A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
You can win big by running on progressive politics, by dealing with economic class issues in a very strong way. ... The American people say it is wrong that the gap between the very rich, and everybody else, is growing wider and wider and wider.
-- Senator Bernie Sanders
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In a year when the pundits tell us that American voters are looking for authenticity in candidates for office, most politicians still parse their pronouncements with caution and are tightly leashed to high-paid consultants who advise them on how to be "beige."
Bernie Sanders is a breath of fresh air in that respect. When it comes to authenticity, he's the real thing.
Like Russ Feingold and the late Paul Wellstone, Sanders proves that you can be progressive, straightforward, passionate and win the backing of the electorate.
We interviewed Sanders before when he was a Congressman. Because he has actively represented the interests of the people of his state -- from dairy farmers to laborers to retirees -- he was easily elected senator to replace Jim Jeffords, who chose to retire from the Senate.
It's rare to interview a Senator who invigorates and motivates us -- we're normally much too cynical for that -- but Bernie is the kind of guy who gives you reason to hope.
By the time we finished our latest interview with him, we were ready to call him "Coach."
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BuzzFlash: As a progressive throughout your life -- and unabashed about it -- you succeeded in winning a Senate seat in 2006. What lessons do you have for progressives in finding their voice and getting elected? A lot of Democrats, as you know, say we can’t win with a progressive message.
Senator Sanders: Well, I think the contrary is the truth. You can win big by running on progressive politics, by dealing with economic class issues in a very strong way. I have right in front of me a poll that came out recently from CBS, and another poll from Gallup. Bottom line is that most Americans believe the economy is not doing well for them, despite the constant rhetoric that we hear from the Bush Administration of how great the economy is doing. Most Americans, by very strong numbers, believe that the economy is getting worse, not getting better. They understand that the middle class is shrinking and poverty is increasing. And most importantly, they understand that the kind of distribution of wealth and income that exists in this country today is extremely unfair. And you know what? They want Congress to change it. Here in the Senate and in the House, you find very, very few people talking about income or wealth redistribution.
BuzzFlash: That’s right.
Senator Sanders: That is just not a phrase that is almost on the lips of anybody. I think frankly the American people we’re polling tell us. The American people say it is wrong that the gap between the very rich, and everybody else, is growing wider and wider and wider. We have the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world. Then we end up with more people behind bars in jail than any other country in the world. The richest one percent have seen a huge increase in their income and wealth, while the average person is working longer hours for lower wages.
These are precisely the kind of issues the candidates have got to discuss, and have got to run on. The immediate result of that should be the rescinding of all tax breaks for the wealthiest one percent. We have introduced legislation called the National Priorities Act, which would rescind Bush’s tax breaks for the richest one percent -- $70 billion. Cut military spending by $60 billion. Use $30 billion to reduce the deficit. Use $100 billion a year to protect the interests of the middle-class working families: education, health care, pensions, job training programs, global warming issues, and so forth and so on. That is, I think, not only the right thing to do from a public policy perspective. I think it’s good politics as well.
BuzzFlash: Let’s get just back to the issue of your election. The Republicans couldn’t lay a glove on you. They gave up pretty quickly.
Senator Sanders: The Republican Party may have. The guy I ran against spent more money per voter than anybody in U.S. Senate campaign history. And he kept it going to the end. So it’s not like, "Oh, gee, they couldn’t win." It is true that this guy, who is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, did not ask for or receive help from the national Republican Party. But please understand that, in terms of my election, he spent more money per voter than anybody in American history in a Senate race. And he kept it up. And it was a very ugly -- it was the most negative campaign that anyone has ever seen in Vermont.
BuzzFlash: One of the things that Rove’s good at is going after the strongest point of an opponent. With Kerry, he did that by going after an admirable service record. When I say the RNC couldn’t lay a glove on you, I mean they kind of gave up with that approach. Is that because, in speaking frankly and directly to people in Vermont, and caring for everyone from the farmers to the well-off in Burlington, and the New York transplants, and the workers throughout the state, that the people knew you, so they wouldn’t believe any sort of slander?
Senator Sanders: We are a small state, obviously. We have 630,000 people. I was mayor of the largest city, which is a city of 40,000 -- Burlington -- for eight years. I’ve been in the House for sixteen years. I have met tens and tens of thousands of people personally. I’ve held hundreds of town meetings. I’ve held more town meetings in the state of Vermont, I suspect, than anybody in modern Vermont history. So people know me. When people do know you and they talk to you, and they learn what you’re doing, it is hard to create a new identity for somebody.
BuzzFlash: Let’s go back to your point on the economy. David Sirota, who for a time was your press secretary, attributes the lack of progress in Congress on economic justice issues, in large part, to the influence of the so-called K Street lobbyists and the corporate contributions to campaign funds. Do you agree with that analysis?
Senator Sanders: Absolutely. The big money interests have a tremendous hold on the House and the Senate. There’s no question about that. That is the most important political issue that every American needs to understand -- that when you get huge amounts of campaign contributions from the oil companies, the drug companies, the financial services organizations, the chamber of commerce, et cetera, those contributions are not made for fun. They are made to have an influence, and they have a huge influence. That is why, for the last six years, we’ve given hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks to the wealthiest one percent, but have not been able to raise the minimum wage, have not been able to move toward national health care, have not been able to develop a trade policy that works for workers rather than for multi-national corporations.
BuzzFlash: Now let’s come to the most controversial topic. Certainly, in town hall meetings in Vermont, there’s been a lot of talk of impeachment. In large part, that’s due to Iraq. So what the heck are we doing there? We’re going to spend a trillion dollars, and we’ve got even some Democratic senators and congressmen still saying we still can win there. Does anyone know what winning is? Does anyone know where the enemy is?
Senator Sanders: Let me just say this. Yeah, I happen to think that George Bush will go down in history as, if not the worst president in the history of our country, certainly very close to that. He has been a disaster in every area -- the economy, global warming, health care. But what he has done that is more dangerous, that will take us perhaps decades to recover from, is this war in Iraq. This is a war that, needless to say, I voted against going into when I was in the House. I was one of the people who helped lead the opposition to that. I am on all of the legislation here in the Senate that will bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can.
In fact, al-Qaeda is a dangerous organization. Probably the worst thing that Bush has done by taking us into Iraq, creating a civil war in that country, is to lose our focus on fighting international terrorism. People like Osama bin Laden have used our presence in Iraq as a poster child for the spreading of Islamic fundamentalism.
There is no simple solution now, but I think what we should be doing is getting our troops out as soon as possible. I think we should begin withdrawing them within the next few months -- virtually all of them out within the next year. I think we’ve got to work with the countries surrounding Iraq to bring stability to that country. We’ve got to work with the European Union, with the United Nations, to bring stability to the country, people, government of Iraq. The Iraqi military has got to assume their responsibility of taking control within their own country. But if you look at polls that are going on in Iraq now, the people of Iraq themselves believe that their country would be safer if our troops withdrew, and I think that’s what we should do.
BuzzFlash: It has been estimated t that we will have spent at least a trillion dollars on the Iraq war. What would you have better wished that money had gone toward?
Senator Sanders: The middle class is shrinking and poverty is increasing. What does that mean? It means that if you are a working family today and you have children, finding quality affordable child care is very difficult, in Vermont and all over this country. If we are serious about getting kids off to a good start in life, we have to make sure that child care is of high quality, that we have well-trained professionals working with kids. So you want to pay attention to child care.
You want to pay attention to public education and create the best public educational system in the world. That means making sure that our teachers are well-compensated, that the schools that kids are learning in are good schools, solid schools. That the equipment that kids use is strong.
You want to make sure that every kid who has the ability in this country is able to go to college, regardless of income. Right now, there are hundreds of thousands of lower-income children who are giving up on the dream of going to college. Others are coming out deeply in debt, which is changing their career choices. If we are serious about having the best-educated population in the world, which we do not have right now, we’re going to have to invest in education.
In terms of health care, we’re the only nation in the industrialized world that does not have a national health care program. The truth is, if we changed our system toward a national health care system -- it shouldn’t cost us more money. But immediately, we’d want to make sure that, at the very least, all of our children have quality health care. That will cost us funding.
In terms of our veterans, the people coming home from Iraq, from Afghanistan, and older veterans, as everybody knows, are not getting the kind of health care that they need. Their claims are backlogged. We need to invest more into the VA. We’re working on that issue.
In terms of global warming, the scientists tell us that we have a window of opportunity in the next ten years to do some very rapid and bold actions in terms of energy efficiency and moving to sustainable energy. If we don’t reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, there will be irreversible damage that will have a huge impact on this planet in years to come. We have to invest in energy efficiency big time. We have to invest in sustainable energy. In doing that, we can create millions of good-paying jobs.
At a time when poverty is increasing and the middle class is shrinking, we have got to pay attention to the vast majority of our people who are in the middle class, who are working families, and not continue to worry about the needs of millionaires and billionaires, which has been the case in the Congress for so many years.
BuzzFlash: A follow-up on global warming. One of your colleagues in the Senate, Senator Inhofe from Oklahoma, has made it his trademark to try and debunk global warming in a very aggressive way. The reason I bring him up specifically is he represents a mindset that’s very hard to understand. What is it like to work with someone like Senator Inhofe, and virtually the entire Republican Caucus, that not only is skeptical about global warming, but has made it sort of a war-cry to cast aspersions on anyone who worries that we may be destroying the planet.
Senator Sanders: I think you make a good point. It would be unfair to say that all Republicans share Inhofe’s sentiments. They don’t. You have Inhofe and some others who are what are called here "cynics." They do not believe what the scientists are telling us. And there are a long variety of reasons why they hold that view. But I think most people understand that global warming is real. Fewer and fewer people hold Inhofe’s view. The scientific evidence is so strong, and people are seeing this with their own eyes, with the increase in forest fires in the West, with the strange weather patterns that we’re seeing all over this country, with the melting of glaciers and the permafrost in the Arctic region.
My concern, more deeply, which I worry about more than Mr. Inhofe, is that many people say, yeah, global warming is a problem. Yeah, global warming is man-made. Then having said that, they are fearful of coming up with the bold initiatives that we need to reverse global warming.
They may say, oh yeah, I’ll turn my light bulbs off more often. I’ll buy an appliance which is more energy-efficient. That’s fine. But the truth is that technology is now there. We know what to do. We know how to reverse global warming. We know how to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
What I find frustrating, as somebody who has introduced the most comprehensive and strongest anti-global warming legislation, is that a lot of people are not prepared to do what has to be done to reverse it. There are some good things happening. For example, California is doing some good things. The United States should be learning from California. Germany is doing some good things. We should be learning from Germany. But I’m afraid that people are saying: yeah, it’s a serious problem. And then they go on, more or less, with business as usual. We need some bold initiatives.
I’m on both the Energy Committee and the Environmental Committee, and we have got some strong ideas. We are working very hard. I’ll just give you a few examples. California right now wants to put one million photovoltaic units on rooftops in that state in the next ten years. As a nation, we should be having ten million rooftops with PVs in the next ten years. We can lower the cost. That can work. We should be having both large and small wind turbines all over this country. We should be providing rebates to people who want to do that. So that’s an issue we’re working on. But my main concern is not Inhofe. My main concern is people who say, yeah, it is a problem, but they’re not prepared to be as aggressive as they should be in addressing that problem.
BuzzFlash: We’ve interviewed and written about you before and seen you at a number of conferences. One of your particular passions is media reform.
Senator Sanders: Yes.
BuzzFlash: And you’re indefatigable. You are energetic. You don’t at all seem down. You’re very enthusiastic. You’re an Independent aligned with the Democrats in the Senate.
Senator Sanders: Correct.
BuzzFlash: You have to deal with a lot of people with rather radical ideas, like Senator Inhofe. What keeps you so enthusiastic and wound up and positive?
Senator Sanders: Well, two things, I think. First of all, I represent a great state. We just came off of a campaign where we had dozens and dozens and dozens of rallies in towns -- tiny towns and larger cities, all over Vermont. And we have a great state of people. And I get to go to schools all the time. I speak to a lot of high schools and so forth. So I get very excited and pumped up and motivated by the people of my own state who want me to fight the right fights, and to fundamentally change the priorities of our country. I get a lot of inspiration from the people of my own state.
Second of all, I have three grandchildren right now. I worry very much about what kind of world they will inherit. You can't open the papers today and see what’s going on in Iraq, what’s going on with global warming, what’s going on with the increase in poverty, without worrying very much about the kind of world they will inherit.
I think we have a moral imperative to fight as hard as we can to create the kind of nation that we know we can create. We can create a nation where all of our people have a good standard, where we are the moral leaders in the world in helping poor people around the world obtain the kind of quality of life which they deserve, as well. And that would be a great thing. We ain’t gonna reach that tomorrow, but I feel very strongly that that’s the fight we have to fight every single day.
BuzzFlash: What would you say to people -- and there are a lot of BuzzFlash readers who are at this point -- who say: I just have to give up the fight. No matter what, somehow Bush prevails. Gonzales is still there. Rove is still there.
Senator Sanders: Short term, that analysis is wrong. People have to understand what politics is about. Politics is not just feeling good and saying, my goodness, I did something, I demonstrated yesterday, and the world is changed tomorrow. It doesn’t happen.
The truth of the matter is that people should take a deep breath and just look at what’s happened in the last five months. A couple of years ago, this country was moving rapidly towards right-wing extremism. We had and still have an extreme right-wing president. But Tom DeLay was running the House of Representatives, Bill Frist running the Senate. It was the most right-wing extremist government that we have ever had, certainly in modern American history -- extremely dangerous people. The American people today, in a pretty solid way, are turning away from right-wing extremism.
It’s not just the recent election. It is very clear that a lot of people, including many Evangelical Christians, are rethinking their adherence to the Republican Party. The momentum is very clearly with us. Whether Gonzales stays or goes, the fact is that he is being cross-examined by Patrick Leahy and John Conyers and people like that, who now have chairmanships. We’re asking the questions that have not been asked before.
Before people on the left become depressed, they should talk to their friends who are on the right, who are very frightened about the future. The Republican Party, in many ways, is in disarray. The Republican presidential candidates are very, very weak. Our job is to keep the pressure on at the grassroots. Educate people. Organize people. Make sure that working people or lower-income people do not vote against their own best interests. And keep knocking on doors. When we do that, I think we can bring about some very profound changes in the direction in which this country is going.
BuzzFlash: Let me say that one of the most inspiring things to us is to be able to call you Senator Sanders, that you have advanced the Senate. That is a very motivating fact, in and of itself.
Senator Sanders: Well, let me say this. I look at BuzzFlash every now and then. And what BuzzFlash has done, what MoveOn has done, what you guys have done using the Internet, is no small thing. You are educating large numbers of people all across this country. You’re using that new technology in an excellent way, and I want to congratulate you for what you’re doing.
BuzzFlash: Well, thank you. And we know you’re never going to slow down, and we’re grateful for that. So good luck, Senator.
Senator Sanders: Thank you very much.
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BuzzFlash Interview conducted by Mark Karlin.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW