This month Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, the Senate’s only self-described socialist, made a tour of four Southern states that stoked talk of a presidential run. In an interview this week with Salon, Sanders set forth his thinking about why he might take that plunge, and offered assessments of contenders Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren. He also blasted Wal-Mart’s business model, Republicans’ healthcare tactics, and a level of inequality that he warned has brought America to the cusp of oligarchy. A condensed version of our conversation follows.
How significant is the Senate’s move to change the filibuster for nominations last week? And does this bring us closer to curbing the filibuster for nominations also?
It is a significant step forward in attempting to end the dysfunctionality of the United States Senate. I would go further. And I believe that when we are faced with unprecedented Republican obstruction, that it would make a lot of sense to go to majority vote for legislation as well. I also believe that we have to protect the rights of minorities, and I think minorities – minority or any other member of the Senate — should have as much time as he or she needs to voice opposition, stand up, filibuster, do their thing. So I believe in the concept of the talking filibuster.
But I think what we have got to end is the situation right now where the Senate is basically dysfunctional, and where the major issues facing this country are not being discussed, and are certainly … not being voted on.
What’s your view of the Upton bill that passed the House, and the bill proposed by Sen. Landrieu in the Senate on the Affordable Care Act?
I’m not sympathetic. Clearly, my own view is that [at] a time when our nation spends almost twice as much as any other country on healthcare, and we have so many people who will continue to be uninsured under the Affordable Care Act, we need to move toward a Medicare-for-all, single-payer system. The Affordable Care Act is a modest proposal — it does some good things, it is much too complicated, and it doesn’t get to the root of the problems of America’s healthcare. Clearly, the rollout in terms of the website has been a disaster. That has got to be rectified.
But I would hope that we can move forward as quickly as possible in getting people into the Affordable Care Act, making sure that people get Medicaid, and get the system moving.
The Upton bill and the Landrieu bill, do they pose a threat to the law?
Well, I think the Upton bill certainly does … Republicans in the House, their job is to kill healthcare reform, despite the fact that we have 48 million Americans who don’t have health insurance … It is hard to take seriously people who quote-unquote want to make “improvements” in the Affordable Care Act when every other day they are clear that they want to destroy the act.
And are you concerned to see so many Democrats getting behind the Landrieu proposal or the Upton proposal?
Well, I think what you have is legitimate concern on the part of many Democrats who are very, very worried about how this thing is rolling out. And the kind of — and given the enormous Republican opposition in stressing every problem that exists, of which there are many — there are Democrats who are nervous.
The Burlington Free Press reported that you’re open to running for president if there isn’t a good enough alternative in the race. What do you think you could accomplish by running?
Well, let me just tell you, Josh, I don’t wake up every morning with a huge desire to be president of the United States. I gather there are people who do. I don’t.
But what I do wake up believing is that this country is facing more serious crises than we have faced since the Great Depression. And if you include the planetary crisis of global warming, the situation today may even be worse. And given that reality, what distresses me enormously is that there is very little discussion about these major crises, and even less discussion about ideas that can resolve these issues.
And this is not just a crisis within the political establishment — it’s certainly a crisis within the media establishment, because media seems to be far more concerned about looking at politics as a game, or looking at personality and celebrity life, rather than kind of analyzing the problems that we face. Let me just give you just a few examples …
The great moral and economic and political crisis facing this country, which gets relatively little discussion, is the growing disparity in income and wealth that exists in America. We are in a situation where we have not been since the late 1920s, before the Depression, where the top 1 percent owns 38 percent of the financial wealth of America, while the bottom 60 – six zero – percent owns 2.3 percent of the wealth in America. That is obscene beyond belief. The worst wealth inequality in the entire — of any major country in the world. And in terms of income, the last statistics we have seen from 2009 to 2012 tell us that 95 percent of all new income in this country went to the top 1 percent.
So what you have there is obviously [a] horrendous economic situation, but it is very dangerous to our political system. Because big money interests are putting huge amounts of money into the political process through Citizens United. And these are issues that have got to be addressed, or else in my view the United States will move very rapidly toward an oligarchic form of society when our economic and political life is controlled by a handful of billionaires.
I see this as a huge moral issue, an economic issue, a political issue. There is virtually no discussion about that, virtually none. I don’t know how we can be a serious nation when this issue is not front and center, and there are not real ideas out there on how we address it. That’s just one issue.
The second issue is the crisis of unemployment in this country. Real unemployment is not 7.2 percent — it’s close to 14 percent, including those people who have given up looking for work, and who are working part-time. Youth unemployment, youth unemployment is close to 20 percent. African-American youth unemployment is close to 40 percent. These are crises. And yet day after day, we hear about the deficit — which is a serious issue — and we hear almost nothing about the unemployment issue, which among other things is having a horrendous impact on the current young generation, the kids who have graduated high school and college. So we need a lot of discussion on that.
And certainly it is beyond comprehension — although the scientific community is almost unanimous in telling us that global warming is man-made, that it is already causing disastrous problems, and that those problems will only get worse in years to come — that we have almost no movement at all, virtually no movement in Congress on this planetary crisis.
And lastly, I would say that while the American people feel very strongly — and this is, by the way, across the board, Democrats, Republicans and independents — in opposition to cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, inside the Beltway, the political establishments, there is support for cuts to those terribly important programs.
So those are some of the issues that are out there that need discussing. We have a middle class that is disappearing, and somebody has got to be speaking strongly to defend our middle class.
And if you ran for president, what do you think it would do for those issues?
The nature of media is that presidential campaigns and candidates are a means, to some degree at least, of getting these issues out there. And I think that you can give all the speeches you want on the floor of the Senate, that’s great, but I think being involved in debates and being out there around the country allows — gives you the opportunity to talk about these issues in a way that you otherwise could not.
The Free Press also reported that you’d be comfortable with an Elizabeth Warren presidential bid. What would make Elizabeth Warren a good president?
Oh, Elizabeth Warren is, you know, clearly one of the smartest people in the Senate. She is a true progressive. I’ve known Elizabeth for many, many years. She is doing a great job, and understands fully the issues facing the middle class and working class in this country. She is a very strong proponent in defending the working families in this country.
So should she be running for president?
Why don’t you give her a ring?
You told Playboy that while you like the Clintons, they “live in a world surrounded by a lot of money,” and a Hillary Clinton candidacy would not offer an alternative for the country. Why not?
Well, actually that was a – a) You don’t know and I don’t know whether Hillary Clinton is running for president. And b) if she decides to run for president, we don’t know the issues that she will be focusing on. I have known Hillary Clinton for a number of years, not terribly well, but I knew her when she was first lady and I knew her when she was in the Senate. I like her. She is extremely smart. But it’s — we will have to see what she has to say, so — but based on the kind of centrist positions that we have seen her take in the past, it remains to be seen — although I may be wrong — it remains to be seen whether she will be a forceful advocate for working families.
We just saw the first Socialist City Council member elected in Seattle. In recent years, has America been moving closer to socialism or farther away from it?
I think in recent years, especially since the Wall Street collapse of 2008, the American people are becoming profoundly disgusted about a nation in which a small handful of billionaires have incredible control over the political and economic life in this country. They are very upset that the middle class is disappearing, while the wealthy and large corporations are doing phenomenally well. And I think what we have seen is that a whole lot of people out there are prepared to support candidates who are willing to stand up to big money interests and protect working families …
Since the financial crisis, some have suggested that there’s at least more discussion, more open discussion, about capitalism in the United States. Is that something that you’ve observed?
I think you saw that the Occupy Wall Street movement that spread around the country attracted a lot of attention and a lot of support. I think the issues that they raised about the power, the incredible power of Wall Street, the greed of Wall Street, the illegal behavior on Wall Street and also about the issues of income inequality and wealth inequality — that really struck a chord in many people. What I think unfortunately has not happened is that there has not been a look, for example, at countries like Scandinavia, and what they have managed to accomplish for their people …
Last summer we had the ambassador to Denmark coming up to Vermont, and we did three town hall meetings … We had very large turnouts. People were really fascinated to hear about a very simple and straightforward universal healthcare system, about the fact that working people in their country have in many ways a much higher standard of living than American workers, that the kind of benefits that pregnant women and new mothers and fathers receive are literally almost beyond belief here in the United States of America, the strength of unions in that country, you know, the fact that their campaigns are run without massive amounts of TV … higher education is free in Denmark.
So I think there is a great deal to be learned from the successes of some of the Scandinavian countries … There are models out there that we can look to as we try to figure out how we move America away from the very, very deep economic problems we currently have.
The strikes and protests that are planned this Friday against Wal-Mart – should more politicians be out on those picket lines with those workers this Friday? And in particular, when President Obama and his administration publicly praise Wal-Mart and hold these appearances with Wal-Mart, does that make it harder for these workers to get some kind of progress?
The Wal-Mart issue is a very interesting issue. It is interesting for a number of reasons. Wal-Mart is, as I recall, the largest private employer in the United States of America. So they set the tone for a lot that goes on in our economy. What they do impacts many other businesses, and when they pay their workers extremely low wages and provide minimal benefits, it sets a tone for businesses all over this country.
Now what is particularly outrageous about the Wal-Mart business model is that the Walton family that owns Wal-Mart is the wealthiest family in this country … The six heirs of Sam Walton are worth about, I believe, over $100 billion. Which is more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of the American people, interestingly. And what is quite amazing is that one of the reasons this family has become so wealthy is that the taxpayers of the United States provide more welfare to the Walton family than any family in America. So that — when you have workers in Wal-Mart who in order to feed their families have got to go on food stamps, have got to go on Medicaid to get their healthcare, have got to live in government-subsidized affordable housing in order to have a roof over their heads — what that dynamic is, essentially, is that the United States, that the taxpayers of this country are in partnership with the Walton family. The Walton family makes all of the money – the wealthiest family in America – while the taxpayers have to subsidize the low-paid employees. And that to me is totally absurd.
The Wal-Mart family, the wealthiest family in this country, should be paying their workers a living wage, not starvation wages.
When progressives sometimes refer, for example, to Wal-Mart, as one of your colleagues did, as “welfare kings,” do you worry that that kind of rhetoric plays on the anti-welfare attitudes that some Americans have, or that it undermines the support –
No. I think the point that is made is that, you know, the average person — the average low-income person on welfare, those people are being attacked every day in Washington, D.C., as ungrateful people, as people who are not really in need, as people who should be going out, getting a job, et cetera, et cetera. Where I think we might want to focus attention on the fact that in this particular case, the wealthiest family in America, the family that is worth $100 billion, does that family really need government assistance in the operation of their business? I think the answer is obviously no.
And when the president or members of his administration hold these public appearances with Wal-Mart, at things like a manufacturing summit, for example, does that give Wal-Mart more cover to keep its practices the same?
Well, I would hope that the president would be speaking out on the need to address a very serious crisis in this country, which is that most of the new jobs being created are low-wage, part-time, and that Wal-Mart is very much a part of that model. So I would hope that the president would join us in demanding that Wal-Mart start paying its workers a living wage.
This reported deal on Iran’s nuclear program, what is your reaction to that? And what role do you think the Senate will play in the next steps around it?
Well, you know anything dealing with the Middle East is very, very complicated, because you’re dealing with the most volatile region of the entire world. I think a year ago, what we were hearing from a number of folks in Washington is the only alternative toward preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon would be essentially to go to war against Iran … If the United States attacked Iran, it would bring incredible instability, even more instability in a region that is already terribly unstable. God only knows what a United States attack on Iran would unleash in the Middle East and throughout the world.
So to the degree that this agreement brought forth by the Obama administration and Secretary Kerry can move us toward – move Iran away from a nuclear weapon, I think that’s a good step forward. Obviously the devil is in the details. This is a very, very difficult issue. But I think what we have seen is a step forward.
And do you think the Senate is going to, through proposed additional sanctions or otherwise, put forward additional obstacles to this deal?
Well, I suspect that some of my Republican friends will attempt to do that, yes.
Will they have much Democratic support in that?
I would suggest that you give Democrats a ring … They will not have my support …
Does this deal suggest anything about the impact of the sanctions regime?
One of the side effects of this agreement is that clearly I think it’s preferable that you want to work with the more moderate elements, and see if they can gain more influence in Iran than the hard-liners. And if in fact what progresses — and this is very difficult, and I don’t know that it necessarily will – but if the progression is that sanctions are gradually lifted, and the economy in Iran improves, while at the same time they are moving further and further away from the militarization of their nuclear capacity, that will be a win-win situation. And it will give strength, I think, to the Iranian moderates, which is certainly a good thing.