With Bernie

  • 01/08/2016
  • Paul Rosenberg
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Killer Mike is a strong supporter of presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders. File photo

Another World Is Possible

By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor

Since Bernie Sanders launched his presidential bid, he’s been crystal clear on a number of key points: America belongs to the people, not a handful of billionaires; and people must organize themselves into a political revolution to reclaim their rightful power. Politics as usual will not be enough.

“We’re going to build a movement of millions of Americans who are prepared to stand up and fight back,” Sanders pledged in his announcement speech, reflecting his belief that without an energized and engaged electorate, nothing fundamental can be changed. “Now is not the time for thinking small. Now is not the time for the same old, same old establishment politics and stale inside-the-beltway ideas…. Now is the time for millions of working families to come together, to revitalize American democracy, to end the collapse of the American middle class and to make certain that our children and grandchildren are able to enjoy a quality of life that brings them health, prosperity, security and joy.”

Over the summer, he made his ability to mobilize people a key part of his pitch to the Democratic National Committee meeting.

“In my view, Democrats will not retain the White House, will not regain the Senate or the U.S. House, will not be successful in dozens of gubernatorial races across the country, unless we generate excitement and momentum and produce a huge voter turnout,” Sanders said to the group, as reported by John Nichols of The Nation.

“With all due respect—and I do not mean to insult anyone here—that turnout, that enthusiasm, will not happen with politics as usual. The people of our country understand that given the collapse of the American middle class, and given the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality we are experiencing, we do not need more establishment politics or establishment economics.”

Another way to describe the difference is solidarity-building social democracy—epitomized by the New Deal and the Great Society, as well as Nordic countries like Denmark and Sweden today—versus market-oriented neoliberalism, embraced by Republicans and Democrats alike since Reagan’s election, which was epitomized by stagnant or declining wages, North American Free Trade Agreement-style trade deals, and declining union power.

Elites usually treat social democracy with disdain, but when pressured by its broad and powerful appeal, they can reverse themselves and blur the differences between it and neoliberalism. That is part of the blurring strategy Clinton has adopted in response to Sanders’ unexpectedly strong campaign.

In line with his movement-building pledge, as 2016 dawned, Sanders’ campaign announced it had received donations from a record-breaking 2.5 million contributors in the fourth quarter of 2015, raising $33 million and smashing Barack Obama’s previous record of 2.2 million contributors. It was all the more remarkable in light of revelations from the Tyndal Report showing how dramatically Sanders has been ignored by the corporate media. Through the end of November, ABC World News Tonight devoted 81 minutes to Donald Trump’s campaign, compared to just 20 seconds for Bernie Sanders’. For all three networks, Sanders garnered less than 10 minutes of coverage, compared to 234 minutes for Trump, even though both had similar levels of support in the polls. Joe Biden, who didn’t even run, got 56 minutes.

Yet, despite his much smaller media platform, Sanders easily managed to get Trump to reverse himself on whether wages—particularly the minimum wage—should be raised (a proposal Trump rejected in the November Fox Business GOP debate), because he understands Trump’s appeal far better than other politicians do. He also understands how his own politics trumps Trump. Indeed, Sanders has consistently done better against Trump head-to-head than Hillary Clinton, showing his ability to wean voters away from Trump.

“Many of Trump’s supporters are working-class people. And they are angry,” said Sanders on Face The Nation on Dec. 27, 2015. “They’re angry because they are working longer hours for lower wages. They’re angry because their jobs have left this country and gone to China or other low-wage countries. They’re angry because they can’t afford to send their kids to college or they can’t retire with dignity.

“What Trump has done, with some success, is taken that anger, taken those fears—which are legitimate—and converted them…into anger against Mexicans, anger against Muslims…. That is not the way we are going to address the major problems facing our country. The way we address them is, we bring our people together. We demand that Congress passes legislation, which creates millions of decent paying jobs, raises the minimum wage, pay equity for women, making college affordable for all.”

At the same time, Sanders noted, Trump “is a guy who does not want to raise the minimum wage.”

“In fact, he has said that he thinks wages in America are too high,” Sanders said. “But he does want to give hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks to the top three-tenths of 1 percent.”

That’s what raised Trump’s ire, causing him to falsely tweet that it was a lie: “@BernieSanders…said that I feel wages in America are too high. Lie!” In the GOP debate, Trumps exact words were, “Taxes too high, wages too high, we’re not going to be able to compete against the world. I hate to say it, but we have to leave it [the minimum wage] the way it is. [$7.25/hour]”

After falsely accusing Sanders of lying about him, Trump made his flip-flop explicit—though he still held out “leaders” such as himself, as the “solution,” tweeting: “Wages in our country are too low, good jobs are too few, and people have lost faith in our leaders. We need smart and strong leadership now!”

Trump’s dogged devotion to “leadership” as a solution is devoid of any specific policy ideas. It is a typical expression of the confused ideology of right-wing populism, which often tilts in the direction of fascism and stands in stark contrast Sanders’ laying out of detailed specifics. These are often based on existing working models in other countries. If both brands of populism are similar in tapping in speaking to legitimate anger, they could not be more different when it comes to reality-orientation—or when it comes to who to blame.

“What he wants to do is divide our country between Latinos and Americans and Muslims and everybody else,” Sanders said of Trump on Face The Nation. “That’s not the kind of America we need.”

Despite breakout moments like this, there’s no doubt the media blackout has hurt Sanders, whose economic populism is wildly popular with the American people, as opposed to political elites. It’s hurt him especially with regards to minorities, who are particularly in favor of social democratic ideas like raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, free college tuition, expanding Social Security and Medicare-for-all to secure universal health care.

Hip-Hop and Sander’s Reach

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Bun B speaks out in support of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on a new podcast called Hip Hop for Bernie Sanders. File photo

No one has suffered more as a result of the economic reality than blacks, Latinos and other minorities, but Sanders’ support among them has lagged up till now, partly because he’s still unknown to them, and partly because minorities experience racial injustice more clearly, urgently and acutely than they do economic injustice. The latter reason leads them to trust their political elites more than whites do, even as those elites have drifted in a more neoliberal direction over the past 25 years, and become strong Clinton supporters despite the Clinton record of slashing welfare and expanding drug war mass incarceration—moves which Sanders opposed at the time.

Yet, despite a black and Latino political establishment heavily unified around Hillary Clinton, Sanders is gaining increasing support in the hip-hop community, which could potentially help change the direction of the race, when it turns to states where minorities play a major role in the Democratic primaries. The support began emerging several months ago, but has grown more noticeable in December, when Sanders was endorsed by Southern rappers Scarface (known for his early work with the Geto Boys), Bun B previously with the duo UGK, and Killer Mike, who won a Grammy with Outkast and is now in Run the Jewels. Outkast’s Big Boi had earlier expressed support for Sanders, “because he’s with prison reform,” but said he was not endorsing anyone.

Early support emerged in July, when rapper Lil B, who had previously endorsed Hillary Clinton, switched his support in a series of tweets.

“As much as I want a woman leading the USA, right now it’s all about Bernie @BernieSanders @SenSanders…he loves us,” Lil B tweeted on July 15.

Later he added: “I heard Bernie @BernieSanders @SenSanders marched against segregation in the 60s which was not long ago! I love that brave dude!”

As he explained to CNN in October, finding out about Sanders’ past influenced him (especially in contrast to Hillary Clinton’s youthful support for Barry Goldwater, noted for his vote against the Civil Rights Act), but it was only one step in the process:

And when Sanders followed him on Twitter, the rapper’s admiration for the Vermont senator grew because to Lil B, candidates who follow others on social media tells him about who they feel they should be listening to.

Lil B also defended Sanders regarding a Seattle incident when local Black Lives Matter activists confronted him onstage in early August.

“It might be uncomfortable for him to talk about the issues but he has a leg to stand on,” Lil B told CNN. “I mean, if he was marching for civil rights back then, he was protesting against segregation … and all the youth, the black youth, should be able to hear him out…. I think he handled it very classy.”

The media gave Sanders’ encounter rare high visibility portraying it negatively, but as Lil B saw it, “I think Bernie let them speak and it’s the admirable thing to do.”

In fact, Sanders had already been in dialogue with Black Lives Matter activists. Just after the Seattle confrontation, on such activist, Simone Sanders was appointed his national spokeswoman. She had been in contact with Sanders for about three weeks at the time. Sanders quickly released a racial justice plan, which drew an immediate positive response.

“The ‘violence’ framing in the initial draft of the Sanders Racial Justice platform is powerful & I look forward to seeing him expand this,” prominent Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson tweeted.

“We must pursue policies that transform this country into a nation that affirms the value of its people of color,” the plan’s introductory statement began. “That starts with addressing the four central types of violence waged against black and brown Americans: physical, political, legal and economic.”

McKesson later participated in discussions with Sanders and his staff resulting in an expanded version, including the addition of a fifth type of violence to the list: environmental.

Physical violence addresses both violence perpetrated by the state as well as by extremists. Sanders calls for police demilitarization, investment in community policing with increased civilian oversight and a diversity of the force that reflects the community, as well as a new federal model police training program to reorient the way law enforcement is done.

“With input from a broad segment of the community including activists and leaders from organizations like Black Lives Matter we will reinvent how we police America,” the plan states.

The section on political violence, disenfranchisement, begins:

In the shameful days of open segregation, literacy laws and poll taxes were used to suppress minority voting. Today, through other laws and actions—such as requiring voters to show photo identification, discriminatory drawing of congressional districts, restricting same-day registration and early voting and aggressively purging voter rolls—states are taking steps which have a similar effect.

It goes on to propose a variety of specific responses, including renewing and expanding the voting rights act, restoring ex-felons’ voting rights and automatic voter registration for 18-year-olds.

The section of economic violence begins by quoting Martin Luther King, and goes on to call for tuition-free public universities, a minimum wage of $15 an hour by 2020, and an investment of “$1 trillion to put 13 million Americans to work” rebuilding America’s infrastructure. The section on legal violence proposes a range of policies for rolling back the failed racially-biased “War on Drugs” and investing in rehabilitation instead.

The section on environmental violence paints a picture that insular white Americans know virtually nothing about: People of color disproportionately experience a daily assault on their health and environment. Communities of color are the hardest hit by air and water pollution from industrial factories, power plants, incinerators, chemical waste and lead contamination from old pipes and paint. At the same time, they lack access to parks, gardens and other recreational green space.

All together, it’s an incredibly powerful, detailed document. But most minority voters probably haven’t even heard about it. Heck, they probably haven’t heard anything about Bernie Sanders at all. This is why the recent buzz of support from rappers could prove so significant. If they can draw attention to what Sanders stands for, he’s got a great deal to say to them on his own.

“This is the opportunity and this is time to speak out,” said Bun B on the first episode of Hip Hop for Bernie Sanders, a new podcast that begun in December. “That’s what we try and do with hip-hop, to educate, inform, and pass that knowledge on…. With knowledge comes power, the power to stand up, be heard, and make change. The primary way for young people to stand up, be heard and affect change is to vote…. And, we’re trying to give people the kind of information they need so they can differentiate who they need to vote for.”

Killer Mike spent five hours with Sanders recently in Atlanta. This included an hour-long interview in his barber shop for Rolling Stone magazine.

“You seem to be the only politician who wants a smarter constituency,” Killer Mike observed in the midst of their conversation.

The fact that Sanders had been an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was “amazing,” he said, not because Sanders had done it, but because it was so unknown that even Killer Mike was surprised to have only recently learned of it.

“I’m from the activist community,” he said. “I should know you…

“In every black barber shop, there’s two blacks guys and an honorary white guy. When I was growing up it was Martin Luther King, Jesus—well, black Jesus in my shop—and Jack Kennedy. So, in my shop you are really about to get the heralded position of the white guy. It’s going to Martin, Malcolm, Bernie.”

Killer Mike also gave an impassioned introduction to Sanders at a campaign rally. He began by referring to Martin Luther King, but not the figure most Americans think of.

“What I’m talking about today is the Martin King post the Washington March,” he said, when King spoke out against the Vietnam War and organized the Poor People’s March.

“I’m talking about a revolutionary,” Killer Mike said. “I am here as a proponent for political revolution that says health care is a right of every citizen. I am here because working class and poor people deserve a chance at economic freedom and yes, if you work 40 hours a week, you should not be in poverty…. In my heart of hearts, I truly believe that Sen. Bernie Sanders is the right man to lead this country. I believe it because he, unlike any other candidate, said ‘I would like to restore the Voting Rights Act.’ He, unlike any other candidate said, ‘I wish to end this illegal war on drugs….Unlike any other candidate in my life, he says that education should be free for every citizen.”

Whether rappers like Lil B, Killer Mike and Bun B can do enough to make a difference in bringing minority voters around to Sanders—or at least around to considering him—remains to be seen. But there’s no longer any doubt he’s got plenty to offer them.


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