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More than 500 Wisconsin Democrats participated in a presidential straw poll at their state party convention over the weekend, and they sent a powerful signal about the potential of the challenge Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is mounting to presumed Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
Clinton still maintains a wide lead in national polls and in those from early battleground states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. But the delegates, alternates, and registered guests at the Wisconsin party convention—among the state’s most activist Democrats—gave Sanders 41 percent support to 49 percent for Clinton.
The breakdown of the straw poll vote, which was conducted by the well regarded politics website WisPolitics.com, was:
Hillary Clinton 252
Bernie Sanders 208
Joe Biden 16
Martin O’Malley 16
Jim Webb 8
Lincoln Chafee 5
No vote 1
Elizabeth Warren 4
Tom Vilsack 1
The senator has been a regular visitor to Wisconsin over the years, as a frequent speaker at the annual “Fighting Bob Fest” gatherings, which draw thousands of Wisconsin activists to outdoor eventseach September. He has lauded the legacy of former Wisconsin US senator Robert M. La Follette, who mounted an independent progressive campaign for the presidency in 1924, and of the democratic socialists who led Milwaukee for much of the 20th century. In recent years, he had worked with Ed Garvey, a former gubernatorial candidate, on a host of issues.
Perhaps most importantly, Sanders is an enthusiastic backer of organized labor—a stance that resonates with Wisconsin activists who, over the past four years, have battled the anti-union initiatives of the administration of Governor Scott Walker.
Clinton has also worked the state over the years. In 2008, she and her backers battled with Barack Obama and his backers in a closely watched February primary. Obama won the primary with a 58-41 margin. But Clinton ran well in many regions of the state and took 32 of the state’s 74 delegates.
This year, at the state convention, Clinton backers were present—with pins and T-shirts. And they were celebrating a recent endorsement of their candidate from Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a former gubernatorial candidate and 2008 Obama backer.
Sanders supporters were also active at the convention. Members of Progressive Democrats of America, which encouraged Sanders to run, maintained a table featuring a huge “We Want Bernie” banner and handed out Sanders materials. They also held a well-attended meet-up to promote the senator’s bid.
The Clinton campaign, which will formally launch June 13 in New York City, retains huge name-recognition and campaign finance advantages going into the race for the 2016 nomination. A RealClearPolitics average gave her 59 percent support in the race for the Democratic nomination, which in addition to Sanders also includes former Maryland governor O’Malley and former Rhode Island governor Chafee. Former Virginia senator Webb is also considered a likely contender. Other candidates could yet get in, and there are still some folks pushing a bid to draft Elizabeth Warren.
But since Sanders formally launched his campaign late last month with a Burlington, Vermont, event that drew an estimated 5,000 enthusiasts, the senator has attracted large crowds in New Hampshire, Iowa, and Minnesota. Most polls now have him running second to Clinton. A recent Quinnipiac poll had Sanders moving from 4 percent support nationally in early March to 15 percent in late May.
The Wisconsin Democratic Party straw-poll numbers offer a different sort of encouragement for the insurgent campaign Sanders is running.
Last week, in Minnesota, Sanders attracted thousands to a hastily scheduled town hall meeting. The size of the crowd certainly suggested that the senator’s economic-populist message is getting through. At the same time, it offered an indication that Sanders has, through decades of work in Washington and travel around the country, forged a connection with the grassroots activists who are especially engaged with the nominating process in a state that will never get the attention accorded the first-caucus state of Iowa and the first-primary state of New Hampshire—but that will send a substantial bloc of delegates to the July 2016 Democratic National Convention. Now, in another state, Wisconsin, Sanders has gained another sign of unexpected and significant support.
There are a lot of reasons Americans, even Americans who are generally supportive of President Obama, don’t want Congress to grant him Trade Promotion Authority to “fast-track” negotiations and the approval process for a sweeping new Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. For instance, the president wants Congress to surrender its ability to make amendments to this deal and to agreements negotiated by the next president—even amendments that seek to lock in protections for labor rights, human rights, and the environment. The administration wants Congress to give up its power to hold a meaningful debate before voting on this and future deals. Yet, even as it seeks fast-track authority, the administration refuses to share the details of the agreement as it now stands with Congress.
Presidents always seek maximum flexibility.
But Congress does not have to grant it.
The Senate has, after a good deal of wrangling, bent to the White House’s fast-track demand. But the House, where trade debates are always more intense, could still say “no.”
Revelations about what’s being proposed in global-trade negotiations point to why this is the wrong time for Congress to surrender oversight authority.
Just this week, Wikileaks released previously-secret negotiating texts that point to how a proposed Trade-in-Services Agreement (TISA) that could clear the way for privatization of public services and deregulation of financial services. “Once again Wikileaks reveals what we cannot learn from our own government, a government that defaults to giant trade deals that affect generations of Americans shrouded in secrecy until they are virtually adopted,” says Communications Worers of America president Larry Cohen. "This TISA text again favors privatization over public services, limits governmental action on issues ranging from safety to the environment using trade as a smokescreen to limit citizen rights. Those in the US Congress considering Fast Track should take heed. TISA is as big a blow to our rights and freedom as the Trans- Pacific Partnership and in both cases our government’s secrecy is the key enabler."
Cohen is right.
This fast-track request at this time is too much to ask of Congress, and that’s too much to ask of the American people.
The level of grassroots opposition to the fast-track proposal was evident Wednesday, when critics of failed trade policies released petitions with the signatures of roughly 2 million Americans who are asking Congress reject Trade Promotion Authority that would allow not just President Obama but the next president—be she a Democrat or a Republican—to fast-track new trade agreements without adequate scrutiny.
Key members of Congress, led by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Connecticut Congresswomen Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, Barbara Lee of California, and Donna Edwards of Maryland, along with Congressional Progressive Caucus leaders Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, and David Cicilline of Rhode Island, welcomed the delivery of the boxes of petitions. So, too, did leaders of groups that helped gather the signatures—including the AFL-CIO, Public Citizen, the Alliance for Retired Americans, DailyKos, Demand Progress, Democracy for America, MoveOn.org Civic Action, Avaaz, Rootstrikers, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, Social Security Works, SumOfUs, 350.org and CREDO.
The coalition that is opposing fast track has grown to include all of organized labor, major environmental groups, family-farm organizations, human-rights activists, and civil-rights activists. There is much focus now on the transparency concerns that have been raised by the Wikileaks revelations and by the refusal of the administration to release the negotiating texts. As the Rev. William Barber II, the president of the North Carolina NAACP and a key organizer of the Moral Mondays movement, says to the free-trade advocates: “If the deal is as good as you say it is, show us the details.”
But underpinning the transparency issue is a deeper concern about the failure of past trade agreements to meet the promises that were made when they were negotiated and advanced under previous fast-track arrangements.
“The TPP reminds us of the North American and the Central American Free Trade Agreements," recalls Rev. Barber, who explains that: “Global trade issues may seem far-removed from our daily struggles. In North Carolina, however, we know that we lost tens of thousands of jobs because of past trade deals that were fast tracked through Congress. Congress will soon take up ‘fast track’ authority for the huge Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal. We say, Slow down. What’s the fine print? We have learned that when these trade deals get rushed through, working people get the short end of the stick.”
Barber points to issues that need to be addressed by Congress, and millions of Americans are now telling the House—which is preparing to take up the fast-track demand—to slow things down and get this one right. The trade debate has moved beyond the Beltway to where Americans live, because Americans feel the pain when trade debates are shut down and trade agreements fail working families. As Barber notes:
Most of the victims of these deals have been poor, minorities, and other members of what used to be called the ‘working class.’ Despite sweet reassurances to the contrary, NAFTA and CAFTA threw thousands of N.C. textile workers out of work in the 1990s. When China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, additional manufacturing jobs fled—a trend that hit communities of color particularly hard in our state and beyond. The question of good jobs in minority communities is directly tied to the loss of these jobs overseas. Many have not ever been replaced. Many other jobs (that are) available are only at minimum wage.
NAFTA and CAFTA sucked tens of thousands of good jobs out of North Carolina and the south. At the same time, our Mexican and Central American friends tell us they were forced to move to the U.S. to feed their families because the low wages being paid by the runaway textile factories are not enough to live on. Wait until the TPP redirects textile and other manufacturing plants in Latin America to Asia. This will send more desperate parents across the Rio Grande, searching for jobs that pay enough to raise a family. While we join with our sisters and brothers from the south in our common fight for justice, human rights, and family unity, we also recognize that creating more forced migration makes little sense.
The big-picture is coming into focus as the fast-track debate heats up. That puts new pressure on members of the US House to recognize, as have Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Grijalva and Ellison that “Congress should not provide blanket authority to approve a deal that puts corporate profits over working families.”
The US Senate experienced a weekend of Republican wrangling over renewal of provisions of the USA Patriot Act, with Indiana Senator Dan Coats claiming that Kentucky Senator Rand Paul was “lying” when Paul objected that supposed “reforms” of rules governing surveillance still threatened privacy rights. Arizona Senator John McCain, a frequent presidential candidate, was even rougher on Paul, a current presidential candidate; with McCain claiming that Paul’s attempts to assure that the bulk-data program is blocked were “to some degree, a fundraising exercise.”
“He obviously has a higher priority for his fundraising and political ambitions than for the security of the nation,” McCain said of Paul.
Paul countered, “People here in town think I’m making a huge mistake. Some of them, I think, secretly want there to be an attack on the United States so they can blame it on me.”
The wrangling briefly prevented “reforms” of the Patriot Act as outlined in the so-called “USA Freedom Act, which Paul explains does not really end the bulk-data program—just rearranges it by setting up a situation where phone companies “may do the same thing” as the National Security Agency. And the NSA may access can then access the data.
The fight led Republican leaders in the Senate, who initially grumbled that the USA Freedom Act could go too far in limiting intelligence gathering, to accept the measure. That was a victory for Congressman James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican who formerly served as House Judiciary Committee chairman, the sponsor of the USA Freedom Act.
The Sensenbrenner bill is at best a frustrating compromise, not real reform. The right response, as outlined by Congressman Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, would repeal federal dragnet surveillance laws, while overhauling the NSA’s domestic-surveillance program. “The warrantless collection of millions of personal communications from innocent Americans is a direct violation of our constitutional right to privacy,” says Pocan, who has worked with libertarian-leaning Republicans on this issue. “Revelations about the NSA’s programs reveal the extraordinary extent to which the program has invaded Americans’ privacy. I reject the notion that we must sacrifice liberty for security—we can live in a secure nation which also upholds a strong commitment to civil liberties.”
So Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsinite, wants a little reform. Pocan, another Wisconsinite, wants real reform.
And what of the Wisconsinite who is running for the Republican nomination for president? He must be with Congressman Sensenbrenner, his fellow Wisconsinite, or perhaps with Senator Paul, his fellow ontender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
Walker, the leader is some early polls of Republican presidential prospects who is expected to formally announce his candidacy next month, says he is not inclined to place anything in the way of significant new restrictions on the government’s ability to monitor phone records. Walker told reporters on a New Hampshire campaign swing that he opposes the USA Freedom Act because, he says, it goes too far in regulating the NSA’s mass-surveillance program.
Walker, who has developed something of a reputation for mangling details of national-security and military-policy debates, is wrong with regard to the constitutional concerns raised by Republicans and Democrats and he is wrong on the details of the current fight.
But the governor is firm in his stance.
“I would prefer to have something closer to the Patriot Act intact,” says Walker.
“I think there needs to be the capacity, if we have in America enemy combatants, or people in line with enemy combatants, we need to be able to gain access to information that would help assist us,” the governor said in response to a question from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Seriously? Everyone has gripes about the Patriot Act.
Well, everyone except Walker, who talks about “trying to create some sort of balance to make sure the Patriot Act doesn’t run out.”
Walker tried to suggest in New Hampshire that Sensenbrenner, who has long represented Walker in the House, is seeking to strike that balance.
Sensenbrenner says the governor is “misinformed.”
“Continuing the present program is not the proper balance between privacy and national security,” Sensenbrenner explained. “There is no privacy if the government ends up collecting trillions of phone records made by Americans and storing it for five years.”
The debate about domestic spying has evolved a great deal since just one senator, Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, voted against the Patriot Act in 2001. Now, there is broad concern about mass surveillance, in the Democratic and the Republican parties.
But there is one throwback candidate, Scott Walker, who “would prefer to have something closer to the Patriot Act intact.”
Read Next: John Nichols on Martin O’Malley
Martin O’Malley must say that he believes he can win the 2016 Democratic nomination and the presidency. That’s how it works. The former mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland who formally announces his candidacy this weekend cannot get caught suggesting that he is mounting an uphill race against front-runner Hillary Clinton in order to make enough of a name for himself so that Clinton will consider him as a vice presidential running mate—or perhaps as a cabinet member in the next administration.
But could O’Malley really be a contender? He has been dealt a tough hand: His record as governor was called into question when his designated successor got beaten in the Republican-wave election of 2014; his record as mayor has been called into question as Baltimore has become the focal point for a national debate about failed models for policing (and as critics have changed that O’Malley’s “zero-tolerance” policing and related policies “ignited a rift between the citizens and the police”); and his prospects for emerging as the most serious alternative to Clinton are being called into question by the enthusiastic response to the insurgent challenge being mounted by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
So what does Martin O’Malley have to offer?
More, perhaps, than those who seek to police the 2016 presidential competition care to acknowledge.
O’Malley’s poll numbers, nationally and in the first caucus state of Iowa and the first primary state of New Hampshire, are low. But so are those of most candidates—announced and unannounced, Democrats and Republicans—at a point in the process where name recognition counts for more than genuine sentiment.
As the positioning begins, O’Malley has two points in his favor: a familiar scenario and a penchant for speaking from the moral high ground.
Let’s begin with the scenario. In the past 40 years, the Democratic Party has elected three presidents. In each case, the party’s nominee was an unexpected (and it might be argued unlikely) contender who did not begin the race as the front-runner. In two cases, 1976 and 1992, the unexpected contender entered the race not as a Washington insider but as a current or former governor. The classic case, of course, was that of Jimmy Carter, a former governor of a mid-sized state who finished his term and then meticulously worked the grassroots of Iowa and New Hampshire while building an argument for himself that was based not just on policy stances but on a promise to bring a sense of moral duty to the White House.
O’Malley is a former governor of a mid-sized state who finished his term and has spent the ensuing months making an argument for himself based not just on policy but on his own embrace of a moral-duty politics.
Yes, yes, of course, 2016 is a different year than 1976. Hillary Clinton is a different front-runner than Henry “Scoop” Jackson. And O’Malley, an urban Irish Catholic, is very different from Carter, a rural evangelical.
Yet, like Carter, O’Malley has made his connections with Democrats not on the basis on insider status and fund-raising prowess (like Clinton) or fiery rhetoric and warnings against oligarchy (like Sanders). O’Malley’s efforts to count himself into the 2016 race have relied on personal interaction (as an always available speaker and campaigner for Democrats in all the key states) and a willingness to attempt a politics of principle.
Like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, O’Malley recognizes that Democrats must claim some moral high ground—rather than simply positioning themselves as savvy technocrats—to prevail in presidential politics. More importantly, O’Malley recognizes that claiming that moral high ground involves taking risks and doing the right thing even when it is not necessarily popular.
O’Malley embraces elements of a Catholic social-justice ethic that will be highlighted as Pope Francis tours the United States this year. The governor is often at his best when he speaks of a duty to address poverty and inequality, and of the need to respect the dignity of work with living-wage pay and workplace fairness. As governor, he acted on these values by, for instance, making Maryland the first state in the nation to require government contractors to pay their employees a living wage and arguing passionately and practically for raising the state’s minimum wage to $10,10 an hour.
That does not mean that O’Malley marches in lockstep with the church; he is pro-choice and he has been a leading advocate of marriage equality; when Baltimore Archbishop Edwin O’Brien urged the governor to oppose marriage equality, O’Malley replied, “I do not presume, nor would I ever presume as governor, to question or infringe upon your freedom to define, to preach about, and to administer the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. But on the public issue of granting equal civil marital rights to same-sex couples, you and I disagree.” O’Malley signed the law and then defended it when opponents sought unsuccessfully to overturn the measure with a statewide referendum.
On issues such as repealing the death penalty, supporting the rights of workers to organize, and working to eradicate poverty, O’Malley has taken bold stands that he argues are grounded both in common sense and common morality. He signed a 2013 measure barring prosecutors from seeking death-penalty judgements in Maryland and then commuted the sentences of the four prisoners remaining on Maryland’s death row to life imprisonment.
On immigration, O’Malley created a national stir last summer by speaking about immigration policy in smart, reasonable, and moral terms that put him at odds not merely with many other presidential contenders but with the Obama administration.
O’Malley’s approach was not a radical one. But his emphasis on fairness and human dignity, as opposed to predictable political positioning, was refreshing. O’Malley did not deny the serious practical and political challenges that had arisen as thousands of children from Central America crossed into the United States in the spring and summer of 2014. He recognized that there were a lot of issues to be resolved with regard to the particular circumstances of the children—and with regard to broader need to reform the nation’s ill-defined and frequently dysfunctional approach to immigration policy.
Yet, O’Malley never lost sight of the most important fact: The children who were entering the United States were children. They came, in many instances, as desperate refugees fleeing extreme violence, poverty, and dislocation in countries where the social fabric has been rapidly fraying because of destructive globalization schemes, corruption, and a horrific maldistribution of wealth.
With his argument that the reality of why immigrants flee their own lands must be taken into consideration, O’Malley broke with prominent members of both parties to demand that the response to the plight of the children be a humane and knowing one. “We are not a country that should send children away and send them back to certain death,” O’Malley told reporters at a National Governors Association meeting in Nashville. “I believe that we should be guided by the greatest power we have as a people, and that is the power of our principles. Through all of our great world religions, we are told that hospitality to strangers is an essential human dignity.”
The governor’s remarks drew immediate criticism from conservatives who make little secret of their determination to politicize border issues. The Republican-linked group America Rising portrayed O’Malley’s position as a left-wing stance—a “hit from the left” at former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the leader in 2016 Democratic presidential polls.
But O’Malley’s response was grounded not in the language of left or right, nor of predictable political “messaging.” Instead, he placed the debate in a moral context that was rooted in American historical experience. In media interviews, the governor calmly explained, “I believe that it is contrary to everything that we stand for as a people to try to summarily send [refugees] back to death, whether it’s in famine; death whether it’s in the middle of the ocean; death whether it’s in a war-torn area or death in a place where gangs are the greatest threat to stability and the rule of law and democratic institutions in this hemisphere.”
O’Malley was right.
And he was impressive.
Impressive enough to justify his entry into the 2016 race? Absolutely.
Impressive enough to win caucuses and primaries? That very much remains to be seen.
O’Malley will get a hearing, and he will use it well; as he did recently with a knowing discussion of the upheaval in Baltimore: an issue that he knows he must address. The former mayor pushed the margins of the debate with an admission that “The hard, truthful reality is this: Growing numbers of our fellow citizens in American cities across the United States feel unheard, unseen, unrecognized—their very lives un-needed.”
O’Malley is more of a liberal than Clinton and less of a progressive populist than Sanders. He has a track record of successful service that compares favorably with those of Clinton and Sanders, and certainly with those of other Democratic prospects, such as former Virginia senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee.
O’Malley is younger than the other contenders, and perhaps a bit cooler—if his playing with the Celtic rock band O’Malley’s March counts for anything.
Ultimately, however, it is O’Malley’s comfort with speaking in moral-duty terms, and his willingness to act where necessary and possible upon that sense of moral duty, that has the potential to distinguish him as a 2016 contender. He has not begun to close any deals. In fact, he will have to struggle to open the negotiation with Democrats who will be attracted either to the Clinton juggernaut or to the fire-and-brimstone energy of the Sanders challenge.
But the same might have been said of Jimmy Carter, who spent much of 1975 just trying to be taken seriously. Carter had to wrestle not just with the insider candidacy of Scoop Jackson but with the claims on space to the left staked by Fred Harris, Mo Udall, Frank Church, and, ultimately, Jerry Brown. (And just as in 2015 there are still a good many progressives who hold out hope for the dream candidacy of a senator from Massachusetts named Elizabeth Warren, there were in 1976 a good many progressives who held out hope for the dream candidacy of a senator from Massachusetts named Ted Kennedy.)
Carter made the connection in 1976, becoming not just the outsider nominee but the outsider president. If O’Malley makes a connection in 2016, it will be as a different kind of moral-duty contender—he is more of an insider and, arguably, more politically astute. Yet such a breakthrough would not be entirely unprecedented.
O’Malley sees what he thinks is an opening and he is making his move. More power to him. The race for the 2016 Democratic nomination needs contenders who are willing to push the limits in the debates and in the fight for the heart and soul of the party. Martin O’Malley brings some needed vision, and needed language, to the competition. He should be treated seriously, because of his own record and his own ideas, and because of his party’s history of rejecting front-runners and embracing campaigns that speak a moral-duty language. O’Malley says, “We are still capable of acting like the compassionate, and generous, and caring people our grandparents expected us to become and that our children need for us to be.” That is a morals message, a values message, and it has appeal—not just with Democrats but with a lot of Americans who might vote Democratic.
Read Next: John Nichols on how Bernie Sanders reigns in the billionaires
Burlington, Vermont— The campaign signs all say: “Paid for by Bernie 2016 (Not the Billionaires).”
That is a given with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the proud democratic socialist who decries plutocracy and oligarchy and proposes to tax Wall Street. Sanders is the presidential contender who is not looking to win the favor of the hedge-fund managers, bankers and CEOs who define and dominate American politics.
The whole point of the audacious bid that Sanders has now formally launched for the Democratic presidential nomination is to upset the calculus of American politics. “Today,” he declared at the opening of Tuesday’s announcement address, “we stand here and say loudly and clearly that; ‘Enough is enough. This great nation and its government belong to all of the people, and not to a handful of billionaires, their Super-PACs and their lobbyists.’”
The senator attracted more than 100,000 contributions in the average amount of $42, along with hundreds of thousands of volunteer commitments, in his first days as a contender.
How far that will get him remains to be seen, but Sanders says he seeks nothing less than a “political revolution”—a change sufficient not merely to propel him into competition with frontrunner Hillary Clinton but to shift the political dynamic in America.
At the heart of the matter is a determination to shift power away from what Sanders refers to as “the billionaire class.”
Sanders is ready to rip into the oligarchs and plutocrats with a fury Democratic presidential contenders have rarely mustered since the days when Franklin Delano Roosevelt bid for a second term by recounting that:
We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.
They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.
Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.
Almost 80 years have passed since FDR uttered those words.
Yet it was possible to hear an echo on the shores of Lake Champlain Tuesday, when Sanders quoted the 32nd president—“As Franklin Delano Roosevelt reminded us, a nation’s greatness is judged not by what it provides to the most well-off, but how it treats the people most in need. And that’s the kind of nation we must become.” And when a wildly-enthusiastic crowd of Vermonters and others who had come from across the country to help launch an insurgent candidacy cheered Sanders’ declaration that:
This campaign is going to send a message to the billionaire class. And that is: you can’t have it all. You can’t get huge tax breaks while children in this country go hungry. You can’t continue sending our jobs to China while millions are looking for work. You can’t hide your profits in the Cayman Islands and other tax havens, while there are massive unmet needs on every corner of this nation. Your greed has got to end. You cannot take advantage of all the benefits of America, if you refuse to accept your responsibilities.
There will be those who attempt to portray what Sanders is saying—and what he is doing with this campaign—as new or radical. It is neither. The Sanders campaign is about something very old and very American. The United States was founded in revolt against monarchy and the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few very wealthy men. Throughout much of American history, serious contenders for the presidency—from Abraham Lincoln to William Jennings Bryan to Teddy Roosevelt to Robert M. La Follette to FDR to Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower warned against letting the affairs of state be guided by self-serving millionaires and billionaires.
In recent decades, however, the balance has tipped toward the billionaires.
The eternal premise that “all men (and women) are created equal,” the battlefield promise that this would be a land “of the people, by the people, for the people,” the pledge of “liberty and justice for all,” has been replaced by a call from a campaign donor to a pliant politician. The shift in our politics and our governance has yielded broken trade policies, bailouts for bankers and corporations, wage stagnation and income inequality.
For Sanders, that is unacceptable. And, he believes, changeable. “The bad news is that people like the Koch brothers can spend huge sums of money to create groups like the Tea Party,” he says. “The good news is that, once people understand the right-wing extremist ideology of the Koch brothers, they are not going to go along with their policies. In terms of fundamental economic issues: job creation, a high minimum wage, progressive taxation, affordable college education—the vast majority of people are on our side.”
Sanders will test that notion in the weeks and months to come. There will be plenty of cynics. But on a sunny day in his hometown of Burlington, there were thousands of believers—cheering as the candidate announced:
American democracy is not about billionaires being able to buy candidates and elections. It is not about the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson and other incredibly wealthy individuals spending billions of dollars to elect candidates who will make the rich richer and everyone else poorer. According to media reports the Koch brothers alone, one family, will spend more money in this election cycle than either the Democratic or Republican parties. This is not democracy. This is oligarchy. In Vermont and at our town meetings we know what American democracy is supposed to be about. It is one person, one vote—with every citizen having an equal say—and no voter suppression. And that’s the kind of American political system we have to fight for and will fight for in this campaign.
Read Next: John Nichols on Not Underestimating Bernie Sanders
Burlington, Vermont— For the first century after the founding of the Grand Old Party in 1854, Republicans dominated the politics of the state of Vermont like no other. For more than 100 years, Vermont Republicans won every major race for every statewide office. Republican presidential candidates from John Fremont in 1856 to George H.W. Bush in 1988—with the single exception of Barry Goldwater in 1964—won the Green Mountain State. For one of Vermont’s two US Senate seats, an unbroken Republican winning streak continued from before the Civil War to the beginning of the 21st century.
It was only in the election of 2006 that the streak was finally broken, when voters chose a candidate for that Senate seat who was not a Republican.
His name was Bernie Sanders.
Of all the announced and potential contenders for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, none has a longer track record of taking on tough races, beating incumbents, and upsetting the political calculus. Sanders has won 14 elections in Vermont, including ten straight races for the US House and US Senate as the most politically successful and longest serving independent member of Congress in American history.
That does not mean that Sanders, who today will formally launch his first presidential campaign, is anything other than a longshot in the 2016 Democratic contest. The proud democratic socialist is the first to acknowledge that it would take “a political revolution” for him to win the nomination, let alone the presidency. Yet those who dismiss Sanders as the product of what they presume to be the steadily liberal politics of a small New England state do not know much about the electoral history of Vermont or about the role that Bernie Sanders played in reshaping the state’s politics.
Sanders played a critical role in forging Vermont’s progressive reputation as an outsider candidate who beat incumbents, won statewide races when Republicans were taking the other top jobs, and upset partisan patterns that once seemed to be locked in stone. He has done so by audaciously challenging both major parties—defeating a Democratic mayor of Burlington in his first winning race and defeating a Republican congressman a little less than a decade later. Sanders has won Democratic primaries several times and then refused the nomination in order to pursue a November run as an independent. Now he seeks to win Democratic presidential primaries in a race with front-runner Hillary Clinton.
Clinton’s poll lead is daunting, both nationally and in key states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. But Sanders is posting poll numbers that suggest he could win delegates in both states. And he is just getting started with a run about which he says: “Don’t underestimate me.”
Sanders has to say that because, of course, political and media elites do tend to count presidential candidates like him out. Insurgents with track records of voting against wars and domestic spying and tax breaks for the wealthy are often dismissed. And when outsider candidates talk about breaking up big banks, taxing Wall Street speculators, providing free college education, and lifting the spell of austerity, the insider narrative invariably warns that they are too bold, too idealistic, too radical.
But Sanders likes to challenge political expectations.
He is willing to go against all odds, as he did as a third-party candidate for governor and US senator from Vermont, running on the ballot line of the proudly left-wing Liberty Union Party. Sanders lost those races, but he made a name for himself as progressive who knew the issues. And when he challenged expectations again in 1981, as an outsider leading a dissident coalition of Burlington’s workers, students, small-business owners, and low-income families, he beat the veteran Democratic mayor by 10 votes.
Sanders kept beating the Democrats and Republicans in Burlington in the 1980s, thanks to a conscious strategy of bringing thousands of new voters into the process. “If you ask me now what one of the major accomplishments of my political life is, it is that I helped double the voter turnout in Burlington, Vermont,” recalled Sanders in an interview last year. “I did that because people who had given up on the political process understood that I was fighting for working families, that we were paying attention to low- and moderate-income neighborhoods rather than just downtown or the big-money interests. In fact, I went to war with virtually every part of the ruling class in Burlington during my years as mayor. People understood that; they said, ‘You know what? Bernie is standing with us. We’re going to stand with him.’ The result is that large numbers of people who previously had not participated in the political process got involved. And that’s what we have to do for the whole country.”
In the mid- to late-1980s, at a time when Republicans Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were winning the Vermont’s electoral votes, Sanders sought to take the Burlington model of progressive organizing statewide. He waged losing races for governor and the US House as an independent. Yet, with each run, he built out that coalition of working-class voters not just in Burlington but in many of the state’s most conservative towns. Thousands of voters began to split their ballots, voting for Republicans in some contests, but also voting for the man everyone began to call “Bernie.”
The breakthrough came in 1990, when Sanders beat Republican Congressman Peter Plymouth Smith, a well-regarded former lieutenant governor whom many saw as the rising star of the state’s GOP. Even though a Democrat peeled off a portion of the vote, Sanders secured 56 percent to Smith’s 40 percent. That was the first time a Republican incumbent had been beaten in a general election for a Vermont US House seat since the founding of the Republican Party—and only the second time that a non-Republican had won a seat since 1854.
Though his was a breakthrough win, Sanders did not serve cautiously. Rather, he served as a steady progressive, earning top ratings from labor, environmental, and civil-rights groups; playing a vital role in forming the Congressional Progressive Caucus; voting against free trade deals, the Patriot Act and the authorization of George W. Bush’s use of military force in Iraq. And he was steadily r-elected, surviving the “Republican wave” year of 1994 and pushing his percentages into the high 60s, even as Republicans were winning other statewide posts.
When Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords, a Republican who turned independent in his last term, announced that he was stepping down in 2006, Sanders jumped into a race that a number of Democrats would have liked to run. He won the Democratic primary and then declined the nomination, mounting an independent run that was not supposed to be easy. Sanders faced a wealthy Republican who poured more than $7 million into the race, much of it spent on a crude negative advertising campaign. Though he was outspent and attacked, Sanders secured 65 percent of the vote in November, 2006. Notably, he did so at the same time that the state was re-electing a Republican governor. He was re-elected six years later with 71 percent of the vote.
Of the Democrats who are running—or who might run—this year for the presidency, most have notable track records of taking on tough races and winning. Hillary Clinton waded into the big-elbows world of New York politics, scared off the likes of then–New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and easily won a Senate seat in 2000. Martin O’Malley beat the incumbent Republican governor of Maryland in 2006 and was re-elected in the Republican-wave year of 2010. Jim Webb beat Virginia Republican Senator George Allen in 2006. Lincoln Chafee was elected governor of Rhode Island in 2010 as a progressive independent. But Bernie Sanders has a distinct record of upsetting the political calculus—so distinct that, when he says “Don’t underestimate me,” he means it.
Read Next: John Nichols on Ireland’s vote for marriage equality
Ireland is not a perfect land, as the Irish are generally quite willing to acknowledge.
But Ireland did a perfect thing on Friday.
Other countries have permitted lesbians and gays to marry—and subsections of countries have done so, as is the case in the Unites States. But this have tended to happen via legislative and judicial action. Ireland has done so by a vote of the people—an overwhelming vote—and it is the first country in the world to have made the choice by popular referendum.
Headlines in The Irish Times recognized more than an election result. It was, they suggested “a national boat-rocking” that might well have “changed the republic forever.”
Ireland, a predominantly Catholic country that is often portrayed as socially conservative (and that still wrestles with a host of issues, most notable reproductive rights), has done a very socially liberal, very progressive thing. And it has not done so in small measure. The turnout for Friday’s referendum was over 60 percent— a notably higher level of participation than the United States saw in the 2012 presidential election, and a dramatically higher level of participation than was seen in the 2014 elections that decided control of the US Congress. The desire to get this thing right was so strong that Irish men and women who are working around the world came #hometovote, creating magical scenes of young people arriving on ferries singing: “It will not be long, Love, ‘Till our wedding day.”
Fintan O’Toole, the great Irish essayist who has been Europe’s wisest critics of the global stumble toward austerity and lowered expectations, hailed the result as the streets of Dublin and other cities filled for celebrations Saturday
“We’ve made it clear to the world that there is a new normal—that ‘ordinary’ is a big, capacious word that embraces and rejoices in the natural diversity of humanity. LGBT people are now a fully acknowledged part of the wonderful ordinariness of Irish life,” O’Toole wrote. “It looks like a victory for tolerance. But it’s actually an end to mere toleration. Tolerance is what “we” extend, in our gracious goodness, to ‘them.’ It’s about saying ‘You do your own thing over there and we won’t bother you so long as you don’t bother us.’”
“The resounding ‘Yes’ is a statement that Ireland has left tolerance far behind,” he explained. “It’s saying that there’s no ‘them’ anymore. LGBT people are us—our sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends. We were given the chance to say that. We were asked to replace tolerance with the equality of citizenship. And we took it in both arms and hugged it close.”
The United States does not hold national referendums or constitutional concerns. There are no electoral structures for giving voters a chance to think big, to make bold statements on a national level, in the way that Ireland did this year on the issue of marriage equality, or that Scotland did last year when more than 85 percent of voters participated in a referendum on independence.
American governing and media elites have historically refused to recognize that what matters most in politics is not politicians or parties. It is the great choice making, where citizens are invited to weigh the most profound and consequential issues. Too many issues are taken off the table in the United States, where electoral processes are drowned in corporate and billionaire money and diminished by the negative ads that are the lingua franca of contemporary electioneering.
We have so delinked American democracy from issues that, in 2014, millions of Americans voted for an exceptionally progressive agenda in referendums—on raising wages, expanding access to Medicare, extending paid-sick leave, banning fracking, and amending the constitution to limit the dominance of corporations—and then turned around and voted for candidates and parties that opposed the agenda.
The people are not to blame for this. The candidates seek to create confusion, as do the parties. Campaign consultants work overtime to assure that partisanship prevails over principle. That’s why turnout keeps declining and frustration with our political and legislative processes grows with each election season.
Instead of worrying as much as we do about candidates and campaigns of the moment, Americans ought to be asking themselves: How do we get a better politics? They should not hesitate to embrace big reforms: constitutional amendments along the lines suggested by Congressmen Keith Ellison and Mark Pocan, new voting systems along the lines suggested by FairVote, new models for direct democracy along the lines considered by Yale Law School professor Akhil Reed Amar. The goal ought not be to advantage one side or another. The goal ought to be to make real the promise of democracy: with exceptionally high turnout elections that put big issues on the table for everyone to decide—and that value votes more than the cynical manipulations of campaign consultants and the billionaires they serve.
“Nobody has been diminished,” Fintan O’Toole wrote after the referendum results were recorded. “Irish people comprehensively rejected the notion that our republic is a zero-sum game, that what is given to one must be taken from another. Everybody gains from equality—even those who didn’t think they wanted it. Over time, those who are in a minority on this issue will come to appreciate the value of living in a pluralist democracy in which minorities are respected.”
“By pushing forward on what only recently seemed a marginal issue, the LGBT community has given all of Irish democracy one of its greatest days. It has given our battered republic a new sense of engagement, a new confidence, an expanded sense of possibility,” explained the great champion of vibrant social engagement. “It has shown all of us that the unthinkable is perfectly attainable. We now have to figure out how to rise to that daunting and exhilarating challenge.”
Americans should want to feel that same sense of hope and possibility. We, too, should recognize that the unthinkable is perfectly attainable. And we should forge a politics that embraces to that daunting and exhilarating challenge. O’Toole sent a tweet amid all the celebration in Ireland. It read: “To all our US friends watching: this is what ‘the pursuit of happiness’ means. Go for it.”
The decision on whether to surrender the authority of the US Congress to amend and potentially improve trade agreements goes to the very heart of whether the United States respects democracy. If members of the House and Senate cannot check and balance executive branch choices that will define the economic future of the country, then the ability of the American people to petition for the redress of economic and social grievances and to have those grievances addressed by their elected representatives is severely undermined. That is what is at stake with debates about whether to eliminate basic congressional oversight of trade deals, via the “fast track” Trade Promotion Authority that President Obama seeks.
The vote Thursday by the Senate to shut down debate on a measure to provide Obama with this authority was the first step in the deconstruction of the democratic processes by which citizens can influence not just trade but economic policy. If the Senate now approves fast track, and if the House goes along with the plan, then the ability to alter or improve sweeping new trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership will be lost. All that will remain is a take-it-or-leave-it vote on final approval of a deal negotiated behind closed doors and without adequate scrutiny by the American people or their elected representatives.
It came when 13 Democrats joined 49 Republicans in supporting a cloture motion Thursday. Thirty-one Democrats, two independents who caucus with the Democrats, and five Republicans opposed the move to shut down debate about amendments and to effectively restrict meaningful discourse on what the measure’s sponsor, Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, described as “quite possibly the most important debate that we’ll have all year in Congress.”
Among the senators who are current or potential presidential prospects, Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, voted “no,” as did Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts. So, too, did Senator Rand Paul, R-Kentucky. But Republicans Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida sided with the Obama White House and the corporate interests that have advocated aggressively for fast track and the TPP.
The Senate’s 62-38 decision to end debate on the president’s proposal to fast-track what could be the largest trade deals in American history was a travesty. Senators who had put up some resistance last week rushed to approve a proposal before a scheduled holiday break. “Instead of getting this bill done by Memorial Day, we should get it done right.” argued Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. “We should not vote on fast track without debate on amendments that would stand up for workers and manufacturers against unfair foreign trade practices.”
Brown’s objection was spot on. But it did not end there.
The Democrat who, since the mid-1990s has been one of the ablest and most engaged analysts of trade policy, detailed the absurdity of Thursday’s rushed vote.
“Fast track authority hasn’t been debated in 13 years and this bill will allow expedited consideration of the largest trade agreement we’ve ever negotiated. More than 200 amendments have been filed by 46 senators, yet we’ve only voted on two,” argued Brown, the author of a highly regarded book on trade debates and policies, Myths of Free Trade: Why American Trade Policy Has Failed (New Press). “With American jobs and more than 60 percent of the world’s economy on the line, we need to get this right.”
The Senate did not get it right on Thursday.
Specifically, the cloture vote limited debate and blocked amendments.
Practically, the cloture vote erected another barrier to the popular input and pressure—and the responses of elected representatives to this input and pressure—that makes real the promise of democracy.
Read Next: John Nichols on Jim Kenney and Philadelphia
The billionaires who play politics with America make some of their biggest plays in some of our biggest cities. They identify candidates who share their penchant for “school choice” schemes, vouchers, and privatization—like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel—and they pour money into slick TV ads that sometimes tip the balance of urban elections.
Sometime, but not always. Bill de Blasio was elected mayor of New York in 2013 as a progressive, as were Marty Walsh in Boston and Betsy Hodges in Minneapolis. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka scored a breakthrough victory in 2014 as the candidate of a coalition of union activists and public-education advocates. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia forced a runoff against Emanuel in Chicago this year and took a solid 44 percent of the vote on April 7. Then, on Tuesday, the guy the Philadelphia Daily News called “Jimmy from the block” beat the big spenders to become the Democratic nominee for mayor of America’s fifth-largest city.
Jim Kenney, a 56-year-old Irish-American pol from South Philly whom few expected to see making a serious bid for the city’s top job this year, won an epic landslide victory and is now the favorite to lead the city after next November’s election. If that happens, Kenney will lead from the left, as a progressive who Pennsylvania Working Families Executive Director Kati Sipp says “ran on a platform of supporting Philly public schools, raising the minimum wage, and ending stop-and-frisk.”
“This election shows that a candidate propped up by big money can be beaten out by a candidate who stands for true progressive values,” explained Sipp.
That’s right. But there is a little more to it.
Kenney did not make a timely embrace of the big-tent progressive politics that is suddenly in vogue—at least among Democrats—as America struggles to focus on issues of racial and economic injustice, environmental crisis, wage stagnation, and income inequality. He practiced it, for decades. When unions went on strike, “Jimmy-from-the-block” showed up with his picket sign—telling folks about how he “washed dishes after school as a member of Local 274” and earned his first union card at 17. When concerns arose about racial and ethnic divisions, he showed up for community meetings and established alliances with African-America, Asian-American, and Latino activists. When he saw discrimination against gays and lesbians, he championed a groundbreaking LGBTQ Equality Bill. When kids were getting busted, facing the threat of criminal records and even jail time for minor offenses, he worked to decriminalize marijuana. When neighborhoods were getting socked by corporate polluters, he helped set up a City Council Environmental Committee to put clean air, clean water, and solar power on the agenda in City Hall.
Kenney toyed with a mayoral bid. But it didn’t look likely even as the campaign was getting started.
State Senator Anthony Williams was the early front-runner, and he seemed to have all the advantages in a multi-candidate field that included a former district attorney, a former city solicitor, a former legislator, and a corporate executive. Williams was a powerful legislative leader and former gubernatorial candidate; he had a lot of the right connections in city and state government; and he was closely aligned with a group of billionaires who, The Philadelphia Inquirer noted, “share Williams’ views”—especially on “expanding charter schools, and using tax dollars to pay for private-school tuition vouchers.”
In January, as labor and community groups sought to identify a progressive alternative to Williams, they turned to Kenney. It was an audacious notion: that “Jimmy-from-the-block” might beat the political and economic power that was arrayed to seize City Hall. But he gave up his council seat and started running.
What made the run work was not just Kenney’s stands on the issues. It was memory. Folks remembered when “Jimmy-from-the-block” had been there for them. When Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals President Patty Eakin announced the union’s endorsement, she recalled that “Jim Kenney stood by us in 2010 when we had to strike at Temple University Hospital in order to protect our right to advocate on behalf of our patients.” The nurses were out knocking doors for Kenney on their breaks, as were the teachers, whose union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, noted that “Kenney’s views on public education and other issues faced by working families made him the clear choice of Philadelphia’s educators.” On Earth Day, the city’s major environmental groups backed the candidate who promised to make Philadelphia “the greenest city in America.” And, despite suggestions from pundits that a white councilman could not hope to secure substantial support in a race with a prominent African-American official such as Williams, Kenney started winning endorsements from African-American legislators and council members who celebrated his opposition to stop-and-frisk policing and public education. “I know what’s in Jim’s heart,” declared Councilwoman Marian Tasco. “He sat next to me in city council for 23 years…”
As a labor- and community-backed, multi-racial coalition came together for Kenney, and as he began to surge in the polls, the billionaires doubled down. “One group, American Cities, raised $6.8 million as of May 4 to support state Sen. Anthony H. Williams for mayor, with 97 percent coming from three guys on the Main Line who founded a stock trading firm,” reported the Inquirer.
That was roughly five times what the Kenney campaign raised. In fact, as Philadelphia magazine explained a week before the election, “the amount of the money that American Cities still had left in the bank Monday is more than any of the individual mayoral candidates raised since Jan. 1st. Or here’s another way to think about it: American Cities raised more money this year than all of the six Democratic mayoral candidates combined.”
But Jim Kenney still had those nurses and teachers and gay rights activists and environmental advocates and Councilwoman Tasco, and they were still knocking on doors—still arguing that cities should be on the side of workers and neighborhoods and civil rights and public education.
When the votes were counted Tuesday night, that message—not the one in the ads paid for by the billionaires—prevailed.
Former Philadelphia city solicitor Ken Trujillo, a progressive favorite who stepped out of the race early on and backed Kenney, said that, while some candidates might project a sense of political entitlement, “Jim, from the beginning, had a humility about his candidacy. He never acted like he was entitled to it.”
On election night, in a packed banquet hall on Philadelphia’s North Broad Street, Kenney’s “historic coalition” gathered on Tuesday night. The Inquirer declared that here “stood the real-life evidence of the unlikely coalition that Democratic nominee James F. Kenney created—Irish Catholics, cops and firefighters, gays and lesbians, building trades unions, black politicians who crossed the color line for a white candidate.”
“It’s a great hodgepodge,” State Representative Brian Sims, Pennsylvania’s first openly gay elected legislator announced. “We wanted somebody who knew all of us and had worked with all of us.”
Up on the stage, Jim Kenney waved a clenched fist of solidarity to the cheering crowds and proceeded to thank the unions and the activists and elected officials, one by one, name after name, for sticking with him. They had proven something about politics, not just in Philadelphia but in America.
Sometimes, great piles of money are not enough.
Sometimes, great coalitions of people win out.
Sometimes, “Jimmy from the block” beats the billionaires.
Read Next: John Nichols on Bernie Sanders’s plan to tax wall street and make college free
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders keeps bending the rules of Senate service and presidential campaigning by offering up proposals that imagine America as the fair, functional, and prosperous country it could be. Instead of playing politics within the narrow lines prescribed by the partisans and pundits who police the political process in America, the recently announced contender for the Democratic presidential nomination is going big—this week with a plan to provide tuition-free higher education for students at four-year colleges and universities in the United States.
“We live in a highly competitive global economy and, if our economy is to be strong, we need the best-educated work force in the world,” says Sanders. “That will not happen if, every year, hundreds of thousands of bright young people cannot afford to go to college, and if millions more leave school deeply in debt.”
The contender for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination is, of course, right.
But the United States isn’t supposed to be able to do the right thing anymore.
According to the Republicans who are running Congress—and running for president—there’s just no money for free higher education. Or for other useful initiatives. In an age of austerity, as defined by House Rules Committee chairman Paul Ryan and his minions, we are told that all Americans have to look forward to are more cuts, more privatization, wage stagnation, and staggering income inequality.
Ryan and his ideological amen corner moan that there’s just no money for programs that might educate and employ and care for Americans.
Of course, there is money: trillions of dollars that can be freed up, at the drop of a hat (or a stock market), to bail out banks and fund wars. But Republicans like Ryan and the contenders for his party’s 2016 presidential nomination claimthe country is damn-near broke—with just enough money left for one more tax cuts for one more billionaire campaign donor. And, too frequently, America’s “fair and balanced” media and compromised and compromising Democratic Partygo alongwith the fantasy.
What has distinguished Sanders’s Senate service and his presidential bid is a refusal to buy intothe lie of austerity. Instead, the senator is identifying problems that need to be solved and identifying where the money to solve them can be found.
Consider the legislation Sanders is sponsoring to provide tuition-free higher education for college students. This is not a new idea. As the senator notes, “Countries like Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and many more are providing free or inexpensive higher education for their young people. They understand how important it is to be investing in their youth. We should be doing the same.”
“We used to lead the world in the percentage of our people who graduated college. Today we are in 12th place,” argues Sanders. “We used to have great universities tuition free. Today they are unaffordable. I want a more educated work force. I want everybody to be able to get a higher education regardless of their income.”
The case for eliminating undergraduate tuition at public colleges and universities—and for substantially lowering student debt and bringing down interest rates on college loans—is sound. And popular.
So we have an appealing proposal that makes economic and social sense.
Cue the chorus of “we can’t afford that.”
But Sanders says we can.
At the same time that the senator is proposing to make higher education free he is also proposing that the United States follow the lead of other countries that have introduced a financial transactions tax. Under the comprehensive plan proposed by the senator—which would also overhaul student loan programs to eliminate profiteering and expand work-study options to keep costs down—“the federal share of the cost would be offset by [revenues raised from the] tax on Wall Street transactions by investment houses, hedge funds and other speculators.”
Specifically, Sanders is sponsoring Senate legislation to introduce a nominal financial transactions tax on speculative trading in stocks, bonds, derivatives, and other financial instruments. Parallel to the Inclusive Prosperity Act, a measure sponsored by Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, the Sanders proposal would bring the United States up to speed with the dozens of other nations that have recognized the wisdom of establishing financial transactions taxes.
European nations have focused on financial transactions taxes because, as the European Commission explains, “Member States and their citizens want to ensure that the financial sector makes a fair and substantial contribution to public finances. Moreover, the sector should pay back at least part of what the European tax payers have pre-financed in the context of the bank rescue operations.”
In addition to raising revenues, financial transactions taxes have been embraced as tools to reduce the risks of high-speed and irresponsible speculative trading, explains the commission.
National Nurses United Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro, whose union has been outspoken in its advocacy for a “Robin Hood Tax” on the speculators, says that the Sanders plan can raise hundreds of billions of dollars every year to pay for higher education.
The financial transactions tax “is the perfect way to fund this program, as well as providing the resources we need for other vital humanitarian needs, including healthcare and good paying jobs for all, affordable housing, eradicating poverty and environmental justice,” said DeMoro. “It is the hallmark of a civilized society and a more just nation.”
More than 170 labor, civil rights, religious, environmental, community, consumer, and student groups have endorsed America’s campaign for a Robin Hood Tax, joining groups in countries around the world that have embraced the movement.
There’s a reason for this widespread interest in financial transactions taxes: economic realism.
“Income inequality is now at the center of our national political discourse, with politicians of every stripe recognizing it as a major problem of our time,” explains George Goehl, the executive director of National People’s Action. “What too few are willing to say is that we must demand more revenue from corporations and the one percent to level the playing field.”
Sanders, Ellison, and a hardful of other members of Congress are saying it: arguing that the United States can recognize human and societal needs, come up with plans to address them, and find the resources to get the job done.
That’s a rejection of economic austerity. But it is also something else: a rejection of the political austerity—as practiced by Republicans and Democrats—that has prevented progress for too long.
Read Next: John Nichols on Russ Feingold Running for the Senate