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Despair Is Not an Option


In the latest episode of BR: A Political and Literary Podcast, Bernie Sanders talks to Archon Fung, Boston Review board member and Professor and Academic Dean at the Harvard Kennedy School, about his new book, ‘Our Revolution,’ the future of progressive politics, and what must be done to resist the Trump regime. An edited transcript of their conversation is below.

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Archon Fung: What are your marching orders for someone who wants to join “Our Revolution?” Is it to run for local office and improve local government, like you did in Burlington? Join a group like Move On or Indivisible or Black Lives Matter? Change the Democratic party? Do something else? What are your marching orders?

Bernie Sanders: It is all of that and more. This is the main message: every community is different. Everybody is different. Somebody is interested in environmental issues, somebody is interested in racial justice issues, somebody is interested in the trade union movement or economic issues. So everybody’s going to do something a little bit different. But here’s the bottom line: the people on top get away with their absurd policies because they assume that people don’t know what’s going on—the media won’t report it—or that people have given up to such a degree that they’re not capable of fighting back, or that they could always raise enough money in a campaign to run lying, thirty-second ads and they’ll win anyhow.

These guys from the business roundtable are the leaders of the major corporations in America—Wall Street, General Electric, all these guys—and they come in and they say “This is what we, the business leaders of America, want you to do. We want you to cut social security and give huge tax breaks to corporations and big businesses.” Needless to say, every one of these CEOs on the business roundtable had millions of dollars in a retirement program for himself or herself. So these guys have got millions of dollars on which to retire, they have got a golden parachute when they leave, and they had the chutzpah, the gall, to walk into Washington D.C. and say “I want you to cut social security for someone making fourteen thousand dollars a year plus benefits. Cut Medicare, cut Medicaid, give more tax breaks to the people on top.”

This is such an outrageous agenda that it fails when it is seen in the light of day, but the problem is, for a variety of reasons, it is not seen in the light of day. And then the discussion gets diverted to guns, it gets diverted to abortion. Our job, ultimately, is to be involved in the political process in every way possible. That means, do not turn your back on the local school board—that is a very, very important institution, especially if we want to strengthen public education in America. And there’s city councils and state legislatures.

But it is not only getting involved in electoral progress. We win victories when people stand up and fight back on environmental issues. New York State banned fracking. It wasn’t because the governor there woke up one day and decided to do it. It’s because hundreds of thousands of people suggested to him that it would be a very good idea for him to do it. Minimum wage all over this country—it’s an extraordinary success story. If somebody in this room, five years ago, said, “You know Bernie, minimum wage in Washington now is $7.25 an hour. Why don’t you raise it to $15 an hour?” Anybody said that five years ago, person next to you would have thought you were crazy. “$15 an hour from $7.25? You are nuts.” But you know what happened? You had very brave people, workers in the fast food industry—and I have been honored to march with them—who stood up and said, “We can’t make it. We can’t make it on nine or ten bucks an hour.” And lo and behold, Seattle, Washington, fifteen bucks an hour. San Francisco, California, New York State—it spreads and it is spreading like wildfire. That is what happens when the grassroots starts moving.

Trump’s ideas about the environment are not only disgraceful, they are very dangerous. The way we defeat them is when millions of people start putting pressure on institutions. Not an accident that Exxon Mobile and General Electric said “Oh yeah, actually climate change might be real, Mr. President.” When millions of people tell him that we are worried about our kids and our grandchildren and future generations, we can turn that around. When we put pressure on those corporations and banks that are investing in fossil fuel industries, when we demand at the local, state, and federal level: more solar, more wind, more geothermal. So the answer is, I can’t tell any one person what to do, but I will say this: despair is not an option. Now more than ever, we need you to fight back

AF: This is a very confusing political time for many of us. There are these many successes. The resistance to the Trump administration, as you point out, is very, very energetic. Yet in many places that we look, progressives are losing. Beyond the Trump White House and Republican Congress, Republicans control thirty-two state legislatures. There are thirty-three Republican governors. In twenty-five states they have a trifecta, a veto-proof majority. In recent elections in the Netherlands, Social Democrats had the lowest percentage in history. The French Socialist Party is polling quite poorly. Building upon these points, Rick, from Utrecht in the Netherlands in our audience, asks, “Many European countries already have a decent minimum wage, healthcare for everyone, and affordable education. And yet populists like Geert Wilders in Netherlands and Le Pen in France have gained popularity. Can you help us make sense of the rise of the right in all these places?”

BS: Probably not, but I’ll say a few words. You are right, this is not just a Trump phenomenon, it is clearly an international phenomenon. And I think that what it is is that the world is changing very, very rapidly. And I think whether you are in coal country in the United States—and I want you to think about this for a moment. I grew up in a house—I was in West Virginia recently and I reminded those people—and I’ll never forget the large piles of coal outside, keeping the house warm. These guys were heroes, going down underneath there. The worst work in the world, many of them die young from black lung disease and so forth and so on. The world has come and passed them. Coal is in decline. It’s not “Obama’s war on coal,” it’s the transformation of the energy system.

So how do you feel? How do you feel if you are fifty or sixty years old, you once had a job—and by the way, a job is not just income. People want to work, they want to feel part of society, they want to be productive. I was unemployed for a while when I was a kid. It was very painful! Not just not having money—you are sitting there, you are useless. It is a very painful feeling that people have. People want to be productive members of a community. And I think that, for a variety of reasons, all over this country, even where people have healthcare and decent education, there’s a sense of loss of community, of not being part of something bigger than oneself. Obviously we know what the economic issues are. We are the wealthiest country, all our people deserve a decent standard of living. But on the other hand, maybe in a deeper, more emotional sense, we have got to create community. We have got to make sure that I care about you and you care about me. That I know that you are worried about my seven grandchildren and I’m worried about your mother who is ill. When we are part of that community and we are not left out, I think that makes us more human and less likely to start picking and scapegoating minorities, because that’s what demagogues feed upon.

To give you an example. I was up at a high school in northern Vermont a couple of weeks ago. And it’s a working-class area, not a wealthy area by any means, and I said to the guy who runs the school, “What percentage of your kids graduate high school?” Vermont does fairly well. I think we have about an 80 percent graduation rate. And he says, “About 99 percent graduate.” I said, “99 percent—that’s phenomenal. How does that happen?” He says, “Well, we have one staff member—a teacher, mentor, whatever—working with twelve kids. We refuse to allow kids to fall through the cracks.” In other words, the parents, the adults, the teachers, the principal, the staff there are saying, “You know what? I’m sorry. You are not going to drop out of school. We love you and we care about you, and I know you are having a tough time at home. You come into the office and you talk to me, and I know your family is having economic problems. Let’s see what we can do. But we are not going to let you go out on drugs.”

This is tough stuff. It’s easier to say a few words about it than to do it, but ultimately I think the answer to the question is that I don’t believe that people are racist, I don’t believe it. I just think that it is a question of creating that sense where we are part of something. It means a lot to me because everyone in Vermont knows who I am. But I walk into a store and I could cash a check, and everyone would say, “No big deal.” I wouldn’t have to fill out forty-eight different forms. The people know who you are, and you are not just another number. You don’t have to make eighteen telephone calls.

When we talk about the health care system, it’s not just that it is expensive and dysfunctional. I will never forget, I had an eye infection and I was in New York City. And I go into the doctor, I wait in line, and all I see are signs there: “Do you have insurance? You have got to pay with cash.” The only thing this guy seemed to be concerned about was whether I could pay for it. Walk in there, he looked at me for two seconds and filled out an expensive prescription. People want doctors who are concerned about them, who know them, who they can go to, who they can call up. They want to know that their teachers are deeply concerned about their kids. They want to know that their local cops are somebody they can go to if there is a problem. And that is what we have got to build. It is not easy stuff. But, I think, at the end of the day, creating that type of community is what will address some of the problems we are seeing in this country and around the world.

AF: Seneca, from Anchorage, Alaska, in our audience asks, “I often struggle to effectively converse with conservative friends and family members about current events. Do you have any advice to facilitate more constructive conversations?”

BS: As all of you know, there’s been a lot of stuff written on this. One of the problems we have is that thirty or forty years ago everybody watched Walter Cronkite on CBS or somebody else. We watched the same program and maybe we read the same newspapers. And now that has broken down. So you have a significant number of people who get their worldview from Fox television, which is different from my website, to say the least, which is different from NBC and so on and so forth. People are getting a stream of information consistent with how they already look at the world.

This is a very good question, and it is a tough question. I think it is important for us to go outside our zone of comfort. It is very, very easy for all of you to sit down with your friends and have a drink and laugh about what a jerk Donald Trump is. But that is not good enough, it really is not. We have to do what this question asks.

I don’t suggest this is easy, but most of the people—certainly the working-class people who voted for Donald Trump—want their family and their kids to have health care. And you say to them, “Donald Trump promised you health care for everybody. But what he delivered, according to the AARP, if that you, at sixty-four years of age, your premiums would have gone up from $1700 to $7000. Almost half of your income, if you were living on $25,000 a year.” I think that is roughly right—or maybe more than that. But it was a huge increase in premiums. “Do you feel comfortable with that? You voted for Trump. He said he was going to provide health care to all people. Is that a good idea? You voted for Trump and he said he was going to drain the swamp. How do you feel about billionaires coming in to Washington and all these Wall Street guys in powerful positions? Is that draining the swamp? He said he wouldn’t cut Medicaid? He made massive cuts in Medicaid. Do you think it is a good idea that his budget includes ending afterschool programs? Doesn’t your kid go to an afterschool program? Well he’s ending that. What about lunch programs for kids and what about the Women, Infants, and Children program for pregnant women and babies—cut while he gives tax cuts to billionaires. Is that really what you voted for?”

And that is maybe a way to start the discussion. But the problem is, these people, over the years—many of them were Democrats—they looked at the Democratic party that made a hell of a lot of promises to them. But you know what? The Democrats have been much better than the Republicans. But I don’t want anyone here to forget that it was a Democratic president, not a Republican president, who deregulated Wall Street. It was a Democratic president who made the first major initiatives on disastrous trade policies. Let’s not forget that either.

And they are angry and they look for an alternative. But our job is to deliver the goods. Stand with us—we will take on the billionaire class and these corporations and create an economy that works for you. So I think that is kind of the way we begin that process.

AF: I’m afraid we only have time for one more issue.

BS: That’s because I’ve talked too long.

AF: I know we could go on a long time—I would like nothing more. These are a couple of questions from the floor. First, Collin from Abington asks, “In these hyperpartisan times, compromise has become a dirty word on both sides. Given that compromise is a core principle of democracy, how can we cut through the rhetoric and reach compromises across the political spectrum?” Coming at the same issue from a different direction, Kevin from Arlington asks, “Or will you adopt the GOP’s prior obstructionist policies and agenda about compromise and values?”

BS: I look at it a little bit differently. I have been a mayor and I have been a congressman. I think for a number of years I ended up getting more amendments through a Republican House than any of them in there. You can’t do that without reaching out to Republicans on issues where there’s a common view. So of course, compromise is part of what the democratic process is.

But let’s back it up a little bit and take a look at where we are politically in this country today. Where we are is that in the last thirty years or so, the Republican party moved from what we call a center-right party to a right-wing extremist party. That is just a fact. In my state of Vermont, we had Republican governors who were really strong environmentalists, protectors of women’s rights, and strong believers in education. Obviously they had different points of view on economics than I have. We disagreed very profoundly. But these guys lived in what I would call the mainstream world. That was the Vermont Republican party, by the way, throughout its modern history. People like George Aiken, Bob Stafford, Jim Jeffords. Moderate solid Republicans. Dwight D. Eisenhower, for god’s sakes—the man who reminded us of the danger of the military-industrial complex, the guy who said, “Hey I’m going to expand social security,”—was a Republican. The guy who built the interstate highway system was a Republican. So what has happened over the last thirty or forty years is, as a result of the Koch brothers and other billionaires, the party has moved very, very far to the right. I am not saying it is impossible—there are some Republicans who you can sit down and talk to—but many of them are not, and they are beholden to people like the Koch brothers who fund campaigns.

Do you know what the Koch brothers really stand for? Do people know that? I just did an interview on my website with Jane Meyer. And Jane has written a lot of stuff about money in politics and dark money. Koch brothers: this is what they believe. They don’t want to cut social security or Medicare and Medicaid. They want to end social security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Their philosophy—being the second wealthiest family in America—is that government—this is what they will tell you, they are not liars, you have got to give them credit for honesty—should not play a role in retirement security, should not play a role in public health. Goodbye Medicare, Medicaid, and all other public health programs. They actually don’t believe in public education. They don’t believe in the concept of government, other than perhaps a strong defense and maybe a few other areas. That is their view—you are on your own! You want health insurance when you are old? Well figure it out. You don’t have any money? Maybe some charity or church will give you some money. That’s not what government is about.

We are fighting to raise the minimum wage to a living wage. You know what their view is on the minimum wage? We should not have a minimum wage. It takes away your freedom. If unemployment is high and I want to hire you for four bucks an hour, it is my freedom to employ you and your right to work for me at four bucks an hour. Government should not establish a standard, that is taking away freedom. You own a factory, you want to dumb your pollution into the river? You want to pollute the air? That is freedom! You don’t want the government telling you what to do with your property? That is your freedom! That is what they believe and that is the ideology that is now dominating the Republican party. And those are the people. You have the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, a guy named Scott Pruitt, whose job is to dismember environmental protection law in America. Everybody knows that. Those terrible regulations, so that the water you drink and the air your kids breathe will be clean. They want to end all that stuff, give people the freedom to pollute.

So this is what we are up against. Of course you want to compromise. Well what am I supposed to say to somebody who wants to destroy the Environmental Protection Agency? Who doesn’t believe in climate change? What is the compromise? You tell me.

In a democracy and in a nation of 320 million people, everybody is going to have a different point of view. In this room, everyone has a different point of view. But what you want is a government which, broadly speaking, represents the people and not a handful of billionaires. And once you have that, once you have members going forward saying “No, of course nobody in your community wants to cut social security and give tax breaks to billionaires. Okay, how do we address this issue?” Then we can work together. But right now, to me, the major job we have is to build a strong, progressive, grassroots movement where millions of people become active in the political process in a way we have not seen in the modern history of this country.

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