense. So that's what we did. Out of that has come what I suspect is the strongest progressive third party in America [the Vermont Progressive Party], which now has 10 percent of the state senators – three out of thirty – and a number of folks in the House of Representatives in Vermont. I am not active in that party but that emanated from what we did in Burlington.
I was elected to the United States House in 1990 as an independent. My choices were: to caucus with the Republicans, which would have been unthinkable; to have no party, no caucus at all, which would have meant no committee assignments and significant ineffectiveness; or to caucus with the Democrats. And I did caucus with the Democrats. In 1990, there was a lot of opposition among conservative Democrats to my being in that caucus. In 2006, when I was elected to the Senate, I was supported by top Democrats, and have been working in that caucus ever since.
So the reality for me is, in this moment, how can I be most effective in the real world that we live in? And that is working within the Democratic caucus, but making it very clear on issue after issue that I am going to stand with working families and take on the Democratic leadership, take on the President time and time again.
Q: This results from structural realities, doesn't it? Unlike in other countries, it is difficult for third parties to develop in the United States, and for independents to get far in our politics.
Sanders: It is very difficult, there is no question about it. I am the longest-serving independent in the history of the United States Congress. It's a tough path. You don't walk into all the money that the Democratic Party has. You have to take on a lot of different kinds of opposition. Where we have been successful, I think, is in reaching out not only in grassroots Vermont but all over this country, getting tens and tens of thousands of small contributions and no corporate money at all.
Q: While you represent one state, it's fair to say that you speak to a lot of Americans who have a desire for different politics.
Sanders: The American people are very far removed from what's going on in Washington because they perceive that neither party is representing their interests.
I come from a working class background. To me, these issues are not very complicated. I know what's going on in my state. I have a sense of what's going on in my country: The middle class is collapsing, poverty is at an almost all-time high, and the gap between the very, very rich and everybody else is getting wider. That's reality. I know it. Every economist in America knows it.
But, amazingly enough, very few people in the United States Congress talk about that issue. And they don't talk about the real issues affecting working people: the loss of decent paying jobs, the unaffordability of college, the fact that millions of families and a whole lot of seniors are having a hard time putting food on the table, the fact that we lost over 60,000 factories and millions of manufacturing jobs in the last fifteen years, the fact that real wages are going down.
That's the reality facing the American people today, and very few members of Congress are talking about it.
Meanwhile, the folks on top are doing phenomenally well. They are increasingly controlling the economic and political life of the country. Who's talking about that?
There is a huge hunger all over the country for representation that speaks to the needs of the average working family. That family, which is struggling. That family, which, for the first time in the history of America, now believes that their kids will have a lower standard of living than they do.
Q: Before the 2012 election, you made number of statements that were critical of President Obama. Starting with your filibuster in late 2010, it was clear that you were pressing the President. Ultimately, you backed him again, as many progressives did, but it seems that you remain uncomfortable with the choices this President has made.
Sanders: Absolutely. Look, in terms of Barack Obama, you are dealing with a guy who is incredibly smart. If you're talking about winning elections, if that's your goal, the two campaigns that he ran were brilliant campaigns that will go down in history as two of the best. And he is a great speaker. So there's a lot to be said about Barack Obama that I like.
On the other hand, there are some fundamental weaknesses that he has. I remember, not so long after he was elected, being in the Oval Office with him. That was a very difficult economic time; that was after the Wall Street collapse. And what I urged him s strongly as I could is not to become Bill Clinton but to become FDR – to try to point out to the American people why the economy had collapsed. Who benefits? Who is hurt? To rally the American people in understanding the causes of our problem and giving them a progressive alternative to where we are at. I think that he would have benefited him substantially if he had accepted that advice.
The end result is that he has not stood up to Wall Street, he has not stood up to corporate America, he has not stood up to right-wing extremism. Instead, time after time, he has tried to work out agreements. The reason I was on the floor in 2010 for that filibuster was because he had sold out completely on the tax agreement. Here you had a moment where you had a Democratic House, a Democratic Senate, and and a Democratic President pushing through and in some cases making worse, Bush's tax breaks for the rich. How absurd is that? The end result is that the American people, I think, lose faith in politics, lose faith in the integrity of people who run for office.
The pity of it all is that Obama has the brains, the charisma, the energy to be a great leader if he chose to rally the working class of this country, to stand up to corporate power. He has chosen not to do that. To call it lost opportunity is to underestimate the damage that his lack of aggressiveness has brought about.
Q: But doesn't a President have to be willing to begin that discussion by saying, as Roosevelt did in 1936 when Wall Street attacked him, “I welcome their hatred”?
Sanders: Exactly. That's right. Imagine if you had President today who says: “I am going to stand with you. And I am going to take these guys on. And I understand that they are going to be throwing thirty-second ads at me every minute. They're going to do everything they can to undermine my agenda. But I believe that if we stand together we can defeat them.”
Obama could have rallied the American people. The idea that the Democratic Party today is losing something like two out of three white working-class voters is beyond comprehension.
When you do not stand up for those folks, where are they going to go? Some of them are going to go to anti-gay issues. Some of them are going to go to anti-women issues. Some of them are going to go to gun issues. You open up a whole bunch of areas where the right-wing can deal with cultural stuff, and working people say: “Well, Democrats are not doing much for me, so I will vote the abortion issue.”
If you had a President who said: “Nobody in America is going to make less than $12 or $14 an hour,” what do you think that would do? If you had a President who said : “You know what, everybody in this country is going to get free primary health care within a year,” what do you think that would do? If you had a President say, “Every kid in this country is going to go to college regardless of their income,” what do you think that would do? If you had a President say, “I stand here today and guarantee you that we are not going to cut a nickel in Social Security; in fact, we're oping to improve the Social Security program,” what do you think that would do? If you had a President who said “Global warming is the great planetary crisis of our time. I am going to create millions of jobs as we transform our energy system. I know the oil companies don't like it. I know the coal companies don't like it. But that is what this planet needs: We're going to lead the world in that direction. We're going to transform the energy system across this planet – and create millions of jobs while we do that.” If you had a President say that, what kind of excitement would you generate from young people all over this world?
Q: But it's not just the President and most of the Congress. The media fails to focus on fundamental issues.
I find it very hard to watch television. I have a sense, as a U.S. Senator, of what's going on in Washington, and what I see on television does not really reflect it. When you watch TV, what becomes so apparent is that it is just another mechanism to sell products to the American people. They fill the space with all kinds of stuff, but much of it is not very relevant. The main function of the media is to deflect attention away from the problems facing working families – and from possible solutions to those problems.
It amazes me that, on any given Sunday, you have millions and millions of people wrapped around their television screen worrying about the Green Bay Packers o the New York Giants, but your are not going to see a discussion of how it happened that their jobs ended up in China.
So anybody who is concerned about the fate of the middle class or concerned about the planetary crisis has got to be concerned about the media.
Q: You have proposed a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling.
Sanders: I believe that the impacts of Citizens United are so dire in understanding the fundamentals of American democracy that a constitutional amendment is appropriate. If presents trends continue, we will have handful of billionaires sitting around a room with a map in front of them, deciding how many hundreds of millions of dollars they want to put into this effort and that campaign. If you are the Koch brothers, who between them sit on something like $50 billion, putting a billion dollars into an election is not a big sacrifice. And you have your friends in the room, the Sheldon Adelsons and the others, who also have large sums of money. This is a hell of a good investment. Buying the United States government is a very, very good investment for a few billion dollars.
This small handful of multibillionaires control the economics of this country. They determine whether jobs stay in the United States or whether they go to China. They determine how much we're going to be paying for a gallon of gas. They determine whether we're going to transform our economic system away from fossil fuel. Economically, they clearly have an enormous amount of power. And, now, especially with Citizens United those very same people are investing in politics. That's what oligarchy is. Oligarchy is when a small number of people control the economic and political life of the country – certainly including the media – and we are rapidly moving toward an oligarchic form of society.
We have got to not only overturn Citizens United; we need public funding of elections. We cannot say the world was great the day before Citizens United. It was very, very bad. Citizens United made it a lot worse. But we can't lose of the fact that we need public financing of elections.
The constitutional amendment is also a fantastic mechanism for grassroots organization. There are people in this country – whether they're conservative, whether they're progressive, whether they're
independent – who think that it is a a good idea for billionaires to be able to buy elections.
And I think you can bring people together to say: Look, we may have our disagreements, but we don't want billionaires deciding who the next governor is going to be, the next senator, the next President of the United States. As someone who believes in that type of grassroots organizing, I think that is a great opportunity.
Q: Is it an opportunity not just to oppose bad policy, but to say it does not have to be this way?
Sanders: We are losing the progressive vision of what life can be like. And, instead, that vision has been replaced by continuous war, huge military budgets, and austerity. The mythology is that we can't afford Social Security, we can't afford education, we can't afford Medicare.
We have got to not only take on corporate America; we have to provide that alternative vision of what this country can be. Give people some hope. They ain't going to see it on CBS and NBC. We have to provide them with the alternative vision so that our young people can understand that this country and this world can look a lot different than it does right now.
JG: If you do not like the pablum that out-of-touch Democrats and Republicans feed you on a daily basis, start thinking for yourself and begin looking for alternatives. The Democrats and Republicans have practically bankrupted the nation. Do not reward them with your votes. And above else, do not believes the lies of Barack Obama and John Boehner. They are part of the problem and not part of the solution.
Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are fringe extremists. If you put them in the White House, you will deserve what you are going to get: A FASCIST STATE! Avoid them like the plague.
Highly recommended DVD: “Too big to fail.” Watch how the oligarchs are destroying the USA, while claiming that they are saving it.