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Bernie Sanders is angry. In fact, he’s furious. He’s mad about income inequality, and about the decades of economic policies and trade agreements that he says have gradually eroded the middle class. He’s mad at Republicans in Washington, DC, who want to gut spending for entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. He’s mad at House Speaker John Boehner for suggesting last week that the US might have “no choice” but to send ground troops into Syria. He’s mad at everyone in Congress for not doing more to address climate change, or to rein in the financial industry after the 2009 economic meltdown. He’s mad—really, really mad—about the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, and about the overwhelming political influence of corporate campaign contributors. He’s mad at Democrats for not being mad enough. And he wants you to start getting mad too.
It’s for all of these reasons, plus a couple of others, that Sanders, the independent US Senator from Vermont and a self-described “democratic socialist,” is seriously considering running for president in 2016. While Democrats quietly wait for Hillary Clinton to declare her presidential plans, Sanders has publicly made it clear that he plans to challenge the party’s heir apparent from the left, tapping into a growing wave of populism among liberal activists upset about issues like income inequality, climate change, and corporate cronyism. Already he’s making moves that threaten to complicate Clinton’s presumptive White House bid, popping up at events in Iowa and New Hampshire, on Meet the Press, and at progressive rallies like last month’s Climate Change March to build support for a grassroots “revolution” that he sees as a progressive response to the Tea Party movement.
Of course, Sanders knows that he has little chance of winning anything in 2016, and not just because American voters don’t tend to take kindly to candidates who embrace “Scandinavian-style socialism.” A 2016 poll released by McClatchy/Marist over the weekend showed Sanders with just 4 percent support among Democratic voters, trailing Joe Biden, who came in with 15 percent, and Elizabeth Warren, who came in at 8 percent. (Clinton was the overwhelming favorite, leading the other candidates by nearly 50 points.)
But long-shot presidential candidates have a way of influencing US elections in profound and interesting ways, forcing frontrunners to talk about issues that they might have otherwise liked to ignore. So I called up Sanders last week to find out more about how he wants to change the national conversation.
VICE: You’ve been sounding the alarm on inequality and the decline of the middle class for quite a while. Do you think people are starting to pay attention?
Bernie Sanders: Absolutely, I think the overwhelming majority of the American people are deeply concerned about the collapse of the middle class, about the fact that tens of millions of Americans are working longer hours for lower wages, and that the gap between the very very rich and everybody else is getting wider and wider. Everywhere I go, people are outraged that 90 percent of all new income generated in this country since the Wall Street crash is going to the top 1 percent, while the vast majority of the American people are seeing a decline in their incomes. So yes, there’s outrage out there and people want a government that represents them and not just the top 1 percent.
You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you’re thinking of running for president in 2016. Have you come to a closer decision on that?
I was just in New Hampshire and I’m going to Iowa next week, so I am going around the country just trying to hear from as many people as possible about if they think that the agenda I would run on—which is basically to protect the interest of working families and take on big money interests—really has resonance in their areas. So we’re still doing a lot of talking but I haven’t made a final decision yet.
Do you think it’s possible to channel your messages into a political campaign for 2016?
I believe so. One of the problems is that while the Republican Party has become a far-right extremist party controlled by the Koch brothers and other billionaires, and the Democratic Party has not been as clear as it should be in making the American people aware of the fundamental economic issues facing this country and their willingness to fight on behalf of working families and take on Wall Street and corporate America. All I can tell you is that in my political life there is virtually no special interest, whether it’s Wall Street, the military-industrial complex, the pharmaceutical industry, oil companies, coal companies— you name it— I’ve taken them on.
Basically, my view is that the American people are hurting, they are angry, and they worry very much about what’s going to happen to their kids. So, if the question is, “Do I believe that a strong, progressive agenda can motivate many millions of americans to stand up and fight back, yes, I do believe that is the case.”
It seems like there is often a disconnect on the left between a progressive, anti-corporate agenda and the political reality that it takes a lot of money to run a political campaign. Do you think it’s possible to become president of the United States, whether it’s you or someone else, without becoming beholden to some kind of interest group?
You have to define what the “interest groups” are.
Anyone who has a lot of money and an interest in influencing policy.
I think that’s a good question, especially since this disastrous Citizens United decision, which now enables billionaires to spend unlimited sums of money. It’s a very legitimate question to ask whether the billionaires can be beaten, or whether their money and power are such that it is impossible to take them on. My view is that I think we still can beat them. I think we have to overturn Citizens United and move to public funding of elections. What is going on now is an absolute disgrace.
I think it is possible, if one runs a well-organized campaign and if one is able to mobilize millions of people to stand up against big money and trust that they can be defeated. But you raise a legitimate question. It may well be that at some point in the not-so-distant future, these guys who own the economy may be absolutely able to control completely the political processes with their money. It’s certainly what the Koch brothers want to do, and it remains to be seen whether they will be successful.
Democrats have also been able to get plenty of billionaires donating on their side. Does that present similar issues? Or is it a case of Good Billionaires vs. Bad Billionaires?
Let me respond in two ways. I think the media has said, “Both sides are getting money from the very rich.” The answer is yes and no. The truth is that the Republicans are receiving a lot more money from the very wealthy, from the Koch brothers alone—who I understand will put $400 million into this campaign—not to mention many other people. So it is not a question of equivalence. One side is getting far, far more from the very rich than the other side is.
On the other hand, I personally, very strongly, believe that we have to overturn citizens united. I don’t think that any billionaire, regardless of his or her politics, should be able to play a significant role in a campaign. It’s not what democracy is about.
The third point that I would make is that when people say, “The Democrats are getting money from very rich people,” is that it’s true, though the Republicans are getting a lot more. Then you have to ask yourself, “What are the rich people donating to the Democrats concerned about?” You have some billionaire out there who’s legitimately concerned about global warming. You know what? Global warming is one of the great planetary crises that we face and it must be addressed. What are the Koch brothers concerned about? Their concern is that we should use more and more fossil fuels, that we should build the Keystone Pipeline, that we should significantly weaken the Environmental Protection Agency, and, by the way, that we should cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and education. It’s not enough to say that there are billionaires on both sides. You’ve got to ask what they want.
At the end of the day, I personally want to see all billionaires unable to heavily influence campaigns. I want to see Citizens United overturned, and I want to see public funding of elections.
Do you think it’s possible that Congress would pass a constitutional amendment that would overturn Citizens United, or is that just a pipe dream?
Well, as you know, although it didn’t get much media coverage, we debated that issue a few weeks ago in the Senate, and every Republican voted against proceeding to a legislation that would overturn Citizens United. I think that the overwhelming majority of Americans—Republicans, Democrats, and independents—understand that Citizens United is a disastrous decision that is having a profoundly negative impact on American democracy. I believe that if we are capable of mounting the kind of strong grassroots effort that we need, which means getting state legislatures on board, city councils on board, millions of people on board, then yes, I do believe we can overturn it.
Congress has been bogged down recently by a lot of vague philosophical arguments about the size and role of the federal government, and consequently hasn’t been able to get anything else done. One instance in which that wasn’t the case was in passing the Sanders-McCain Veterans Bill, to expand healthcare options for veterans and also hold the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) accountable for hiding long wait times. Can you talk about how you got that done? I’ve heard there was a lot of shouting involved.
Well, you’re right. The VA bill will provide $17.5 billion into the VA for healthcare and deals with some other important issues including affording educational opportunities to Gold Star Wives [spouses of veterans who have died in service] and helping young veterans be able to go to college. It was an important piece of legislation and I’m glad we were able to get that passed. I think the reason we were successful is that, in terms of veterans issues, across the political spectrum, whether you’re progressive or conservative, I think one understands that it would be grotesquely immoral not to address the problems facing people who put their lives on the line to defend this country. And that was the reason I think we were able to bring people with different political ideologies together around this bill.
I’m afraid that on many other bills the ideological divide is so great that I am not optimistic. The Republican agenda is pretty clear. They want more tax breaks for the very rich and for large corporations. And the end of the day, they’re going to want to cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, nutrition programs—that’s their agenda. I think they are way out of touch from where the American people are. I think they may be in touch with where the Koch brothers are, but not where the average American is. And that’s the problem that we have. I think you have a lot of people in Congress who are not reflecting the views of the vast majority of the American people.
What we need is a political revolution. We need to end the situation where, in this coming election, the estimate is that 60 percent of the people are not going to vote. We need to change that and get people much more actively involved in the political process than is currently the case.
How do you think that happens?
It ain’t easy, that I can assure you. It means a lot of grassroots organizing. It means knocking on millions of doors and educating people as to what the right-wing Republican agenda is about. We just sent out a Facebook post talking about what the Koch brothers’ agenda is. It’s an extreme right-wing agenda that most of the American people do not agree with, but people don’t know it. So we have to do a lot of educating, and one of the problems we have is that the corporate media is not particularly interested in doing that, so we have to do it for them. We need to educate, organize, and make it very clear to working families that there is a war going on against their wellbeing, and they’re going to have to fight back.
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