Photo by Rich Koele/Shutterstock.com
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 said that, 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.
That’s what our task is. It is not to allow Donald Trump to be reëlected and to see the destruction of American democracy and the destruction of this planet.
You’ll obviously be familiar with the argument that there was something more you could’ve done to help Hillary Clinton get elected in 2016. I know you don’t think that that’s fair, and, in fact, there’s some evidence that there were more Hillary Clinton primary voters in 2008 who ended up voting for John McCain, for example, than there were Bernie Sanders supporters in 2016 who voted for Trump. But will what you do to help Biden get elected be different in any substantial way from what you did to help Hillary Clinton in 2016?
There is a myth out there that all a candidate has to say, whether it’s Bernie Sanders or anybody else, to millions of people who voted for him or her, is, “I want you to do this,” and every single person is going to fall in line. That’s just not the way it works in a democracy. In fact, that’s not the way it should work. I did everything that I could in 2016 to move the Democratic Party in a more progressive way and to see that Hillary Clinton was elected. I worked very, very hard in trying to do that, so I reject any argument that I did not try to elect Hillary Clinton. I did. I think the difference now is that, between you and me, I have a better relationship with Joe Biden than I had with Hillary Clinton, and that Biden has been much more receptive to sitting down and talking with me and other progressives than we have seen in the past.
In 2016, in fact, we sat down with Hillary Clinton’s people, and we hammered out what turned out to be the most progressive Democratic platform in the history of the country. But I think it is fair to say that our relationship with Biden is a stronger relationship. I’ve known Biden for the last fourteen years, more or less, since I’ve been in the Senate, and worked with him a little bit when he was Vice-President. I think what you’re going to see is a closer relationship.
Does that mean that you can get on the phone with him these days and talk things out?
And have you been doing that?
Yes. Not every day, but, if I call up Joe Biden, I will—all you have to do is say to his campaign, “I’d like to talk to him,” and, within a day or two, that call is arranged. So we are talking.
And you feel that he’s being receptive to your ideas?
You know, we will see. I don’t want to sugarcoat this. He has been open and personable and friendly, but his views and my views are very different, in some areas more than others. I think you’re going to see him being rather strong on the need for a new economy in America that does a lot better job in representing working families than we currently have. He has told me that he wants to be as strong as possible in terms of climate change, and I look forward to hearing his proposals. There are six task forces at work, literally, as we speak, between his people and people who supported me, hammering out, or trying to hammer out, agreements on the economy, health care, immigration reform, criminal-justice reform, education, and climate change, and we’ll see what the fruits of those discussions are. But Joe has been open to having his people sit down with some of the most progressive folks in America, and that’s a good sign.
In your primary campaign, there was some reporting that you were planning to give a campaign speech in Flint, Michigan, that would’ve been entirely about race, and at the last minute decided against it. Do you wish you’d given a big speech on race during the campaign? Do you think you should give that speech now?
We are trying to do our best dealing with the issue of racial justice. That particular day, what ended up happening is we had a panel of extraordinary people, including my good friend Cornel West, who I thought was extraordinary in raising the issues, doing a phenomenal job. Some of the leading African-American progressives in the country and in Michigan were speaking out. I thought it would at that moment be preferable to have their voices be heard at that panel.
And how about now? Especially given what we’re seeing at the moment, do you feel the need to—
Well, we are—I have been speaking out, and we will continue to speak out. Look, I think everybody knows that the police murder of George Floyd is part of a very, very long pattern, and, because of groups like Black Lives Matter and the A.C.L.U. and others, we have been discussing those murders a lot more in recent years than we have in the past, when it was really quite common practice. So this has gone on for decades, and I think the major transformation that’s coming now is a result of cell phones and video cameras. People are seeing what’s actually happening, which was not the case decades ago. But this has gone on, and it’s got to end. It has absolutely got to end. Last week, I sent a letter to Chuck Schumer with a rather detailed set of proposals which I think are very bold in terms of police-department reform on top of over-all criminal-justice reform.
So this is an area that we have got to address in a very, very aggressive way. We cannot continue to have African-American mothers worried about sending their kids out to the playground because their kid might run into a racist police officer. We cannot continue to have more people in jail—disproportionately African-American, Latino, and Native American—than any other country on earth. We’ve got to start investing in education and jobs, not more jails, not more incarceration, and we have to hold every police officer in this country accountable for what he or she does. And when those police officers break the law and commit acts of murder or violence, they have got to be held accountable.
In that letter to Schumer, you got some pushback from some of your supporters for a proposal to give better resources to police departments. [The letter argued for “ensuring that the resources are available to pay wages that will attract the top tier officers.”] The criticism was that a lot of people in the progressive movement now are calling for defunding or abolishing the police. Do you—
Do I think we should not have police departments in America? No, I don’t. There’s no city in the world that does not have police departments. What you need are—I didn’t call for more money for police departments. I called for police departments that have well-educated, well-trained, well-paid professionals. And, too often around this country right now, you have police officers who take the job at very low payment, don’t have much education, don’t have much training—and I want to change that. I also called for the transformation of police departments into—understanding that many police departments and cops deal every day with issues of mental illness, deal with issues of addiction, and all kinds of issues which should be dealt with by mental-health professionals or others, and not just by police officers.
I think we want to redefine what police departments do, give them the support they need to make their jobs better defined. So I do believe that we need well-trained, well-educated, and well-paid professionals in police departments. Anyone who thinks that we should abolish all police departments in America, I don’t agree.
As has been noted many times, your theory of the case for your primary was that there would have to be unprecedented voter turnout, especially youth turnout. And, as people, including you, have said, that didn’t pan out. Now we have the pandemic, we have the Republican Party’s refusal to adequately fund national vote by mail, and it seems like we could be on track for a very low-turnout election in November, which would obviously be bad both for democracy and for Democrats. What do you think we can do to avoid that?
Yes and no. My impression, and, correct me if I’m wrong, is that, actually, last week, turnouts were fairly high in some parts of the country. I think Trump and Republicans have been very honest about it: they fear high voter turnouts because when more people vote, especially what we call nontraditional-type voters—younger people, working-class people, lower-income people—when they vote in large numbers, they’re not going to vote, by and large, for Republicans. In fact, something like two out of three younger people, under thirty, when they vote, are going to vote against the Republican Party. That’s what Trump and his Republican friends understand, and that’s why they engage in voter suppression in general, making it harder, and why they fear very much the idea that everybody in America should receive a paper ballot.
Our job, by the way, as part of any new emergency legislation, is to do everything we can to make sure that states do have the funding to provide paper ballots to every resident, every eligible voter in their state.
Are you hopeful that we will have a functional, high-turnout, fair election?
I can’t give you a definitive answer. That is certainly what I will fight for, and do everything I can. This is pretty fundamental. What does America stand for if we don’t have democracy, if we don’t make sure that every person in this country has the right to vote without endangering their health? You will remember, not so long ago, we had the primary in Wisconsin, which I urged to be delayed. It took place, and dozens of dozens of people came down with the virus. How many died, I don’t know. People in America should not be having to make a choice between their health and voting. They should be able to vote without seeing their health endangered, and I will fight to make sure that that happens.
I want to ask about what continues to be our biggest existential threat, which is climate change. Even as people are dealing with so much loss, physical and economic and otherwise, which feels more immediate, how can we stay focussed on the threat of climate change?
I think you’re absolutely right. If you’re worried about coming down with the virus and dying, if you’re worried about how you’re going to put food on the table for your family, that is a more immediate threat to your existence than climate change. But climate change remains the existential threat to our planet, and, if we don’t boldly transform our energy system and take on the fossil-fuel industry within the next few years, there is no question but that the planet we’re going to be leaving our kids and grandchildren will be increasingly unhealthy and uninhabitable. So what we have got to do is keep discussing that issue. One of the task forces that we are working on with Biden is devoted to climate change, and what we have got to understand is that addressing climate change, combatting climate change, can become a very positive economic process, because we can create millions of good-paying jobs. Weatherizing our homes and our buildings—huge amounts of jobs can be created just by doing that. Transforming our transportation system, in terms of public transportation, in terms of moving toward electric vehicles, in terms of not only building the kind of wind and solar and other sustainable technologies that we need but helping the rest of the world deal with the issue, as well. Add all of that together, we can create many many millions of good-paying jobs. So the issue is not just some abstract idea about environmental protection or saving the planet. It really comes down to some very concrete ways that we can create millions of good-paying jobs, and I hope this is something that Biden is prepared to campaign strongly on. It’s something that I, certainly, as a U.S. senator, will do everything I can to push forward.
For a long time, you’ve been a critic of the “corporate media,” as you call it. You’ve made that critique since you were the mayor of Burlington, and up to this most recent campaign, when your campaign manager said that Fox News had been more fair to you than MSNBC. Do you think that if the media treated you and treated progressive ideas differently, that you could have won, and that progressive ideas could be championed more easily?
I would rephrase the question in a different way. Our campaign, in an unprecedented way in modern American history—maybe going back to Eugene Debs, in 1912, or whatever—we took on the entire establishment. It wasn’t that we were just fighting for Medicare for All—we were taking on the health-care industry. Not just fighting to lower prescription-drug costs—taking on the greed and collusion and price fixing of the pharmaceutical industry. Not just fighting for environmental protection, we were taking on the whole fossil-fuel industry. Not just taking on the greed of Wall Street, but we were talking about breaking up the major financial institutions in this country. So, in other words, what made our campaign unique is we took on the entire establishment, and, obviously, corporate media is part of that establishment.
So you can’t ask, Well, if the corporate media acted differently? They’re not going to act differently. They are the establishment. They are owned by the establishment. Just as one example, one tiny example: at a time when we are the only major country on earth not to guarantee health care to all people as a human right, when we pay twice as much per capita as do people of other countries, and in many cases have worse outcomes,how many television programs have you seen, Andrew, that talk about Medicare for All and the contrast between our profit-driven, private-insurance-dominated health-care system and other systems? Have you seen one program on that?
I don’t own a TV, but I take your point.
[Laughs.] You haven’t. I have done more live-streamed town meetings on Medicare for All than all of corporate television has done. We have done two or three wonderful panel discussions viewed by millions of people on why we need to move to Medicare for All. That’s more than CBS has done, NBC, ABC, Fox, CNN. They don’t do it. How many programs have we seen about income and wealth inequality and the morality of three people owning more wealth than the bottom half of American society? You don’t see it. So it’s not what they did to my campaign. Of course, I knew that that was going to happen. They came up with every line that they could. One of them was, Bernie can’t beat Trump, which, I thought then, and I think now, we were probably in the strongest position to beat Trump. Or, Bernie’s this, or Bernie’s that, or whatever—“Bernie bros”—whatever the line was. Nothing surprised me. We knew that that would happen. We knew that our Medicare for All proposal would be opposed by the health-care industry, and they and others spent millions of dollars in super-PACs lying about what I’m trying to do. Did that surprise me? No. Did the role of MSNBC or the media in general surprise me? No, it didn’t. That is the establishment that we have taken on, and that is why we have worked so hard to try to build an alternative media. I’m proud of the fact that we have a lot more viewers and followers on social media and live streams than many other Democrats do. But we worked hard at that, and we do that because I believe strongly that we need an alternative vehicle, an alternative media, to talk about the ideas that impact working society, because it’s very naïve to believe that the corporate media will do that.
When you talk about taking on the establishment in those terms, some people hear that as a kind of no-holds-barred, no-compromise, anti-establishment message. And yet we were just talking about you getting on the phone with Joe Biden and trying to work with him. What do you say to those on the left who have a more no-compromise approach to politics?
I think, if you’re into serious politics, or if you’re a United States senator, as I am—look, Andrew, I could vote no on every single bill that comes before the Congress and give you probably ten good reasons as to why I voted no. But the people of Vermont didn’t send me to Congress just to vote no. They sent me to Congress to do the very best that we can in a very difficult situation, in a Congress heavily dominated by big-money interests and powerful special interests. So you do the best that you can within the existing moment. And, getting back to the question you asked at the very beginning of this discussion: in this moment, in my mind, I could say no. I could say, “No, Joe Biden and I disagree, I’m not going to support him.” I could say that. I think that would be a terrible, terrible mistake. My job is to see that Trump is defeated and that I move Biden in as progressive a way as I can.
So just saying no is not good enough. That’s the simplest answer.
That leads me to my final questions, looking to the future. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor made an argument in The New Yorker a couple of months ago that, in this moment of crisis, reality has endorsed your campaign. But, of course, your campaign for President is over now. Some people on the left were energized by how close you came to winning this time, and in 2016, but others were demoralized by the fact that you didn’t win. What do you have to say to those people in this uniquely perilous moment?
I often say, and I speak as the grandfather of seven beautiful grandchildren: despair is not an option. I am disappointed, obviously, that I didn’t win, and that our movement didn’t win, because I think this is a moment in history where we need transformative change in this country. So there’s nobody out there, obviously, more disappointed than I am. And I know millions of others feel the same way. But what I want people to understand is we have advanced the agenda an enormous way forward, that the campaign that we ran, as I mentioned to you a moment ago, was not, just, Oh, I want better health care and I want to improve the Affordable Care Act, or I want to build more solar panels. What our campaign was about was taking on the entire establishment, including the corporate media, including Wall Street, and the drug companies, and the insurance companies, and the military-industrial complex, and the prison-industrial complex, and the fossil-fuel industry, and the whole bunch. We took them on. And what we showed is that the American people, in fact, are prepared not just for incremental change. They want to move this country forward in a very transformative way. And what you’re seeing on the streets of America today—beautiful young people, and others, of all races, all backgrounds, standing up in the fight for justice—I believe you’re going to see that spreading. Not only for racial justice and police-department reform. You’re going to see it for economic justice and the ending of starvation wages in America. You’re going to see it for health-care justice and the understanding that health care is a human right, not a privilege. You’re going to see it in terms of climate justice and the understanding that we cannot allow this planet to be destroyed by the fossil-fuel industry.
We planted very powerful seeds, and those seeds are going to grow, and you’re seeing them out on the streets of America today. So I say to people who have been supportive of my campaigns that the fight has just begun, and, as I mentioned when I suspended the campaign, the campaign ends, but the struggle continues. And anybody who knows anything about history—whether it’s workers’ rights, whether it’s civil rights, whether it’s women’s rights, whether it’s gay rights, whether it’s environmental rights—understands that change does not happen overnight. It really does not. It changes when political consciousness changes; it changes when millions of people get involved in the process and take to the streets. That’s how change takes place. And we are in the moment when I believe that in fact is going to happen.
If you can’t be President, do you think there will be a time in four or eight or twenty years when a democratic socialist can be President of the United States?
Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely. I know that the media and everybody else, our opponents, try to frighten people with the words “democratic socialism.” But, when you break it down to what we are fighting for, it turns out that a lot of what we’re fighting for already exists in other countries on earth. Is health care a human right, not an employee benefit—do you think that’s a radical idea? Making sure that every job in America pays people a decent wage, making sure that all of our kids have decent education. Are these radical ideas? They’re not radical ideas. Believe me, they’re not. Saving the planet? I don’t think that’s a very radical idea. So I think, when I talked about winning the ideological struggle—we have. But that is especially true among the younger people who are the future of America.
For whatever reason, maybe we could’ve done better, we did terribly with older people. Biden just mopped us up with older people. On the other hand, even in states where we did poorly, and lost, we won a majority of young people, forty or younger. That’s the future of America. So our ideas are the ideas imbued by the young people in this country. I’m not talking about just twenty-year-olds. I’m talking about people forty, forty-five and younger. They want and are not afraid of transformative change. They’re not afraid of a vibrant democracy, and that’s what democratic socialism is about.