London: Profile Books 2016
Bernie Sanders is the ‘democratic socialist’ senator for Vermont, who ran against Hillary Clinton last year for the Democratic presidential nomination. He didn’t get it. Although he had more grass roots support than Killary, he was cheated of the nomination through the intervention of the Democrat superdelegates, who massively favoured her. He is the man, who should now be occupying the White House, rather than the gurning orange lump of narcissistic Fascism now doing his best to drag the country back to before the Civil War. The polls show that Bernie could have beaten Trump. But he wasn’t elected, as Bernie’s far too radical for the corporate state created by the Republican and mainstream, Clintonite Dems.
How radical can be seen from this book. It’s part autobiography, part manifesto. In the first part, Sanders talks about his youth growing up in Brooklyn, how he first became interested and aware of politics as a student at Chicago University, his political career in Vermont, and his decision to run for as a presidential candidate. This part of the book also describes his campaigning, as he crisscrossed America holding rallies, talking at town hall and union meetings, appearing on TV and social media trying to get votes. A strong feature of the book is Bernie’s emphasis on his background as one of the country’s now threatened lower middle class. His father was a Jewish immigrant from Poland, who worked as paint salesman. He and his family lived in a rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn, where conditions were cramped so that they often slept on couches. He freely admits that his parents were also relatively affluent and had more disposable income than others.
After having left uni, he began his political career in Vermont in 1971 when he joined and campaigned for the senate in the Liberty Union party, a small third party in the state. During the same period he also ran a small company producing educational films on the history of Vermont and other states in New England. Finding out that none of the college students he spoke to had ever heard of Eugene Victor Debs, he went and brought one out on the great American labour leader and socialist politician. On the advice of a friend and college professor, Richard Sugarman, Sanders ran for election as mayor of Burlington. He won, introducing a number of important welfare, educational and municipal reforms he called ‘socialism in one city’, a play on Stalin’s slogan of ‘Socialism in One Country’. He was strongly opposed by the Democrats. A few years afterwards, however, he was elected to Congress as an Independent, where, despite some resistance from the Democrats, he was finally admitted to the Democratic Caucus. In 2006 he ran for senator, contested the seat vacated by the Republican, Jim Jeffords, who had retired. By 2013 he was being urged by his supporters to campaign for the presidential nomination. To gauge for himself how much support he was likely to receive, Sanders went across America talking to ordinary folks across the country. After this convinced him that he had a chance, he began to campaign in earnest.
At the beginning of his campaign for the nomination, Sanders was very much the outsider, getting 15 per cent of the votes polled to Clinton’s 60 per cent. Then he started winning, climbing up the ladder as he took something like seven out of eight states in a row. The corporatist wing of the Democrats did everything they could to block his rise, culminating in the theft of the nomination through the intervention of the superdelegates.
Sanders is a champion of the underdog. He garnered much support by going to communities, speaking to the poor and excluded, often in very underprivileged neighbourhoods where the police and security guards were worried about his safety. He spoke in a poor, multiracial community in New York’s South Bronx, and to poor Whites in rural Mississippi. The latter were a part of the American demographic that the Democrats traditionally believed were impossible to win. Sanders states that actually speaking to them convinced him that they were way more liberal than the political class actually believe. During a talk to a group of local trade unionists, Sanders asked why people in such a poor area voted Republican against their interests. This was one of a number of counties in the state, that was so poor that they didn’t even have a doctor. The union leader told him: racism. The Republicans played on Whites’ hatred of Blacks, to divide and rule the state’s working people.
Sanders makes very clear his admiration for trade unions and their members, and how frequently they know far better than the politicians what is not only good for their members, but also good for the industry, their customers, and their country. He praises the nurses’ unions, who have endorsed his campaign and backed his demand for a Medicaid for all. He similarly praises the workers and professionals maintaining America’s infrastructure. This is massively decaying. 25 per cent of American bridges are, according to surveyors, functionally obsolete. Towns all over America, like Flint in Michigan, have had their water poisoned by negligent water companies. The electricity grid is also unspeakably poor. It’s ranked 35th worst in the world, behind that of Barbados. Yep! If you want to go to a country with a better electricity network, then go to that poor Caribbean country.
He describes how the poor in today’s America pay more for less. Drug prices are kept artificially high by pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer, so that many poor Americans can’t afford them. In one of the early chapter, he describes leading a group of women from Vermont over the Canadian border, so that they could buy prescription drugs cheaper. These same companies, like the rest of the big corporations, do everything they can to avoid paying tax. In some cases, these big corporations pay absolutely none. This is because of the corruption of American politics by donations from big business. As a result, the country’s politicians don’t represent the ordinary voters. They represent big business. He makes it clear he respects Hillary Clinton, but ran against her because you can’t combine representing ordinary people with taking money from the corporate rich. And at the heart of this corruption is the Koch brothers, oil magnates with a personal wealth of $82 billion and a corporate wealth of $115. They are not, explains Bernie, small government conservatives, but right-wing extremists. Their goal is to dismantle taxation completely, along with Medicaid and what little the country has of a welfare state. All so that the 1 per cent, who own as much as the poorest 90 per cent of the American population, can get even richer.
Sanders goes further to describe the massive inequalities that are now dividing American society, including the racism and sexism that ensures that women, Blacks and Latinos are paid less than White men. The notorious drug laws that have ensured that more Blacks are jailed for marijuana and other drugs than Whites. The crippling debt that faces more and more Americans. 48 million Americans are in poverty. 24 million have no health insurance. Many of these are people, who are in work, and frequently working their rear ends off just to make ends meet. He describes talking to a charity worker, who purchases just out of date food to give to the local food bank. According to the young man he spoke to, 90 per cent of the people using the bank are working Americans, whose jobs pay so little that they literally can’t afford to eat. In this section of the book he quotes a letter from a woman, who states that she and her husband are work 2 and 3 jobs each, but still can’t make a living. As a result, the young can’t afford to buy their houses, or go to university. He contrasts this with the situation in the 1950s. It wasn’t utopia, and there was still massive inequalities in wealth according to race and gender. But the economy was expanding, more people had the prospect of good, well-paying jobs, owning their own homes, and sending their children to college. This America is disappearing. Fast.
Sanders has given his support to women’s groups, and is a very staunch anti-racism campaigner. Amongst those who backed his campaign were Harry Belafonte and Dr. Cornel West, among other Afro-American intellectuals, performers and politicians. He also received the support of a number of Hollywood celebrities, including Seth MacFarlane and Danny DeVito. And comic book fans everywhere with genuinely progressive values will be delighted to here that his campaign manager ran a comic book store in Vermont. Presumably this guy is completely different from the owner of the Android’s Dungeon in The Simpsons. Sanders talks about his support for the Civil Rights movement, and Selma march, paying due tribute to its heroes and heroines, including Dr. Martin Luther King. He’s also a keen supporter of Black Lives Matter, the Black movement to stop cops getting away with the murder of Black people. As part of his campaign against racism, he also actively supports the campaign against the demonization of Muslims and rising tide of Islamophobia in America. When he was asked whether he would support this by a Muslim American, Sanders replied that he would, as his own father’s family were Jewish refugees from Poland.
Sanders is also strongly opposed to the current wars in the Middle East. He was not in favour of Gulf War 1 in the 1990s, and has attacked the invasion of Iraq under Bush for destabilising the country and region, and causing massive carnage. But he was no supporter of Saddam Hussein, and is also a staunch supporter of veterans, adding his political clout to their campaigns to stop the government cutting their benefits. He points out that the blame for these wars lie with the politicos, not the soldiers who had fight.
Bernie also takes worker ownership very seriously. Among the policies that he recommends for saving and expanding the American middle class are strengthening workers’ cooperatives and allowing workers to purchase their companies. One of the measures he states he will introduce will be to establish a bank to lend funds to American workers so that they can buy their own companies. He also wants to end the ‘too big to fail’ attitude to the big banks and start regulating them again. And as part of his campaign to strengthen and expand American democracy, he is a very harsh critic of the various laws the Republicans have introduced in states across America to stop Blacks, Latinos, the poor and students from voting. He also asks why it is that European countries can afford free medical care, but America can’t. And why Germany can provide college education free to its students, while Americans are faced with a mountain of debt.
Sanders is a genuine American radical in the tradition of Eugene Debs. It’s no wonder that the rich and the powerful now trying to pull the country back into the colonial era, when it was ruled by coterie of rich White men. He states that his country is now an oligarchy, and even a ‘banana republic’. He’s right, and right about the ways these issues can and should be tackled.
The Republicans have also tried to deter people from voting for him based on his apparent lack of interest in religion. They couldn’t attack him for being Jewish – although with those monsters Spencer and Gorka in the White House, I don’t know how long that will hold – so insinuated that he was an atheist. Well perhaps. But Sanders does have religious supporters. His friend and support Richard Sugarman is an Hasidic Jew and Sanders himself several times states how impressed he is with Pope Francis’ support for the global poor. He also made it clear in a speech he gave to the very Conservative Liberty University that he was impressed with the good in all religions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, whatever. So he’s secular, but not anti-religious. Just anti-bigotry, and the way the right is trying to use religion to divide America.
It’s also remarkable that Sanders was the focus of a popular phenomenon far beyond his own campaign team. He states in the book that he wanted to control the campaign, and not have a SuperPAC telling people what he didn’t or didn’t believe. But he also found that up and down America, people at the grassroots were organising independently of his campaign team to support him. Unlike the astroturf fake populist campaign the Republicans and Libertarians have set up, Bernie’s genuinely popular with a growing number of American working people.
America desperately needs him. And so do we in Britain. The predatory, parasitical capitalism at the heart of American society has also been exported over here by the Conservatives. Just like the Americans need Bernie, we need Corbyn. And we need the two together, because if Bernie can do anything to stop the current political degeneration in America, it will also help stop the process over here.
Incidentally, Bernie has a personal connection with Britain. His brother is a member of the Green party in Oxfordshire, and campaigns against the privatisation of the NHS. Sanders also has a strong interest in protecting the environment and promoting renewable energy.
I also recommend this book to aspiring young politicos because of the chapters in which he talks about running a campaign, funded by your own supporters, not corporate backers, and what you need to do when running about the country. Like making sure you can get there in time and aren’t double-booked. It’s good advice, and although the latter seems obvious, he talks about a number of incidents in which he disastrously failed to follow it.
Sanders talks about the way people are being turned off politics in America, thanks to the massive corporate corruption. This also reaches into corporate media. Sanders also has a few ideas how they can be reformed. He himself was the subject of a media blackout, as the TV and news companies definitely did not want to cover him, and very much favoured Killary. Hopefully Bernie’s book will reach more of the alienated folk now being excluded from American politics, and show them that there is someone actively fighting for them. And so encourage them to get involved for themselves.