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.