Bernie Sanders will address the Democratic National Convention this week, not as the nominee of the party he had hoped to lead against Donald Trump but as a supporter of the ticket of former vice president Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris. Since Sanders and Biden stopped competing for the nomination, Sanders has worked with Biden to unify the party. He will continue to do so this fall.
But the senator from Vermont still sees himself as an outsider, who is battling against status quo politics and the caution of contemporary Democrats who lack the bold vision that Franklin Delano Roosevelt outlined in his 1944 “Economic Bill of Rights.” This is a subject Sanders and I began to explore last year when I interviewed him for my new book, The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party (Verso). We returned to it last week when the senator and I discussed whether Covid-19, mass unemployment, and the demand for racial justice might create an opening for the bolder politics he advocates. Sanders offered a vision for the party that is rooted in its history and focused on its future—and gave a glimpse of what he’ll talk about at the convention.
What Roosevelt did in his State of the Union speech in 1944 was really quite extraordinary. For whatever reason—we were in the middle of a war then and, of course, he died a year later; the media was not particularly sympathetic—what he said back in 1944 has been largely forgotten. But what he said was extraordinarily profound and revolutionary.
What he said is that, yes, our country has political freedom. We have a Constitution. We have a Bill of Rights. We have freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, etc., and that’s all great. But what we have to do is go beyond just political rights and into economic rights.
In other words, it’s not good enough that you just have the constitutional right to vote (that’s good!), to protest (that’s great!), to assemble (that’s wonderful!), and freedom of religion (great!).
What we have got to be talking about, Roosevelt said in 1944, is that economic rights are human rights, and that means you are entitled, as an American, to decent housing, to decent health care, to a decent job, to a decent retirement. Economic rights are human rights, and you’re not going to be a really free person unless we guarantee those rights. That was an extraordinarily profound statement!
What I tried to do in the 2020 campaign is talk about Roosevelt’s 1944 speech and how we make it relevant to the year 2020.
JN: You often said during the 2020 campaign that the Democratic Party had to engage more with movements and ideas, that it had to extend its vision in order to not just beat Trump but frame the future. I presume that you still believe that this is the most morally and politically valid way to go forward.
BS: Yes, I do. Look. I think—and you’re beginning to see it—that our movement, which is taking on the entire corporate establishment, and the political establishment, is bringing some major victories, not only in congressional races but in state legislative races, in county prosecutor races, and in school board races. I mean, really, it’s all across the board.…
I think what we are forging is a movement that is prepared to ask questions that have not been asked for a long time. To ask, as Roosevelt did in 1944, what are we guaranteed? What are our human rights? What are we entitled to as human beings in a democratic, civilized society?
I think more and more people understand that every person in this country is entitled to a dignified standard of living. That’s decent housing, decent jobs, decent educational opportunity, a decent retirement, a clean environment.
JN: You now have a proposal to get serious about taxing the rich at a level that FDR and Henry Wallace and others might have thought appropriate. As with the Pentagon cuts you have proposed, that’s a battle. You’re going to have to work to get the Democratic Party on your side for that. What’s your sense of the progress there?
BS: I think it’s going to be very hard. What we’re trying to do right now, by the way—which is above and beyond the fight for progressive taxation—is that in this terrible pandemic and this economic meltdown, when 30 million people have lost their jobs, when half the people in this country are living paycheck to paycheck, when people are losing their health insurance, when people are being evicted from their apartments, that in this terrible moment it is absolutely unacceptable that, I think, 467 billionaires have seen their wealth just during this pandemic, John, increase by over $700 billion.
For people like Jeff Bezos, for the Walton family, for Elon Musk, for a tiny, tiny sliver, a tiny fraction of 1 percent of the people, they are doing phenomenally well, while so many of the people of this country are falling into desperation.
What this amendment says is, “You know what? We are going to have a pandemic tax of 60 percent on the huge increase in wealth that we have seen among the richest people in this country just in the last four or five months.”
We’re going to take that money, many hundreds of billions of dollars, and use it during this pandemic, use it for the next year, to make sure that, A, everybody in America has health care (if you don’t have health care, we will provide it to you through Medicare), and B, if you do have health care, we’ll make sure that you’re not going to be paying out-of-pocket expenses, because Medicare will cover those out-of-pocket expenses.
This is a struggle to begin changing the priorities of America, John. Should we allow 467 billionaires to make huge profits? An unbelievable increase in wealth! Or should we provide health care for all people as a right, at least during this crisis?
That’s what it is: It’s a choice that we have got to examine. I think the American people are with us. Just as I think they are with us in support of Medicare for All, which we’ll continue to fight for.
JN: The polls suggest the American people are with you. I’m interested in whether you think that Democrats in Congress and perhaps a President Biden will be with you.
BS: Well, all I can say is that taking on the ruling class of this country is not easy. They have enormous power. We are growing our movement to create a Democratic Party that is prepared to do that.
Are we there now? No, we’re not. We started off with this amendment having, I think, two cosponsors, Ed Markey and Kirsten Gillibrand. We’ll probably get a couple more.
But taking on the corporate elite and the big money interests is not so easy, and we’re going to have to rally the American people to move the Democratic Party in that direction.
JN: You’ve made it clear that you believe electing Joe Biden is a big deal because of the necessity to beat Donald Trump, But it’s also fair to say that you have developed a relationship with Joe Biden where you think you can talk to this guy and—even if you do not always agree on everything—to work with him on at least some issues.
BS: Well, number one, the first absolute necessity is to defeat Donald Trump. Trump is the most dangerous president in American history. Trump is an authoritarian who is trying to undermine American democracy. Trump is a pathological liar. Trump does not understand or believe in the Constitution of the United States or the separation of powers. He does not respect Congress. He is a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, a xenophobe, and a religious bigot. For all those reasons and more, Trump must be defeated.
My view is that after we elect Biden, what we’re going to do is everything that we possibly can to move his administration in a progressive direction. Biden has told me, and I would not say it if he hadn’t made the same statement publicly, that he intends to be the most progressive president since FDR. That’s a noble ambition, and our job is to hold him to that goal. I think millions of people are prepared to do that.
JN: There’s a story, told with many variations, that FDR, when confronted by activists making demands for economic and social and racial justice, would say, “Go out and make me do it.”
JN: So the hope is that a good Democratic president, a wise Democratic president, understands this dynamic of wanting to have pressure for a more progressive agenda, or at least to have the activism that makes demands, that opens things up. That makes it easier for a president to move into a more progressive space.
BS: Right! Look, on issue after issue, the American people are supporting the progressive agenda, while the corporate elite is vigorously opposed to that agenda. Our job is to make the Biden administration understand that it makes a lot more sense to be supportive of what the American people want rather than what the moneyed interests want.
That’s what our task will be the day after the election. Right now, obviously, the most important task is to elect Biden. I think it’s going to be difficult. I know a lot of people are assuming, “Oh, the polls look so good, Biden’s going to win—no problem.” I don’t believe that for a second.
I think this is going to be a very tough election for a whole lot of reasons. I worry very much about what happens on Election Day and the counting of ballots, how mail-in ballots are counted, whether people in fact can even cast those ballots, whether the Postal Service is going to be sabotaged, etc.
What I am pledged to do in the next three months is everything I can to see that Biden is elected; and the day after that election, when he wins, to make sure that we move him in a progressive direction.
JN: We’re speaking shortly before the Democratic National Convention begins. This is going to be the weirdest Democratic Convention in history, because nobody’s going to be there. You’ll be a speaker at the convention. What will the message be?
BS: The message will be that at this particular moment, tens of millions of working-class people are living in fear and desperation. We have got to hear their pain. We have got to acknowledge their pain. We have got to respond to their pain in an unprecedented way, in a bold manner.
We need to create the jobs that people need. We need to provide the wages, decent wages that people need. We have to make sure that workers have the right to join unions. We have to provide health care to all people as a human right and quality education as a human right. We have to create millions of jobs by addressing the existential threat of climate change. We have to deal with the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality.
On one hand, obviously we have got to beat Trump for all the reasons and more that I just mentioned. But it is not good enough just to defeat Trump. We need to create a new America and a government and an economy that works for all and not just a few.
And it’s absolutely the case that when we talk about creating an economy and a government based on justice, it means racial justice, the end of systemic racism in this country. That goes well, well beyond police brutality and police murders. It goes to every aspect of our lives. We have, as a nation, got to be as aggressive as we can in ending all forms of racism and bigotry.