- Interview by
- Daniel Denvir
In the wake of several recent successful challenges from the left to centrist, “establishment” Democrats, most notably Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders isn’t on record telling anyone “I told you so.”
But Sanders has long argued that “better than the Republicans” isn’t enough for Democrats (or anyone else) to win elections — a bold political vision is needed to excite voters enough to turn out for candidates. We can’t know what will happen with progressive challengers like Ocasio-Cortez and Maryland gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous if and when they take office. But their campaigns seem to vindicate Sanders’s basic argument about the appeal of unapologetic, “anti-establishment” politics.
In a recent interview with Daniel Denvir for Jacobin Radio’s The Dig podcast, Sanders discusses Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other recent shakeups within the Democratic Party, and why a bold political vision is good politics. You can subscribe to Jacobin Radio here and support The Dig here.
What do you make of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory? Do you think the Democratic establishment is honestly reckoning with what it means for American politics that a democratic socialist knocked off one of the most powerful men in Congress?
No, I don’t think the Democratic leadership fully appreciates the significance of Alexandria’s victory. She has gotten a lot of attention, and her victory was extraordinary. She ran a really smart, grassroots campaign. She knocked on a heck of a lot of doors. She had great volunteers. It was a brilliant campaign. But it’s not just Alexandria.
On the same night that Alexandria won, Ben Jealous took on the Democratic establishment in Maryland and became the Democratic gubernatorial nominee. On that same night, several young people in the Baltimore area, progressives, defeated incumbent members of the state senate in a huge upset.
We are seeing that type of activity all over this country: people who are running progressive, grassroots campaigns are doing very, very well taking on establishment politicians.
House minority leader Nancy Pelosi recently insisted that socialism is not ascendant in the Democratic Party. What’s your response to that?
Socialism, capitalism — these are big words that can mean different things to different people. If you look at what Alexandria was talking about, what I talk about, what other progressives talk about, by and large, they are very popular, not only among people who consider themselves Democrats or progressives but the American people as a whole. It’s important to understand that the ideas that I fight for, that Alexandria fights for, are very popular ideas.
For example, right now we have a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, which is essentially a starvation wage. Nobody can live on that. When we advocate for a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage, the American people support that.
When we talk about pay equity for women, the American people overwhelmingly support that. When we talk about Medicare for All — an idea which seemed kind of radical a few years ago — that is now mainstream, with a pretty good majority supporting it. The American people understand that health care is a right, not a privilege; that Medicare is working well for seniors right now, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be expanded to every man, women, and child, with the result of not only providing health care to all people but saving this country substantial sums of money on health care. Because right now, we spend far more per capita than any other country.
When we talk about the greed of the pharmaceutical industry — that you’ve got five drug companies last year making $50 billion in profits, paying their CEOs outrageous compensation packages while one in five Americans can’t even afford the drugs their doctors prescribed — the American people are with us. When we talk about demanding that the wealthiest people, who are doing phenomenally well, start paying their fair share of taxes, the American people support that.
When we talk about making public colleges and universities tuition-free, the American people support that. They support immigration reform. They support criminal justice reform. In Philadelphia, Larry Krasner has done a great job in that area.
You could label these things any way you want, but I call it basic ideas dealing with social, economic, racial, and environmental justice. The American people are there with us on them.
Your colleague, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois, suggested on CNN that the ideas espoused on the campaign trail by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could not succeed in places like the Midwest. What’s your response?
Alexandria gave a good response. She said, in many of the Midwest states, we either did very, very well in the Democratic presidential primary in 2016, or we won them. We won Indiana. We won Michigan. We won Wisconsin. In a couple, like Illinois, we lost by very few. The ideas we are talking about make sense in every state of the country.
Four years ago, in the 2014 midterm elections, we had the lowest voter turnout in seven decades. We had something like 36 percent of the American people voting. When ordinary Americans get demoralized and give up on politics and don’t vote, Republicans do very well. Four years ago, if you recall, Republicans swept the House and the Senate, and they did very well in state legislators’ and governor’s races all over this country because we had the lowest voter turnout in seventy years.
When you ask people, “Is health care a right of all people?” people say, “Yes.” There’s no reason we don’t join every other major country on earth in guaranteeing health care for all people. When you talk about the absurdity of hundreds of thousands of bright, young people today not being able to afford a higher education, while millions of people leave school deeply in debt — I have talked to so many young people and middle-aged people who left school, $50,000, $100,000 in debt. For what crime? Getting an education.
These are not radical ideas. When you talk about the ideas, people say, “Yeah, that’s right. That’s what we’ve got to do.” Then they come out and vote, and progressives and Democrats win. When you don’t have a program that appeals to working people and ideas that get people excited, when you have low voter turnout, that’s the Republicans’ dream. That’s when they win elections.
This sounds like a strategy that emphasizes expanding the electorate instead of attempting to appeal to, say, suburban Republicans they hope are offended by something Trump says.
I don’t think it’s an either-or. There are many people in this country who are offended by the fact that the president of the United States is a pathological liar, that the president of the United States is a racist and a sexist and a xenophobe.
You don’t have to be a progressive to be disgusted and outraged when the Trump administration is tearing little children three, four years of age from the arms of their mothers. All across this country, conservatives feel that same sense of outrage. They understand that is not what America is supposed to be about.
There are a lot of folks out there, moderate Republicans, who are appalled by Trump’s behavior and are prepared to vote for Democrats. But most importantly, we have to understand that we have one of the lowest voter turnouts of any major country. We have to speak to those working people who are white and black and Latino and Asian American and Native American and talk about issues that make sense to them. If we could raise the voter turnout up from the 36 percent it was four years ago, to a measly 50 percent in 2018, Democrats would then control both the House and Senate — that I am absolutely sure of.
The goal is to organize and educate, but you cannot do that unless you talk about issues that are meaningful to working people.
There’s always a lively debate on the Left over electoral politics. A lot of people in Democratic Socialists of America advocate supporting candidates in Democratic primaries, as they did for your 2016 run and with Ocasio-Cortez, but also believe it’s necessary to build a more radical, independent power base outside of the Democratic Party.
You rose up through elected politics as an Independent and remain an Independent. In Vermont, the Progressive Party, which formed to support your run for Burlington mayor, now has elected officials across the state. What do you think is the right balance to strike between building independent power and running within the Democratic Party?
It didn’t quite work that way in Burlington. Way back when, in times of ancient history, in 1981 — I know that’s kind of George Washington’s time — but when we won in 1981, we did what I believe in. We did coalition politics. We put together a coalition of workers and unions, of environmentalists, of women.
Out of that came the Progressive Party, which is doing quite well in Vermont right now. I’m sure the Progressive Party has more members in the Vermont state legislature than any other third party in America. That is because they have done a good job in focusing on the needs of working people.
There may be some exceptions to the rule in this or that community around the country, but the action has got to be within the Democratic Party. We have been trying, with some success, to not only open the doors of the Democratic Party to working people and young people, but change the party’s rules as well. In the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, you had superdelegates exerting an enormous amount of power. If my memory is correct, Hillary Clinton had five hundred superdelegate votes before the first real vote was cast in Iowa.
Which made the nomination seem a lot like a coronation.
Exactly. We’re about three-quarters of the way through a very laborious process of the Democratic National Committee changing that rule and eliminating the ability of the superdelegates to vote on the first ballot. That would be a step forward.
We are dealing as a nation with voter suppression. Everyone says, “Well, those are Republican states. It’s Alabama, it’s Mississippi, it’s Wisconsin.” Well, guess what? It’s New York State as well. If you wanted to vote in a Democratic primary in New York, you had to change your party registration six months before the primary date, which is totally appalling.
What you have in New York State is a collusion between the Democrats and Republicans as an incumbent protection policy. That has to be changed. We’re working on changing it.
There are a lot of ways that we are making progress, not only by electing progressives, but by changing rules — by trying to open the doors and bring people in.
What lessons might the US learn from the fight in the UK against Theresa May, led by the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn?
Corbyn ran a very smart campaign. It was not unlike what we are trying to do in this country. He took on the entire establishment of the Labour Party, who had moved very far to the right and became very establishment, and said, “In the UK, our job is to represent working people and have the courage to stand up to the wealthy and the powerful.” He came forward with a very progressive agenda that caught the imagination of workers and young people alike. They ended up not winning, but doing a heck of a lot better than people had expected that they would.
Corbyn had to take on not only the conservatives, but he had to take on the establishment of the Labour Party. That’s not unlike the situation that we as progressives are in here in the United States.
We have to speak out on an agenda that makes sense to working people. Understanding that we are living at a time of massive income and wealth inequality, that we have a political system that, as a result of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, is a corporate system allowing billionaires to buy elections — in the midst of that, candidates have to be bold. They have to have the courage to take on the big money interests who have so much power in our society today and to stand with working people. When you do that, people will do not only well in politics and win elections, but it will improve life in the United States of America.