Isn’t It Time to Take Him Seriously?
By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
When Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders announced his campaign for president, much of the media responded by downplaying, or ignoring it, or even treating it like a joke.
They never stopped to consider that his positions—expanding Social Security, reforming Wall Street, raising wages, rebuilding infrastructure, free pre-K and public college for all, aggressively fighting climate change, and reversing excessive wealth and income inequality—are publicly quite popular, even with many Republicans. The democratic socialist, who is wildly popular in his home state, raised $1.5 million in the first day of his campaign. That’s twice as much as Rand Paul, and more than what any other candidate has reported.
“Within days of announcing, he raised almost $5 million and he did it with an average contribution of $43,” said Diane Middleton, local labor lawyer, philanthropist and a strong Sanders supporter. “That shows that people are going to get behind him.”
Sanders followed that up with a series of campaign events that brought out much larger crowds than expected. National polls show more support for him than for any of the GOP candidates, which indicates the sustained disconnect between media elites and the people. So it wasn’t surprising when Sanders told a conference call of activists on June 4, “The campaign is going well beyond our best expectations. What we have been doing in a kind of old-fashioned way—nothing fancy about it—is just laying out an agenda that speaks to the needs of working Americans.”
This involves some very basic but often overlooked questions, which Sanders never shies away from. “The American people want to know how it happened that, despite an explosion of technology and increased worker productivity, millions of workers are working longer hours for lower wages, unable to afford to send their kids to college, deeply worried about what happens to them when they get old or when they retire,” Sanders said. “And, they understand that something is profoundly wrong when we have more wealth and income inequality today than at any time since 1929, and worse than any other major industrial country on Earth… No one can defend the fact that 99 percent of all new income generated today goes to the top 1 percent, and no one can defend the fact that the top 1 out of 10 of 1 percent now owns as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.”
The Sanders kick-off campaign event in Burlington, Vt. May 26, drew 5,500 people to the waterfront park that Sanders helped to create while he was mayor in the 1980s. He spoke about a broad range of issues, all within the framework of a bold call to action:
Today, 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.” Brothers and sisters, 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.
Sanders went on to say:
Here is my promise to you for this campaign: Not only will I fight to protect the working families of this country, but we’re going to build a movement of millions of Americans who are prepared to stand up and fight back.
The days that followed showed that he’d already begun. The next day, Sanders spoke to three overflow crowds in New Hampshire, topped by 700 in Portsmouth, before flying to Iowa, where he drew another 700 people in Davenport the next day.
“He became a serious player in the Iowa caucus last night,” Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba told reporters after that event.
Two days later, Sanders drew 1,100 in Iowa City—400 more than the venue could hold. The next day, an event in Minneapolis originally scheduled as “almost an afterthought” for about 200 people, instead drew 3,700 to the rescheduled venue—leaving hundreds outside who couldn’t get in.
A late May Quinnipiac poll found five Republicans tied at the top of the Republican field with 10 percent: Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee. Other media favorites fared even worse: Rand Paul (7 percent), Ted Cruz (6 percent), and Carly Fiorina (2 percent). Bernie Sanders lead them all easily with 15 percent. He was far behind Hillary Clinton’s 57 percent, but was still the second most popular candidate by a 50 percent margin, and had yet to become well-known to many potential voters.
Then, this past weekend, Sanders scored 41 percent in a straw poll vote at the Wisconsin Democratic Party convention, holding Hillary Clinton below a majority with 49 percent. Both Vice President Joe Biden and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who announced his candidacy late this past month, trailed far behind, each receiving 3 percent of the vote.
In his kick-off speech, Sanders drew a sharp contrast between his agenda and that of the GOP. At a time when millions of Americans are struggling desperately, the Republican budget proposal would only make things worse, he said:
If you can believe it, the Republican budget throws 27 million Americans off health insurance, makes drastic cuts in Medicare, throws millions of low-income Americans, including pregnant women, off of nutrition programs, and makes it harder for working-class families to afford college or put their kids in the Head Start program. And then, to add insult to injury, they provide huge tax breaks for the very wealthiest families in this country while they raise taxes on working families.
Sanders then said that he respectfully disagrees with their approach and offered the following alternative:
Instead of cutting Social Security, we’re going to expand Social Security benefits. Instead of cutting Head Start and child care, we are going to move to a universal pre-K system for all the children of this country. 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.
On the subject of college for all, Sanders called it, “insane and counter-productive to the best interests of our country that hundreds of thousands of bright young people cannot afford to go to college, and that millions of others leave school with a mountain of debt that burdens them for decades.”
His solution: free tuition in public colleges and universities, along with substantially lower interest rates on student loans.
“The minimum wage must become a living wage, which means raising it to $15 an hour over the next few years—which is exactly what Los Angeles recently did—and I applaud them for doing that.”
He went on to say, “We must establish pay equity for women workers,” calling it “unconscionable” that women earn just 78 cents on the dollar compared to men doing the same work.
He also addressed other anti-family aspects of how workers are commonly exploited.
“We must also end the scandal in which millions of American employees, often earning less than $30,000 a year, work 50 or 60 hours a week—and earn no overtime,” Sanders said. “And we need paid sick leave and guaranteed vacation time for all,” which are enjoyed by workers in every other advanced industrial nation.
“The reason I’m supporting Bernie Sanders is because of his program. He stands for principles that I’ve supported all my life,” said Diane Middleton, the local labor lawyer. “One of the things he’s saying is he wants to end government for the billionaires. And, that’s what I think we need to do… Name any issue and Sanders has an answer that’s much better than anything we’re doing now…He’s been in favor of universal health care for years… Everything he stands for will benefit the majority of people in America, including San Pedro: put more people to work, get better health care, stop killing our young people in senseless capitalist wars for oil, educate people, clean up the environment—all of these issues. Why wouldn’t we vote for him?”
In his Burlington speech, Sanders not only questioned basic Beltway consensus on issues, he also called into question the process:
Let’s be clear. This campaign is not about Bernie Sanders. It is not about Hillary Clinton. It is not about Jeb Bush or anyone else. This campaign is about the needs of the American people, and the ideas and proposals that effectively address those needs. As someone who has never run a negative political ad in his life, my campaign will be driven by issues and serious debate; not political gossip, not reckless personal attacks or character assassination. This is what I believe the American people want and deserve. I hope other candidates agree and I hope the media allows that to happen. Politics in a democratic society should not be treated like a baseball game, a game show or a soap opera. The times are too serious for that.
Since that speech, Sanders has suggested that presidential primary debates should include candidates of both parties in the same forum, a further step toward more serious engagement with the issues.
As he moved toward the end of his Burlington speech, Sanders addressed those who felt despair about restoring the promise of America, which Sanders said was reflected in his own life story.
“My parents would have never dreamed that their son would be a U.S. senator, let alone run for president,” he said. “And, to those who say we cannot restore the dream, I say just look where we are standing. This beautiful place was once an unsightly rail yard that served no public purpose and was an eyesore. As mayor, I worked with the people of Burlington to help turn this waterfront into the beautiful people-oriented public space it is today. We took the fight to the courts, to the legislature and to the people. And, we won.
“The lesson to be learned is that when people stand together and are prepared to fight back, there is nothing that can’t be accomplished.”
That’s not an idle boast. Before becoming the longest-serving independent in the history of Congress, Sanders served four terms as Burlington’s mayor, catalyzing a dramatic transformation of the city, which was summarized in a recent article in The Nation by Peter Dreier and Pierre Clavel. Sanders’s approach to governing was multifaceted.
“[H]e encouraged grassroots organizing, adopted local laws to protect the vulnerable, challenged the city’s business power brokers and worked collaboratively with other politicians to create a more livable city,” The Nation reported.
The results were impressive:
Thanks to the enduring influence of the progressive climate that Sanders and his allies helped to create in Burlington, the city’s largest housing development is now resident-owned, its largest supermarket is a consumer-owned cooperative, one of its largest private employers is worker-owned, and most of its people-oriented waterfront is publicly owned. Its publicly owned utility, the Burlington Electric Department, recently announced that Burlington is the first American city of any decent size to run entirely on renewable electricity.
“Bernie wanted to make sure that it was a place with plenty of open space and public access, where ordinary people could rent a rowboat and buy a hot dog,” explained local planner Michael Monte, regarding the waterfront. “That wasn’t just for the elite. It was Bernie who set the tone that the waterfront wasn’t for sale.”
The results were community-friendly in the extreme.
Thanks to Sanders, the Burlington waterfront now has a community boathouse and other facilities for small boats. There’s also a sailing center and science center, a fishing pier, an 8-mile bike path, acres of parkland and public beaches. The commercial development is modest and small-scale.
There’s another important facet to the story Dreier and Clavel tell: the evolving relationship between Sanders and Tony Pomerleau, a wealthy local developer, whose upscale commercial waterfront development plan Sanders ran against and blocked. The day after Sanders won, Pomerleau knocked on his door.
“I said, ‘You’re the mayor, but it’s still my town,’” he recalled. But Pomerleau ended up voting for Sanders the next three times he ran for mayor, and for 35 years now, Sanders has never missed the annual Christmas party for underprivileged children that Pomerleau throws. This thread of the story concludes:
“If more rich people were like me,” Pomerleau said, “Bernie would feel better about the wealthy.”
But like Franklin Delano Roosevelt before him, what Sanders is really up to is encouraging more rich people to be like that—to be like most working-class people imagine they would be, if they ever became wealthy themselves. There’s a fundamental decency and lack of personal animosity at Bernie Sanders’ core that’s a key part of his appeal as a candidate, as well as a key part of his long-time success in building unlikely and enduring coalitions. It’s an unjust system he’s making war against and everyone is welcome to become an ally.