A conversation with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders
In 1990, a little-known, self-described democratic socialist, the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, ran as an independent and won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, soundly defeating the Republican incumbent. Since then, Bernie Sanders—as of 2006, Senator Bernie Sanders—has not only represented the people of Vermont in Congress, he has been the main proponent of progressive politics in Washington. His is often the lone voice speaking on behalf of children and families, of workers, of our planet, and of our democracy and our future. Pundits often make a distinction between “big D” Democrats and “small d” democrats, and while Bernie Sanders is most definitely one of the latter, he is, above all, a “big I” Independent, pushing back against the corporate takeover of politics and all that it portends.
Sue Halpern: You’ve been a key player in global warming legislation, particularly with your opposition to the Keystone pipeline. Does your being a Vermonter inform how you perceive this global issue?
Bernie Sanders: Well, yes and no. When you live in a rural state where agriculture is so important, when you have a whole lot of lakes and you border on Lake Champlain, you are very aware of the environment, aware of the interconnectedness of things. You know that if phosphates end up in the lake, it’s destructive to a very important part of what Vermont is. And so, yeah, being in a rural, beautiful state obviously impacts my views on the environment. But on the other hand, you could live in the most urban setting in the world—I happened to grow up in Brooklyn—and understand that global warming is a huge issue that has to be addressed, that the planet is at stake, and that we have to take extremely bold actions to reverse global warming. So am I more sensitive to it because I live in a beautiful rural state? Yes. Should anybody in the world be aggressive and anxious about what’s happening? Absolutely.
Sue: Why do you think your colleagues are not?
Bernie: Number one: do not for one moment underestimate the power of the coal companies and the oil companies and their enormous political influence. The Koch brothers and others fund a significant part of the Republican Party, and that has a huge impact. Second, as a result of that funding, as the result of people like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, they have done a very good job in confusing the American people, of making people unsure about the reality of global warming.
If a candidate in an ordinary political environment gets up and says we have to do something about global warming, that now becomes a political liability. So if you take strong steps to address global warming, if you put a tax on carbon, you’re now labeled a “job killer.” So that’s an important reality.
And I think those of us in Congress who believe very differently have not been as effective as we can be. One of the problems is that these days it takes sixty votes in the Senate to get anything done. We’ve had people who are concerned about global warming trying to negotiate with Republicans, but that ended up going nowhere. I think we have to take some responsibility in terms of our political efforts not being as smart as they should be, and we’re trying to work on that right now.
Sue: Is it a money thing, or is it a strategy thing for the Democrats? Or is it both?
Bernie: Well, we are heavily outspent, but I think it’s still a strategy thing. We haven’t been as effective as we should be in making the points we need to. The other problem is we’re in the midst of a recession. And while you may say global warming is a problem, now and in the future, people will say, “Well, that may be the case, but you know what? I’m unemployed. My wages are half of what they used to be. Deal with that today; worry about global warming tomorrow.”
And I think the solution to that is to make the point that if we transform our energy system away from fossil fuel, we can create a very, very significant number of new jobs. If we can make sure that solar panels and wind turbines are manufactured here in the United States, if we are aggressive about weatherization, I happen to believe from an economic point of view, we can create over a period of time millions of jobs.
Right now in Rutland County, Vermont, we’ve got some federal money, and we’re looking at one thousand homes that are being weatherized. The production of the doors and the windows and the insulation—that creates jobs. Not to mention the people that are actually doing the installation work. I think that the evidence is pretty clear that in the last few years, we’ve seen an explosion of solar and wind installations in this country. But we’re just touching the tip of the iceberg here. We can do a whole lot more.
Sue: Did Solyndra kind of screw that up?
Bernie: I wouldn’t say Solyndra screwed it up, but what we know about the right wing is that they do a phenomenal job. Any time anything happens, they pounce on it. It’s called a shock doctrine. On Fox News for twenty-four hours a day, it was Solyndra, Solyndra, Solyndra. It was used by the right wing very effectively. And if it wasn’t Solyndra, it would have been something else. There was a headline apparently, or a blurb on Fox television, which said, “Sustainable energy in America collapsing.” So they use that to try to tell people that investment in sustainable energy is wasted money, that there is no future there, when in fact the truth is the very opposite. Solar is doing very, very well. Wind is doing very well. But the right wing put us on the defensive.
What I worry even more about are the various federal grant programs that are going to expire. They haven’t been renewed. I am told by people in the sustainable energy industry that this will be a disaster.
Sue: One of the things I read about you was that you had run for office many, many times before you were elected. And I’m wondering what it is about politics and about elected office that inspired you and made you want to put yourself in this role.
Bernie: Well, ever since I was very young I think I had a very strong emotional sense of justice and injustice. It always seemed to me to be wrong, especially coming from a family that never had a lot of money, that you had some people who had a whole lot of money and a whole lot of power, and a lot of other people who had neither. It seemed to me that one of our goals as human beings should be to strive for a world where everybody has the basic necessities of life—decent income, decent housing, health care, education—and that motivated me from a very, very young age.
Sue: So you were running as a third party candidate? Liberty Union? Was that what it was?
Bernie: Yeah, in Vermont in the 1960s some people had started a third party, which at that point was dealing with economic justice as well as trying to end the war in Vietnam. And I kind of got into that party in the early 1970s. I don’t remember the year. And very quickly I was nominated for that party. It was a special election. I ran and got 2 percent of the vote.
Sue: Two percent? What do you get now?
Bernie: More than that.
Sue: But then you changed your third party affiliation at some point, right? Or did you run as an independent?
Bernie: I ran four times with the Liberty Union, the last time in 1976, running for governor, and I got 6 percent in that race, I think. And then I stopped running and stopped being active and did some other work. And in 1981, I ran for mayor of the city of Burlington as an independent and won that election by ten votes.
Sue: Ten votes.
Bernie: Yeah. And was reelected three times after that.
Sue: It feels like, at least in certain parts of the state, that there’s still a conservative element running through Vermont. But you have somehow managed to jump the divide so that you’ve got support from farmers who might traditionally not support someone allied with so-called big-spending Democrats. What accounts for this?
Bernie: Well, I think that’s a very important question because, in a sense, it’s not what’s happening nationally. What I believe is that most people around this country who are working people, and that is the vast majority of people—middle class, working class, lower income people—understand that our country from an economic point of view can do a lot better than it is doing. When almost all of the new income in recent years has gone to the top 1 percent, when you’ve got Wall Street acting recklessly and illegally, and driving us into this recession, people, regardless of their philosophical bent, understand that there is something profoundly wrong. They also understand instinctually, if not intellectually, that many people in Washington end up doing the bidding of big money and large corporations.
They understand how much money comes into the White House from Wall Street, comes into the Republican Party, comes into the Democratic Party. They understand that the average candidate is not elected with fifty-dollar contributions, but with PAC money and with heavy-duty contributions from some of the wealthiest people in this country. And my experience has been that people want to see somebody stand up and take the big money interests on. They want to see it at any level of government.
And I think that what I’ve been able to do is to bring people together who might disagree, for example on the issue of abortion or gay marriage or the environment. I have a 100 percent prochoice voting record. I have a 100 percent gay rights voting record. I’m one of the strongest environmentalists in the Congress. But above and beyond those issues, I’ve spent most of my time fighting for working families. Making sure that all of our people have health care.
People have come up to me and said, you know what? I disagree with everything you stand for. I vote for you because at least I know where you’re coming from and you’re consistent. So I think that that, plus the fact that people do want somebody to stand up for working class families, has been one of the reasons I’ve been politically successful.
Sue: So why aren’t there more of you?
Bernie: The answer has everything to do with money. You have a lot of candidates who will raise many millions of dollars, and 1 percent of their contributions will be less than $200. So that’s number one. When you are dependent on big money for your contributions to run your campaign, that clearly influences your worldview and your approach to politics. Second of all, in terms of the way things are done in Washington, lobbying is very significant. The big money interests have an enormous number of lobbyists who come from both political parties. So a good lobbying firm will have on its roster, on its payroll, former congressmen of both parties. So if it’s a Democrat they need to lobby, they’ll send a Democrat. If it’s a Republican, they’ll send a Republican. And these are people who you know, who served with you, and you even know their families. And that has a very significant impact on influencing legislation. So money plays a very, very important role.
Another important factor is the media. You have a corporate-controlled media, which focuses on some issues and ignores others. So issues of income and wealth inequality—until recently—hadn’t gotten a lot of attention. In terms of global warming, if you look at the scientific community, you’ll find an overwhelming percentage of peer-reviewed articles make it very clear that global warming is real, that it is influenced by human behavior. If you turn on the media, that discussion becomes very different. And the average commentator will say, “Well, there’s a difference of opinion about global warming.” But within the scientific community there’s not a difference of opinion. So all of those factors I think influence the politics of Washington.
Sue: So McCain and Feingold were right when they were working together. That if you want to fix Washington, you start with campaign finance reform.
Bernie: Campaign finance reform is huge, absolutely. And clearly Citizens United has made a very bad situation much worse, because historically what I’ve described has been the reality. People have to go out and raise money from very wealthy people. Now what’s happened because of Citizens United is that if you’re a big corporation, you can simply put aside $100 million for campaign ads. And that means two things. First, it means that every time somebody on the floor of the Senate is prepared to vote against big money interests, they’ve got to worry that when they go home the next week, they’re going to be flooded with thirty-second ads demonizing them. Equally disturbing is that these groups can do it without disclosure.
Second of all, if a congressman is prepared to stand up and take the heat, it means they have got to go out and raise more money in order to counteract those ads. So Citizens United is a disaster. And keep in mind that you’ve got a lot of foreign money owning American corporations. The idea that a Chinese company can be playing an active role in American politics is unthinkable, but that is the case right now.
Sue: Is there a way to overturn Citizens United?
Bernie: Well, I certainly hope so. And that’s something we’re working on. We’ve introduced a constitutional amendment to do that. And the goal is to generate a very strong grassroots movement from coast to coast, demanding that we get corporate money out of politics.
At the end of the day, the most significant thing you can do is say that corporations are not people, and that they do not have First Amendment rights. So that’s what we’re working on. Do I think we have a chance? I do. But it’s not going to happen in the very short term. Getting a constitutional amendment passed doesn’t happen overnight.
Sue: Do you think that your election as an independent tells us anything about the future of third parties in the country? Do you think there’s a chance that one will succeed?
Bernie: I do. But it’s harder than it looks. It’s tough stuff. I mean, if you look at Nader’s experience in 2000, one of the things that he was saying in his campaign was that “we may not do all that well, but it’ll be the germ—it’ll be the impetus to start a third-party, Green-type movement.” Well, it wasn’t. So one should not minimize the difficulties of taking on the Democratic and Republican parties.
On the other hand, I think there are areas around the country where circumstances are such that independents can run, where local third parties can run. So I’m not saying that at some point there won’t be the impetus for organized labor and environmentalists to come together to really start a third party. But it’s not so easy.
Sue: It doesn’t seem like our political system will be a good home for a third party. It seems like we’re so entrenched in this dualism.
Bernie: Well, unlike a parliamentary system, you have the difficulty in our system where if you have three candidates—somebody you really liked who was, say, a strong progressive, somebody who was kind of a moderate, and somebody who was an extreme right winger—and you do not think the progressive can win, you’re going to vote for the moderate because you don’t want the real right winger to win. And that’s where the concept of instant runoff voting becomes very, very important. It is more democratic. It gives people the choice to vote for their first candidate and their second candidate, rather than always having to vote for the lesser of two evils.
Sue: Do you identify yourself as a socialist?
Bernie: Well, I don’t go around with a label on me, but if you were to ask me am I a democratic socialist, then yes, I am.
Sue: How do you feel about people accusing Barack Obama of being a socialist?
Bernie: I think people have very little understanding of what democratic socialism is. And one of the areas where I get really angry and upset is the degree to which the media—and our own educational system—has not given our people the opportunity to look at different ideological approaches to government that exist around the world. So when I talk to kids, as I do very often, I say to them, “How many of you are looking forward to going to college?” And many of them are. “How many of you are worried about being able to afford to go to college?” And many of them are. And I ask, “Well, how much does college cost in Germany, anybody know? What does it cost in Finland?”
When I tell them that it costs just about nothing, the kids are really stunned by that. Then I ask about health care in these countries. I ask them if they think it’s expensive like it is here. And they don’t know the answer, either. What many Americans have been told over the years is “socialism equals communism,” which translates into some kind of crazy authoritarian system like North Korea, or maybe the old Soviet Union, and people say, “No, I don’t want that.”
But how many people understand that, in most industrialized nations around the world, health care is a right; that their systems have outcomes that are better than ours; and they’re far, far more cost effective? Do most Americans even know that? No.
So you have my colleagues getting on the floor of the Senate talking about how the United States has the best health care system in the world, when we have 50 million people who have no health insurance. You’ve got forty-five thousand people who will die this year because they don’t have access to health care, and our outcomes, in terms of longevity, in terms of infant mortality, are worse than many other countries. And yet they get on the floor and say, “We have the best health care system in the world.” Even they don’t know.
I believe in democratic socialism. I don’t believe that government should be owning everything, but I do believe that the function of government in a democratic, civilized society is to make sure that every kid has the best educational opportunity available, which means strong child care, which in this country is a disaster, and strong public education. If you have the ability and desire to go to college, that opportunity should be there for you, without you having to come up with $40,000 a year and go deeply into debt. In terms of health care, it should certainly be a right of all people, as should decent housing. Do I believe in that? You bet I do.
Sue: What do you tell a young person who’s interested in going into politics, knowing how broken it is and how money influences the whole system to such an extreme?
Bernie: Well, the first thing I would say is you’ve got to know why you’re going into politics. I talk to a lot of kids, and kids say, “I’d like to be governor someday,” or “I’d like to be a senator,” “I’d like to be president.” Well, why would you like to do that? “Well, you know, it’d be really cool to do.” Well, some people want to win the American Idol contest, and some people want to be actors and actresses, all of which is fine, but that’s obviously not what real politics is. So if a young person’s goal is simply to get elected, that’s really not quite good enough. You’ve got to know what you believe in, and you’ve got to be figuring out how we can move our state, our country, in that direction.
And where do you go from there? Do you start off by saying, “Well, the only way to get elected is I’ve got to start compromising, because nobody agrees with me”? Well, that’s one approach; I think it’s a bad approach. The other approach is to say, “Okay, what do I believe in and how do I bring other people around to my point of view?” And that may mean, by the way, not just jumping into electoral politics. There are a lot of good activities going on in the state of Vermont and in this country that have nothing to do with electoral politics but do have to do with organizing and educating people as a group.
Education and organizing are more important, actually, than running for office. Running for office is the frosting on the cake. But what the cake is about is creating the consciousness that says, yeah, global warming is real, we have to reverse it, and by the way, as we do that, we become energy independent, we save hundreds of billions of dollars that we don’t have to send to Saudi Arabia, we reinvest it in sustainable energy in America, we create jobs.
Educating people—that’s called grassroots, that’s strong grassroots effort. And that’s terribly important, because ultimately, you can’t move the country forward unless at the grassroots level people have a clear understanding of what’s going on and how we can improve the situation.
Sue: Last question. If you project out ten years, twenty years, what does our democracy look like? What do you think it is really going to look like, and what do you really want it to look like?
Bernie: We are in a very volatile moment, a very, very volatile moment. You could see that volatility in the Republican primary, where every day a new guy was in the lead. Here’s what I think the good news is at this moment: many of us understand that transformative politics—the big stuff, whether it’s the civil rights movement, women’s movement, or the environmental movement—none of that stuff came overnight.
People whose names you don’t know, whose names I don’t know, were dying in the ’30s and the ’40s and the ’50s fighting for civil rights; nobody knows who most of them were. Women’s rights, as you know, before we even got a constitutional amendment to allow women the right to vote, that struggle took decades. The environmental movement, which still has a long way to go, was around for a long time before it caught public consciousness. So my point is that sometimes you can take a fairly big step after years of organizing.
You asked me about money in politics. So can we make a giant step where the American people say, “Excuse me, this is not what American democracy is”? The answer is yeah; we may be able to do that. Can I promise you that that will happen? No.
I’m not pessimistic. We can do those things if we are smart and well organized. I think also there is a growing consciousness that we have seen just in the last year about the evils of income and wealth inequality, and what Wall Street is really about. But we have a long, long way to go. Very few people understand the power of Wall Street. Very few people understand what the Fed does and does not do. But more and more people are interested in those issues.
I think that Occupy Wall Street, for example, touched a nerve. People are questioning things. They’re asking if it’s right that the middle class is collapsing while the rich are becoming richer. They’re questioning how come the crooks on Wall Street who caused this recession and massive unemployment are now doing better than they’ve ever done before. There’s a growing consciousness. So I am not unoptimistic that we can make significant strides forward in creating a more democratic society, a society in which the middle class is once again growing, where our kids have more opportunity.
But what we are up against now is just enormous opposition—very, very formidable and smart opposition coming from well organized right wing organizations that now have at their disposal hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to put into the political process. And I’m worried about the media—the concentration of ownership of the media and what that means. So, again, I would say it’s a very volatile moment.