Sanders Steps Up

The representative for the rest of us sets his sights on the Senate

Joel Bleifuss

Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has said that he plans to seek the Vermont Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) in 2006.

Judging from his popularity, Sanders’ election is all but assured. If he takes office, he will become the Senate’s most progressive member.

In These Times has been following Sanders for 24 years. In March 1981, when he was elected mayor of Burlington, Alan D. Abbey wrote:

The poor and disenfranchised in Vermont’s largest city have something to cheer about with the surprise election of Bernard Sanders as mayor. A left political activist with a commitment to social and economic justice, Sanders toppled a five – term conservative Democratic incumbent. … The 39-year-old Sanders, a Brooklyn native, built a political coalition unprecedented in rural Vermont. It included low-income working people, public housing tenants, the elderly, community organizations, college faculty and disgruntled city workers.

Two years later, In These Times covered his re-election. David Moberg wrote:

On March 1, 1983, with a voter turnout that jumped more than 50 percent above usual municipal elections, Sanders swamped his Democratic and Republicans rivals with 52 percent of the vote. …
Politics is not dissimilar to art,” Sanders said as he reflected on his recent victory. What is it that makes a great novel or film different from a fair novel or film? In a sense you’ve got to inspire the people, and you’ve got to talk to them where they’re at today. … People have got to develop confidence in themselves. They’ve got to believe they can do it. … I’m elected because I probably knocked on more doors than anybody in the history of Burlington. … You can’t be afraid of the people – and you’ve got people who sit around talking continually about the people, the people, the people, but God forbid they’ll ever go out and knock on a door.” … 
At the Suds City Laundromat in Burlington’s Old North End, a blue-collar Sanders stronghold, Massie, a 27-year-old truck driver who had lived in Burlington 10 years but wore a cowboy hat and a Texas shirt with an armadillo on it, said, Sanders was the only guy who made any sense in this town in the past 10 years. … If Reagan listened like Bernie does, the country would be better. He cares about the environment, the work situation, how you make a living, if you’re down and out. It’s a good, positive attitude for city government. So far, what I have seen of [his socialism] I like. I don’t consider him a communist or anything like that. I think its an idea of getting people to work together, to stop a segregated society with the upper crust and lower class.”

In 1990, Mayor Sanders ran for Vermont’s lone U.S. House seat, a race he had lost by 3 percentage points in 1988. Kevin J. Kelley, reported on that election for In These Times:

Sanders ousted first-term Republican incumbent Peter Smith by a whopping 18 percentage point margin [57 to 39 percent] … Sanders succeeded November 6 by replicating on a statewide level the coalition that enabled him to win four terms as Burlington mayor by increasingly comfortable margins. Beginning with a base of ideologically committed and well-educated young and middle-aged voters, Sanders fashioned a strong appeal to working-class and older Vermonters, many of whom normally vote for Republicans. It is this singular ability to find support across cultural lines that accounts for the first congressional victory by an independent socialist in over 40 years. … Smith committed a fatal error. His campaign aired a TV ad questioning his opponent’s patriotism and charging that Sanders’ socialist beliefs were inconsistent with Vermont values.” … That caused a tight race to become a rout. … Attempting to portray Sanders as a closet communist was a particularly stupid maneuver since even many of his staunchest opponents have come to regard Sanders with grudging respect. After 20 years of tireless campaigning, Vermonters know that Bernie Sanders’ agenda is anything but hidden.

Once in Washington, Rep. Bernie Sanders founded the Progressive Caucus, which now numbers 54 members. Following the disastrous 1994 mid-term election, Sanders wrote an essay in In These Times, Wake Up Call,” in which he said:

Has Clinton been a better president than Reagan or Bush? Yes. Have his policies begun to seriously address the enormous problems facing our nation? No. Has he tried to build a political movement that would empower working people so they could make real improvements in their lives? Absolutely not. Clinton and his party depend on corporate money and the support of wealthy donors. … We should not be surprised that the president has refused to lead the effort for real campaign finance reform. … 
The Progressive Caucus will urge President Clinton to take the lead in explaining to the American people why the Contract with America” will be a disaster for the elderly, workers, veterans, women, minorities, students, the poor and our environment. … 
Yes, the wealthy control the media and exert a dominant influence over the political and economic life of the nation. But 95 percent of the American people are not wealthy. Clinton’s political future, and the defeat of right-wing Republicanism, rest on his ability to understand this simple point – and to make it clear to the ordinary people of this country, that he is on their side.

In recent years, Sanders has appeared in In These Times as a contributor to the magazine’s House Call” column. We caught up with him in St. Louis at the National Conference for Media Reform (where he was received with a standing ovation) and asked about his plans for the future.

If elected, or should I say when elected, what kind of leadership will you bring to the U.S. Senate?

If I’m elected to the U.S. Senate, I think it would be fair to say that I’ll be the most progressive voice in the Senate and that I will continue to do the work that I did in the House. There are many huge issues out there, but my major emphasis will be on economic issues and addressing what I consider to be the collapse of the middle class: the fact that despite the huge increases in productivity and technology, the average American worker is worse off today than he or she was 30 years ago. It’s important that Congress and the media start focusing on that reality: the growing gap between the rich and poor, the increase in poverty, our disastrous trade policy, the fact that we’re the only country in the industrialized world that doesn’t have a national health care program and the increasingly regressive tax structure. Those are some of the issues I’ll be talking about and talking about very loudly.

A few Democratic senators have brought up some of these issues. How will you be different?

My intention is to work with grassroots organizations, trade unions, environmental groups and active citizens’ organizations to try to revitalize American democracy. It’s obvious that one person or even five or 10 people in the U.S. Senate cannot do it alone.

What we really have got to do is bring about a fundamental political change in this country. We need to change political consciousness and focus on the reality that many working people are voting against their own economic interests because political leaders are not speaking to the interests of working people. My goal is to form a new relationship between grassroots America and Washington, to coordinate activities, and to create what the vast majority of people in this country want – economic justice and not a government run by the very, very wealthy. It’s going to take a lot of work. It’s not going to happen overnight. But that’s my goal.

Why do you think the Congress never talks about issues of economic inequality or debates trade policies?

That’s a very good question and the answer is quite sad: To a very significant degree, big money interests control Washington. I can document for you exactly the people who pay for legislation that comes on the floor of the House, whether it’s the so-called energy bill that is paid for by the coal companies, the oil companies and the nuclear power companies; whether it’s this obscene repeal of the inheritance tax that is paid for by billionaires; whether it’s the bankruptcy bill or whatever it may be.

Big money has unbelievable power in Washington. They control the debate. Especially right now, where you have an administration that works hand-in-glove with the wealthiest people in America and the largest corporations. There is timidity in Congress, even fear, that if you speak up they’re going to throw huge amounts of money against you.

I was the first member of Congress to take constituents over the Canadian border to expose the reality that, in Canada, people pay a fraction of the price that we pay for prescription drugs. A number of elected officials who have also been doing that have been slapped around by the pharmaceutical industry, which has limitless sums of money to put into campaigns. People are terrified of standing up to big money because they’ll be punished through campaign advertising at election time.

Over the years you’ve developed a strong base among working people in Vermont, a base that has ensured your re-election. How can other progressives running for public office do the same?

When I was mayor of Burlington, low-income and working people supported me because they knew that I was fighting for their interests and succeeding. We significantly transformed working-class neighborhoods, provided programs for the kids and the elderly, and built affordable housing. As a congressman, I’ve worked hard to protect some of the most vulnerable people in our state, the people who don’t make large contributions to the Republican Party. I’ve helped lead the effort against our disastrous trade policies and have protected the pensions of thousands of Vermont workers. My office has brought a federal program into the state which provides good nutrition for over 5,000 lower-income seniors, we’ve helped develop federally qualified community health centers and dental clinics that provide medical and dental care for people all over the state. I’ve held dozens of meetings for Vermont veterans, helping many of them get the benefits to which they’re entitled. People in Vermont recognize that while they may disagree with me on this or that issue, I spend the bulk of my time fighting for their rights and that we have had some very significant accomplishments.

Too often, people on the left look at cultural issues as the most important issues. They are important, but we have to appreciate the reality that tens of millions of people are struggling hard just to keep their heads above water economically. They either have no health insurance or they are paying much more than they can afford for health insurance. They’re desperately trying to get a decent education for their kids. They’re scared to death about whether their pension is going to be there when they retire. To a large degree we’ve ignored those people. It’s important that we reach out to them and let them know that we know what they’re going through and that we’re going to change the system. It is not acceptable that America is the only country in the industrialized world without national health care. It is not acceptable that we haven’t raised the minimum wage in 10 years to a living wage, that we haven’t addressed the major crisis in affordable housing. Homelessness is a problem, sure, but a bigger problem is that millions of people are spending 50 percent of their limited incomes on housing. When you are forced to do that, how do you have money to provide the basics for your family? The middle class in America is collapsing. And it’s about time we started addressing that reality.

From what you just said, I assume that you think John Kerry could have run a better campaign in 2004.

I don’t think John Kerry ran a bad campaign. Obviously they made some mistakes, like not responding quickly to those vicious lies about his record in Vietnam. But the problem with John Kerry’s campaign was John Kerry’s record and there was nothing they could do about that.

I’m convinced that if he had voted against NAFTA and if he had not voted for permanent normal trade relations with China, John Kerry would be president of the United States today. He came up with an approach of not giving tax breaks to companies that go abroad, but the real issue was our trade policy, and he voted the wrong way. Of course he wasn’t alone. Bill Clinton gave us NAFTA.

The trade issue is a huge issue. We’re losing millions of decent paying jobs, not just blue-collar jobs, but white-collar information technology jobs as well. We’re seeing the conversion of our economy from a General Motors economy to a Wal-Mart economy. And we’re also seeing the sellout of our country by the CEOs of large corporations. These CEOs, whose companies have become enormously wealthy and profitable on the backs of American workers and consumers, are now moving abroad and pushing us into a race to the bottom as fast as they can. It’s simply not acceptable that these CEOs, who make 500 times what their employees earn, are reducing us to a third world economy. It’s not acceptable that CEOs like Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric said, When I’m talking to GE managers, I talk China, China, China, China, China.”

For years we were told how terrible communism was and how we had to be anti-communist. But now these guys love China! They love authoritarianism. They love the reality that they can pay desperate workers in China 30 cents an hour and send them to jail if they stand up for a union. Who’s talking about that issue?

I get on FOX television, every now and then, and they made a mistake the last time I was on and allowed me to talk about trade. When I got back to the office the next day, I had 50 e-mails and 95 percent of them said, I’m a conservative Republican and you’re absolutely right about the issue of trade. Bush’s policies are an absolute disaster.” That’s from conservative Republicans.

If, when, you’re elected senator are you afraid of being red-baited and marginalized by the cable networks?

Afraid of being red-baited? I’m being red-baited already. Everybody in Vermont knows that I’m a democratic socialist. It’s so well known that nobody talks about it anymore. But suddenly, now all over the national media, it’s socialist, socialist, socialist. Believe me, they’ll be talking about the Socialist-Democratic Caucus if I’m elected. Of course the Republicans and the corporate media are going to red-bait me. The Republican Party is so bankrupt in terms of ideas that they have nothing to say on health care, the economy, education, the environment or the real issues that affect the American people. All they can do is wage smear campaigns and wars of personal destruction. Do we expect that? Of course we do.

What is being said about the war in Iraq in Congress? It seems to be spiraling even further out of control and there has not been a forceful, strong movement about getting out of Iraq.

I not only voted against giving the president the authority to go to war, I was one of the leaders in opposition to the war. Needless to say, I was far from alone. In fairness to Democrats, many Americans don’t know that a majority of House Democrats voted against giving the president the authority to go to war. I must say that in covering opposition to the war, both at the grassroots level and in Congress, the corporate media was terrible. Opposition thought and the extent of the opposition was very poorly covered.

The issue today, of course, is what do we do now? The answer, I believe, is to go back to what Vermont’s Republican Senator, George Aiken, said in the 70s about Vietnam: Declare victory and get out.” I recently voted against the $82 billion supplementary funding for Iraq because the president has not said one word about an exit strategy, about when our troops are coming home. How many more years will we be in Iraq, how many more Americans will be dying there, how many more billions will we be spending? The president doesn’t talk about that and that is not acceptable. Can we leave tomorrow? No. But we can and must begin the process of withdrawing American troops as soon as feasible and transferring responsibility to the Iraqi government and their military.

What is the role of the individual and individual leadership in American politics? And who are some of your historical role models?

In contemporary history, Paul Wellstone was the only senator in the Progressive Caucus, and he and Sheila were very good friends of mine. With Paul’s death there is a real gap in the Senate that I would like to fill.

As a leader you do what you can do. For Vermont, I use my office to do what other members of Congress do, trying to bring money back home and to vote the right way. But, unlike many other members of Congress, we also use our office to educate and organize. When people say Vermont is a progressive state, they have to understand that it wasn’t always that way. There are a number of factors involved in that, but one of them is that we have held hundreds of town meetings, both congressional and campaign, in smaller towns and larger cities throughout the state. In Vermont we held the first congressional town meetings in the country on corporate control over the media and the USA Patriot Act. At a meeting last week in Springfield, Vermont, more than 250 people came out to talk about poverty. We use our office to educate and organize and to bring people together to discuss some of the most important issues facing this country. When people get the opportunity to talk about the real issues, it becomes clear how vacuous the present agenda is. I have never met anyone in Vermont who thinks it’s a good idea to give tax breaks to billionaires and cut back on health care and education. Nobody. It’s only when political consciousness is very low and people aren’t talking about the real issues that somebody with a straight face can present the Bush agenda.

You’ve been examining issues and setting an agenda at town meetings across Vermont. What role does the media play in exploring issues and setting the national agenda?

Corporate control of the media, media consolidation and growing censorship threats are enormous issues that we have been actively involved with. The central issue is not just the right-wing slant of the corporate media. That’s obvious. All you have to do is look at how they covered the war in Iraq and how millions of Americans had to go to the BBC or the CBC to get an objective view. It’s not just the difference of how they covered Bill Clinton who was under attack before he took office and under attack when he left office. This was Clinton, a moderate democrat, as opposed to Bush, a right-wing Republican, who gets very little scrutiny compared to Clinton.

The far more important issue is what they don’t cover. To the average American today, the most important issue is why that person is working longer hours for lower wages and why his or her standard of living has declined over the past 30 years. But for much of the corporate media it’s a non-issue. The growing gap between the rich and the poor, the fact that we have the most unequal distribution of wealth of any major country on Earth, the fact that we are the only industrialized country in the world without a national health care system – those are also non-issues. Will the media talk about our health care problem? Sure they will. Will they talk about how other countries are doing better for less? No they won’t.

The reality of people’s lives is not reflected in the media, and therefore people begin to question their very existence, as if they were the only ones struggling hard. And as a result they think their problems are unique to them, and are not social or political problems that we as a nation can solve by working together. The result of that is that people lose interest in the political process, don’t vote or simply pay attention to the cultural issues that the right-wing propagates.

In my view, the corporate media is certainly one of the main factors in the depoliticalization of our country and the low level of political consciousness.

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Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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