Jan 20, 2004
How do we build a political movement in this country that represents all of the people and not a handful of millionaires?
The middle class is collapsing, the people on top are making out like bandits, and the poorest people are struggling just to keep their heads above water.
Today, the concentration of wealth and income in this country is not only greater than at any time since the 1920s, but it is far greater than in any other major country on Earth.
It is not acceptable that the wealthiest 1 percent of the population owns more wealth than the bottom 95 percent.
That's not America.
It is not acceptable that the 13,000 wealthiest families in this country earn more income than the bottom twenty million families.
It is not acceptable that the greed of corporate America has resulted in the CEOs of large corporations earning over 500 times what their average worker makes.
That's not America, and we're going to change that.
Today, the largest employer in America is not General Motors. It is Wal-Mart, which pays people subsistence wages and minimal benefits. It is now being sued by workers in twenty-eight states because the company is not even paying the overtime it should be paying.
But it's not just Wal-Mart. It is the transformation of the American economy that Congress is not talking about, that the President certainly is not talking about, and that the media is not talking about.
In the last three years alone, we have lost over two-and-a-half-million manufacturing jobs that were paying people decent middle class wages. And when you talk about patriotism, and when you talk about the American flag, what is corporate America doing by throwing American workers out on the street, moving to China, moving to countries where people can't even form a union or stand up for their rights? Let's talk about patriotism. Let's talk about investing in America and expanding the middle class.
Corporate America essentially is saying the hell with the American worker, the hell with the United States of America. We will do anything we want in order to make more and more profits.
And my friends, it is not only manufacturing jobs that are going abroad. If some of you say, "Well, I went to college, man, I know how to work that computer. I have a good job," think twice. They're after your jobs, as well. If there's a computer or a telephone job, it could be done any place in the world at a fraction of the wages that are paid in America. And that's where corporate America is moving.
We want the people in China, in India, all over the world, to do well, but we want a globalization that does not lead to a race to the bottom but uplifts all of the people of the world.
Now when we talk about what's happening in the middle class today, hear this. A hundred years ago, workers all over this country held huge demonstrations, and they had big banners that said, "Give us a forty-hour week. We're not animals. We're not beasts of burden. We want to spend time with our families. We want to get more education. We want some vacation time."
Now how many of you know that today the American worker is working longer hours by far than the people in any other industrialized country? Today, 40 percent of American workers are working fifty hours a week or more. That's the collapse of the middle class, and we have got to turn that around.
The scandal of our time is that with all the explosion of technology and productivity the average American is not working fewer hours and making more money. We are not down to a thirty-hour week. The middle class is not expanding, and poverty has not been eliminated. On the contrary, it has increased.
Because of the greed of corporate America, real wages in the private sector are 8 percent less than they were thirty years ago. And where has all of that accumulated wealth gone? It has gone to the people on top, who have seen a huge increase in the percentage of wealth and income they receive.
Let me say a word about those people. And it's important that we talk about that because you're not going to read about it in most newspapers or see it on television.
It is very clear that these people have put their own greed ahead of the middle class and working families of this country. What they are now doing is living in guarded compounds. They don't have to get on the airlines like you do. They fly in their Lear jets. They don't get on crowded mass transit to get to work. They don't have to worry about how their kids are going to go to college or high school because they have the money to send their kids to the best private schools in America; they have enough money to buy their way to get their kids into any college in America. That's how they live--separate and segregated from what's going on in this country. And our job is to tell them that if they don't come back to America, then the hell with them. We'll go forward without them.
If the President of the United States were here today--and believe me, I wish he were here today, I wish he would come out and talk to ordinary Americans--he would tell you his greatest accomplishment is the tax breaks that he has given America. What he won't tell you is that 40 percent of those tax breaks went to the richest 1 percent, the people who need it the least, and that millions and millions of Americans who really need those tax breaks are getting nothing or only a few dollars. What he will also not tell you is what's really behind those tax breaks.
The President of the United States represents, and works very hard for, the very wealthiest people in this country. And, just coincidentally, he is on his way to raising $200 million from these very same people for his primary campaign--and he doesn't even have an opponent. So it doesn't surprise us that when he gives out tax breaks, they mostly go to the rich and the heads of large corporations. That we can understand. It's grotesque, but that's politics. More money is flying into Congress in campaign contributions than you can believe. You've got to duck so you don't get hit by the money.
What is even more cynical about these tax breaks is that here you have a conservative President and a conservative party, which for years have been ranting and raving about how terrible deficits are. But now they are giving us the largest deficit in American history. Why are they driving up a huge national debt that our kids and grandchildren are going to have to pay off? I'll tell you why they are doing that. They are doing that so that they'll come back before the American people and say, "We cannot afford to maintain Social Security; privatize it. We can't afford to protect Medicare and Medicaid; privatize it. We can't afford to protect the Veterans Administration; privatize it." That is their cynical plan: to destroy the basic rights that millions of people have fought for and received, and to bring us back to the nineteenth century, where the American people had no rights, where the elderly were the poorest people in our society, where children slept out on the streets without nutrition programs, where workers were unable to form unions, where there were no health care programs for the elderly. That is what they are trying to do, and we are not going to allow them to get away with it.
Our struggle, the struggle of millions of people for 150 years, has been for basic human dignity. It has been a struggle to create a country that belongs to all of us and not just the people on top, and that is our struggle of today.
Sometimes progressives say, well, you know, we're right, but we're really kind of fringe. Our views are not reflective of a vast majority of the people. After all, Bush, well, was almost elected, and there is rightwing control of the House of Representatives, led by a gentleman named Tom DeLay. There is rightwing control of the United States Senate. Very few people in the media reflect our point of view. So they must be representing the majority of the people, and we're just a smart minority of the people.
I want you to disabuse yourselves of that notion. You represent mainstream America. We are the majority.
Go out on Main Street, stand at the corner, and ask people a simple question. Tell them you're doing an informal poll, and ask them if they want 40 percent of the tax breaks, hundreds of billions of dollars, to go to the top 1 percent, or whether those breaks should be spread around more fairly and be used for education or lowering the deficit. Then tell me who is "fringe." Ask them if we should maintain our disintegrating health care nonsystem or establish a universal health care system that guarantees health care for all. Then tell me who is "fringe." Ask them if we should continue to let polluters destroy our environment, or move to safe, sustainable energy. Then tell me who is "fringe."
So how do the rightwingers get elected if they have nothing to say about the most important issues facing the American people? That is the central question of modern American politics. And the answer is that they work day and night to divide the American people against each other so that they end up voting against their own best interests. That is what the Republican Party is all about.
They tell white workers their jobs are being lost not because corporate America is downsizing and moving to China, but because black workers are taking their jobs--because of affirmative action. White against black.
If you turn on talk radio, what you will hear, in an almost compulsive way, is a hatred of women. And they're telling working class guys, you used to have some power. You used to be the breadwinner. But now there are women running companies, women in politics, women making more money than you. Men against women.
And they're turning straight people against gay people. The homosexuals are taking over the schools! Gay marriage is destroying the country! Straights against gays.
And if you're not for a war in Iraq waged on the dubious and illegal doctrine of "preemptive war," you're somehow unpatriotic. And those of us who were born in America are supposed to hate immigrants. And those of us who practice religion in one way, or believe in the separation of church and state, are supposed to be anti-religious, and trying to destroy Christianity in America--and we get divided up on that. And on and on it goes.
The Republican leadership does all of this in an incredibly cynical, poll-driven way, because they know when you lay out their program about the most important economic issues facing America, it ends up that they are representing the interests of 2 percent of the population. You can't win an election with the support of 2 percent. So they divide us, and the result is that tens of millions of working people vote against their own interests.
We know, that come election time, they will have huge sums of money that we will never come near to having. But we also know something else: that we are the vast majority of the people. We are the middle class and working families, and there are a hell of a lot more of us than there are of them.
To be effective politically, we cannot talk only to people who agree with us. That's easy. The hard part is going out and talking to people in the working and middle classes who don't yet agree with us. And we have to understand that on some issues there will be differences of opinion. But if we focus on the basic economic issues--and we explain to people that when they cast their votes solely on issues like abortion, or gay rights, or any other single issue, the rich and the powerful are laughing all the way to the bank--we will be successful in bringing people together and winning elections.
Now what are some of the issues? Let me just list a few.
The middle class is collapsing, and we need a fundamental alternative to trickle down economics and unfettered free trade.
We've got to raise the minimum wage to a living wage.
We've got to renegotiate our disastrous trade policies that have cost us millions of decent paying jobs.
We've got to change labor law so that workers can join unions when they want to.
We've got to protect the overtime pay that workers have earned.
We've got to put people to work building affordable housing, schools, mass transportation, and a sustainable energy system.
Our health care system is disintegrating, and we pay the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs. Without spending a nickel more than we now spend, we can guarantee health care to all Americans through a single-payer national health care system. By standing up to the pharmaceutical industry, we can lower the cost of prescription drugs by 30 to 50 percent, and develop a strong prescription drug benefit under Medicare.
Our national priorities are backwards. Instead of giving huge tax breaks to the rich and large corporations, we should provide for the middle class and working families of this country. Higher education and child care should be available to all Americans--regardless of income. Our veterans should not be placed on waiting lists for the health care they were promised. The national disgrace of the United States having the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world must be eliminated. We must expand and protect Social Security, not privatize it.
Environmental degradation is threatening the wellbeing of our planet. We must move to sustainable and nonpolluting forms of energy as well as energy conservation. Think about how many decent-paying jobs we can create as we move this economy off of fossil fuel.
We must work for world peace, and not U.S. imperial power. The United States must work with the United Nations and the international community to stabilize Iraq so that the Iraqi people can control their future. We must bring U.S. troops home as soon as feasible.
Today, we are honoring Bob La Follette. We're remembering one of your other great members of Congress, Victor Berger. We remember your fellow Midwesterner Eugene Debs. And we remember all of those people throughout history, some of them whose names we don't know, people who struggled for workers' rights, for public education, against racism, sexism, homophobia. Some of them died in their struggle. Many of them suffered. What they had in common was a vision they fought for, and we're very grateful that they passed that vision on to us.
And that vision is not the vision of George Bush, which basically says it's every person for himself or herself, that we don't have to worry about the children, we don't have to worry about the poor, we don't have to worry about the old, we don't have to worry about working people. We're all going to go out and get it for ourselves, to hell with the environment, to hell with future generations, to hell with anybody else. That's Bush's vision.
The vision that La Follette and others have given us is something that we appreciate very much because it makes us all better human beings. In this great country, we can create an economy that provides for a decent standard of living for every man, woman, and child. We can have social justice and end discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual orientation. We can move toward harmony with the environment, not a war against the environment.
We are part of an American community and a world community. And we are not going to be going to war whenever the President of the United States says it's a good idea. We're going to work with the international community, with the United Nations, to create a world where we eliminate war and eliminate poverty.
But to do this, we have to understand that politics is not just an anti-war demonstration. It's not just coming out on a given day to express concerns about the environment, or racism, or whatever the single issue may be. Politics is a 365-day-a-year struggle. We have to have the courage to knock on doors even if some people may disagree with us. We've got to get on the telephone and start making calls. We have to be in touch with our local radio and television stations and the local newspaper. And when we do that, there is no doubt in my mind that not only will we win the next election, but we will create an America that Bob La Follette would be very proud of.
This is adapted from a speech Bernie Sanders gave at "Fighting Bob Fest" in Baraboo, Wisconsin, on September 6, 2003. The festival is named after Senator Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette, one of the leaders of the progressive movement and the founder of this magazine.
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