It started with one simple question posed by Senator Bernie Sanders to his constituents in an invitation to a town meeting: What does the decline of the middle class mean to you personally?
Over 700 people replied.
A second question was asked in his e-newsletter, The Bernie Buzz: Do you have a story to tell about how gas prices are affecting you?
Over 1200 responses.
"The volume of responses was stunning," Sanders told me. "Most people in my state -- especially in rural areas -- do not feel comfortable telling people about their struggles. 'He has it worse than I do, I'll be fine. Thanks for asking.' It's just not a natural thing [to share these struggles].... The other point that has to be underlined -- this is not an interview at the homeless shelter. These are letters from working families, from middle class families... [and] people who've worked their whole lives who expected to have a minimal degree of economic security but are now finding themselves with nothing."
Here are some excerpts from the letters:
A mother and father in rural Vermont: "Due to increasing fuel prices we have at times had to choose between baby food/diapers and heating fuel. We've run out of heating fuel three times.... The baby has ended up in the hospital with pneumonia two of the times."
A man in north central Vermont: "As bad as our situation is, I know many in worse shape. We try to donate food when we do our weekly shopping but now we are not able to even afford to help our neighbors eat. What has this country come to?"
A mother: "By February we ran out of wood [for the wood stove we use for heat] and I burned my mother's dining furniture. I have no oil for hot water.... We are certainly a country in distress."
A 55 year old man: "I have worked since age 16. I don't live paycheck to paycheck, I live day to day.... I can see myself working until the day I die.... I work 12 to 14 hours daily and it just doesn't help.... I am just tired, the harder that I work, the harder it gets."
A man in a small town: "I have what I used to consider a decent job, I work hard, pinch my pennies, but the pennies have all but dried up.... I began selling off my woodworking tools, snowblower (pennies on the dollar), and furniture that had been handed down in my family from the early 1800s, just to keep the heat on. Today I am sad, broken, and very discouraged."
A woman from Northeast Kingdom: "I have always been a big pusher of 'if you can do something to change your situation, do it'.... [But] it seems like every time [my husband and I] do the right thing and try to move ahead for our family, something out of our control happens in order to slap us back down.... We now find ourselves unsure if we will be able to pay for both the mortgage and our oil next winter."
A working mother of two: "I spend around $150 per week at the grocery store and trust me when I say I don't buy prime rib.... Some nights we eat cereal and toast for dinner because that's all I have. My family has had to cancel our annual trip to the zoo, and we make less trips to see our families in another town due to the increase of gas."
A 71 year old man: "I have been retired since 2000. With the price of fuel oil I have been forced to go back to work just to heat my home and pay my property taxes."
A teacher: "The middle class is no longer the middle class.... I've slipped into the lower class after a winter of double heating costs and now these new economic hits."
Wife and mother of two: "People that I know that have never struggled with money are now frequenting our local food shelf so they can feed their families staple foods! Please listen to our pleas and put ethics first!"
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Sanders has read some of the letters on the Senate floor. He says, "This is simply an effort to bring a dose of reality to the floor of the Senate. It's not just Vermont. There are other areas of this country that are worse off. It's important for us to respond to that with appropriate public policies to address this crisis."
Sanders notes that corporate media has completely dropped the ball in informing the citizenry of the staggering economic inequality of our times. "When you talk about the collapse of the corporate media in terms of responsibility," he says, "it's not just the War in Iraq. The other huge story that they have missed is the collapse of the middle class -- the fact that we have tens of millions of people working longer hours for lower wages; that we have the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world. For the first seven years of the Bush administration, [the media was] simply the stenographers for what the President was saying: 'The economy is robust. We have strong economic growth. Unemployment is reasonably low.' The metaphor is -- it's like the operation was a success but the patient died. The economy is doing great, except for 90% of the people in the economy. The reality is that we have the hollowing out of the American economy. Median family income declined by $2500 in the last seven years. 8 million people lost their health insurance. 3 million people lost their pensions. This is a strong economy? You've gotta be insane to believe that. And yet that is what the Bush Administration was talking about and that's what the corporate media kept on talking about."
Sanders believes the mission of progressives at this moment is twofold. "Number one, we have got to let the American people understand that they are not alone," he says. "What ends up happening when the media doesn't talk about the reality facing ordinary people, then people think 'I must be failing, why can't I make it?'... And the second thing... we have to come up with a progressive agenda which begins to address this economy."
Sanders is bringing together "friends in the Congress, elected officials, and our friends within the progressive community -- the environmental groups, the labor groups, the economic groups, social justice, civil liberties, etc." -- to pursue an inside-outside strategy, building the agenda and mobilizing support at the grassroots to challenge the corporate wing of the Democratic party.
"The goal here is to raise these issues during the campaign," Sanders says, "and have something to present to Senator Obama the day that he's elected. We know that there is enormous pressure on Obama to be looking to the corporate wing of the Democratic party rather than the progressive wing of the Democratic party. The only way we can move this country in a progressive way is with an agenda supported by the grassroots.... We need to figure out how you do it, how to involve grassroots in the process, and how you raise those issues in intelligent ways in the campaign. Ultimately what this agenda must offer, and what I believe the American people are prepared to support -- especially with an inspiring leader like Obama -- is a fundamental change in our national priorities."
Sanders has no illusions about the challenges that lie ahead in pushing an agenda that truly represents working and middle class families, and the poor. (It's worth noting hat these class distinctions are increasingly less relevant as the middle class is squeezed.) But he also sees opportunities to meet the greatest challenges that we face.
"I can tell you with personal experience that the power of the financial institutions, the energy companies, the insurance companies, the military-industrial complex -- they are unbelievable, each and everyone one of them, and we're dealing with each and every one of them. But we can take them on and we can defeat them if we are mobilized and we have an agenda that we are fighting for," he says. "And the very good news -- if you had a president willing to make changes in our national priorities, there are enormous sums of money available to meet the unmet needs of tens and tense of millions of Americans. You have Bush having given hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks. You rescind those tax breaks, you move this country into a progressive tax system, in which you begin to address the incredible gap between the very rich and everybody else through progressive taxation. You can free up huge sums of money to address the problems of childhood poverty, and our infrastructure, and our schools, and the fact that middle-class families and working class families can't afford to send their kids to college.... We have the money to do that."
Sanders cites the waste, fraud and abuse in the $515 billion military budget, and the fact that Democrats are "very timid" in challenging its excesses. For example, the Air Force alone has admitted that it disposes of hundreds of millions of dollars of spare parts annually that it doesn't need. The Department of Defense said it runs on archaic computer systems and "they don't even know where they're spending money. They were honest -- they don't know!" As for energy, he sees an analogy to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the 1941 Congress looking at the war situation and saying, "'Man, we gotta get our act together." There is an opportunity to transform our system, with solar thermal plants - equivalent to small nuclear plants -- supplying 15-20% of the electricity needed in the US; use of photovoltaic -- which is making great progress in Germany; wind turbines generate 20% of the electricity in Denmark.
You do these things," Sanders says, "you manufacture these products -- wind, solar -- in the United States of America. You're gonna create millions of jobs. This is a progressive agenda -- what does it do? It reverses global warming, it puts America in a position of leadership internationally, so you go to China and export new technology. It creates jobs, and it also cleans up the environment.... That's huge! We know what to do!"
And, of course, there is healthcare.
"For $2-$3 billion a year -- one week of the War in Iraq -- you could open up hundreds of federally qualified health centers around America, so that at the end of a year, you will be providing primary health care access to every American. [These centers] provide healthcare to anyone on a sliding-scale basis. They provide the lowest cost prescription drugs available. They provide dental care which is a huge problem all over America. They provide mental health counseling. For $3 billion you could build hundreds of these clinics and every American would have access to primary healthcare.... And by giving people access to healthcare on a regular basis rather than running to an emergency room when they're sick, probably ends up saving us money."
Sanders believes a bold agenda focusing on the needs of ordinary Americans is a winning one -- both from a public policy perspective and politically. "I think the people are prepared for bold action across the board. What polls tell us is that not only is there unprecedented economic uncertainty, but that people perceive in so many areas that this country is moving in the wrong direction. I mean, the degree to which we are becoming a second-rate economic power, that our healthcare system is disintegrating, that we have a $9 trillion national debt, that we have the highest rate of childhood poverty -- people understand all of these things, and they are wondering what is going on in the country that they grew up in? Say the right thing, and do the right thing, you're gonna win elections.... So, coming out for an agenda that speaks to the needs of the middle-class and working families is obviously good public policy but it's also good politics."
Sanders picks up the booklet comprised of the letters from his constituents. "I want people not to get depressed, and not to become cynical," he says. "This is not Utopian dreaming, we can do these things. We have the resources. It's simply investing where we're not investing. The problems we're facing in this country are, in fact, solvable.
We're currently playing with pennies to address healthcare, the elderly, tuition costs, Head Start. And down the hallway you've got the guys from the Defense Appropriations bill, who are spending money hand-over-fist in the most unaccountable ways. We have the potential to transform America. We have to change our priorities."
With reporting from Capitol Hill by Greg Kaufmann, a freelance writer residing in his disenfranchised hometown of Washington, DC.
Katrina vanden Heuvel is Editor and Publisher of The Nation.
Copyright © 2008 The Nation