Bernie Sanders’ Inequality Town Hall Proved How Far Left the Economic Debate Has Moved

Sanders’ live event brought a bold progressive economic vision to 1.7 million viewers, breaking the record of his previous town hall.

Theo Anderson

Sanders' inequality town hall reached an estimated 1.7 million viewers, eclipsing his previous town hall audience. (Photo by Gary Miller/FilmMagic)

In the ongo­ing polit­i­cal war between Right and Left — between dem­a­goguery and egal­i­tar­i­an­ism — clear and open lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion are crit­i­cal. Don­ald Trump has his Twit­ter account. Bernie Sanders has his live-streamed town halls.

Hamilton pointed out the immorality of putting the interests of corporate shareholders above the needs and well-being of everyday Americans. “Somebody's dignity should not be based on the profitability of a firm,” he said.

Trump and his pop­ulist pose have inspired plen­ty of bogus com­par­isons with Sanders, but the two men do share a gift for get­ting around estab­lish­ment media and tak­ing their mes­sage straight to the pub­lic. Sanders did it again on Mon­day night, fol­low­ing up on his Jan­u­ary Medicare-for-all town hall — which reached an esti­mat­ed 1.6 mil­lion view­ers — with an event titled Inequal­i­ty in Amer­i­ca: The rise of oli­garchy and the col­lapse of the mid­dle class.” Along with Sanders, the town hall fea­tured Sen. Eliz­a­beth War­ren (D‑Mass.), film­mak­er Michael Moore and econ­o­mist Dar­rick Hamil­ton, along with oth­er guests.

As with the health­care town hall, the event was live streamed by inde­pen­dent and non-tra­di­tion­al media out­lets, includ­ing the Guardian, Now This, The Young Turks Net­work and Act​.tv, as well as on the Face­book pages of Sanders, War­ren and In These Times. In total, the town hall reached an esti­mat­ed 1.7 mil­lion view­ers, eclips­ing Sanders’ pre­vi­ous town hall audience.

Beyond their rogue media strate­gies, Trump and Sanders are also both deft at help­ing to expand the Over­ton win­dow,” which is a wonky but use­ful short­hand for the range of ideas and poli­cies that peo­ple take seri­ous­ly, and seem pos­si­ble, at any giv­en moment. The con­cept is named after its orig­i­na­tor, Joseph P. Over­ton, a for­mer senior vice pres­i­dent of the Mack­inac Cen­ter for Pub­lic Policy. 

Take the $15 min­i­mum wage. It fell out­side the Over­ton win­dow five years ago. It’s now well with­in it. Dit­to with same-sex mar­riage in the decade span­ning the ear­ly 2000s to the ear­ly 2010s. Right-wing pun­dit Glenn Beck has been espe­cial­ly enam­ored of the Over­ton win­dow con­cept. In 2010, he pub­lished a nov­el with that title. The theme is that pro­gres­sives are plot­ting to destroy tra­di­tion­al Amer­i­can val­ues through a pro­gram of sub­tly sub­vert­ing lib­er­ty and indoc­tri­nat­ing the youth.

There’s noth­ing sub­tle about what is hap­pen­ing now, though. This moment seems sur­re­al and volatile because the win­dow is expand­ing rapid­ly on both ends of the ide­o­log­i­cal spec­trum. Trump and Sanders aren’t the only forces behind the shift, but they’re the most vis­i­ble and influ­en­tial ones.

On the Right, white nation­al­ists are empow­ered by Trump to march in the streets, and the immi­gra­tion rhetoric has moved from push­ing to deport undoc­u­ment­ed peo­ple to ques­tion­ing whether we should wel­come immi­grants into the coun­try at all.

On the Left, a clus­ter of ideas that were mar­gin­al to the polit­i­cal main­stream debate a few short years ago are now right there in the thick of it — not only a $15 min­i­mum wage and uni­ver­sal, sin­gle-pay­er health­care but free pub­lic col­lege, free child care, paid fam­i­ly leave, pot legal­iza­tion, fun­da­men­tal crim­i­nal jus­tice reform, a fed­er­al jobs guar­an­tee and much more. Such poli­cies, which were high­light­ed at var­i­ous points through­out the town hall, have been brought into the main­stream thanks in large part to Sanders’ 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign as well as the ded­i­cat­ed work of grass­roots activists and social move­ments over recent years. And they are like­ly to form the pol­i­cy planks of a poten­tial 2020 pres­i­den­tial run for Sanders or anoth­er left-wing torchbearer.

Sanders devot­ed the final seg­ment of his 90-minute town hall to the ques­tion of why, despite broad pub­lic sup­port for these types of pro­gres­sive poli­cies, they are see­ing lit­tle to no move­ment at the fed­er­al lev­el. Gor­don Lafer, an econ­o­mist at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ore­gon and the author of a book about the Amer­i­can Leg­isla­tive Exchange Coun­cil (ALEC), explained that laws are rigged by the cor­po­ra­tions that fund the politi­cians who do their bid­ding, in a vicious cycle of deep­en­ing corruption.

This is an orga­nized effort,” War­ren said, just sim­ply to take over our gov­ern­ment — take over our gov­ern­ment at the fed­er­al lev­el, take over our gov­ern­ment at the state lev­el, and make our gov­ern­ment work bet­ter and bet­ter for a thin­ner and thin­ner, rich slice in America.”

The first seg­ment of the town hall doc­u­ment­ed the dystopi­an real­i­ties of a rur­al black com­mu­ni­ty in Lown­des Coun­ty, Alaba­ma that has no sewage infra­struc­ture. It also focused on the soul-crush­ing pover­ty of the mil­lions of peo­ple across the coun­try who live under the con­stant threat (or real­i­ty) of homelessness.

Hamil­ton point­ed out the immoral­i­ty of putting the inter­ests of cor­po­rate share­hold­ers above the needs and well-being of every­day Amer­i­cans. Some­body’s dig­ni­ty should not be based on the prof­itabil­i­ty of a firm,” he said.

The sec­ond seg­ment traced the con­nec­tion between the dec­i­ma­tion of orga­nized labor — in part a result of laws passed by ALEC-influ­enced leg­is­la­tures — and the hol­low­ing out of the mid­dle class. As War­ren said to loud applause, Unions built America’s mid­dle class. It will take unions to rebuild America’s mid­dle class.”

Sanders says often that his town halls are nec­es­sary because he’s cov­er­ing issues that the cor­po­rate media won’t touch. It is fair to say that in the last hour and a half,” he said in con­clud­ing the event, that we have dis­cussed more issues that are of vital impor­tance to the Amer­i­can peo­ple than have ever been seen on a tele­vi­sion screen in the his­to­ry of this country.”

And it’s true that while main­stream out­lets remain focused on Stormy Daniels and Russ­ian inter­fer­ence in our elec­tions, they large­ly ignore the crit­i­cal eco­nom­ic issues fac­ing the major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans. As Sanders put it in a recent Guardian op-ed: We need to hear from strug­gling Amer­i­cans whose sto­ries are rarely told in news­pa­pers or tele­vi­sion. Unless we under­stand the real­i­ty of life in Amer­i­ca for work­ing fam­i­lies, we’re nev­er going to change that reality.”

Yet despite cor­po­rate media’s obses­sion with scan­dal and intrigue, bread-and-but­ter eco­nom­ic issues are still what most con­cern Amer­i­cans. Last sum­mer, for exam­ple, Bloomberg News released the results of a poll that asked peo­ple their opin­ion about the most impor­tant issue fac­ing the coun­try.” A sub­stan­tial plu­ral­i­ty — 35 per­cent — said health­care. It scored high­er than immi­gra­tion, tax­es, ter­ror­ism and the U.S. rela­tion­ship with Rus­sia — all of the top­ics that have dom­i­nat­ed the news cycle in the cor­po­rate media for the past year — combined.

What we are wit­ness­ing is an immov­able object vs. unstop­pable force sit­u­a­tion. On one hand, the cor­rup­tion by spe­cial inter­ests of our polit­i­cal sys­tem makes it inca­pable of pass­ing laws that serve the pub­lic good and ben­e­fit the peo­ple. On the oth­er hand, the peo­ple, who may not know in detail how wealthy donors and cor­po­ra­tions buy off politi­cians, can see what’s right in front of their noses: This polit­i­cal sys­tem is rot­ten and bro­ken. Or, more accu­rate­ly, it’s work­ing exact­ly as intend­ed — to enrich the rich, but­tress the oli­garchy and dri­ve inequal­i­ty off the charts.

Such cor­rup­tion gen­er­al­ly has the effect of encour­ag­ing cyn­i­cism, dis­en­gage­ment and pas­siv­i­ty among the pub­lic. If we are fac­ing an unmov­able object, why both­er? Why vote? Why anything.

The remark­able thing about this moment is that — part­ly dri­ven by the shock of Trump, part­ly by pro­gres­sives’ suc­cess in expand­ing the win­dow of what seems doable — cyn­i­cism is being chan­neled into resis­tance, and the pur­suit of a bold pro­gres­sive eco­nom­ic vision.

One live-streamed town hall focused on inequal­i­ty may not seem like much, giv­en the scope and depth of the chal­lenges we face. Sim­i­lar­ly, one vote rarely makes a dif­fer­ence in the big pic­ture. But one by one, they add up to everything. 

Theo Ander­son is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. He has a Ph.D. in mod­ern U.S. his­to­ry from Yale and writes on the intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious his­to­ry of con­ser­vatism and pro­gres­sivism in the Unit­ed States. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Theoanderson7.
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