A Beginner’s Guide to Bernie Sanders
Back in June, I wrote ~4,000 words about this relative no-name of a Democratic presidential candidate named Bernie Sanders. In the months since, however, he’s become a breakout star of the election and is currently polling at 29% — just 16% behind presumed shoe-in Hillary Clinton.
But because Google News doesn’t like making people read a lot of words, the piece I wrote never got indexed in Google properly. So, in an effort to educate more of America about one of its main presidential candidates, here is the Google News Redux of “Bernie Sanders for the Well-Intentioned, Semi-Informed Layperson.”
On April 30th, Bernie Sanders declared that he was running for the Democratic nomination for president. As of this writing that is not saying much, as Hillary Clinton has a vise-like grip on the polls, but unlike other ‘who gives a shit?’ presidential candidates like Martin O’ Malley or that crazy lady who ran Hewlett-Packard, Bernie Sanders is actually a candidate worth knowing about, possibly even voting for.#
A Quick Bio on Bernie
Bernard “Bernie” Sanders was born in 1941, in Brooklyn, New York. His father was a Jewish immigrant from Poland, and Bernie recently admitted to the Associated Press that “a lack of money in [his] family was a very significant aspect of [his] growing up.” He graduated from James Madison High School in Brooklyn and spent a year studying psychology at Brooklyn College before transferring to the University of Chicago, where he graduated with a degree in political science.
While in Chicago, he became active in the Civil Rights Movement and was one of the thousands of students who traveled by bus to the nation’s capital to take part in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. After graduating, he spent several months on an Israeli kibbutz#, but eventually he moved to Vermont, working as a carpenter, filmmaker, writer, researcher, and other miscellaneous occupations.
His Political Career
Sanders’ political career didn’t start out too well. After joining the anti-war Liberty Union Party in 1971, he ran in and lost several elections, including failed runs for Senate in 1972 and 1974, and for Vermont Governor in 1972 and 1976. In 1981, however, he ran for mayor of Burlington and defeated the six-term Democratic incumbent by 10 votes in a four-way contest. Sanders went on to win three more terms over the next few years, defeating both Democratic and Republican candidates alike. In his final run for mayor in 1987, Sanders defeated a candidate endorsed by both major parties (which is pretty damn remarkable).
After a failed run for the House of Representatives in 1988, Sanders ran again in 1990 and won, becoming the first Independent elected in 40 years.# From then on, Bernie has consistently won his reelections by high margins (the closest he came to losing was in 1994 when he won by 3.3% with just 49.8% of the vote), and a 2011 poll conducted by Public Policy Polling found that Bernie was the third-most popular senator in the country.
While celebrated throughout Vermont as a people’s champion, Senator Bernie Sanders gained national fame when he gave a roughly 9-hour floor speech slamming a tax-cut extension for the wealthy — known colloquially as #Filibernie — that crashed the Senate video servers and quintupled his campaign fundraising that quarter.
His Political Beliefs
Warning: You may have more in common with the ‘extreme Independent’ Bernie Sanders than you think.
I think…the government has got to play a very important role in making sure that as a right of citizenship, all of our people have healthcare; that as a right, all of our kids, regardless of income, have quality childcare, are able to go to college without going deeply into debt; that it means we do not allow large corporations and moneyed interests to destroy our environment; that we create a government in which it is not dominated by big money interest. I mean, to me, it means democracy, frankly. That’s all it means.
– Bernie Sanders, Democracy Now, 2006
In 2010, Bernie Sanders delivered an 8½-hour speech against the Bush-era tax rates (see video above). It was an historic filibuster# against corporate greed and the decline of the middle class. The transcript of the speech was even published into a book called, well, The Speech: A Historic Filibuster on Corporate Greed and the Decline of Our Middle Class
We need real tax reform that makes the rich and profitable corporations begin to pay their fair share of taxes…It is scandalous that major profitable corporations like General Electric, Verizon, Citigroup and JP Morgan have, in a given recent year, paid nothing in federal income taxes. It is fiscally irresponsible that the U.S. Treasury loses about $100 billion a year because corporations and the rich stash their profits in the Cayman Islands, Bermuda and other tax havens.
– Bernie Sanders in an op-ed for Huffington Post
The “Global Warming Is Real” speech he gave to the Senate is the stuff of legend, and Bernie was one of Climate Hawks Vote’s top-rated senators on climate leadership. He is a huge proponent of investing in alternative fuels like solar, wind, and geothermal technologies, but he believes a carbon tax is the most pragmatic option currently available to curb fossil fuel use.
As a recent piece in TIME says, “He was a radical before it was cool.” While in college, Sanders led Chicago’s first civil rights sit-in, a protest to the University of Chicago’s housing segregation policy, and he’s railed against things like police brutality and voter suppression since before Twitter even existed.
Earlier in his campaign, Bernie Sanders was interrupted at an event by Black Lives Matter protestors, and it didn’t go great. However, after meeting with the group’s leaders (and doing some much-needed PR), Bernie seems to be back on course:
Sanders voted against the Defense of Marriage Act and has been an outspoken supporter of LGBT rights.
Raising The Minimum Wage:
He has said that our current economic system “is not only immoral, it’s not only wrong, it is unsustainable,” and he supports raising the current minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour.
I believe strongly that we can protect our people without undermining our constitutional rights and I worry very very much about the huge attacks on privacy that we have seen in recent years — both from the government and from the private sector. I worry that we are moving toward an Orwellian society and this is something I will oppose as vigorously as I can.
– Bernie Sanders during a Reddit AMA
Campaign Finance Reform:
One of Bernie’s lifelong pursuits has been his effort to remove money from politics, even going so far as to call for publicly funded elections. In yet another speech to yet another Senate panel, he perfectly lays out why Citizens United is the harbinger of end times:
We are well on our way to seeing our great country move toward an oligarchic form of government — where virtually all economic and political power rest with a handful of very wealthy families. This is a trend we must reverse… Today, the wealthiest 400 individuals own more wealth than the bottom half of America — 150 million people. Today, one family, the Walton family of Walmart fame, with $89 billion, own more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of America. One family owns more wealth than the bottom 40 percent.
*Fun fact: He wants to make Election Day a national holiday in hopes that people might actually vote if they don’t have to go to work.
Sanders made headlines recently for proposing that public universities in the United States be free of charge, with the money coming from “a very modest tax on the transference of large amounts of stock.” While the odds of this actually happening are slim to none — even though many European countries already do this — he has continued fighting the good fight to alleviate student debt.
Bernie has a surprisingly lax view on gun control, though this has a lot to do with the fact that his state of Vermont has high gun ownership rates. He did, controversially, vote against the Brady Bill, but it is worth noting that while some Slate writers are quick to call him a gun nut, there’s a reason the National Rifle Association (the NRA) gave him a D- in their 2013 report based on how voting records, public statements, and responses to a questionnaire lined up with the NRA’s own positions.
After yet another slew of mass shootings, gun control has become a big debate topic among the candidates. Sanders has been hammered for his voting record, but in the first Democratic debate, he defended his stance:
This was a large and complicated bill. There were provisions in it that I think make sense. For example, do I think that a gun show in the state of Vermont that sells legally a gun to somebody, and that somebody goes out and does something crazy, that that gun shop owner should be held responsible? I don’t. On the other hand, where you have manufacturers and where you have gun shops knowingly giving guns to criminals or aiding and abetting, of course we should take action.
Sanders said way back in 1998 that investment banks and commercial banks should be separate entities: “If they are too big to fail, they are too big to exist.”
War/The Middle East:
Bernie Sanders won the 2014 Col. Arthur T. Marix Congressional Leadership Award from the Military Officers Association of America for his leadership in support of veterans, and during a Reddit AMA he said:
I am strongly opposed to sending American combat troops into Iraq and Syria. At the end of the day, the war against ISIS will only be won when the Muslim countries in the area fully engage and defeat ISIS and other groups that are distorting what Islam is supposed to be about. The United States and other western countries should be supportive of the efforts of those governments, but cannot lead them.
Sanders is also one of the few candidates who gets to say he voted against the resolutions authorizing the use of force against Iraq in 1991 and 2002, and that he opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
As for the Palestine/Israel clusterfuck, Sanders was the first senator to decline to attend Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress a few months ago, saying it was inappropriate for Netanyahu to use the U.S. Congress for his own political purposes so close to the Israeli legislative election. However, he did join in passing a 2014 Senate resolution that supported “the State of Israel as it defends itself against unprovoked rocket attacks from the Hamas terrorist organization.”
Sanders has been a forceful critic of free trade, including the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement that would eliminate tariffs and other trade barriers between the U.S., Canada and Asian countries. He believes that trade agreements like this leads to outsourcing, which he believes has not only economic repercussions, but environmental- and human rights-related ones as well.
In January of this year, he published a report called Rebuilding the Disappearing Middle Class, which promoted a bit of what economists call ‘modern money theory’.# To quote Al Jazeera, “The report…included a novel way of thinking about the federal deficit: Although Sanders said debt reduction is a worthy goal, he put far greater emphasis on reducing what he called the ‘other deficits in our society,’ such as unemployment and income inequality.”
Essentially, we’d be evaluating our economic health based on more tangible areas like infrastructure and household income instead of the abstract, barely-comprehensible concepts like the federal deficit.
Speaking of infrastructure, Bernie wants to invest one trillion dollars in it. Not only would doing so create thousands of jobs, it would address our country’s ridiculous (and tragically unsexy) infrastructure problem that John Oliver told you about a few months ago:
Sanders is a staunch supporter of a universal health care system and has said, “If you are serious about real healthcare reform, the only way to go is single-payer.” This has proven pretty controversial, even though it’s the exact same thing that all Americans over the age of 64 have; we just call it Medicare.# However, that is only to avoid calling it what it really is: a form of socialism.
Okay, we’ve gone long enough without addressing the giant socialist elephant in the room…
Bernie Sanders, a registered Independent in the Senate, actually calls himself a democratic socialist. However, before you get your patriotic panties in a twist, let’s take a look at what the term ‘democratic socialist’ really means.
Essentially, at least when we’re talking about Bernie, the term is describing what is called the “Nordic model” of democratic socialism (think Sweden, Denmark, or Finland). As Wikipedia describes it, this model supports a welfare state — not the same welfare you’re thinking of — that emphasizes:
- a maximizing of labor force participation (i.e. making sure unemployment numbers are low)
- gender equality (i.e. making sure women get equal pay, aren’t discriminated against when it comes to job hiring/advancement, etc)
- egalitarian and extensive benefit levels
- a large magnitude of income redistribution (i.e. higher taxes on the wealthiest corporations and individuals)
- liberal use of expansionary fiscal policy
It also enhances individual autonomy, promotes social mobility, and ensures the universal provision of basic human rights.
Not as scary as you might have thought, huh?
In a well-titled essay called Why Socialism?, good old Albert Einstein points out that “the real purpose of socialism is precisely to overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development.” What he is saying is that we have evolved and advanced enough as a species that we shouldn’t have to poach from and fight with one another. We have effectively conquered the basic survival part of existence, so now we have to move on to the next phase: establishing a harmonious homeostasis.
In Vermont, people understand exactly what I mean by the word. They don’t believe that democratic socialism is akin to North Korea communism. They understand that when I talk about democratic socialism, what I’m saying is that I do not want to see the United States significantly dominated by a handful of billionaire families controlling the economic and political life of the country. That I do believe that in a democratic, civilized society, all people are entitled to health care as a right, all people are entitled to quality education as a right, all people are entitled to decent jobs and a decent income, and that we need a government which represents ordinary Americans and not just the wealthy and the powerful.
As Matt Taibbi once wrote for Rolling Stone, “For all the fuss over his ‘socialist’ tag, Sanders is really a classic populist outsider.”
His Campaign for President
I know we just talked at length about how Bernie is a registered Independent and a democratic socialist, but he will be running for the Democratic nomination. While it may seem like a strange move, Sanders is the first to admit that given the nature of our political system, it’s just easier to get on the ballot, get into the debates, and get the media’s attention if one is part of the two-party system. Considering he’s polling at around 15% in early states compared to Hillary’s 60%, he needs all the help he can get.
However, he does have a few things going for him…
He Should Get The ‘Elizabeth Warren Supporter’ Vote:
Warren is the candidate every short-sighted liberal wishes would run#, but without her on the ballot, her supporters may very well turn to Bernie without ever giving Hillary a second thought. Warren and Sanders share very similar views when it comes to reform theory, and last month Elizabeth Warren went on record saying, “I’m glad to see him get out there and give his version of what leadership in this country should be. I think that Bernie Sanders is going to play out a vision for America and that it is important for people to hear what he has to say.”
He’s Not Taking Any Money from Super PACs:
Unlike any other presidential candidate, Sanders has declared he will not receive funding through a Super PAC*, instead relying on small-dollar individual donations.
*To remind you what a Super PAC is, it’s a “committee” that can raise funds from not just individuals, but corporations (because they’re people too, thanks to Citizens United), unions, and other groups without any legal limit on donation size. They can then spend that money any way they’d like, as long as the campaign they are helping isn’t directly involved. It is essentially the mechanism that allows elections to be bought.
While this seems like a dumb idea if you’re trying to raise as much money as possible, it’s pretty congruous with the belief that big money should be kept out of politics.
Fortunately for Bernie, that kind of authenticity has resonated with the public: Sanders’ presidential campaign raised $1.5 million within 24 hours of his official announcement. After four days, Sanders campaign had raised $3 million from small donors, with an average of $43 per donation.
He’s In Touch with the Common American:
Bernie is one of the most beloved politicians in the Senate because he is known as being an approachable, hands-on politician. There’s a joke that there’s no one in Vermont whose hand he hasn’t shaken, and as he said during a recent Reddit AMA, he’s been a part of hundreds of town meetings, something he urges all citizens to participate in.
He’s A Hit On Social Media:
Bernie Sanders loves him some social media, and he posts kind of the way you’d expect someone his age to post (i.e. with zero understanding of ‘best practices’). Nevertheless, he’s become an unexpected celebrity of the internet. Using what the New York Times called “the 8-year-old approach”, Sanders’ was able to transcend the political static, and as that same NYT article points out, random earnestness beats user-tested bullshit any day.
*Fun fact: Nearly a quarter of the top most-voted politics posts of all time on Reddit are about or by Mr. Sanders.
However, while all this is fine and dandy, Bernie has a steep mountain to climb if he’s going to pull this off. On the other side of the ring, wearing the royal blue power suit and boasting a glowing political service record, is one of the most formidable political opponents he’s ever faced…
Bernie v. Hillary:
Right now, the only way to the Democratic nomination is through Hill-Dawg, a career politician who has a recognizable name, a shitload of money, and, it’s worth mentioning, the chance to be the first woman President in US history. However, she also happens to be a hawkish# centrist with deep ties to Wall Street who, fairly or unfairly, has to constantly show Americans that she is not some cold, calculating shrew.
If you want to read a lot of words about this topic, of course there’s a Vox article for that, but what you really need to know is that they differ on how they would deal with Wall Street/the wealthy in general, how they would deal with the Middle East, and how they would deal with the federal budget.
However, in an interesting break from the norm, Bernie has refused to make disparaging comments about Clinton. He insists he will not run any attack ads, and has pleaded with the media to make this a campaign based on the issues instead of political drama and gossip: “I ask the media’s help on this: allow us to discuss the important issues facing the American people, and let’s not get hung up on political gossip. Let’s be clear, to say that people disagree on issues and point out those issues, that’s what a debate is about.”
Ya know, issues like how the list of Hillary Clinton’s major donors are composed of a lot of companies that you probably don’t like — Time Warner cable and Goldman Sachs, for example — while Sanders’ major donors are mostly unions…
How He Can Pull Off An Upset:
Bernie Sanders isn’t necessarily a longshot because of the things he believes in. He’s a longshot because he doesn’t play politics the way you have to in order to succeed under our current (broken) system, and he is a longshot because we’re experiencing an epidemic of political apathy in this country.
In order for Bernie to win this thing, he just needs people to pay attention and give a shit:
The answer is that everything depends upon the kind of strong grassroots movement that we can develop. If we do not have tens of millions of people actively involved in the political process, there is very little that any president can do because of the power of big money over the political and economic process.
So what I have said time and time again is that we need a political revolution in this country, which means that 80 percent of the people vote, not 40 percent, and which means that people demand that Congress represent the middle class and working families of this country and not just the billionaire class.
– Bernie during a Reddit AMA
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