Bernie Sanders, the independent, socialist Representative from Vermont, is poised to win the Senate seat vacated by Jim Jeffords in 2006. According to the Associated Press, Sanders has received donations from 100 times as many Vermont supporters as his likely opponent, the self-financed, Bentley-driving corporate executive Rich Tarrant.
An outspoken critic of the Patriot Act, the first lawmaker to take a busload of constituents to Canada to buy prescription drugs, the leader of a successful effort to block the Bush Administration’s plan to slash worker pensions, and an economic populist with crossover appeal to Vermont’s rural dairy farmers as well as liberals in Burlington, Sanders is the kind of down-to-earth grassroots candidate willing to oppose the Republicans in no uncertain terms. Without taking corporate PAC money, he has managed to win against better-financed Republican opponents again and again. In 1996, when Newt Gingrich put up a well-financed candidate to unseat him, Sanders won reelection with 55 percent of the vote.
In September, Sanders came to Madison, Wisconsin, for “Fighting Bob Fest”—a progressive rally held annually in memory of Robert M. La Follette, the great Senator who helped usher in the Progressive Era. I caught up with Sanders at a hotel in downtown Madison, where he was preparing to speak to a group of lawyers at a fundraiser for his campaign and that of a fellow opponent of the Iraq War, Representative John Conyers.
Unlike many of his colleagues in Washington, Sanders has an utterly unassuming manner. Any other candidate for national office might arrive with an entourage, or at least an aide in tow, and think nothing of coming an hour late. Sanders tramped into the hotel lobby looking slightly windblown, having made the three-hour drive by himself from the airport in Chicago. He had called my cell phone to apologize, saying he was running behind by ten minutes.
He spoke earnestly, in his native Brooklyn accent, about the state of national politics and his own race for the Senate, refusing to put a rosy spin on things, cautioning that the troubles facing the Republicans don’t mean an automatic win for their opponents. There’s a lot of work to be done, he said, but progressives are right on the issues, and represent the true interests of a majority of Americans. The only thing to do, he said, is to get out and talk to our fellow citizens—especially those who don’t already agree with us.
Question: What does Hurricane Katrina tell us?
Bernie Sanders: I think Katrina is one more indication of how inefficient and corrupt this Administration is, and indicates the absolute lack of seriousness that Bush has in making the government respond to the needs of the people. He is there primarily to give tax breaks to billionaires, to do the service of large corporations. This is just one more powerful, dramatic, painful example of the incompetence and lack of concern of this Administration. They are so separated from the lives of normal, low-income people that it never occurred to them that if you’re poor and have no money, no car, that you can’t leave. You don’t just get in your SUV and go to a nice hotel a few miles away.
Q: People finally saw indifference and incompetence?
Sanders: What they were seeing on television was people dying because they’re poor. And they’re dying because they don’t have a car they can get into and go to a hotel. But what you don’t see on television is people dying today because they can’t get to a doctor and they can’t afford prescription drugs. That’s why they are also dying. They are dying in Iraq because they are poor and they have gone into the military because they can’t afford to go to college. They’re dying because they’re living in communities where asthma rates are extremely high because the air is filthy. The suffering of the poor and working class people is a virtual nonissue for the media. But that is the reality.
Obviously, you were seeing it incredibly starkly in New Orleans. You’re poor, you can’t get out of town, you die.
Q: Is this a particularly ripe moment for change?
Sanders: I think it is. Given the fact that poverty is growing, more and more Americans are losing health insurance, health care costs are going up, the middle class is shrinking, the gap between the rich and the poor is growing wider, we have lost 2,000 soldiers in Iraq, we’re spending some $300 billion there, and Bush has no idea of an exit strategy. Add all of those things together and the real question should be asked, how is it conceivable that he is even at 40 percent?
That speaks to the weakness of the opposition. People do not like George Bush. But I think it’s fair to say that they are not flocking to the Democratic Party, or see the Democrats as a real alternative.
Q: So what’s your message to progressives?
Sanders: We have got to change the political culture in America. We need a political revolution. That means we are working on politics not just three weeks before an election but 365 days a year. We have to develop a strong economic message which says every American is entitled to health care through a national health care program. And we’re not going to allow these large corporations to push through trade agreements which allow them to throw Americans out on the street and run to China. We’re not going to give tax breaks to billionaires and then cut back on the needs of our elderly or poor or kids or education. We’re not going to privatize Social Security—in fact, we’re going to strengthen it. We’re going to provide quality education for every kid in America, from preschool through college. We have to take on these corporate leaders who are selling out the American people, whose allegiance is now much more to China than it is to the United States. If we have the courage to take these people on, I think we can overwhelm Bush and his friends.
Why is it that two-thirds of white, rural men voted Republican? Why? That’s what we have to address. That’s crazy. These people are working longer and longer hours. They can’t afford to pay $3.50 for a gallon of gas. They’re losing their jobs. So why do they vote for President Bush? And the Republican Party? We’ve got to address this.
It’s very easy to make fun of George Bush, but that ain’t going to do it. What we have to do is knock on doors and go into communities where there are people who disagree with us on certain issues.
And we have to talk to them. They’re our friends. They’re our allies. They’re our co-workers. We can’t see them as enemies.
That’s easier said than done.
All over this country you have progressive communities like Madison and Burlington, but we’ve got to go well, well, well outside of those communities. We’ve got to go to the rural areas. We’ve got to go where a lot of working people are voting Republican.
We just can’t talk to each other. That’s too easy.
Q: How is your own campaign going? Are you seeing a national Republican effort to defeat you? Is money coming in?
Sanders: Vermont is such a small state, and the most money that’s ever been spent in the history of political campaigns there is $2 million. That number is going to be surpassed many times. Vermont remains a “cheap state” for the Republican National Committee. So putting $5 or $10 million into Vermont—compared to New York or California or Illinois—that’s small potatoes.
The truth is that Bush and Karl Rove do not like Vermont for a lot of reasons. They don’t like the fact that Jim Jeffords gave the Senate over to the Democrats. They don’t like Howard Dean. They don’t like Leahy. They don’t like me. And they would very much like to win this seat. So we expect huge amounts of money to come into the state. I believe that I’ll be running against the richest guy in the state of Vermont, worth a few hundred million dollars. So clearly we know they will do everything they can to win, including spending more money than has ever been spent.
Q: Do you think they’re going to use the socialist label against you, and do you think that’s going to matter?
Sanders: No, I doubt it will make a dent. I’ve run for statewide office plenty of times, and people know me. If you look at what they did to Max Cleland and what they did to John Kerry, we have a pretty good idea of what they can do. It’s the politics of personal destruction. They are incapable of debating issues, because their positions on all of the issues are horrendous. Their style has always been to try to personally destroy whom they run against. So we expect a great deal of negativity.
I won my last election by forty points. The Republican I ran against, at the end of the campaign, had decided that I was “a friend of terrorists” and “a friend of pedophiles.” That’s the kind of crap they came out with. I expect that’s the kind of crap they’ll come out with again.
Their weakness is they have nothing to say. What are they going to say about the economy? What are they going to say about tax policy when they give tax breaks to billionaires and inadequately fund veterans’ benefits? What do they say about the environment when they are among the few remaining people on Earth who do not believe in global warming and have just passed a disastrous energy bill that has almost no energy conservation or sustainable energy?
What can they say about Social Security when the vast majority of the people don’t want to privatize it?
On issue after issue they are bankrupt. The only thing they can do is try to destroy the character and the integrity of their opponent. That’s all that they have left.
Q: What kinds of things do you want to do as Senator?
Sanders: If people envisage me in the Senate they might think of me as someone who would emulate Paul Wellstone, fighting for the issues he fought for. He was a good friend of mine.
We’ll be trying to do a couple of things. One is fighting for national health care. Another is fighting to raise the minimum wage to a living wage, and changing our trade policies.
But also we’ll be trying to use the office to connect the grassroots to the United States Senate and the Congress. Because of a mass media more interested in gossip and sensationalism than real issues, I would say a vast majority of the American public doesn’t have a clue about how the Congress functions and what goes on.
I think it’s important that members of the United States Senate spend time not just on Capitol Hill but making contact with ordinary people and engaging them in the political process. We’re not going to bring about change unless that happens.
In many respects, this country is becoming an oligarchy, with a tiny percentage of America owning the media, owning the country.
We have the technology to turn it around. Everyone can have health care. Everyone can earn a living wage. We can educate all our kids—well.
But none of that happens unless there’s a political revolution. And it’s not going to happen unless we deal with corporate control of the media.
Q: Where should progressives put their energy, in the Democrats or in third party efforts?
Sanders: I’ll give you an example. In Vermont we probably have the most successful third party in the country, electorally. When I was mayor of Burlington I defeated a Democrat. And out of that victory came what for all intents and purposes was a party. Legally it wasn’t—it was called the Progressive Coalition. It evolved into the Progressive Party, which now has six members of the state legislature. So it’s not just in Burlington. They’re doing a good job.
Without trying to oversimplify the issue, I think people are going to use common sense. The common sense is that there is nothing wrong with a third party. Third parties can play a very important role. And in Vermont, for example, I think the Progressive Party is playing a very important role. They are raising a lot of good issues in the legislature. Having said that, I think clearly somebody like a Ralph Nader taking away votes from a Kerry at this critical, critical moment in American history is something that a majority of the progressive community correctly reacted strongly against.
You have to look at the moment, at reality. At this particular moment progressives have got to unite.
In my view this happens to be one of the most dangerous moments in American history. These guys are not just reactionaries. They are changing the rules of the game so they will stay in power for the indefinite future. We see this abuse of power on the floor of the House. They kept the voting rolls open for three hours to pass the Medicare prescription drug bill. I had an amendment, which won, on the Patriot Act. They kept the voting open twenty minutes longer to defeat it. They break the rules. It’s like having a football game go into the fifth quarter because you don’t like the results at the end of the fourth quarter. We know what DeLay did in Texas. They have taken chairmen—yanked them out—because they defy the leadership of the House. They are now attempting to destroy the judiciary system, which will have profound implications for the future of this country.
This is very, very serious. They are very radical people. Far more radical than someone like a Bill Clinton ever dreamed of being.
Q: What about Hillary? What do you think about her as the likely Presidential nominee?
Sanders: I think it’s too early. Everybody in the world is running. Kerry is running. Edwards is running. Russ Feingold, I gather, is running. Here, I’ll make you a campaign pledge: If elected to the U.S. Senate, I’ll be the only person not running for President.
Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.