Bernie Sanders has the highest approval rating of any politician in the country with 61 percent approving, while only 32 percent disapproving, according to a March 15 Fox News poll. The Sanders 29 plus percent favorable/unfavorable gap is far superior to Trump’s negative 8 percent.
What accounts for Sanders popularity and how can progressives build on it?
Bernie Sanders has been saying the same things for nearly a half-century. He’s been a consistent democratic-socialist fighting in behalf of working people and against financial/corporate power. While his straightforward commitment to his ideals is refreshingly genuine, he did not make his mark on the national scene until last year at age 74.
Sanders didn’t change but the world did.
His message about the ravages and unfairness of runaway inequality hit home because it is true. He and his campaign became the next phase of the revolt against the one percent initiated by the remarkable, yet short-lived, Occupy Wall Street.
Sanders took this discontent many steps forward by clearly articulating a social-democratic agenda for working people. He turned “We are the 99%” into a clear policy agenda. That agenda, not just his enormous integrity, is why he remains so popular.
He stands for something and so should we.
Here’s a rough draft of such an agenda:
The right to a job at living wage: Everyone who is willing and able to work should be entitled to a job that today would pay at least $15 an hour. If the private sector is unable to produce such jobs, then government should serve as the employer of last resort. There’s more than enough work to be done to rebuild our infrastructure and protect our environment.
The right to universal health care: It is time to expand Medicare – our efficiently run single-payer system for the elderly — to anyone who wishes to join.
The right to free public education from pre-k to graduate school: Each child deserves access free of charge to as much education as he or she qualifies for through our public educational systems. Nearly every economically advanced country provides free higher education. So should we. (See here.)
The right to a sustainable environment, free from chemical, radioactive and carbon pollution: We need to protect working people and communities from harmful exposures while rapidly reducing the emission of greenhouse gases — the cause of global warming. The climate crisis is real and must be addressed now. In doing so we also should have a policy of buying goods as locally as possible to limit the carbon footprint of transportation, and we should make sure industries do not flee to countries with weaker health, safety and environmental standards.
The right to an impartial criminal justice system that does not harm anyone based on their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, racial category or religion. In particular, we need to dramatically reduce the differential impact of enforcement, prosecution and sentencing on young people of color.
The right to vote, free of voter suppression activities and billionaire influence: For our democracy to endure we need to halt any and all efforts to deny voting rights, and we need to curtail the influence of money in all areas of the political system.
The right to citizenship for all residents: We are a nation of immigrants, documented and undocumented. There should be a straightforward pathway to citizenship for the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants here today.
The right to organize unions without employer threats or harassment, We need to reform the current laws and processes which allow employers to intimidate workers from joining labor unions. Congress should pass the Free Choice Act which will level the playing field. (See here.)
The right to control our money through public state banks and a national postal bank: We need an alternative to the predatory financing provided by Wall Street. Modeled on the public Bank of North Dakota, every state should charter a public bank whose first and only goal is to serve its people. Like many other nations, we also need a national postal bank to provide financial services in all our communities. (See Public Banking Institute and Campaign for Postal Banking.)
But can America really afford these basic human rights?
We are the richest nation in world history. The resources are here, but our prosperity has been hijacked by financial and corporate elites. In 1970 the CEO pay/worker pay ratio was $45 to one. Today it is more than $840 to one.
The average worker who entered the workforce 40 years ago has lost more than $500,000 in productivity gains, according to Rutgers University professor Michael Merrill. From WWII to 1980, as productivity rose, so did real wages. Since 1980 real worker wages (after inflation) have stalled while productivity has soared. The productivity gains that once went to worker wages have been siphoned away to the top 1 percent. The average wage today would be double what it is, had we received our fair share of productivity.
Our economy is being financially strip-mined by Wall Street and their corporate partners. (Financial strip-mining refers to the full set of financial maneuvers that extract money from non-financial corporations and moves wealth to large investors, hedge funds, private equity companies, investment banks and insurance companies. Just as mineral strip-mining harms the natural environment, the financial kind damages the corporate environment and can leave behind hollowed-out facilities.
This social-democratic agenda is possible if, and only if, financial strip-mining is halted. Billions of dollars of ill-gotten gains must be transferred from Wall Street to Main Street. Here are basic policies that can achieve that goal:
A Financial Speculation Tax on all Wall Street transactions: We should advocate a small sales tax on stocks (.05%), bonds (.01%) and derivatives (.005%). Wall Street must finally pay their fair share and repay us for all the bailouts. (See Robin Hood Tax)
An End to Stock Manipulation: This refers to stock buybacks that allow corporate and financial elites to strip-mine the economy. CEOs and their Wall Street partners should not be permitted to enrich themselves by using corporate funds to buy back their own shares in order to jack up stock prices. This was illegal before 1982 and should be again. (See “Profits Without Prosperity” by Professor William Lazonick)
A wealth tax of 1% on all those whose net worth is more than $10 million: Those who have grown super-rich by strip-mining our economy have a myriad of ways to avoid taxes. This tax, used by Spain, France, Switzerland and Norway is an excellent way to recoup those losses.
(Even Donald Trump once advocated a 14.25% wealth tax to eliminate the national debt. In 1999 he said: “By my calculations, 1 percent of Americans, who control 90 percent of the wealth in this country, would be affected by my plan.”)
Pie in the Sky?
Clearly, Donald Trump has long forgotten his wealth tax. Instead, he is hell bent on further increasing rather than reversing runaway inequality. So where is the political space for a Sanders-like agenda?
For a moment, think again about what has happened over this past year.
Who would have thought this pathological liar would become president?
Who really believed that Bernie Sanders, an avowed socialist, could come so near the Democratic nomination and become the most popular politician in America?
Who believed that millions of people would come into the streets so quickly and could organize thousands of Indivisible groups almost overnight?
There is a real opening for a visionary politics that protects and enhances the common good. But much more needs to be done to connect us together.
Petition every Politician?
To keep the Sanders agenda alive, we should further refine it, turn it into a petition, get 25 million people to sign it and shove it under the noses of every politician in the country.
Hard? Yes, but not impossible.
We can start right now by building a mass educational network that reaches millions of Americans with the facts about runaway inequality, financial strip-mining and why a powerful common agenda is both needed and possible. In the 1880s the Populists, who then were engaged in an all out war with the moneyed interests, fielded 6,000 educators to build their movement among small farmers. We need 30,000 today, a number well within our reach.
This educational effort can help us see that the many issues we care about are deeply connected by runaway inequality. It will help us see why we need a common movement that goes beyond our issue silos, interest groups and identities. It does not ask people to give up their issues and identities. Rather, it asks that we make issue silos more porous and interconnecte.