Among the many conflicting and shocked thoughts that went through my head on election night, as I watched the victory of Donald Trump materialize in defiance of predictions, was that once upon a time, only half a year ago, we came so close to having a true progressive nominee with a very real chance of winning. That man is, of course, Bernie Sanders, the veteran independent senator from Vermont who ran as a Democrat against Hillary Clinton during the primary election.
Sanders drew support from millennial voters in every demographic and attracted hundreds of thousands of people to his massive rallies. He inspired millions of Americans to participate in the electoral process, much to the chagrin of establishment Democrats. Corporate media outlets, initially refusing to take him seriously, finally realized, perhaps too late, that the senator had tapped into a widespread feeling among Americans that our economy is, in his words, “rigged” against us.
Despite his primary election loss to Clinton, Sanders has used the spotlight his candidacy provided to continue his political revolution. In a new book called “Our Revolution”—the same name as an organization he has established—Sanders tells his story in his signature, no-nonsense style, from his humble origins in Brooklyn, N.Y. to his career as a Vermont senator, his decision to run for president, the complex and daunting challenge of organizing a campaign, and finally, the issues before us that desperately need fixing. Now on speaking tour to promote his book, Sanders, who has attained superstar status, spoke with me Wednesday about his Our Revolution movement and the political earthquake that Trump’s win has triggered.
One of the most valuable lessons of Sanders’ campaign was that it proved to the Democratic Party that a presidential candidate doesn’t just win support by moving to the left, but can actually capture the imagination of increasingly disillusioned voters left behind by both major parties. The question is, have the power elites within the party learned their lesson? According to Sanders, “If I have anything to say about it—and I do—it will be learned.” Despite having returned to his independent status after the Democratic National Convention, because Sanders won nearly half the primary election delegates this summer, he has clout within the Democratic Party.
Sanders lamented the fact that “millions and millions of people in this country are hurting economically and we don’t talk about it.” It was precisely because he focused on this issue in his presidential campaign that he won so much popularity, despite not being as well known as Clinton. The corporate media had generally ignored economic inequality, focusing instead on Wall Street’s financial buoyancy. On the Democratic side of the aisle, Sanders was the loudest and clearest voice articulating the need to “take on the banks,” as he likes to say. “We are going to mobilize the American people and take them on,” he said. “You do that, you do the right thing for America, and you win elections.”
It sounds simple. But that simplicity is often what establishment Democrats (and Republicans) have shunned, choosing instead to adopt complicated policy positions as they deftly navigate between lofty, populist-sounding rhetoric and their true allegiance to elite economic interests. Sanders broke down the issues to the basics: We are all hurting, and we need to fix it. So did Trump, who added in a toxic mix of racist, sexist and bigoted rhetoric and obscured the fact that he hails from the billionaire class that has benefited spectacularly from inequality.
While Sanders’ message was clear and simple, building and running a political campaign on the scale he did was anything but easy. Telling the story of how he borrowed the architecture of President Obama’s political campaigning and kept a powerful pledge to take no corporate money or large donations, Sanders’ “Our Revolution” is a handbook for future progressive candidates. He summarized it in these terms: “I think it’s a good lesson for people to understand how you can start a campaign with no name recognition, no organization, no money, and end up winning 13.4 million votes in 22 states and a majority of young people’s votes.”
While the first half of the book tells how he ran his campaign, the second half is even more important: It offers a deep and clear-eyed analysis of what is wrong with the U.S. economy, how it is fractured along racial and gender lines, and how corporate America and the federal government have screwed over workers. This half is illustrated with powerful diagrams that make Sanders’ points without getting too “wonkish,” but without dumbing down issues most Americans know to be true through their own experience.
Trump has managed to wrongly convince many Americans that regulations and taxes are harming the economy first and foremost. By contrast, Sanders explains just how politicians, corporate CEOs and their lobbyists have skewed our economy in favor of the rich, and he offers specific policy positions that can undo the damage. “We are moving in the direction of becoming an oligarchic form of society,” he told me. This analysis may be Sanders’ best use of his newly acquired pulpit, and it was what drew so many Americans to his candidacy in the first place.
Sanders sees corporate media as a crucial part of the problem. Had the major networks and newspapers taken him seriously a year ago and lavished him with as much attention as Trump and Clinton were given, the country might be in a different position today. It is fitting that he gave an interview to an independent journalist like myself, to whom he explained, “Corporate media is not going to talk about the real issues facing this country.” He admitted, “We take advantage of it when we can,” adding, “but let us not be naive—corporate media is owned by large, multinational conglomerates.”
Although the reasons for economic inequality and the policies to fix it are clear, in order to implement them, progressives need political power. For decades, millions of Americans have simply sat out elections. In the 2016 election, 100 million eligible American voters simply did not cast ballots, likely disheartened by two major-party candidates, neither of whom inspired confidence. With Trump’s Electoral College win, the major challenge facing the nation today is how to inspire Americans who have checked out of the political process. With Trump threatening to keep his most dangerous campaign promises—based on the cabinet he is picking—we risk even greater mass disillusionment.
If the electoral process has wrought such destruction, I asked Sanders, how can Americans be inspired to join in? He replied, “It goes without saying, in my mind, that of course we have got to be involved in the electoral politics.” He accepts that change also has to come about from outside political agitation. “On the other hand,” he said, “we also have to understand that there are ways that we can be active, that we can fight to protect the planet from climate change, that we can fight for women’s rights, or gay rights, or minority rights, without being involved in electoral politics. It’s not an ‘either-or’; it’s a ‘both.’ Grass-roots activism is equally important.”
Of the many reasons Trump’s agenda deeply disturbs Sanders, climate change is close to the top. Trump has often claimed that global warming is a hoax. Sanders wants “millions of people to mobilize to make certain that we take on the fossil fuel industry, that we stop pipelines and that we transform this energy system away from fossil fuels to energy efficiency and sustainable energy.” Ironically, as the election unfolded, a major international gathering on climate change was taking place in Marrakech, Morocco. Attendees of the United Nations COP22 meeting watched in dismay as the world’s wealthiest nation chose a climate-change denier as its head of state.
Trump’s presidency is also ushering in a new era of white nationalism in the U.S. His pick of Breitbart News Chairman Steve Bannon as his chief strategist has clarified his intentions to appease the racial resentment of a large chunk of his white electorate. Sanders had a straightforward explanation for this choice: “Historically, what the demagogues have always done is played off one group against another group. And the answer is that these guys, the billionaires, go laughing all the way to the bank while you have people fighting with each other over crumbs,” he said.
Sanders believes that racial justice and economic justice go hand in hand, a very important intersection for progressives to organize around. Drawing on the work of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the last years of his life, Sanders paraphrased the great civil rights leader: “We have to change the national priorities of this country—less to the military, fewer tax breaks for the rich, and let’s take care of the most vulnerable people.”
In sum, he said, “I think our job is to mobilize millions of people across this country now to stand up and fight.” This is no easy task, of course. But if anyone can show by example that such a thing is possible, it is the man who might have been our next president.