In March 1981, 39-year-old, Brooklyn-born Bernie Sanders was elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont. In These Times reported at the time, “The poor and disenfranchised in Vermont’s largest city have something to cheer about with the surprise election of Bernard Sanders as mayor.” Locals called it a “mini-revolution.” It grew out of Sanders’ ability to lead a political coalition of low-income working people, public housing tenants, environmentalists, the elderly, community organizations, college faculty, women and disgruntled city workers — including the city police, whose union endorsed him.
In November 1990, Sanders forged a similar coalition statewide, and with 56 percent of the vote was elected to Vermont’s single House seat. As In These Times reported, “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.” During his first year as a U.S. representative, Sanders made his mark as a co-founder the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which is today the largest organized bloc of House members.
In 2006, he was elected to the Senate, defeating millionaire Republican businessman Richard Tarrant in the most expensive campaign in Vermont history.
Sanders spoke with In These Times about the need for progressives to mobilize and the possibility that he might run for president in 2016.
What do you say to folks, particularly young people, who are discouraged about the ability of regular citizens to influence elected officials?
I share the view that neither President Obama nor Congress is addressing the most significant issues facing our country. We can argue whether Obama’s agenda is not as progressive as it should be, but we should recognize that in the House there’s a huge opposition to anything the president says, and in the Senate we’ve needed 60 votes to get anything done. We don’t have the luxury of giving up on the political process. Our political opponents are doing everything they can to stack the deck in favor of the billionaire class, and in fact they want people to give up on the political process. That makes their job easier. We have a war going on led by the Koch brothers and other billionaires against the working and middle classes. Of course it’s very difficult. But the response is not to turn your backs and hide under the carpet. The response is to stand up and keep thinking of ways to effectively mobilize people.
A lot of people have been encouraging you to seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2016. When will you make a decision?
That decision is not going to be made by me alone. It will depend on whether there’s an appetite for a strong grassroots progressive campaign. There are people who would like me to run in the Democratic primary, and there are others who would like me to run as an Independent. But it’s going to be many months before I make that decision. My main concern right now is to make sure Democrats hold onto the Senate.
Hillary Clinton is widely seen as the presumptive nominee. What would you say to people who believe Democrats should all unite behind the frontrunner?
I don’t believe the media has the right to anoint a candidate as the frontrunner. I have known Hillary Clinton for a number of years, and I have a lot of respect and admiration for her. I don’t know if she’s going to run, and I don’t know what her platform would be. But I think a vigorous debate on real issues is a good thing for American democracy.
What would you say to those who say that Democratic Party activism is a waste of time, and what we need is a third, truly progressive party?
Thanks to the Koch brothers and other right-wing extremists, the Republican Party has moved from a moderate conservative party to a right-wing extremist party. It’s also fair to say that the Democratic Party has moved from a center-left party, whose main constituency was the working class of the country, to a centrist party heavily influenced by big money and corporate donations. A lot of people would respond positively to somebody outside of a two-party system, which they hold in a great deal of contempt. The problem is that establishing an independent political structure in 50 separate states is no small thing. You have to start getting on the ballot and developing that infrastructure all over the country. It’s expensive and it takes a lot of time. If you’re in the Democratic primary, there’s an infrastructure already there, it’s easier to get on the ballot, the media would pay more attention and you’d be able to engage in a number of debates with other candidates. So there are plusses and minuses going either way.
As you said, the public debate in this country is between the center and the Right. How does one move the discussion left?
The good news is that on almost every major issue facing this country, there is a strong consensus on where the American people want to go, and it’s certainly not in line with corporate America and the 1%. If you ask people what their main concerns are, virtually every poll says the answer is jobs and economics. They want the federal government to engage in a significant jobs program by rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure. They understand that a $7.25 minimum wage is a starvation wage and want to substantially raise that. I think most people believe healthcare is a right, and a simple Medicare-for-all, single-payer system would have popular support. The American people want Washington to represent them and the environment. But what you have is a system dominated by big money, which isn’t doing that. If we educate and organize, we can push a progressive agenda that would have the support of a significant majority of the American people.
You have said that you “strongly disagree with this concept that there’s a blue-state and a red-state America.” Last fall you toured the South trying to recruit candidates, who, as you put it, “have the courage to stand up to big money interests and represent working families.” What is behind this initiative?
Democrats have made a profound mistake in ignoring large parts of this country. While the world in Vermont is very different from the world in South Carolina or Mississippi or Alabama, the truth is working families are hurting in every state. Most people think we should protect the environment and reverse climate change. You have many states where working people who are now entitled to Medicaid can’t get it because of right-wing governors and legislatures. Not to mount a challenge in a very forceful way in those states is wrong.
Responding to McCutcheon v. FEC, which allows individuals to contribute up to $3.5 million in each federal campaign cycle, you said, “Freedom of speech in my view does not mean freedom to buy the United States government.” How can we the people best counteract these abominable Supreme Court rulings?
The current Supreme Court has issued some of the worst rulings in the history of the judiciary. They’re paving the way for oligarchy in America. Of all the issues I’m concerned about, campaign finance is at the top of the list. If we don’t reverse the current situation where the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson can spend billions of dollars on elections, we’ll end up with not only an economy but a political process that’s controlled by a small number of people. So what do you do? You rally the American people for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, and you move toward public funding of elections.
What role does the independent press, like In These Times, play in helping move the country in a more progressive direction?
I’ve read In These Times for many, many years, as you know, and The Nation and Mother Jones. We have some great media out there, including talk show hosts like Thom Hartmann, who are raising issues that the corporate media does not talk about. That’s important because it educates a lot of people, and some of those ideas will filter on up to media with larger constituencies. But just focusing on the real issues facing working families — and focusing on what climate change will do to our planet — is enormously important. Talking about the truth and standing up to power is an end in itself.
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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.