Bernie Sanders is still campaigning for the political revolution. He’s protesting with Native Americans against the Dakota Access pipeline, championing the Working Families Party, and hitting the trail for antimonopoly congressional candidate Zephyr Teachout. Sanders continues to draw big crowds and media attention after a presidential run that won more than 13 million votes and injected genuine economic populism into the debate.
But he isn’t satisfied. We sat down with Sanders in mid-September, just as he was putting the finishing touches on a book about his campaign that will be published after the election. The Vermont senator was in rare form, ripping into the media for its role in diminishing the political discourse, calling for the reform of the Democratic Party, and celebrating the fact that a new generation considers democratic socialism a viable political option. Hillary Clinton? They’ve got differences, but he’s for her. Donald Trump? Don’t get him started…
The Nation: Do you have anything you’d like to say up front?
Bernie Sanders: Very truthfully, I ended the campaign much more optimistic about the future of this country than when I began it. We met so many fantastic people who are prepared to think outside of the box; who understand that the establishment imposes limitations on what we think we can or cannot accomplish, and that we can do far, far more.
The Nation: When we sat here, more than two years ago, you were preparing to run for president. But you also said, “I’ve got to go out and talk to people for about a year and figure out whether they’re ready.” When you announced, had you determined that people really were ready? Or did you still worry that you were taking a big risk, at a point when you were polling at 3 percent?
Sanders: The first concern that I had, on a personal as well as political level, was that I did not want to run a campaign that would be counterproductive to the progressive vision that so many people in this country share, including readers of The Nation. If I ran a bad campaign—if I came out for Medicare for all and free tuition to public colleges and universities and progressive taxation, and then two months later I withdrew because the campaign wasn’t going anyplace—then what would the establishment say? “Bernie Sanders came up with all these progressive ideas, nobody listened to him, that’s not what America is about. These ideas are not the ideas of the United States.”
A failed campaign would reflect very badly on the vision that many of us share. That’s why I was motivated and determined to run a serious and strong campaign.
The Nation: Did you get something about what was going on in this country that the pundits didn’t?
Sanders: I believed from my heart of hearts that the ideas I was talking about were not courageous, radical, bold ideas. The ideas that I was talking about are what most Americans would support if they had the chance to hear these views, which they do not under normal circumstances. You could watch CNN for the next 14 years, and you’re not going to hear a discussion about the need for a single-payer health-care system. You’re not going to see a critique of the drug companies, and you’re not going to hear much discussion about income and wealth inequality. My view was that if we could get out to the American people, get the exposure, make the personal contacts, we would do well.
The Nation: You were a senator from a small state who had to introduce himself to the whole country. Were you surprised, frustrated, or angry about some of the questioning of your civil-rights record, your commitment to racial justice?
Sanders: I would not have predicted the degree to which this was a generational campaign. We did phenomenally well with young voters, and by the end of the campaign we were winning the young African-American vote. I’m very proud of that. But we were getting decimated among seniors, especially among older black women. Decimated—I mean, losing 8 or 9 to 1. I don’t want to read more into it than I think is the case. I think Bill Clinton was popular with the African-American community, and that spilled over to Hillary Clinton’s popularity. They certainly have known the Clintons for decades. In the South, they knew her as the first lady of Arkansas. We were coming in as somebody who was not well-known.
I’m not saying that we ran the kind of outreach in the African-American community that we should have. We did not. What does gratify me is that a) by the end of the campaign, we were winning younger African-American voters, and b) we were winning the overall Latino vote. We came a long, long way in both communities. We just did not have the runway to do what I wanted to do in the African-American community.
The Nation: What did you learn from the Black Lives Matter movement?
Sanders: I talked to a lot of Black Lives activists in various states. What I learned is that the relationship of police departments around the country with the black community is far, far more severe and awful than I had originally known. The intimidation on the part of the police, the shooting of unarmed people, the outrage of people being killed in cold blood, is an issue which prompted us to come up with what I believe was the strongest set of proposals of any candidate in terms of the need for real criminal-justice reform.
But I also believe what Martin Luther King Jr. believed. You remember what the title of the March on Washington was? “Jobs and Freedom.” What King understood is that you have to deal with the economic issues as well as the political issues and the civil-rights issues. Throughout this campaign, what we talked about is that, in community after community, there are unemployment rates among young African Americans of 30 to 40 percent. Thirty to 40 percent! Kids have no jobs, they have no future. That is an issue that has got to be dealt with simultaneously as we deal with police brutality, voter suppression, and the other attacks that are taking place on the African-American community.
The Nation: When you began your campaign, you said you weren’t afraid of the word “socialism.” Should you have been? Did it hurt your campaign?
Sanders: No. Well, I shouldn’t be quite so dismissive of your question in this sense: It is one of the reasons that I may have been hurt among senior citizens. We did very poorly among seniors. That disturbed me very much, because I have one of the strongest records in fighting for senior citizens. I led the effort to prevent cuts to Social Security. But I think for some seniors, they remember the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union. They conflated the term “democratic socialism” with communism.
Among young people, no, I don’t think it hurt at all. One of the things I am proud of is that there is a lot more support for the concept of democratic socialism today than there was before the campaign.
What I tried to do throughout the campaign was to suggest not only the morality of the positions that we were taking in terms of poverty or health care, but to say: “You know what? These ideas, these concepts, exist in many other countries around the world. Bernie Sanders did not wake up last night with this great idea that we should guarantee health care to all people as a right. Actually, it exists in every other major country on earth. You don’t know that, because the media has forgotten to tell you that. But it does exist. In Denmark, because of union negotiations, the minimum wage is about $20 an hour. In Germany, you go to college tuition-free. In Finland, they actually pay you to go to college. Now, you don’t know that in America because CBS forgot to tell you. But that is the reality.”
And then people said: “Maybe that’s not such a crazy idea. Maybe the Germans are not so dumb. Maybe they’re investing in their young people so they can have the best-educated workforce that they can.”
The Nation: You’ve endorsed Hillary Clinton. Some of your supporters feel you’ve betrayed them. What do you say to them now?
Sanders: I’m a United States senator, and I have a responsibility to the people of my state—also to the people of this country. The first thing that I’ve got to think about is: What does a Donald Trump presidency mean for the people of my state and for the people of this country? And for the people of the world? I think it would be an absolute disaster. It would be beyond a disaster. Therefore, as a United States senator, I’ve got to do everything that I can to make sure that Trump does not become president.
Now, do I have strong differences of opinion with Hillary Clinton? I think the whole world knows that. The goal here is not to say, “Hillary Clinton is the best thing in the history of the world—she’s great, she’s wonderful, she’s terrific.” What we should be saying is that if you look at virtually all of the issues of importance to the people of this country—issues like making public colleges and universities tuition-free—Hillary Clinton is now on record for doing that for people making $125,000 a year or less. You know what? That is pretty revolutionary. That will transform the lives of millions of families in this country. That’s what Clinton stands for.
Clinton is on record supporting a doubling of community health centers in this country, which will mean that tens of millions of people—poor people—will have access to health care that do not have it today. Is that significant? It is very significant. Clinton is on record supporting pay equity for women, so that women do not continue to make 79 cents on the dollar compared to men. I happen to believe that one of the great crises facing the planet is climate change. Donald Trump happens not to think that climate change is real. Clinton takes it seriously.
The point is not to say that we love Hillary Clinton or that we agree with her on all of the issues. The goal is to go above that and ask: Which candidate will do a better job for middle-class and working-class families? I think the answer is obvious.
The second point to be made is that politics does not end the day of the election. The day after the election, when Hillary Clinton wins, you can be assured that I and other progressives will be saying to President-elect Clinton, “Take a good look at the Democratic platform that you supported—because together, President-elect Clinton, we are going to implement that platform. We’re going to involve millions of people in the process who are going to break up the large Wall Street banks, who are going to make public colleges and universities tuition-free, who are going to be very aggressive on climate change and transforming our energy system.”
But if Trump is elected president… I just don’t know what America looks like four years after his election, in terms of the kind of bigotry that will be erupting, in terms of the kind of divisiveness that we will see, the kind of demagoguery that we will see.
That’s where I am. I’m not going to sit here and say to you that Hillary Clinton is going to be great on all these issues with absolute confidence. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that on many, many issues, her views are progressive. In many areas, they are awesome. Where they’re not progressive, we’ve got to push her, and the day after the election, we will mobilize millions of people to make sure that we make her the most progressive president that she can be.
The Nation: Russ Feingold says that he wants to get reelected to the Senate and be a part of forming a real progressive bloc there. He mentions you, Elizabeth Warren, Jeff Merkley, a handful of others. Do you see forming a Senate progressive caucus?
Sanders: I think Russ is exactly right. I think we need a bloc of progressives who can make a unified statement to the leadership that this is what we want, and this is what we’re going to fight for, rather than just go and vote as individuals. Since I first came here, you’ve got people like Elizabeth and Jeff and others. Certainly, if Russ gets elected—and I hope very much he will—he will be a very important player in that progressive bloc.
The Nation: If you were the nominee right now, what would you be doing?
Sanders: I wouldn’t be sitting here, that’s for sure.
The Nation: But are there things Democrats should be doing more of right now?
Sanders: Yes, of course they should. It’s the Democrats’ same old weakness: much too much dependency on consultants and TV ads rather than mobilizing people. There was some good news yesterday about wages going up, but the truth is that we have had, for 40 years, a declining middle class. People are hungry, and they’re hurting, and they’re very, very worried about their children. Will their kids ever pay off their student debt? Will their kids ever get a decent-paying job? I think Democrats have got to be running a grassroots campaign—mobilizing people and being prepared to take on the 1 percent with an agenda that speaks to the needs of ordinary workers.
The Nation: Does the party need to change?
Sanders: It needs revolutionary change. If you want to run for the United States Senate, you hire a consultant who will do polling for you, who will tell you the kinds of television ads you should run, who will tell you that most of the money you raise has got to go into TV. Raising money, and then putting that money into the hands of consultants, who then put on TV ads—that’s more or less what campaigns are about. We’ve got to change that.
The Democrats have got to open the door to young people. Welcome them in and understand that it will be messy, that many young people are not professional politicians. The Democratic Party is going to have to adjust itself to their reality, rather than force young people to be adjusted to the Democratic leadership’s reality.
The Nation: How does the new group Our Revolution connect to this? You’ve fought against big money all of your life, but Our Revolution is incorporated as a 501(c)(4). Maybe you could talk a little bit about that?
Sanders: First of all, by law, I am not part of Our Revolution. Our Revolution inherited the apparatus of the campaign—I’m not involved in it.
The Nation: Do you want them to disclose contributions?
Sanders: Yes, absolutely they should. To the best of my knowledge, they are going to disclose.
The Nation: What about the politics of Our Revolution? How will it operate?
Sanders: I don’t know if you know this, but Our Revolution candidates have already won a lot of primaries. In Massachusetts, with the support of Our Revolution, a young attorney, a very progressive guy, beat a long-term incumbent. In Rhode Island, the majority leader in the House got knocked off.
I think Our Revolution is beginning to do what its goal was, and that is to focus not only on high-profile races, but to get down into the state legislatures. You have a couple of firebrands in state legislatures, and you know what? That’s going to push those legislatures. A few people can make a significant impact.
The Nation: You were clearly frustrated by the media’s coverage of the campaign.
Sanders: What you realize is that the media focus on the gossip of the campaign, rather than the issues affecting the American people. Their coverage became about Bernie Sanders and his campaign, not about the needs of the American people and what we were proposing to address those needs. That was very distressing.
The way we overcame that, to the degree that we did, was through social media. One of the reasons I think we did so well among younger people is that most younger people now do not watch the evening news; they don’t read The Washington Post. And we did, I think, a very good job in terms of communicating directly with many millions of younger people directly through social media.
I think that what we need to do—and you’re already doing it, so I’m not lecturing you—is to integrate our ideas into the political movement so that it’s not just a magazine talking to people, or Bernie Sanders talking to people. Our ideas need to become part of everyday discussion. What we have got to do—especially with younger people, especially with people not heavily involved in the political process—is to make sure that every morning, afternoon, and evening, they are seeing the presentation of issues that are relevant to their lives.