Senator Bernie Sanders discusses his blueprint for a populist reform agenda.
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I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
Despite diminished unemployment since the Great Recession, the class of underemployed looms large…and even larger, the lost wages, income gap, and wealth concentrated among the Gilded few.
For this reason, both Democrats and Republicans might be forced to embrace economic populism in the next election cycle, and with us today is one of the most zealous advocates of the middle class. The longest-serving Independent in the history of the US Congress, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is weighing a potential presidential campaign in 2016.
His December 2010 filibuster of President Obama’s extension of the Bush-era tax-cuts for high income-earners galvanized a grassroots campaign manifested later in the Occupy Wall Street movement, whose participation admittedly fizzled and even fell brutally short during the 2014 midterm election.
Undeterred, Senator Sanders is most concerned with what he perceives as a democracy in disrepair… dysfunction by oligarchy, thanks to a donor-rigged campaign system that perpetuates failed two-party rule.
So the first question I’ll present to our guest is straightforward. What is his realistic blueprint for reform? If the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that sanctioned unlimited corporate influence was the final nail in the coffin of the middle class, how can Senator Sanders wage a viable populist agenda to overcome the present condition of the political system?
SANDERS: Well, Alexander, I’m speechless, you said it all. Let’s go home.
SANDERS: You’ve asked, I think the right question and I don’t know the answer, but it’s worth exploring. And this is what I think. First of all the only area where I think you weren’t right in your opening statement, was Citizens United is not the end of the game for the Republican Party.
They want to go further and if you speak to the head of the Republican Party, Mr. Priebus, what he will tell you is that they want to get rid of all campaign finance limitations so that the Koch brothers now will not be forced just to spend hundreds of millions on independent expenditures or put money into “dark” campaigns, so to speak, they will now be able to give anybody a check for an unlimited sum of money directly. So we cut through all the crap and we say, “You’re working for me, here’s your check for $200 million dollars, we’re going to make you Governor of California, or whatever it may be. You’re employed by me”. That’s where they want to go.
We are living in a very frightening moment of American history. And that moment is that despite economic gains in the last six years, unemployment is much lower than it was when Wall Street crashed, the financial system is obviously a lot stronger and the deficit is a lot lower. But despite all of that what we are seeing is a 35 year trend in which the middle class is shrinking and today we have more people living in poverty than almost any time in the history of the United States of America.
Meanwhile, people on top are doing phenomenally well, so that 95% of all new income goes to the top 1% and we have for the most unequal distribution of wealth of any major country on earth, where one family … the Walton family owns more wealth than the bottom 40% of America.
HEFFNER: One thing that seems clear is that with an eroded middle class it will be impossible to champion and to ultimately reform and pass public finance. The two things are interlinked … the, the state and condition of the middle class and the ability for, for public, or grass roots financed campaign, is that right?
SANDERS: I’m not so sure that it’s right. I mean you … in the sense of what getting support, financial support from the middle class of public funding of elections?
HEFFNER: I’m wondering if what you’re after … is your ultimate goal public finance.
HEFFNER: On this issue. It is …
SANDERS: Absolutely … look we’ve got to overturn Citizens United and move to public funding …
HEFFNER: And you’re saying that it could be even more pernicious and damaging to our democracy than when we are today.
HEFFNER: When I ask about a viable platform for economic populism … you’re saying … wait a second the floodgates could even …
SANDERS: Absolutely …
HEFFNER: … expand.
SANDERS: That’s what they want.
HEFFNER: So what are the interim stages … obviously you have to win the message war …
HEFFNER: … but things that occur to political scientists and journalists to … capping expenditures, you can raise funds through private and public contributions, corporate and non-corporate, but it should be capped. How do you get from where we are today to public finance?
SANDERS: What we need … and I often use this … and it’s not rhetorical … I mean it … is we need a political revolution in this country.
What do I mean by that? In this last mid-term election, you had something like 64% of the American people not bothering to vote. You have a situation where almost 70% of the people cannot name the political parties that control the House and the Senate. Most people don’t know who their member of Congress is. What I can guarantee you, Alexander, is there will be no substantive change in politics in America, unless all of that changes, unless tens of millions of people, especially those people who are really hurting today begin to say, “You know, Democracy is about my involvement in the political process, not just the Koch brothers, and I will be damned if I’m going to see my job go to China, I will be damned if they’re going to cut Social Security, I want my kid to be able to get a college education, I want decent wages for a decent income for my family and I’m going to fight for that. Unless we bring that about, I am not hopeful about the future of this country.
So you asked me about how do you get the public funding of elections? How do you get to anything? How do you make college affordable? How do we end the disastrous child care situation in this country? How do you have a tax system in which one out of four corporations today does not pay anything in taxes, how do you change that? We can go and on. But nothing happens unless people are galvanized and participating in the political process.
HEFFNER: I think the argument is nothing happens, too, if we don’t have public free and fair elections. Right. As President, if you ran for President … if you are a Presidential candidate at the time that this airs, because we’re taping, would you support, as a chief priority, campaign finance reform?
SANDERS: Absolutely and positively.
HEFFNER: Is that the number one issue?
SANDERS: I think it is, I’ll tell you why. You know, I believe in a Medicare for all, single payer system. I believe in raising the minimum wage to a living wage. I believe absolutely that we have got to reverse global warming and transform our energy system.
Fifty years ago higher education in great universities like the University of California or City University of New York … were virtually free … tuition … you know that. Today, working class people can’t afford to go to school. I believe we should change that, make college affordable.
But all of those issues pale … and are not going to be dealt with unless you deal with the fact that right now billionaires are able to own the United States Congress. And the only way you deal with that … is you overturn Citizens United and you move to public funding of elections. So if you want to run against me …you don’t have to spend half your life raising money from the wealthy, but we will have an election based on ideas and maximum that either one of us can spend.
HEFFNER: In terms of viability, I hear you saying … when you describe a grass roots political revolution … independence. You are an independent Senator, though you caucus with the Democrats, is that going to be central to building a coalition that will overtake the two party rule system?
SANDERS: Well, that’s a very fair question and I don’t know the answer to that. I mean recent history, or not even so recent history … you’re a little bit of a historian I understand … third party politics has not done particularly well in the United States.
I guess out of the Whigs came the Republicans. But generally speaking the socialist party had a huge impact on FDR. But the idea of building a third party is not so easy.
Now in the state of Vermont, when I was Mayor of the City of Burlington, we took on the Democrats and the Republicans. We did have a third party. And in the State of Vermont probably you have the most significant third party in the United States of America … I can’t remember now … seven or eight people in the Legislature … not three members of the … 10% of the State Senate is Progressive … and a number of people in the House. So we’ve done pretty well in Vermont. But that is a hard task nationally.
But in terms that … I haven’t made the decision … if the question is “Am I going run as an Independent or within …
HEFFNER: Not the question.
SANDERS: That’s not the question … okay.
HEFFNER: I think it just goes to the origin of the issue, which as you describe it, you have an oligarchy, in essence, and from the intro which … with which you seemed to concur … and just that’s the reality.
SANDERS: That’s the reality.
HEFFNER: And therefore, you need to foster a political climate in which whether it’s independent in name, it has to be independent in spirit …
HEFFNER: So, the model, even though he was a Democrat, is Howard Dean to some extent … that is in recent Democratic memory. But from where do you … if, if not from Independent candidates in the past, from where do you, where do you find the inspiration and, and let’s talk about the steps in order to create a political campaign that is not bought and sold by corporations. Because on a national platform, there aren’t very many of them.
SANDERS: Right. That’s an excellent question and I wish I knew all the answers. And I really don’t. This is what I can tell you, which I think is good news.
And the good news is that on virtually all of the major economic issues, the American people are pretty progressive. And if you look at what the Koch brothers stand for and their faction of the Republican Party, I would say that represents 10%, 15% of where the American people are coming from.
So in a fair fight, where our ideas can contrast with theirs, we’re going to win. And it is not just Liberals and it is not just Activists, you’ve got a lot of Conservatives out there, and you know what they say … they say “America is not billionaires buying elections”. There are Conservatives come up to me all the time and say, “You know, Bernie, you’re right, I’m worried about this concentration of ownership and wealth in America. That’s not what America is about.”
And they worry about civil liberties. So on many of the issues we have the people on our side. Question is, how do you bring people together? How do, through a media which is obsessed with personality and celebrity and seeing politics as a game, like the Red Sox versus the Yankees, as opposed to a serious discussion of the issues … how do you do that? It’s tough. All I could tell you is that I have been around the country and I think there is a real yearning on the part of the American people to hear a real discussion on real issues.
Just one question, I’ll give it back to you. As you know, productivity in the country for the average worker has exploded in recent years. Right? The average worker produces a lot more. And yet that person is working longer hours for lower wages. How did that happen? Why did it happen, how do we transform that. You ever seen that discussion on TV? Not very often. That’s what the American people want discussed.
HEFFNER: I’m glad you mentioned the Republicans, too, because I was gabbing before with our studio manager here and I said I was going to push you on this question … not if you were going to partner with Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, but in all honesty there is a strain of economic populism that has been exploited by members of both parties and it hasn’t, in actuality furthered the goals of what you’re describing … livable wage, along those lines. Is there any opportunity here to coalesce with the forces of Conservative economic populism to further make this mission of yours viable? And I, and I know it may sound naïve …
SANDERS: No, it’s not naïve …
HEFFNER: But is there a Republican economic populism that you sense in Washington, DC that moves beyond tax cuts?
SANDERS: Here’s what I think … what the Republicans did very successfully in this last mid-term election, is they said to working people all over this country, they said, “How you doing? Not so good, not so good. Working longer hours for lower wages, can’t send my kid to college, it’s Obama’s fault, it’s all Obama’s fault. Vote against Obama”. And that’s how they won the election.
I think, interestingly enough that if you talk to the Tea Party and you explain to the Tea Party the agenda of the Koch brothers, whose money founded the Tea Party, a lot of these working class guys would be very shocked to know that the Koch brothers want to end Social Security, end Medicare, end Medicaid, end a lot of programs that a lot of working class Tea Party people do believe in.
So our job is to reach out to those people. So if your point is, is there a potential … such as Rick Santorum, it is the people themselves. I think what happens with the Tea Party, they are angry and they’re angry for good reason. They’re working, you know, the average male worker today makes $800 less in inflation accounted for dollars than he made 41 years ago. Despite increases in productivity. Should he be angry? Damn right he should be angry. The problem is he’s angry at the wrong people for the wrong reason. And our job is to say, “Hey, take a look at what’s really going on in this country, who owns the country, who owns the Congress”. That’s a tough mission, but it’s worth exploring.
HEFFNER: I mentioned those two individuals because they have something of a blue collar origin.
HEFFNER: And is that where you’re going to ultimately find the motivation …
HEFFNER: … of the elected public official, public servant who, who makes this his or her mission?
SANDERS: Let me re-phrase the question.
SANDERS: The future of this … the future of this country depends upon the working class of this country getting angry at the right people for the right reasons, and not the wrong people for the wrong reasons. So instead of beating up on immigrants or worrying about gays … or being offended that women are now your bosses … what we have got to do is bring people together to say, “Are you comfortable with so few have so much wealth and power, while so many have so little?”
And it is going to have to be the working class of this country. I don’t mean to sound, you know …
SANDERS: Well, that doesn’t bother me … the, you know, widely rhetorical here … but that’s where the people are. That’s where they are. And there’s a lot of anger out there … and sometimes that anger turns to despair and sometimes that anger again, is, is directed to the wrong people. But we have got to work on that.
HEFFNER: Well, the key words to this conversation thus far have been … despair, dysfunction, disharmony …
SANDERS: All “d’s” … are we … let’s get off the “d’s” …
HEFFNER: Let’s get off the “d’s”. And you mentioned President Obama … and I want to raise this point with you. After eight years … it will have been … of, of an Obama/Biden ticket … that won and oversaw the economy of this country.
Given the fact, as I said in the opening … that unemployment ostensibly is better …
HEFFNER: … let’s assume the country doesn’t wake up … I know that’s what you’re trying to do, that’s your mission … what’s the future? Because Timothy Geithner and Jacob Lew, the two men who’ve held the post that would be important in kind of re-acquainting the country with the economy that you’re describing, as opposed to the investment bankers economy … they see the unemployment statistics improve and think everything’s alright.
SANDERS: Here’s where we’re at … and I think you’re right. It is very fair for the President and his people to say, “Remember where we were six years ago? Six years ago we were losing 700,000 jobs a month … unbelievable. Today, not so good, but we’re gaining 200,000 jobs a month … gaining. Is that better? It is.”
Six years ago, you know what the deficit was … $1.4 trillion, we’ve cut that by more than half … six years ago the bloody financial system in this country and the world was on the verge of collapse, now Wall Street is just doing honkey-dory … they’re doing great. Are we better off? Yeah. Unemployment much lower, etc.
But, what they forget to understand that while it’s better than it was six years ago, it is still, for the average person, quite bad …
SANDERS: … worse than … not six years ago …
HEFFNER: The recession?
SANDERS: … no, no, no …
HEFFNER: Is it …
SANDERS: … yeah, most of the new jobs being created since the recession pay substantially less than jobs that we lost. So what you’re seeing now is a lot of jobs are being created, but many of them are low wage or part time jobs.
Give you one example. There’s been some modest growth in manufacturing. That’s a good thing. Okay. A number of the manufacturing jobs now pay significantly less than they used to. Did you know that? So new plants are … GE … a year ago they expanded their plant in Louisville, Kentucky. And they added a couple of hundred jobs, good news.
And I asked the guy, well, why’d you do that? He says, “Well,” … in so many words, America’s now becoming competitive with the international competition … i.e., the race to the bottom is such that wages have gone down, benefits have gone down and if you understand that the American worker’s more productive than the Chinese worker, and transportation is expensive … let’s re-invest in America. We’ve driven down the standard of living of the average American worker. And that’s what people perceive that they are … yeah, maybe they’re better than they were six years ago, but when you’ve got manufacturing jobs paying $12.00 an hour, which used to pay $20.00 an hour, that ain’t too good.
HEFFNER: The standard of living point is an important one, we’ve talked with many guests so far on The Open Mind on this question of rugged individualism being an ethos of America, in contradiction to some of the values that you’re talking about. Can they co-exist? Can, can we find a standard of living that is decent, or at least sufficient enough which …
SANDERS: Good question. And this is what I think. You know I, I think that Scandinavia has not gotten the credit that it deserves. I had the Ambassador from Denmark coming to Vermont to do a number of Town Meetings with me … the summer before last, we had hundreds and hundreds of people coming out. So you’ve got a country is … would you call democratic … would you call Scandinavia a, a socialist society? Not really. It is a vibrant capitalist society. But what they have also done is to make sure that there’s an equitable distribution of wealth and income. What they also do is have a culture that says that, you know everybody has got to have a piece of the pie. See the lowest wages in Denmark now, often negotiated, are more than double of what the minimum wage is in the United States. You get sick in Denmark, you know what … you walk into the doctor of your choice and you know how much you have to take out of your pocket? Nothing because health care is a right. You know how much college education and graduate school cost in Denmark? Nothing. It is a right.
They have an excellent child care system, so they have created in that country and around Scandinavia … societies which say, it is not just a few who are going to make out like bandits … but let’s create a culture and a society in which everybody has at least a decent standard of living. A Dane told me … you know in Denmark it is pretty hard to become very, very rich, and it is very hard to be poor. Well, in the midst of all that, can you be creative, can you be entrepreneurial, can you create new businesses? The answer is yes, you can, and you should be able to do that. But I don’t think we want a society where 95% of all new income goes to the top 1% and I don’t want a culture where people say, “You know what … I’m making it, I got hundreds of millions, I’m the Koch brothers … I got $85 billion, I’ll be damned … I’m going to destroy Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. And people say, “Go for it, that’s great, you can have it all.”
I don’t believe that’s what America is supposed to be about. So, to answer your question, yes, you can have … you know you can have this individualist effort, you can create wealth, you can create new businesses, all that’s great. But at the end of the day we should not have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on earth. We should not have, despite the modest gains of Obamacare, 40 million people without health insurance. And I think that people will feel better when their efforts create a society which is just for all people.
HEFFNER: You … we also talked off camera about culture gone awry in another sense, which is civic illiteracy … apathy. What’s the antidote …
SANDERS: Whew …
HEFFNER: … that you preach on that.
SANDERS: I don’t know that I’m preaching anything. It’s a tough issue and I’m trying to work it out …
HEFFNER: On the heels of this 2014 cycle …
SANDERS: I know, I know.
HEFFNER: … you said that young people who were disengaged …
SANDERS: Look, look … what I can tell you … this … what I can tell you is that I worry very much about the future of democracy. I mentioned Denmark a moment ago …
SANDERS: … in their last election, if my memory is correct … something like 87% or 88% of the people voted. Some people disagree, but you have a vibrant democracy where people know what’s going on. In this country, most people don’t know which political party controls the House or the Senate. They don’t who their Congressman is. They really don’t know much about the budget. And there are a lot of reasons for that. But I’m not going to blame the victim, which is the American people … on that. You know, we have enormously important programs where people are discussing the fate of the quarterback of the Washington Redskins … or the, you know, what’s going on with Boston Celtics … not a whole lot of discussion about what’s going on in the American economy.
Now how you get people re-engaged in the political process is not easy. But I know for a start that one of the things we damn well have got to do is start talking about the issues that are relevant to the American people. And we just went through a campaign where that didn’t happen.
HEFFNER: Who’s your political hero?
SANDERS: Well, a couple come to mind, Eugene V. Debs, you’re familiar with Debs … many viewers may not be. Debs was a great labor organizer, head of the Railroad Workers Union. He was a Socialist Party candidate for President on 6 occasions, and many of the ideas that he espoused ended up becoming part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a brilliant guy and a lot deeper than I think … you know, he was more than just a Civil Rights hero. This is a man who was a great organizer and a very effective political leader. Those are two people who come to my mind.
HEFFNER: Do you see yourself on the fringe, or do you see yourself as potentially mainstream.
SANDERS: I don’t quite get that question in this sense. I’m a United States Senator, so by definition …
HEFFNER: I, I mean ideologically … I mean …
SANDERS: No, I don’t think …
HEFFNER: Uh, huh …
SANDERS: I don’t think that my views, if I tell you I think the United States should join the rest of the world in guaranteeing health care through a Medicare for all single pay system … now in the United States Congress that is a really radical idea.
You go all around the world, you go the UK and say that … they say, “Yeah, we’ve had a national health system since after World War II, what, what is your issue there?”
If I say that I think that the wealthy should start paying their fair share of taxes and its wrong that one out of four corporations pay nothing in taxes, people are … “Yeah, why is that so radical”. No, I, I …
HEFFNER: I’m, I’m not accusing you …
SANDERS: No, no, no, no … I know you’re not …
HEFFNER: … but, but here’s the thing … Debs, Kucinich … I mean people who have provoked the minds of this country in profoundly different ways from the mainstream Ds and Rs.
HEFFNER: … don’t get the traction and you’re beginning to get the traction.
SANDERS: In that sense, yeah. Look, what I’m telling you and what I believe … is way outside of where most of my colleagues are … absolutely. Sometimes, it’s very funny … you know I go back to Vermont virtually every weekend. And I do Town Meetings … we’ve done hundreds of Town Meetings and talked to people. When I go to Washington, it’s like different planets. You know, it’s an hour and a half plane trip, but it’s like different worlds.
People are living over here and Congress is over here and the Congressional culture and what Congress is allowed to think about and the issues that it is allowed to deal with are so very removed from where ordinary people are.
So, bottom line is … in terms of what I believe … you know, it’s not a question of mainstream … you know … I think most Americans … for example … you go out there and you say “What do you think about cutting Social Security and giving tax breaks to billionaire?”, which is essentially what the Republicans believe. What percentage of the American people agree with that? Five percent, ten percent … I don’t know. The vast majority do not. That’s what the Republicans are proposing. So, I think the views that I espouse … in most cases, not all, are really where the American people are coming from.
HEFFNER: Senator Sanders …
SANDERS: Hey …
HEFFNER: … thanks for being here. (Shakes hand)
SANDERS: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.
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