Senator Bernie Sanders sits down with Salon to talk inequality, the GOP, and whether or not he'll run for president.
by Thomas Frank
SUNDAY, SEP 28, 2014 07:00 AM EDT
Bernie Sanders is a legendary political independent from Vermont. Over the years, he has served as mayor of Burlington, the largest city in that state; as a member of the House of Representatives; and (currently) as a United States Senator. We met last week in his office in one of the Senate office buildings in Washington, D.C., and discussed the Clinton years, the way to beat the Right, and whether or not he should run for president in 2016. Needless to say, his take on the current political situation is not exactly the kind of thing you usually hear when you walk the marble halls of the nation’s capital.
This conversation has been lightly edited.
I’ve followed what you have been saying for a long time. You and I are both concerned about the big change of our time, which is the concentration of wealth in this country, deindustrialization, the slow decline of the middle class.
The not-so-slow decline of the middle class.
Why is it so hard for Americans to talk about this? When the president talks about this, he uses this term “inequality,” and it sounds scientific, but it doesn’t speak to people. For many years, you were the only person on Capitol Hill talking about this at all. Why aren’t people furious about it?
People are furious about it.
We have a very conservative Senate and House. Congress is dominated by large campaign contributors who exercise enormous influence. I think, the people here [in Washington] have almost developed an instinct not to attack the people who put money into their coffers. Obviously the Republicans are beholden to these guys. But too many Democrats are nervous about talking about issues including income and wealth inequality.
But in fact, the American people absolutely want to hear about it. I talk about it all the time. I give a lot of speeches and large crowds come out. People are very, very concerned about the overall impact of income and wealth inequality in terms of morality, in terms of economics, in terms of—with Citizens United—what it means to our political system.
The Koch brothers are not tucking their money under the mattress. They’re spending it very significantly trying to buy elections so that candidates representing the wealthy are going to get elected. So it is a huge issue, which people are keenly concerned about. But you have a Congress significantly dependent on the one percent for their campaign contributions and you have the media that is owned by multinational corporations who are not excited about dealing with this issue.
For Salon, I’ve been doing a series of articles about the history of inequality – where it comes from, when it got worse. You said the middle class is declining precipitously now…
What can I tell you? You know all the facts.
Come on, now. You know this better than me.
Well, I don’t know that I do. But you’re looking at, today, an American male worker, the average guy in the middle, the median guy, is making $280 less than he did 44 years ago. Given inflation—
Per year. So 44 years have come and gone. There’s a huge amount of increase in productivity. And that guy is making less in inflation-counted dollars than he did 44 years ago. That’s extraordinary. Women are making less than they did — I don’t have the numbers here — a number of years ago. Median family income has gone down by $5,000 since 1999.
So what you’re seeing is a middle class which in fact is disappearing. You’re seeing, up until very recently, more people living in poverty than any time in American history, because most of the new jobs that are being created are low-wage or part-time jobs. And people, believe me, they know it. They understand it. They are worried not only for themselves but for their kids. And meanwhile, while that’s going on, they see another reality which is — the people on top are doing phenomenally well. Corporate profits are at an all-time high and people do not believe that that is what America is supposed to be about.
And yet at the same time we just came through this financial crisis. I mean, there is no better expression of what’s wrong with us. And what’s the reaction? The Tea Party movement, another wave of conservatives sweeping over Capitol Hill.
The reaction is that you have some very smart people, like the Koch brothers, who do a very effective job of taking the discontent — that’s what your book was about — and channeling it in exactly the wrong direction. So you have the rather remarkable reality that the people who founded the Tea Party are the Koch brothers. And if the people, the working class members of the Tea Party, knew what their founders believed in, they would be in for a very big shock. And it’s one of our jobs to get the word out.
Getting back to the history of it. Everybody knows about the ’80s, the Reagan tax cuts. Everybody talks about deregulation. But we often have trouble talking about the ’90s. I was reading your book, “Outsider in the House,” about when you first came to Congress back in the ’90s. And you had NAFTA, welfare reform, bank deregulation — what’s the significance of these in the long term?
You had, in terms of NAFTA, the beginning of a disastrous set of trade policies absolutely pushed by corporate America with the goal of making it easier for plants to shut down in this country and move to Mexico.
That was the goal?
Of course it was the goal. And to cultivate a race to the bottom.
So what NAFTA, which primarily dealt with Mexico, does — as well as CAFTA and Permanent Normal Trade Relations to China — is it says to the average American worker… First of all it says, “We can make 5 cents more by moving to China, so we’re going, have a nice day.” Second of all, what it says is, “We’re thinking about going to China. If you as a worker don’t want us to go to China, if you as a union don’t want us to go to China, you’re going to have to take a cut in your salary. You’re going to have to take a reduction in healthcare benefits we provide you. Or else, by the way, we’re going.” So what was engaged in was a race to the bottom.
A year or two years ago, there was a piece in the paper that pointed out that GE was expanding a manufacturing plant in Louisville. I asked the guy, I said, “This is good. You’re creating hundreds of new jobs. That’s very nice. Why are you doing that?” The guy said, “Well, the truth is that when you look at transportation costs, the wage costs, and everything else, the United States is now becoming competitive with the international community.” In other words, as wages go down, and you factor in quality of work, and infrastructure, lack of bribery and transportation costs, America is an increasingly better place [for employers] to work, which has always been the goal. So we are moving down — we’re not at a Chinese level — but the goal is a race to the bottom, where workers earn less, have fewer benefits, and that was the goal and we’ve succeeded in doing it.
Welfare reform did a similar kind of thing, I think.
You know, there are a lot of angry people out there and for a whole bunch of reasons — political consciousness in this country is very, very low. And people think that huge amounts of their money are going to foreign policy, going to foreign aid, and huge amounts of money are going to welfare. That’s not true, but that’s what people think. So that became an issue where Democrats would say, we’re going to cut. The Republican thesis is that the real cause of the economic decline is that you’re paying too much in taxes and all of that money is going to unwed mothers and that really what the problem is. And it became quote-unquote “good politics” for some Democrats to pick up on. And it caused a lot of pain.
These things, along with bank deregulation—one of the sticking points for people like me is that these were all accomplished by a Democratic president.
Yes. Why should that be a sticking point? Why are you shocked?
That’s supposedly the party of working people.
No. I don’t think anyone thinks that. There’s no question that the Republican Party has become a far-right party, significantly controlled by the Koch brothers and a few others. But the Democratic party has moved, you know. It used to be a center-left party — Truman, Roosevelt — it was the party of the American working class. I don’t think there are many people who think that is the case now. It is far better [than the Republican Party], and there are some great people in the Democratic Party who spend an enormous amount of time and energy fighting for working people, and I work with those guys. But I don’t think anybody would say, as a whole, that the Democratic Party is the party of the American working class.
Now, in terms of this deregulation, I mean, one of the great magazine covers in history is the picture — who was it?
Is it the three musketeers: Robert Rubin, Alan Greenspan and Larry Summers?
Saving the world.
Right. That was one of the great covers of all time, because it tells you pretty much all you need to know about politics. You had Alan Greenspan, who to his credit is an Ayn Rand acolyte. On YouTube someplace there is some dialogue I had with Greenspan which has gotten a zillion viewers, about deregulation. I took him on and questioned him about the impact of deregulation. And he said “No, it’s not gonna. . . ” You know, all these things he was wrong about. I asked him, I said, “I listened to what you say and it sounds to me like you might not even believe in the concept of the minimum wage.” And he said, “Yeah.”
I got one article about it in the L.A. Times. So you had, then, the head of the Federal Reserve basically acknowledging what today is— By the way, he was ahead of his time. Today, many Republicans acknowledge that they don’t believe in the concept of the minimum wage. So you can work for three bucks. Salon can hire you for three bucks an hour.
It gets worse and worse, and more and more of our leaders think that’s okay.
Well, you have a situation where, for much of the media, the differentiation between the Democrats and the Republicans are: One party strongly supports gay marriage and gay rights, one party strongly supports the need to address climate change, one party strongly supports immigrant rights, one party has concerns about guns — and the other party is different. In fact, some things, like economics, is for some people not even relevant. The issue is abortion rights. You’re a liberal? You’re for abortion rights. He’s not. You’re a liberal. He’s a conservative. The fact that you voted, as a liberal, to deregulate Wall Street or to give tax breaks for billionaires, we don’t even consider that part of the political discussion.
So I think, and where I’m cautiously optimistic about the future of this country, I never believed in red states and blue states. I don’t believe that. Recently I was in North Carolina, South Carolina, and in Mississippi, and had nice turnouts. And if you talk about economic issues you find that in this country there is a lot more commonality than the inside-the-Beltway pundits understand.
For example, a couple of years ago I helped lead the effort to prevent cuts in Social Security. I worked very, very hard for that. You go out to conservative states, you go out to the Tea Party guys, and you say, “Do you think we should cut Social Security and Medicare?” And they’ll say, “Are you crazy?” And yet here, you have not only a Republican Party moving very aggressively [in that direction]. You have some Democrats.
You ask people about Citizens United: “Do you think billionaires should be able to buy elections?” Across the political spectrum, people say no.
“Do you think we should give more tax breaks to billionaires?” Across the political spectrum, “No.”
I’ve noticed the same thing. I’m an author, I’m not a politician, but I lecture around the country and these issues make people really mad. People from all walks of life. Here in Washington, D.C., you’ve got all of these political scientists and all these consultants whose job it is to win elections, and if what you’re saying is true, why aren’t they out there hitting this with everything they’ve got?
Because they’re caught in a bind. The bind is… Look, if you spend four hours a day — which is certainly not uncommon around here, Democrat [or] Republican — being on the phone dialing for dollars, the people you’re going to dial for have a lot of money. And you know what? Some of them do not mind paying more taxes. They understand that that’s the right thing to do. But if you’re hustling up to corporate leaders, if you’re hustling up to wealthy people, they do not want to pay more in taxes. They do not necessarily want to see the minimum wage raised. They certainly do not want to see changes in trade policy.
So all of this speaks to the extraordinary influence of money in Congress. You know, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I don’t think that there is anything that Wall Street does not want that will get passed here. It’s just not going to happen. Or corporate America, anything it doesn’t want, it’s not going to happen. In other words, there is not the political strength to take on corporate America or Wall Street. That’s just the simple fact.
I’ve heard you, in other conversations with reporters, use the term “oligarchy” to describe what’s—
Yeah. And I believe that. I remember, distinctly — I can’t remember what happened yesterday, but I sometimes can remember what happened 50 years ago — and I remember during elementary school, the teachers, looking at these textbooks, and they said, “Look, there are countries in Latin America who have a few very wealthy families who control the whole country. And sometimes they fund both political parties.”
In Latin America?
Yeah. This is 50 years ago. So you had this party and that party, two years these guys serve, and the next two years, doesn’t matter. It’s one ideology. So if you look at the grotesque distribution of wealth in America, in which the top 1 percent today own 37 percent of the wealth, and the bottom 60 percent own 1.7 percent of the wealth; where one family—the Walton family, of Wal-Mart—own more wealth than the bottom 40 percent; where the top 1 percent owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent, that smacks to me like oligarchy.
And what it is, is the worst level of wealth inequality that exists among major countries, and worse than any time since 1929, before the Great Depression. That’s wealth. And then if you look at income since the Wall Street crash [of 2008], 95 percent of all new income generated in America goes to the top 1 percent. That smacks to me like oligarchy.
And then, equally important, because of the Supreme Court decisions of Citizens United, et cetera, you now have a situation where the billionaire class can spend as much money as they want on elections. So it’s not only economic, it is now political. These guys can buy elections.
And if the Koch brothers get their way, we will do away with all campaign finance reform. That is now the official position of the leadership of the Republican Party. Which will mean that the Koch brothers won’t have to waste their time doing independent expenditures; they can bring their team of candidates into a room and say, “Okay, you want to run for U.S. Senate in Kansas? Here’s your check for $100 million.” Here’s your check for $100 million, because it doesn’t mean anything to the Koch brothers, their wealth increased by $12 billion last year. So Kansas is a nice state. “Here’s a hundred million. And here is your platform. And here is your media consultant and there is your think tank to write your speeches. We’ll watch you closely, but here’s your check for $100 million and have a nice day.” That’s called buying elections.
So right now they can do it in a significant way through independent expenditures. But they want to go further. Clarence Thomas in the McCutcheon decision voiced his support for that. And that’s where they’re moving, that’s the leadership of the Republican Party. Add all of that together, when you have a few people owning and controlling and benefitting from the economy, and a few people controlling the political process. You tell me what the word is. I like the word “oligarchy.” Do you have a better word?
Plutocracy. There you go.
What drives me crazy is that we voted for it. This has happened gradually over years. And we’ve let it happen. That’s the puzzle that people like me are trying to figure out. How on earth did this come to pass?
But you know how this happened, because you wrote a book about it.
I have my ideas.
I think you’re pretty much on track. But “we voted for it”—let’s talk about “we voted for it.”
Because it goes deeper than that. The election coming up in two months, the pundits here tell us, and they may be right — they may well be wrong, but they may be right — they estimate that 60 percent of the American people aren’t going to vote. So those guys didn’t vote for it. So you have 40 percent whose incomes are substantially higher, by the way, and are better educated than the general population. Of the 60 percent who don’t vote, no one knows exactly, the guess is 75-to-80 percent of low-income workers don’t vote. I recently talked to a union organizer in South Carolina who’s trying to organize fast food people. And she just checked with the people — the five or six hundred people that she’s working with, with the voter registration files, and I think 15 of them are registered to vote. You have 5 percent or lower of people working at minimum wage who participate in the political process. It’s not relevant to them. And young people to very large numbers don’t vote as well. And then the Koch brothers spend $400 million.
So the election system, the electoral system, is clearly rigged. And by that I mean culturally, throw in the media and everything else, what you have is a situation where a majority of the people — I shouldn’t say majority — but many people do not understand the significance of government and politics on their lives. If you’re a minimum wage worker and you want to raise your minimum wage — you’re making $7.25 an hour and you want to raise it to $10.10—and I [hypothetically] don’t want to do it, you wouldn’t vote for me.
It’s very important to your life. But for a variety of reasons, that is not an issue that a lot of low-income workers are invested in. It has a lot to do with the media and it has to do with many, many things.
Another thing I’ve been wrestling with lately is a kind of complacency that you see among Democrats, where they say, “Eventually, Democratic domination is inevitable. The demographic changes in this country…”
Believe me, I’ve heard it 500 times.
So why do we need to worry?
Which is obscene. Forget obscene, it’s the wrong word. It’s pathetic.
I’ve been to those meetings with very high-ranking campaign leaders. And that’s exactly what they say. So what they say is, during the Obama campaign, “This is how we’ll win this election. We’re going to get a huge percentage of the African-American vote. We’re going to get 67 percent of the Hispanic vote. We’re going to get 58 percent of the women’s vote. Et cetera, et cetera. All those trends are on our side. And that’s how we win elections.”
During the course of that discussion, the issue of how the party that created Social Security and Medicare is losing the senior vote—or even the issue of seniors—was not there. They have a list of the 87 different categories, and kind of toward the bottom is seniors. The white working class of America, which now votes overwhelmingly for Republicans, was not mentioned. Now, how can it be that the party that is struggling to raise the minimum wage, to fight for pay equity, do reasonable things for working-class people — not enough by any means — is losing the white working class to the other side? Very little discussion about that.
So I am not a great fan of this. I understand demographics. But it has to do with what your political values are. And if your value is to expand the middle class of this country, provide healthcare to all people, educational opportunity for all people, it’s not just winning elections. It’s not just being better than another party, which is now an extremist party with racist overtones. You can’t go through your life saying, “Hey, you think we’re bad! You should see them! Vote for me! Yeah, we’re pretty bad, but they’re worse!”
That’s always what they [Democrats] do. That’s the rationale. That’s the reason they exist.
So the answer is to say, “We are going to stand up for the working class of this country — black workers, Hispanic workers, and white workers. And we do have the guts to take on the billionaire class, and we do have the guts to take on Wall Street and we do have the guts to take on the people who finance campaigns.” Is the Democratic Party there today? No. No one thinks it is.
Let me reiterate. I’m not one who says there’s no difference between the two parties. There are significant differences. The Republican Party is right-wing extremists. The Democratic Party is centrist. That is a big difference.
Centrist… That’s what I was going to ask you about next. Do people ever say, “Senator Sanders, he’s an independent. That’s awesome: the center! He’s in between. A person in the middle who can reach across the aisle and achieve bipartisanship.” Most people in my line of work, in the media, think that’s what we need in Washington. I’ll go farther than that. They think that’s a no-brainer. That you don’t even have to turn on your mind to understand that.
That’s why they love these so-called centrists. And I certainly don’t agree with that.
I can, and I have throughout my career, worked with conservatives and Republicans. That’s part of being in politics. We just passed what some would call the major piece of legislation passed in this session of Congress, which was a veterans bill. And I’m chairman of the Veterans Committee and we passed that. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that at all. It was $17.5 billion for veterans’ healthcare, and I worked with John McCain on that. And I worked with the Republicans in the House. It was maybe the most significant piece of legislation passed in this Congress. So I can and have always worked with Republicans, there’s nothing wrong with that.
But, at the end of the day, when you talk about where the American people are and what they need, I think what they want and need is a progressive agenda which addresses the needs of a collapsing middle class: Many, many people living in poverty; high unemployment; 40 million people without any health insurance; a campaign finance system rigged for the rich; a climate change situation where if we don’t take aggressive action, the planet is in serious trouble.
I am comfortable in saying that, as a progressive, I think my agenda is — not in all cases, but in most cases — actually what the American people want. And, by the way, not just Democrats.
So you’re in the center.
Well, I don’t think I’m in the center. Politically, obviously I’m very far to the left here. But what I’m saying is: I helped lead the fight to stop the cuts in Social Security, along with some others. I would say, 70-to-80 percent of the American people agree with me. I believe we should raise the minimum wage. I would say 70 percent of the American people agree with that. I’ve been very active in the fight to overturn Citizens United. I would say, again, 70 percent of the people agree with that. I am active in the fight to address the crisis of climate change. I wouldn’t say 70 percent of the people agree with that, but a pretty strong majority do. Okay. So what does that make me?
Now, if you were a candidate of the Republican Party and you wanted more tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, which they do, I would say you have 10-to-15 percent support. So what does this mean? There’s an agenda.
You see what takes place around here: Ee had Bowles-Simpson come here a few years ago, and the media thought this was the coming of the messiahs. Bowles is a Wall Street Democrat and Simpson is a right-wing Republican, and their agenda was consistent with that ideology. And the Democrats and the Republicans — it was like, my God! I was very strongly opposed to them. Now you have Republicans running ads attacking Democrats because they thought kindly of Bowles-Simpson. [Laughs] Because Republicans understand, people do not want cuts in Social Security.
The world is a funny place. Another question that everybody in the media, everybody in the entire country, wants to know: We look at Congress and we say, “What is wrong with these people? They can’t get along, they can’t do anything together.” You’ve been here for quite a while in both houses. What do you think can be done by either the leadership in Congress or the president to break through the incredible obstinacy of the Republicans?
Hmm… Bad question. Wrong question.
What’s the right question?
The right question is: How can the United States Congress respond to the needs of the American people? That’s the right question. Your question is asking: How does a right-wing extremist political party and a centrist party significantly controlled by corporate interests, work on an agenda together?
People ask that all the time.
They certainly do. I know, the media feeds this thing.
The point here is, you’ve got to create a United States Congress that represents the needs of the American people. The Republican party absolutely does not, and many Democrats do not. So what you really need is, a transformation of the political system by going from 40 percent turnouts to 80 percent turnouts. Getting low-income and working class people involved in the political process and start responding to their needs.
Note: We were interrupted at this point. Senator Sanders and I resumed the conversation by telephone a few days later.
What we were talking about when we left off was this problem of—what appears to be the problem of complete gridlock in Congress. And you had an interesting take on it. You said the problem is that Congress doesn’t want to do what the people of this country need to have done.
But the problem is not gridlock. The problem is that the American middle class is collapsing. The gap between the very, very rich and everybody else is growing wider. We’ve got 40 million people who have no health insurance. We have kids who can’t find jobs, and can’t afford college, and Congress is doing nothing. That’s the issue. I don’t think people want us to overcome gridlock and cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and federal aid to education, and give more tax breaks to billionaires.
Is that what would happen if we overcame gridlock?
I mean, if the Republicans were to prevail and push their agenda through, you could conceivably end gridlock and do devastating harm to working families.
President Obama has his drawbacks, and I’ve criticized him as much as anybody. You suggested that maybe you might run for president one of these days. What could a president whose heart was in the right place, what could he do to deal with these guys?
I start off, Thomas, from the position that we need a political revolution in this country and that’s not just rhetoric. What I mean by that is that we need—and a president certainly can play a very, very important role in this—we need a massive change in citizen participation and in political consciousness. There was a poll that just came out I think yesterday. Gallup tells us that… I believe it is 63 percent of the American people cannot name which parties control the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate. So you have consciousness so low, a significant majority of the American people who are very concerned about what’s going on for themselves and their kids, they don’t know who controls the House and the Senate. They can’t name which party controls both bodies. You have what the political scientists tell us is a situation where in this coming election, 60 percent of the American people will not bother to vote. That means 70 -to-80 percent of low-income workers and young people will not vote. So before you can talk about changing America, you have to change the political consciousness and the way that people relate to the political process.
Now, there is a group that relates very strongly to the political process, [and] that is the billionaire class that is now prepared to spend many hundreds of millions of dollars to elect candidates to represent their interests.
So you ask me, what can a president do? The main thing, I think, that the president can do is understand that no kind of progressive agenda can take place unless the American people are involved in that struggle and are prepared to put real pressure on the establishment to make it happen. It’s not going to happen in back rooms. It’s not going to happen in White House negotiations. If students, for example, want to see the cost of college go down and want to see their very high levels of debt be significantly reduced, they’re going to have to take it up with the members of Congress. They’re not doing that now. If low-income workers want to see the minimum wage raised, it cannot be a situation where only 20 percent of low-income workers vote. They’re going to have to be actively involved. That’s what a president can do.
Wow. I mean, that’s a problem that in some ways seems even greater than the problem of dealing with the Republicans. You’re talking about building a mass movement.
What I am telling you, as somebody who likes Obama and respects Obama, is that the key mistake that I believe he made, and it’s perfectly understandable, is he got into office, and he said, two years after he was in, “I’m gonna sit down and negotiate with the Republicans. I know I can’t get everything. We’ll work on some kind of compromise.”
What he didn’t catch on to is that the Republicans had no intention of compromising with him and they have no intention of compromising at all. They have an agenda. It is an extreme right wing agenda backed by the Koch brothers and other billionaires, and the only way you defeat that right-wing agenda is when the American people rise up and demand real change. It can’t be done within the confines of Congress. It has to be part of a strong and active grassroots movement.
Do you understand what I’m saying here?
I absolutely see what you’re saying. I’m thinking of examples like the 1930s, the 1960s, and I also think of 2008 when president Obama had a very robust grassroots movement, or what looked like a grassroots movement, behind him.
And what did he do with that movement?
I’m gonna let you tell me. [laughs]
I believe that Obama’s 2008 campaign will go down in history as one of the most extraordinary campaigns ever run. But what Obama did not do is follow through with that grassroots effort. He did not. Of course, he had a majority in the Senate and in the House, but be that as it may, he lost what I think was the golden opportunity.
For example, just one example of many: Civil rights in this country. The change in attitude toward civil rights did not come about because a couple of senators and the White House negotiated it. It came about because millions of people took to the streets and it filtered on up. Women’s rights did not come about because senators have a tinge of guilt about the way women were treated as second-class citizens. It happened because women were actively involved with the women’s movement. Same for the gay movement and so forth. When people get involved and struggle and put pressure on the Congress and the President, things happen and that’s what we’ve got to do.
And that leads to Citizens United. You talk about Citizens United a lot. Is there any way that can be overturned?
Yes. I am not unconfident that it will be overturned. And I’ll tell you why, because the vast majority of the American people do not agree with the Republican leadership that buying elections constitutes free speech. Very few people agree with that. So it’s not just progressives like me, it’s not just moderates, it is conservatives as well. We just put up something on our Facebook which came from Barry Goldwater talking about the same issue.
So the bottom line is, I think the vast majority of the American people believe that we need real campaign finance reform and that billionaires should not be allowed to buy elections.
For the time being, this is the system that we’re stuck with. And you look at our politics unfolding before us, is there even a route for a progressive candidate to win the presidency, given the situation that we’re in with Citizens United?
Meaning the huge amount of money that’s going to conservative candidates.
Or even to moderate, centrist Democrats.
The answer is yes, and I’ll tell you what makes me optimistic: Neil Abercrombie is a friend of mine, [so] I’m not happy to tell you this. Neil is the governor of Hawaii. He outspent his opponent by 10 to 1, and he lost his primary bid by 2 to 1.
If you look at Eric Cantor: Eric Cantor had so much money he couldn’t even spend it, and as you know, he lost his primary bid. If you look at Andrew Cuomo, he ran against a candidate [Zephyr Teachout] who nobody knew, who had no money. She won half the counties in New York state in the recent primary. [Cuomo] had all the name recognition and all the money and she had very little.
So I think what we are seeing now is a profound anger at the corporate establishment, at the political establishment, at the media establishment. I think people want change. So to answer your question, yes, money is important, I don’t deny it for a moment. But I think people are paying less and less attention to ugly, 30-second ads and are prepared to hear from people who want real change in this country.
I wanted to talk to you about your own plans for 2016. You haven’t said all that much in public, but it would be nice to know…
What I’ll tell you is what I do say in public, which is that, at a time when the middle class is collapsing; when we have more people living in poverty than ever before and we have huge income and wealth inequality; when we are the only major nation on earth that does not have a national healthcare system; when we have millions of young people leaving college deeply in debt; when we have the planetary crisis of climate change; when we, because of Citizens United, have a billionaire class now controlling our political process, we need candidates who are prepared to stand up without apology representing the working families of America and are prepared to take on the billionaire class which controls so much of America. I think that’s absolutely imperative that that takes place.
What I have said is that I am giving thought to running for president. I haven’t made that decision. It’s a very, very difficult decision. I have gone to Iowa on a couple of vacations. I’ll be back there. I’ve gone to New Hampshire. I’ll be there this Saturday. And I’ve gone to other places in the country including the south—North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi—to get a sense of how people are feeling.
But yes, I am giving thought and I will make the decision at the appropriate time.
People always talk about how hard campaigning is. I personally really like Iowa, I think it would be fun to spend a lot of time in Iowa.
I agree with you. We were in Iowa last week and I had three town meetings and we had one a week ago Sunday night. We had 450 people coming out in Des Moines, Iowa, for what I thought was a great meeting.
Would that mean running as a Democrat, because the Iowa caucuses…
That’s a decision, also, that I have to think about.
There are advantages and disadvantages of running as an independent and as a Democrat. That’s something I have to talk to a whole lot of people about and sort out. When I was in Iowa, most people thought I should run as a Democrat. I was in New York City the other day, most people thought I should run as an independent.
The advantage is pretty obvious: Right now, there is a whole lot of anger and frustration at the two-party system, and more and more people are registering as independents. On the other hand, If you run as an independent, then you have to set up a 50-state political infrastructure which is very difficult in some states. In other words, you have to get an enormous amount of signatures just to get on the ballot, and it is quite possible that in some states the regulations are so onerous and unfair that you may not be able to do it.
Those are issues that I just have to talk to a lot of people about.
Speaking of that, one of my own personal favorite movements was a third-party movement in the 1890s called Populism. You brought up the two-party monopoly, which is something that drives me crazy, and it’s one of the many things that ensures that you don’t get a responsive system. Is there any way that the two-party monopoly will ever get challenged?
Well I should tell you that, as you may or may not know, I was mayor of the city of Burlington for 8 years. In this city, while it was not a legal political party, given Vermont state law, in our city we had three political factions: The Republicans, the Democrats, and what we then called the independent coalition. And the independent coalition, I was the mayor as an independent. We had five out of 13 seats on the city council. Not a majority, but—I think it was 6 out of 13 for a while—but enough for veto power, which I used. So we did it in Burlington.
Now, in the state of Vermont, you have the Progressive Party, which was an outgrowth of that effort, which is now the most successful progressive third party in America, which has three state senators and, I can’t remember, six, seven members of the House, and more to come in this election.
So in Vermont you are seeing a significant, progressive third party effort.
One last question: What is going to turn around the drift toward inequality in this country? What measures could actually happen?
What you can do?
What a politician can do.
I’ll tell you what you do. If you did the following things, it wouldn’t solve all the problems, but you’d have a profound impact on income and wealth inequality:
First of all, you raise the minimum wage to a living wage so that the people who are working 40 hours a week are not living in poverty.
Number two, and maybe most importantly, you put Americans back to work. Real unemployment today is not 6.1 percent, it is 12 percent. Youth unemployment is 20 percent. If we invest a trillion dollars in rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, you can create 13 million decent paying jobs, and I think we need to do that.
Thirdly, you stop companies from throwing American workers out on the street and moving to China or Vietnam or Mexico by creating a trade system that works for working people and not just corporate America.
You do those things. Then you institute tax reform which asks the wealthy and large corporations to start paying their fair share of taxes. You make college affordable and deal with the issue of student debt. Those things will go a long way, and we have legislation that would make significantly more progressive the estate tax. So if you do those things, I think you’d have gone a good way, I think, to rebuilding the middle class in this country and asking the wealthy to start paying their fair share.