When Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders told The Nation last year that he was “prepared to run for president,” he said he would do so only if it was clear that progressives were enthusiastic about a movement campaign seeking nothing less than “a political revolution.” It was an audacious proposal—but after traveling the country for a year, Sanders decided that the enthusiasm was there and announced in late April as a candidate for the Democratic nomination. There were plenty of doubters then. Two months into the campaign, however, everything about this candidacy—the crowds, the poll numbers, the buzz—is bigger than expected. That says something about Sanders. But it also says something about the prospects for progressive politics. In late June, The Nation sat down with Sanders for several conversations that asked the longtime Nation reader (“started when I was a University of Chicago student in the early 1960s”) to put not just his campaign but the moment in historical perspective for our 150th-anniversary issue:
The Nation: Your campaign for the presidency has surprised people. The crowds are big; the poll numbers are stronger than the pundits predicted. You’re a student of political history. Put what’s happening now in perspective. Are we at one of those pivot points—as we saw in the 1930s—where our politics could open up and take the country in a much more progressive direction?
Sanders: Obviously, we’re not in the midst of a massive depression, as we were in the 1930s. But I think the discontent of the American people is far, far greater than the pundits understand. Do you know what real African-American youth unemployment is? It’s over 50 percent. Families with a member 55 or older have literally nothing saved for retirement. Workers are worried about their jobs ending up in China. They’re worried about being fired when they’re age 50 and being replaced at half-wages by somebody who is 25. They’re disgusted with the degree that billionaires are able to buy elections. They are frightened by the fact that we have a Republican Party that refuses to even recognize the reality of climate change, let alone address this huge issue.
In 1936, when Roosevelt ran for reelection, he welcomed the hatred of what he called “the economic royalists”—today, they’re the billionaire class—and I’m prepared to do that as well. That’s the kind of language the American people are ready to hear.
The Nation: There are other people who have tried to do what you’re doing with this campaign. But you seem to have the platform, the microphone, at this point. Why so?
Sanders: I am getting a lot more national media ever since I’ve been running for president. But even with all of the national media I’ve been getting, what’s always shocking to me is that still half the American people don’t know who I am—which talks about not me in particular, but just about political consciousness in general. I can tell you what is more of an indication: We have by far now what I think is the most successful Senate Facebook page—I think [more than] 1.2 million people who are part of our Facebook network and, on any given day, there might be a million people or more talking about us. So there is no question but that there’s a significant part of the population that follows what we’re doing—and that has been following us for years.
The Nation: Obviously, for a lot of those who have followed you, the economic issues, the populist message, is at the heart of your campaign. But when you talk about the crisis, you always include a discussion of climate change.
Sanders: Look, for those of us who believe in science, you simply cannot ignore what the scientific community is saying almost unanimously. And that is that climate change is real; it’s caused by human activity; it’s already causing devastating problems; and it will only get worse in years to come if we don’t transform our energy system. You cannot ignore what is happening every day in terms of the climate and what it will mean—what it’s meaning today to the folks in California and elsewhere—for your kids and my kids. There is a moral responsibility that we must accept to transform our energy system. It cannot be ignored.
The Nation: As a candidate for president, would you refuse money from fossil-fuel companies?
Sanders: (laughing and speaking sarcastically) Well, let me see—it’s true the Koch brothers did send us a large check, and we’ve been debating whether to accept it or not. Of course, for us, it’s rather an unrealistic issue: a) I don’t take corporate PAC money, and b) if, by some accident, some company sent us money, we would send it back—absolutely.
The Nation: A criticism directed toward you early in the campaign was that you were very focused on economics, but not sufficiently focused on critical issues such as police brutality and mass incarceration. Isn’t this something you have to address?
Sanders: Clearly, police brutality and what goes on in African-American communities and other communities is a huge issue…. The question is: How do you have police departments in this country that are part of their communities, not oppressors in their communities? How do you have police officers who, when they commit acts of crime, are held accountable and are indicted? How do you have police officers receiving the proper training that they need? How do we demilitarize our police departments? All of these are important issues. The good news is that, as a country, we are paying far more attention to this issue than we previously did. If anyone thinks that the kind of police brutality that we’re seeing now is something new, they are sorely mistaken. The good news, in a sense, is that it’s now becoming public and we’re seeing it and talking about it.
There has to be, I think, a significant change in police culture in terms of [the use of force]. That is a major issue that has to be dealt with. And we will deal with it, period.
The other thing, to be frank, that does trouble me is that there is so little discussion about African-American youth unemployment. How do you discuss Ferguson and not know that, in that particular community, unemployment is off the charts? How do you discuss Baltimore and not know that, in that particular community, unemployment is off the charts? African-American youth unemployment in this country is 50 percent, and one out of three African-American males born today stands the possibility of ending up in jail if present trends continue. This is a disaster. So, of course, we’ve got to talk about police brutality; of course, we’ve got to talk about reforming our criminal-justice system; of course, we’ve got to make sure that we are educating our kids and giving them job training and not sending them to jail. But I get a little distressed that people are not talking about what I consider to be a huge problem: How do you not talk about African-American youth unemployment at 50 percent?
The Nation: That focus on employment goes back to the historic message of the civil-rights movement. Civil-rights organizing was one of the ways into political activism for you, wasn’t it?
Sanders: Civil rights was a very important part of it. I was very active in the Congress of Racial Equality at the University of Chicago. I got arrested in trying to desegregate Chicago’s school system. I was very active in demanding that the University of Chicago not run segregated housing, which it was doing at that time. We were active in working with our brothers and sisters in SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]… at that point helping them with some very modest financial help. So, yes, I was active. And I do not separate the civil-rights issue from the fact that 50 percent of African-American young people are either unemployed or underemployed. Remember the March on Washington—what was it about? “Jobs and Freedom.” The issue that Dr. King raised all the time was: This is great if we want to desegregate restaurants or hotels, but what does it matter if people can’t afford to go to them? That’s still the issue today.
The Nation: As long as we’re talking about the evolution of public policy, let’s talk about the evolution of a word: socialism. You appeared on ABC’s This Week and, when you were asked whether a socialist can be elected president, you did not blink; you talked about socialism in positive, detailed terms. I don’t believe a presidential candidate has ever done that on a Sunday-morning show.
Sanders: Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, often criticizes President Obama, incorrectly, for trying to push “European-style socialism,” and McConnell says the American people don’t want it. First of all, of course, Obama is not trying to push European-style socialism. Second of all, I happen to believe that, if the American people understood the significant accomplishments that have taken place under social-democratic governments, democratic-socialist governments, labor governments throughout Europe, they would be shocked to know about those accomplishments. One of the goals of this campaign is to advance that understanding…. How many Americans know that in virtually every European country, when you have a baby, you get guaranteed time off and, depending on the country, significant financial benefits as well. Do the American people know that? I doubt it. Do the American people even know that we’re the only major Western industrialized country that doesn’t guarantee healthcare for all? Most people don’t know that. Do the American people know that in many countries throughout Europe, public colleges and universities are either tuition-free or very inexpensive?
I have always believed that the countries in Scandinavia have not gotten the kind of honest recognition they deserve for the extraordinary achievements they have made…. The Danish ambassador, whom I talked to a couple of years ago, said to me that in Denmark it is very, very hard to be poor; you really have to literally want to be outside of the system. Well, that’s pretty good. In Denmark, all of their kids can go to college; not only do they go for free, they actually get stipends. Healthcare is, of course, a right for all people. They have a very strong childcare system, which to me is very important. Their retirement system is very strong. They are very active in trying to protect their environment…. And, by the way, the voter turnout in those countries is much higher; in Denmark, in the last election, it was over 80 percent. Political consciousness is much higher than it is in the United States. It’s a more vibrant democracy in many respects. So why would I not defend that? Do they think I’m afraid of the word? I’m not afraid of the word.
The Nation: Of course, if you’re not afraid of the word, they can’t attack you. You can actually focus on the policies.
Sanders: When I ran for the Senate the first time, I ran against the wealthiest guy in the state of Vermont. He spent a lot on advertising—very ugly stuff. He kept attacking me as a liberal. He didn’t use the word “socialist” at all because everybody in the state knows that I am that. It has lost its cachet.
The Nation: You’re the son of an immigrant, and you’ve made an issue over the years of the exploitation of immigrant workers. What’s your sense of how these issues will figure in the 2016 campaign?
Sanders: I’ve been a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, the Dream Act, a number of these initiatives. But as you know, the Republicans have blocked action; worse than that, they talk about “self-deportation” and these other draconian proposals. So I supported the president’s executive action—I think that was a good step. But we have to push harder: We have to fight against this politics of division that seeks to divide working families, that disrespects hard work, that disrespects the contributions immigrant workers make to our economy. This politics of division doesn’t fix anything; it just makes it easier to exploit millions of workers who are vulnerable because of their undocumented status. We have to address that exploitation and end it. We also have to speak about who benefits from that exploitation: the same corporations that we see pushing these race-to-the-bottom policies. Instead of trying to divide workers, which is the oldest story in the book, we’ve got to be focused on uniting them, and the way to do that is by saying, “Look, the problem isn’t with this group of workers or that group of workers. The problem is with the corporations and the policies that make the exploitation possible.” We’re going to talk a lot about that in this campaign.
The Nation: Another issue you’ve focused on over the years is mass surveillance. In addition to voting against authorization for the use of force in Iraq, you voted against the Patriot Act. That was almost 15 years ago, and you’re still fighting on these issues.
Sanders: I did vote against the Patriot Act. I said at the time that it gave the government far too much power to spy on innocent Americans, and I believe I’ve been proven right about that. What frustrates me is this false choice that says the United States of America cannot pursue terrorists and protect people from harm while still respecting the Constitution and civil liberties. I didn’t believe that was the case in 2001, and I do not believe that is the case now. So I’ve raised these issues, and I will continue to raise them. And one other thing: I believe it’s important—vitally important—to recognize that it isn’t only what the federal government does that should concern us. We have to recognize that corporations collect huge amounts of data on us. There is no question in my mind that technology is outpacing public policy in this area, and I do not think we should be casual about this or say that it’s something we should let the corporations figure out. We should all be talking about this—about how we’re going to maintain our privacy rights in very rapidly changing times.
The Nation: You feel the same about corporations warping the future of the Internet to their advantage.
Sanders: Absolutely. I’ve been very involved in the fight to maintain net neutrality. This is about the free flow of information, the free flow of ideas, on the Internet. If we let corporations put a price tag on that, so that some ideas move more quickly than other ideas because a billionaire is paying for an advantage, that changes the debate in a way that harms democracy. This is common sense, and we’ve had some success in defending net neutrality—but we have to be vigilant. These fights over communication policy are really fights about how our democracy is going to function—if it is going to function—in the 21st century.
The Nation: One line of criticism from the pundits goes: “Sanders is strong on the issues, but he can’t get anywhere if he doesn’t attack Hillary Clinton.” You get attacked for not going negative!
Sanders: (laughing) I’ve had writers who have sat exactly where you’re sitting, and I’ve talked for an hour on every major issue facing the American people—gone on for an hour—and at the end, somebody asks me for a word on Hillary Clinton. And the story is “Bernie Sanders [vs.] Hillary Clinton.” That is the corporate media’s worldview. That is their only understanding of how a campaign can be run: when one candidate attacks the other candidate.
Now, I’ve known Hillary Clinton for many years. Let me confess: I like Hillary. I disagree with Hillary Clinton on many issues. My job is to differentiate myself from her on the issues—not by personal attacks. I’ve never run a negative ad in my life. Why not? First of all, in Vermont, they don’t work—and, frankly, I think increasingly around this country they don’t work. I really do believe that people want a candidate to come up with solutions to America’s problems rather than just attacking his or her opponent. If you look at politics as a baseball game or a football game, then I’m supposed to be telling the people that my opponents are the worst people in the world and I’m great. That’s crap; I don’t believe that for a second…. I don’t need to spend my life attacking Hillary Clinton or anybody else. I want to talk about my ideas on the issues.
The Nation: Which brings us to the subject of debates. My sense is that you’d be happy to debate every day.
Sanders: Well, not quite every day.
The Nation: But you have argued for a lot more debates. And you’ve suggested the radical notion that Republicans should be included in the debates.
Sanders: This is what I believe. I’m the ranking member on the Budget Committee. The Republican budget gave over $200 billion in tax breaks over a 10-year period to the wealthiest two-tenths of 1 percent—massive cuts in Medicare, massive cuts in Medicaid, massive cuts in education, threw 27 million people off their health insurance. That is the Republican budget. That is what they believe…. This is a fact. That’s exactly what their budget did.
The Republicans get away with murder because what they do and what they want is not seen, is not understood by the American people, because it’s not talked about…. So I think the more that we can confront Republicans about their ideology of tax breaks for the billionaires and cuts to every program that is a benefit to the American people, and can expose them for their subservience to the billionaire class—I think that wins for us every single time.
So this is what I would like: I would like as many debates as possible, and I would also like to break new ground and have debates with Republicans and Democrats. I think that will be very positive for the American people in that we’ll be able to focus on issues. Let the Republicans defend why they want to give tax breaks to the billionaires and make massive cuts in Medicare. I would love to hear it.
The other thing I want to do is to take these debates into the so-called red areas of the country. I think it is insane that the Democrats do not have a 50-state strategy [along the lines championed by Howard Dean]. How is it that, if you are the party of working people, supposedly, you abdicate your responsibility in some of the poorest states of America? Where are you in Mississippi? Where are you in South Carolina? Where are you in Alabama? Where are you in other low-income states? If you don’t get started now, you will never advance. So I intend in this campaign to go to states that many Democratic candidates don’t usually visit.
The Nation: Would you do one-on-one debates with Republican presidential candidates? Would you sit down with Scott Walker and debate about unions with him?
Sanders: Of course I would—I’d debate him about anything. And I’ll tell you the truth: I don’t think it would be a bad idea to have more than one Republican and more than one Democrat. The most serious political problem facing this country is that we don’t discuss the serious issues facing this country. And the American people are becoming increasingly alienated from the political process; 63 percent of the American people didn’t vote last November. I’m looking for ways to bring them into a serious discussion about serious issues. When we do that, the Republican agenda will be exposed for the disaster it is.
The Nation: You have a strong sense of history. What’s your measure for a historic campaign?
Sanders: The title of our campaign, the working slogan, is “A Political Revolution.” That’s what this campaign is about. If it results in millions of people beginning to move in that direction, beginning to understand the potential of our country, what we can become; if people understand why we are where we are in terms of income and wealth inequality; if people begin to understand that participating in our democratic process is our patriotic duty and what people fought and died to defend; if people begin to stand up and say, “America is not supposed to be a country where 99 percent of all new income goes to the top 1 percent, or where the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent… that is not what America is supposed to be”; if people begin to ask, “What can we do as Americans? How do we move to healthcare for all? How do we have the best educational system in the world? Let’s get involved in that discussion. Let’s make it happen”—if we accomplish that goal, I will be elected president of the United States. And even if I am not elected president of the United States, this country will be in much better shape for having made that effort.