It feels like a bomb went off in Washington. In less than a year, the leaders of both major parties have been crushed, fundamentally reshaping a political culture that for generations had seemed unalterable. The new order has belligerent outsider Donald Trump heading to the White House, ostensibly backed in Congress by a tamed and repentant majority of establishment Republicans. Hillary Clinton’s devastating loss, meanwhile, has left the minority Democrats in disarray. A pitched battle for the soul of the opposition party has already been enjoined behind the scenes.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who won overwhelming youth support and 13 million votes during primary season, now sits on one side of that battle, in a position of enormous influence. The party has named him “outreach chair,” and Minnesota congressman and Sanders political ally Keith Ellison is the favorite to be named head of the Democratic National Committee. This is a huge change from earlier this year, when the Sanders campaign was completely on the outs with the DNC, but many see Sanders’ brand of politics as the Democrats’ best shot at returning to prominence.
Sanders’ rise is a remarkable story, obscured by the catastrophe of Trump’s win. When I first visited with Sanders for Rolling Stone, 11 years ago, for a tour of the ins and outs of congressional procedure, he was a little-known Independent in the House from a tiny agrarian state, an eccentric toiler pushing arcane and unsexy amendments through Congress, usually on behalf of the working poor: expanded access to heating oil in the winter, more regional community health centers, prohibitions against regressive “cash-balance pension plans,” etc.
His colleagues gently described Sanders as a hardworking quack, the root of his quackery apparently being that he was too earnest and never off-message, even in private. He had fans among Republicans (some called him an “honest liberal”) and many detractors among Democrats, who often grew weary of his lectures about the perils of over-reliance on donations from big business and Wall Street.
In other words, Sanders was a political loner, making his recent journey to the top of the Democratic Party even more remarkable. He has been put in this position not by internal patronage but by voters who are using him to demand that Democrats change their priorities.
At his Washington office a week after the election, I sat down with Sanders and his wife, Jane, just after the release of his new book, Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In. When he offered to get me a copy, I told him I’d already read the e-book, at which he frowned. “Does that have the pictures?” he asked. He was relieved when I told him it did, including black-and-whites from his youth in Brooklyn.
Sanders’ experiences growing up in the hardscrabble Flatbush neighborhood still seem central to the way he looks at the world. All the adults in his neighborhood voted Democratic. The loss of the support of those kinds of people still eats at Sanders, like a childhood wrong not yet corrected. Thus the opportunity he has now to push the Democrats back in that direction is something he doesn’t take lightly. He’s spent his whole life getting to this point.
The senator and his staffers were obviously sorting through a variety of emotions, and it was hard not to wonder what might have been. But Sanders admonished himself once or twice not to look back. “It’s not worth speculating about,” he said.
Instead, Sanders laid out the dilemma facing the Democratic Party. The Democrats must find their way back to a connection with ordinary people, and this will require a complete change in the way they do business. He’s convinced that the huge expenditure of time and mental effort the Democrats put in to raise more than $1 billion for the Clinton campaign in the past year ended up having enormous invisible costs. “Our future is not raising money from wealthy people, but mobilizing millions of working people and young people and people of color,” he says.
On other issues, he was more careful. The senator’s sweet spot as a politician has always been talking about the problems of the working poor: the economic struggles, the anomalous-across-the-industrialized-world story of a decline in life expectancy among rural Americans. But those same voters just lost any sympathy many Democrats might have had by electing the race-baiting lunatic Trump. Exactly how much courting of such a population is permissible? Is trying to recapture voters who’ve made a racist choice in itself racist?
Sanders believes it is a mistake to dismiss the Trump movement as a monolithic expression of racism and xenophobia. Trump’s populist appeals, sincere or not, carried the day, and Democrats need to answer them. Trump pledged not to cut Medicare or Social Security, promised to support re-importation of prescription drugs from other countries, and said he’d reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act. Sanders insists he and his staff are going to try to hold him to all of these promises. How they’ll manage that is only a guess, but as ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, Sanders could easily force the Republicans into votes on all of these issues by introducing amendments during the budget resolution process, which begins in January. “Were those 100 percent lies that [Trump] was telling people in order to gain support?” he asks. “We’ll find out soon enough.”
Sanders seems anxious to communicate a sense of urgency to young people. No more being content with think-tank-generated 14-point plans that become 87-point plans in bipartisan negotiation, and end up scheduled to take effect in 2040. People want change right now. To survive Trump and turn the tide, Sanders says, he needs help. “You don’t have to run for president,” he says. “Just get people involved.”
After the election, you called the anger Trump connected with “justified.” When did you first recognize that sense of discontent and alienation was big enough to have the impact it did this past year?
I’ve seen it for years. I’ve seen a media, which has basically ignored the declining middle class, that doesn’t talk about poverty at all, and has no sense of what is going on in the minds of millions of ordinary Americans. They live in a bubble, talk about their world, worry about who’s going to be running 18 years from now for office. Meanwhile, people can’t feed their kids. That’s something I knew.
Talking about those issues, seeing that they resonated, that did not surprise me. How quickly they resonated did surprise me. How weak the Democratic establishment was, and how removed they were from the needs of ordinary people, that also surprised me.
President Obama talked after the election about winning Iowa by going into counties even if the demographics didn’t “dictate” success there. This seemed to be a criticism that the party had decided to ignore big parts of the country.
I talked about that in the book. That’s exactly what we did. We had 101 rallies in that small state. That’s grassroots democracy. You speak to three-quarters of the people who end up voting for you. In New Hampshire, we had just a zillion meetings – far more people came out to our meetings. If you had the time to do that around the country, the world becomes different. The assessment has got to be that not only did we lose the White House to the least-popular candidate in perhaps the history of America, certainly in modern history, but we’ve lost the Senate, we’ve lost the House, we’ve lost two-thirds of the governors’ chairs in this country. We’ve lost 900 seats in state legislatures throughout the country in the last eight years. Maybe it might be time to reassess?
Is there any way to read that except as a massive repudiation of Democrats?
No. I can’t see how any objective person can. It speaks to what I just mentioned; we cannot spend our entire life – I didn’t, but others do – raising money from wealthy people, listening to their needs. We’ve got to be out in union halls, we’ve got to be out in veterans’ halls, and we’ve got to be talking to working people, and we’ve got to stand up and fight for them.
This is how screwed up we are now. When you have a Republican Party that wants to give huge tax breaks to billionaires, when many of their members want to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, when they don’t believe in climate change, when they’ve been fierce advocates of unfettered free trade – I’m talking about pre-Trump – why would any working person, when they want to cut programs for working people, support them?
I think we know the answer. We know what the Karl Roves of the world have been successful in doing. They’re playing off working-class people against the gay community, or African-Americans, or Latinos. But that only works when you have not laid the foundation by making it clear to those workers that you are on their side on economic issues.
Look, you may not be pro-choice. But if you know that your congressman is fighting for you and delivering the goods in terms of education, health care and jobs, what you’ll say is, “I disagree with him on that, but I’m going to vote for him.” We’ve seen this in Vermont. We have seen the conservative parts of the state where there are many people who have disagreed with me. But they vote for me, because they know I’m fighting for their rights.
In your book, there are a lot of moments where you say things like, “Look at products like the iPhone. These are American inventions, but they’re not made in America anymore.” Some people will say, “This is nationalism. Why shouldn’t liberal-minded people care about raising the standard of living for poor people in China, in India?”
I heard them. We ran into that big-time from corporate liberals. Two things here. I would say there are very few people in the United States Congress who have a more progressive outlook than I do in terms of global politics and international politics. I am deeply concerned about poverty in countries around the world, and I believe that the United States and other major countries have got to work to address those issues. But you do not have to sacrifice the American middle class in order to do that. I find it ironic that the billionaire class says, “We’re worried about the poor people in Vietnam, and that’s why we’re sending your job to Vietnam.” That’s the billionaire class talking.
Clearly we know what that is about. And you have some “liberals” who echo that point of view. I would like to see the United States government and the rest of the industrialized world work harder, with sensible policy to improve the standard of living, to help people create jobs, and sustainable jobs, not wipe out agricultural sectors. In Mexico, for example, NAFTA devastated, as you know, family farms when people could not grow corn to compete with American corn manufacturers.
How you create a sustainable global economy that protects the poorest people in the world is a very important issue for me. But you surely do not have to do that by wiping out the middle class of this country. I think we have a right in this country to hold corporate America accountable for gaining the benefits of being an American corporation, while at the same time turning their backs on the American working class and the consumers who helped create their profits and their wealth.
What about the criticism you got a lot last year, including from former President Clinton, that this idea that we can do anything about these globalist trends is unrealistic, that all we can do is “harness the energy” of the change?
Donald Trump has rewritten the rules of politics. Let’s give the guy credit where credit is due. No one thought . . . he started off as a joke, right?
He took on the leadership of the Republican Party, absolutely took on, obviously, the Democratic Party, took on the corporate media, took on everybody, and he became the president of the United States. I think if there’s a lesson to be learned from Trump’s success, it is that timidity is no longer the path to success. The Democrats have got to start thinking big. During my campaign, that was one of our slogans: Think big, not small.
We have got to get the American people to understand that as citizens in a democratic society, they have rights. They have a right to make sure that their little children have decent care, and that their older kids can go to college. They have a right to breathe clean air, and to make sure that the planet we’re leaving our kids is going to be a healthy planet.
They have a right to do that, and the only way you do that is to think big, not small. But implicit in that, thinking big, is [recognizing] that the brakes on all of this, the things that are holding us back, are the power of corporate America and Wall Street, the insurance companies and so on. If you’re not prepared to challenge them, then you can’t think big.
This is the word that I will use over and over and over again: economic and political oligarchy. It’s where we’re headed rapidly if we do not have a political revolution in this country.
You write, “You cannot take on the establishment when you take their money.” Is the Democratic Party going to have to eschew those funding sources?
Two things. First, from a political point of view, Citizens United has been an unmitigated disaster in terms of undermining American democracy, and what we have to understand is that Mitch McConnell and the Koch brothers think Citizens United did not go far enough. Their view is that right now, if you’re a billionaire, the only thing you can do is spend as much as you want into independent expenditures. They don’t want that. They want you to be able to say, “OK, you’re our guy, you’re going to run for president, here’s your check for a billion dollars, there’s your speechwriter and consultant. You work for us.” We are moving, if Mitch McConnell and the Koch brothers get their way, to a place where presidents and senators and congresspeople will be paid employees of the billionaire class, because they will literally give them a check to run their campaign.
That is just a huge problem. How do you address that problem? We fight it as hard as we can, and one of the things that I applauded Clinton about, we were in agreement, was that she was not going to appoint anybody to the Supreme Court who would not vote to overturn Citizens United, and she’s right. But given the fact that we have Mr. Trump in power, how you deal with that issue is very, very tough.
The issue that you’re raising is, how do you raise the money that you need in order to deal with the unlimited sums of money that your opponents will have? At the end of the day, I think for a variety of reasons, the way to do it is to primarily rely on small donors as we did, because if you contribute $27 to me, it’s not just that 27 bucks – you are now part of our movement, in a sense. You have committed, and you’re going to do other things as well.
I have to ask: Would you have won?
The answer I would give is “Who knows?” The argument is that polls before had me ahead of him. More recent polls have me ahead of him, too, but people who disagree with that analysis would say, “Oh, yeah, that’s before three months with hundreds of millions of dollars in [negative] advertising. That might have had some impact on the race.”
So the answer is, nobody knows. I think it is fair to say that in many of the states where I competed we did very, very well among working-class people, and we did well among young people. That was the level of enthusiasm that was very, very hot. But I’m not going to look back.
In a weird way, does the collapse of belief in traditional legacy media, and the absolute rage a lot of people feel toward us reporters, maybe facilitate change, since people are more open to alternative ideas?
The corporate media, if you read the last chapter of the book, they don’t see it as their job to educate the American people. I just came from the Christian Science Monitor Breakfast, and more than one question – they’re literally worried today, before Trump is even inaugurated, who is going to be running in 2020. Literally!
Because those are easy things. It’s a little bit harder to write about why the middle class is collapsing, the threat that climate change poses for the planet, and all the other important issues. They’re not going to do it. It’s not their job. CNN had a great campaign, right?
And CBS, according to Les Moonves.
They got great ratings. Thank you, Donald Trump. The American people hear virtually nothing about climate change, income and wealth inequality, why we’re the only major country not to have health care. That’s not what their thing is, so they’re not going to do it. We have got to do it. We’ve got to be smart about it, and the Internet will play a very important role in that.
Was Trump’s campaign really a genuine revolt against the system? Or will it turn out in the end to be exactly the opposite?
We will see. The answer is, I don’t know. This man is totally unpredictable. The people surrounding him are trying to get him to be more predictable.
One of the reasons for Trump’s success is that he campaigned on his understanding that millions of working people are in pain, are hurting, and that he, Donald Trump, is prepared to take on the Establishment.
Now, to what degree those were just totally, absolutely hollow lies remains to be seen, but if you look at the things he said, this guy talked about ending our disastrous trade policies, something I’ve been fighting for 30 years. He talked about taking on the drug companies, taking on Wall Street, taking on the overall political establishment – “draining the swamp.” We will see to what degree there was any honesty in what he was saying, whether there was any sincerity in what he was saying.
I think what has to be recognized is there are millions of working people in this country who are in an enormous amount of pain and despair. These are 60-year-old workers, today, half of whom have nothing in the bank as they are approaching retirement. You’re 60 years old and you’ve got nothing in the bank? You’re going to live on $13,000 a year of Social Security? This is what you have to look forward to?
Trump voters in Wisconsin lectured me at one event: “Did you see that 65-year-old guy working at McDonald’s up the road? What the hell kind of America is this?”
They’re absolutely right! The thing is, it’s not just the weakness of the Democratic Party and their dependency on the upper middle class, the wealthy, and living in a bubble. It is a media where people turn on the television, they do not see a reflection of their lives. When they do, it is a caricature. Some idiot. Or maybe some criminal, some white working-class guy who has just stabbed three people. Or some lunatic.
Then Trump comes along and says, “I don’t believe the media. The media are all goddamned liars anyhow.” He distorts, and the problem is he lies all the time. Media occasionally does its job and catches him lying. But people say, “Yeah, he’s right. I watch the media. I don’t believe the media.”
Wasn’t that theme of anger toward the intellectual class huge in this campaign?
What I would say to people who are feeling, as I am, frightened and unhappy about this situation: Do not believe that the vast majority of the people who voted for Trump are racist, sexist or homophobes. I don’t believe that. Some are. I don’t believe they all are. They have turned to Trump out of desperation and pain because the Democratic Party has not even acknowledged their reality, let alone addressed it.
You talked about giving Trump a chance to earn your support. What did you mean?
There are areas where people like me could work with him: rebuilding the infrastructure, lowering the cost of prescription drugs, re-establishing Glass-Steagall, raising the minimum wage. Those are ideas that we can work on. Now, was he being totally hypocritical and just saying whatever came to his mind that he thought could attract votes? Or does he believe that?
Where there will not be any compromise is in the areas of racism or sexism or xenophobia or Islamophobia. This country has struggled for too many centuries to try to become a less discriminatory society. We’ve made progress that we should be proud of, and we’re not going back to an era of racism and sexism and discrimination. On that there will not be any compromise. But you’re really asking, are there areas that we can perhaps work together? If he remains consistent with what he said on the campaign trail, we’ll see.
With Trump, was there a moment during the past year when you went from thinking “This is a joke” to “This is real!” Or did you realize right away that it was serious?
I didn’t realize right away. I didn’t know much about him. What I believed and he believed is that the central part of your campaign should be rallies. Why is that? Because it’s not only the ability to communicate with large numbers of people and get media attention as a result of that, but when 20,000 people sit in an arena or stadium and they look around and they say, “We’re all on the same team together,” that creates a kind of energy.
He understood that. When I started seeing him bring these large turnouts of working-class people, I knew that that was real, you know? What politics passes for now is somebody goes on Meet the Press and they do well: “Oh, this guy is brilliant, wonderful.” No one cares about Meet the Press. But that you can go out and bring out many, many thousands of people who are supporting your campaign – that is real stuff. When I began to see that, I said, “This guy is a real candidate.” Who could do it? Jeb Bush couldn’t do that. Marco Rubio couldn’t do it. [Trump] was clearly striking a nerve and a chord that other candidates weren’t.
So did you, though.
That is absolutely right. Surely did.
In your book, there is clearly a longing to recapture lost Democratic voters. How do you do that?
What I’d say to readers of Rolling Stone is: We have to understand that Trump, in a sense, revolutionized politics, and we have to respond to that. What does that mean? You start with 46 percent of the American people not even voting in this election. Of the 54 percent who do vote, how many are really engaged in politics, or just voting once every two years or four years? How many people really go to meetings? How many are involved in unions? Are involved in environmental works? Or anti-racism? Or anti-poverty work?
I think you’re talking about, certainly, far less than five percent. A good chunk of those could be right-wing people, so you’re down to maybe one or two percent of people in this country who are actively involved in progressive movements and ideas. If we can bring the number up to six or seven percent, you can transform America. Irrespective of Trump. Irrespective of Republicans.