Bernie Sanders Keeps Us Focused on What Matters

Sanders’ new manifesto is an important reminder of what we should be fighting for, and a reminder that the Democratic party establishment is a main enemy of progress and justice.

Bernie Sanders doesn’t do nuance. He speaks plainly. He gets to the point, and it’s one reason people like him. Sanders is a broken record, and once you’ve heard him a few times, you know what he’s going to say before he says it. Detractors can argue that Sanders’ politics are unsophisticated or naive, that his big policy plans won’t work, that his “revolution” won’t happen, etc. But any honest person who listens to or reads Sanders’ words has to admit: he is laser-focused on calling attention to the suffering of the worst-off people in the country, and insisting on the urgency of addressing major social crises. I can’t think of anyone else who is quite as good at hammering on what matters most, over and over, relentlessly. It’s so easy to get distracted by things that don’t matter, whatever kerfuffle is animating people on social media on any given day. Sanders has the right set of moral priorities. I am convinced that the more people shared his convictions, the better off the world would be.

Sanders has a new book, It’s OK to be Angry About Capitalism (written with the great lefty journalist John Nichols), and it’s an excellent reminder of what makes him so valuable to U.S. politics. Sanders is willing to tell obvious truths in simple language, when few others will. He explains that our present economic system is not merely “unjust” but “grossly immoral” and “propelled by uncontrollable greed and contempt for human decency.” He zeroes in on the questions people should start asking themselves, even giving a bulleted list:  

  • How does massive income and wealth inequality—and the corporate power that extends this inequality—impact the whole society?
  • What kind of “democracy” are we when billionaires are allowed to buy elections?
  • Why has there been a massive transfer of wealth from the middle class to the 1 percent over the last fifty years?
  • Why do we spend twice as much per capita on health care as other nations and have so little to show for it?
  • Why do we accept childhood poverty in a land of plenty, and what does that mean for the future of a country that keeps failing its next generation?
  • Why is there so much money available for mega-mansions, gated communities, and super-yachts, and so little to address homelessness and hunger?
  • Why do we allow a handful of corporate media conglomerates to control our political discourse?
  • What does it say about our political system that the last two major American wars, in Vietnam and Iraq, were based on establishment lies; and why do we spend more on the military than the next ten nations combined?
  • Why have we allowed the fossil fuel industry to keep destroying the planet?

They are the right questions to pose, and they reflect a respect for ordinary people’s right to decide for themselves what they think justice looks like. He quotes a voter who told him “the reason I like you is that you treat us like we’re intelligent human beings.” He is asking people to think, to ask critical questions, and when they see the answers, to act

Sanders’ book highlights the stories of those who suffer in the “grossly immoral” system he decries. He discusses meeting family farmers who can’t compete against big agriculture corporations, a woman whose husband was deported, someone whose arrest record for smoking marijuana keeps them from getting a job, a mom who can’t take care of kids on $9 an hour, a college graduate with $50,000 in outstanding student debt and no way to pay it off, and Black parents whose children attend crumbling schools that receive less funding than nearby suburban white schools. He asks the reader: is this fair? Is this tolerable? And if it isn’t, why aren’t we fixing it? What justifies our inaction? 

Sanders is clear on what he wants to do: He makes the case in the book for Medicare for All, higher minimum wages, free universal childcare, free college, expanding Social Security benefits, starting a Civilian Climate Corps, and rebuilding the labor movement. Sanders calls for every person to decide which side we’re on, whether we’re with those who defend the status quo or those fighting to change it. He reminds readers that while his two presidential campaigns did not succeed, they made the Democratic party establishment very afraid and in 2020 forced Biden to make concessions to the left that he would otherwise have been disinclined to make.

Sanders, to his credit, is unafraid to show that the Democratic Party itself has been a major cause of the problems facing the country. He argues that Democrats have abandoned the working class, and says it is downright “pathetic” that Donald Trump could capture so many votes. Sanders argues that many of Trump’s supporters aren’t bigots, but people who the Democratic Party gave up on trying to help. He describes the massive failure of the Obama years: 

“Democrats were in charge—but we did not raise wages for workers. After a massive amount of illegal corporate anti-union activity, we did not make it easier for workers to join unions. We did not improve job security. We did not address corporate greed or the massive levels of income and wealth inequality. We did not provide health care for all or lower the cost of prescription drugs. We did not make childcare and higher education affordable. We did not address homelessness or the high cost of housing. We did not make it easier for working people to retire with security and dignity. We did not reform a corrupt campaign finance system.”

Voters “want their elected officials to stand up and fight for them” but “that’s not what Democrats have done.” Instead, it’s a “party that has largely turned its back on the working class of this country” and many rightly feel that Democrats have “abandoned them for wealthy campaign contributors and the ‘beautiful people.’” Sanders exposes how his colleagues in the senate (not just Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema) have refused to support him in such basic reforms as expanding Medicare to cover dental, vision, and hearing. When Sanders “proposed an amendment to extend the monthly $300-per-child tax credit for an additional four years—paid for by repealing the Trump tax breaks for the wealthy and large corporations…it failed 1–97.” “Why do Democrats have such a hard time delivering on the promise of transformational change?” Sanders asks. 

Sanders’ relationship with the Democratic Party is complicated (if not outright contradictory). He understands that many within the party despise his agenda, and are the enemies of basic improvements to everyday life in the U.S. like a $15 minimum wage and free universal healthcare. But Sanders also recounts the considerable effort he put into helping Joe Biden defeat Donald Trump, and speaks of Biden as a friend. He is proud that he “succeeded in pushing Biden in a more progressive direction” but acknowledges that despite the “most progressive platform” in the history of the Democratic Party, over the last two years Democrats have failed to deliver much that the average person is going to notice making a difference in their lives. Biden’s approval rating has plummeted, and I doubt many voters could come up with an answer to the question “What has the Democratic Party done for you?” 

This raises the question of whether it has actually been wise for Sanders to pull his punches against Joe Biden, which he continues to do in the book. Sanders has been very clear that he won’t run against Biden, and isn’t encouraging anyone else to do so either, even though Biden is unpopular and Sanders admits that Biden does not do anything progressive except when subject to massive external political pressure. By campaigning so hard to get Biden into office, Sanders helped prevent the authoritarian Donald Trump from remaining in power, but he also helped set voters up for another four years of Democratic failure. 

Sanders frames the issue: 

“Democrats face the most fundamental of all choices. They must choose whether to be on the side of the working-class men and women who create the wealth of this country, or to be on the side of the billionaire class, the corporate elites, and the wealthy campaign donors who hoard wealth for their own self-interest.”

Judging by how little support Sanders’ social democratic vision has among his congressional peers, it seems most in the party have made their decision. Sanders is under no illusions. He says “the corporate interests within the party, the consultant class, and establishment politicians will resist change every step of the way.” But, he says, there is no alternative to building the party from the bottom up. I’m not sure I agree with that: I believed in voting for Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden over Donald Trump, but I think there’s a very real danger in being too cozy with someone like Biden. Sanders knows that until the existing party leadership is overthrown, we will only get disappointment after disappointment. But he encourages people to maintain their faith in the possibility that the party can be fixed—a faith that might be difficult to maintain for those who saw the dirty tricks used to crush Sanders in his two presidential runs. 

But even if one might disagree with Bernie on questions of strategy, and whether it’s wise to try to work with Biden rather than fighting him head-on, there remains a great deal of value in Bernie’s clear communication of the issues we face and the solutions we need. It’s hard to disagree when he presents the bottom line:

“We have to determine whether we are going to use our intelligence and energy to create a nation and world in which all people thrive, or whether we maintain a rigged system in which the few benefit at the expense of the many.”

This is what I will always love about Sanders. I’ve learned a great deal from him about how to maintain focus on what’s important, and I think everyone should read this book to be reminded of what we should be talking about. (Right now, for instance, Congress is having a ludicrous debate about whether to flagrantly violate the First Amendment and ban TikTok.) Sanders states the obvious, but one thing I’ve realized after a few years in political media is that the obvious is never obvious to everyone, and so it needs constantly re-stating if it’s going to get across. The obvious is also easy to forget, so we need to hear it again and again in order to not have our attention drift away from the most consequential problems. Sanders consistently grabs us by the lapels, turns us away from trivialities, and shouts: Hey! Remember how people can’t afford an emergency medical expense? Remember how they’re working three jobs and can’t see their kids? Remember the climate crisis? What are we going to do about that, eh? It’s a necessary thing to do, and it’s a shame he’s one of the few people in politics doing it. (Marianne Williamson, who is running against Joe Biden, is focused on similar issues, and I respect her for it.)

I want everyone to pick up It’s OK to be Angry About Capitalism. You might be exasperated with Bernie’s friendly stance towards Biden, but he doesn’t hesitate to criticize the rest of the Democratic party elite, and to point out that it’s the Democrats’ failures to deliver on promises, and consistent betrayals of working people, that lead to the election of someone like Donald Trump. Sanders’ book is a great reminder of what we should be working on, and he’s an eternal optimist about the human capacity to improve our conditions. His book contains a clear set of plans (including a great plan for revitalizing journalism, which draws on the excellent work of media scholar Victor Pickard). He doesn’t just identify problems or prophesize doom. He believes the solutions are in our hands, and he encourages everyday people not to lose hope, and to fight the party establishment and make the changes they want to see. We are all lucky to have Bernie out there trying to keep us fired up, and providing a clear understanding of the forces of corporate greed and political corruption that we need to fight against. 

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