The senator on the protests, his phone calls with Joe Biden, and when to compromise.
By Andrew Marantz
June 9, 2020
In 1997, during his fourth term as a U.S. representative, Bernie Sanders published a political memoir called “Outsider in the House.” On the book’s cover, superimposed over an image of the Capitol, was a photo of Sanders, with his signature Coke-bottle glasses and mussed gray hair, raising his arm in a closed-fist salute. At the time, he was the only member of Congress who was neither a Republican nor a Democrat. This was the essence of his public image: in the establishment, but not of it.
The previous year, Bill Clinton had won reëlection, in part, by running to the right of the Republicans on several issues. Sanders, who described himself interchangeably as “a progressive” and “a democratic socialist,” ran far to Clinton’s left. “This is a book about hopes and dreams that will not be realized in our lifetimes,” Sanders and his co-author, a poetry scholar at the University of Vermont named Huck Gutman, wrote in the introduction. “It examines the two major political parties—neither of which comes close to representing the needs of working people—and the frustrations and successes of helping to create an independent progressive political movement.” Sanders seemed to define “success” as a long career in Congress, during which he could continue his quixotic advocacy for “programs which sustain the weakest and most vulnerable among us,” such as “health care for all people as a right of citizenship.”
In 2015, the book was reissued under a new title: “Outsider in the White House.” On the new cover, Sanders, now a senator, looked more or less the same—he has looked more or less the same since 1987—but the raised fist was gone, replaced by a professional-looking haircut and an innocuous grin. The question posed by the book’s final chapter, “Where Do We Go From Here?,” now had a simpler answer: vote for me for President. “The majority of Americans today are outsiders,” the new preface read. “Together, we can remake our politics and our governance so that none of us are outsiders anymore.”
In 2016, and then in 2020, Sanders fell short of taking over the Democratic Party and capturing the Presidency. But he did remake our politics. Throughout the interminable primary campaign of the past year, in televised debate after televised debate, Sanders stood near the center of the stage, delivering the same populist talking points he’d been repeating for four decades. His more Clintonian opponents ran to his right; a variety of other candidates looked for signature issues—Julián Castro on immigration, Beto O’Rourke on gun control—that might allow them to outflank Sanders from the left. In the end, Democratic voters coalesced around Joe Biden, but exit polls indicated that a majority of them supported Sanders’s platform, including Medicare for All. In the most recent Morning Consult poll, Sanders was the most popular senator in the nation.
Recently, with the covid-19 pandemic still raging and protests against police brutality lighting up cities and towns around the country, I spoke to Sanders by phone. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
I have to start by asking you about everything that’s happening in our country right now. Many people are comparing this moment to 1968. You lived through the sixties. You were arrested at civil-rights protests in the sixties. What do you make of that comparison?
The sixties were largely provoked by opposition to the war in Vietnam, by racism, by economic injustice. And what we’re seeing now, and why we have perhaps hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, is focussed on systemic racism, on police brutality, and police murder. But I believe also that a lot of that anger that so many people are feeling goes beyond police murder, and it goes to the fact that we have a President who is a narcissist and a pathological liar. It goes, I think, into an economy in which many of the young people who are demonstrating today don’t have jobs, and the likelihood is, unless we make fundamental changes, they’re not going to have jobs. And it goes to a health-care system which is clearly dysfunctional, and it goes to neglect about the crisis of climate change. So I think it speaks to the over-all powerlessness that people are now feeling amidst all of the crises that we are experiencing with, clearly, a President who is a fraud and a danger to the country. You add all that stuff up, you got millions of people who are angry and are trying to fight back.
Since you mentioned the danger of the President: in the past, you have called Donald Trump an “authoritarian leader.” In 2018, there was a video on your Senate Web site called “Flirting with Fascism,” which was obviously about Trump. Now that he’s openly considering calling for the military to quell a mostly peaceful protest movement, do you think it’s time to call Donald Trump a fascist?
Doesn’t matter what you call him. I’m not worried about what you call him. I was very impressed by the statement of Jim Mattis, the former Trump Secretary of Defense, who made the very simple point that, in a democratic society, a society that has a Constitution, you don’t call out the military against civilian demonstrations. So the issue is, I think, you have, clearly, a President who, time and time again, has shown his authoritarian tendencies, who has shown his affection, deep affection for authoritarian leaders all over the world—in Eastern Europe, in China, in North Korea, in Russia—who introduced us to a military parade in Washington, D.C., and who is indicating now his desire to see our U.S. military attack civilian demonstrators. So I don’t care what you call it, but, clearly, we understand that we have a President who has very little understanding of the Constitution, a complete disregard for civil liberties in this country, and who will do anything that he can for his own political purposes and his own financial purposes. This is a narcissist who could care less about anything other than his own political power and financial well-being.
When you announced the suspension of your Presidential campaign, in April, you said, “Our movement has won the ideological struggle.” You listed a few of the ideas that you’ve pushed for for years now—a fifteen-dollar minimum wage, universal health care—which were once fringe and are now mainstream. What are the most urgent things that you intend to do, especially in the five months between now and the election, to translate those ideological victories into tangible policy victories?
As a United States senator, I’m going to do everything that I can to make sure that another major piece of emergency legislation is passed as quickly as possible to deal with the extraordinary suffering that the working families of this country are experiencing right now. It’s very easy to ignore the reality that you’ve got millions of families in Vermont, and across this country, who literally have no food in their cupboards right now; who are scared to death; and, in fact, are being evicted from their homes, from their apartments, or are losing their homes. So where my attention is right now is to do everything I can as a senator to make sure that we move forward as quickly and aggressively as we can for a major piece of legislation which addresses the crises facing working families today. That means, in my view, the need for what we call a Paycheck Security Act, which does what European countries do, and that makes sure that every unemployed worker continues to receive his or her paycheck and the benefits that go with that. For those who don’t [have health care], I want Medicare to cover all health-care needs during the crisis. I believe every family, every individual, should get two thousand dollars a month during the crisis. We’ve got to save the Postal Service, which is a huge issue, and make sure that everybody has enough food to survive on. So that’s the immediate crisis.
Longer-term, obviously, what I am trying to do is to bring people together to defeat Trump and to elect Biden. It is no great secret that Joe Biden and I have very serious political differences, but, at this particular moment in history, what is most important is to defeat Trump, who, as you implied a moment ago, is literally a threat to American democracy, and is moving this country not only in a dangerous way but in an authoritarian way, as well. Trump has got to be defeated and, in a variety of ways, I intend to play an active role in that process.
Thirdly, it is not good enough just to elect Joe Biden. We’ve got to continue the movement in this country for transformative change, and to understand that we are way, way, way behind many other industrialized countries in providing for the needs of working families. So the fight continues for a Medicare for All single-payer program, and that becomes especially obvious when you have seen in recent months millions of people losing their jobs. They’re also losing their health care because, under our system, health care is an employee benefit not a human right. So I’m going to continue that fight, and, no question, we are gaining momentum at the grass roots. And on and on it goes.
I think one of the myths that is being exploited right now is that I hear my Republican colleagues talk about, Well, you know, yes, this pandemic has been devastating, but, a few months ago, we had this great economy. This really great economy. I don’t know how you have this “great economy” when half of your people are living paycheck to paycheck. And what we are seeing right now, the great economic message of today, is that, when you live paycheck to paycheck and you miss a few paychecks, a few weeks of work, your family is suddenly now in economic desperation. Literally. Struggling to put food on the table and pay the rent.
So we’ve got to rethink. If there is anything that I hope we achieve in the midst of this unprecedented moment in American history, it’s that we use this moment to rethink, as I have said before, some of the basic tenets and institutions of American society, and learn from this pandemic and economic collapse so that we move this country in a very, very different direction.
There are essentially two views that you hear from the left about this upcoming election. There’s a group that says, Biden and the Democratic Party have not done enough to earn my vote, and this is no time for compromise. And those people might feel that way even more strongly now, given the understandable despair over the killing of George Floyd and so many other horrific manifestations of oppression. The other view you hear is from people like Noam Chomsky, who saidthat, if you live in a swing state, “the alternative to voting for Biden is voting for Trump,” and that that’s essentially voting for “the destruction of organized human society.” Which of those two views do you agree with?
Oh, obviously, I support what Chomsky is saying. It is very easy for somebody to stand up and say, truthfully, “I disagree with what Joe Biden stands for, his politics are much too conservative.” I get that. I share that view. But not to understand what it would mean to this country, and to our children and to our grandchildren—I have seven grandchildren—and what it will mean to this planet in terms of climate change if Trump is reëlected is, to me, to miss the most important point that has to be made. Trump cannot be reëlected. And what we have got to do, if you are unhappy with Biden’s politics, if you disagree with Biden’s politics—and I certainly do—then the fight has got to take place, starting today, to make sure that he moves in as progressive a way as possible, that his Administration is as progressive as possible.
The New Yorker Interview
(Ed.: Read the entire piece. Sanders addresses many of the critical questions being discussed in the North Star Caucus.)