After the State of the Union address at the beginning of this month, the Wall Street Journal ran an opinion piece that argued: “Joe Biden is Bernie Sanders.” By this it meant that, somehow, by stealth, under the cover of darkness, a “democratic socialist” – both words apparently terms of abuse in the WSJ commentator’s lexicon – had invaded the White House and was now making policy for ordinary Americans, interfering in the unjust struggle of their lives, trying to help them get decent jobs and provide them with affordable healthcare. The implication was clear: offshore your assets and offer unhinged prayers to Marjorie Taylor Greene!
Speaking to Sanders last week, I wondered if that was how it felt to him.
The 81-year-old senator for Vermont gave one of his brief, gravelly guffaws, his concession to small talk. “Not quite,” he said. “I do go to the White House every now and then and chat with the president but no, I’m not in the White House. But that’s the Wall Street Journal, Rupert Murdoch’s paper – you know Rupert Murdoch in the UK, right?”
I confirm a passing acquaintance.
“Well, the fact is the Wall Street Journal is shocked – flabbergasted! – that an American president would have the courage to mention in his speech, say, that the oil industry made $200bn in profit, while jacking up prices for everyone; they are shocked to hear that a president wants to take on the greed of the pharmaceutical industry; shocked to hear a president talk about the need to raise teacher salaries. Joe Biden is far more conservative than I am. But to his credit, I think he has seen what the progressive movement is doing in this country. And he feels comfortable with some of our ideas – and I appreciate that.”
In some ways, the Wall Street Journal was more on the money than Sanders allows. Many of Biden’s proposals did appear to come verbatim from the manifesto that saw Sanders twice beaten to second place in the race to become the Democratic candidate for the presidency in 2016 and 2020 – policies that Sanders has been pressing since he first ran for the office of Vermont senator in 1972, on behalf of the Liberty Union party, and finished third with 2% of the vote. For much of that time Sanders – the longest-serving independent representative in congressional history – sounded a lot like a prophet railing in a wilderness of Reaganite deregulation (he has been arguing for a $15 minimum wage for two decades; it still hasn’t come to pass). In the years since the financial crash, however, and particularly since the start of the pandemic, many more people have listened.
For a generation of millennials raised on digital noise, Sanders became, in 2016, the political equivalent of a rare vinyl record: tangible, authentic, a reliable source of timeless indy riffs. For all but the most self-righteous of those fans – a strident few believed him a sellout for eventually endorsing the “centrist” Biden – he retains that appeal (strange to think that the progressive hero of the land-of-the-next-new-thing is an octogenarian – stranger that both of his most visible political rivals are, too). Sanders has written a new book partly aimed at that millennial generation – its Day-Glo title is It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism – reminding the young of their age-old rights and responsibilities.
The driving narrative of the book is outrage at the obscene wealth inequalities in the world’s richest economy. One of the things that Biden had the temerity – in the Wall Street Journal’s view – to raise in his State of the Union address was a billionaire minimum tax, “because no billionaire should pay a lower tax rate than a firefighter or a schoolteacher”. Under the proposed tax on annual gains in wealth, tech billionaire Elon Musk, for example, would have paid upwards of $20bn a year through the pandemic. Sanders would go further, but he concedes it’s a start. In his book he refers to America’s billionaires as oligarchs. He hopes the pejorative will finally start to catch on.
“One of the points that I wanted to make,” he says, “is yeah, of course the oligarchs run Russia. But guess what? Oligarchs run the United States as well. And it’s not just the United States, it’s not just Russia; Europe, the UK, all over the world, we’re seeing a small number of incredibly wealthy people running things in their favour. A global oligarchy. This is an issue that needs to be talked about.”
There are plenty of others. Sanders writes, likably, as he talks – straight to the point, low on personal digression, high on public policy. A keen admirer of his once observed how “Bernie’s the last person you’d want to be stuck on a desert island with. Two weeks of lectures about healthcare, and you’d look for a shark and dive in.” In this determination, he says, he wants to be an antidote to the oligarch-owned American media, which would have its audience think and talk about anything else – celebrities, the ballgame, the latest “woke” meme – than the stuff that might loosen their control of politics and the economy. “We don’t talk about our dysfunctional healthcare system. We don’t talk about income and wealth inequality. We hardly talk significantly about the existential threat of climate. The purpose of my book is to begin that discussion.”
It is one flank of what might yet be the beginning of the closing chapter of Sanders’s unique career, a suitably raucous throat-clearing for a last hurrah. There is another thrust to that campaign. Sanders has just become chair of the Senate health, education, labour and pensions committee. He clearly intends to use that office not only to pursue his primary long-term aim – Medicare for all – but to create some proper political theatre along the way. His opening acts have seen him request the presence before the committee of Stéphane Bancel, the chief executive of Moderna, who Sanders argues “has become a multibillionaire” by creating a coronavirus vaccine with government money. Calls have also gone out to Howard Schultz, the chief executive of Starbucks, to address his “union-busting” policies and their relation to his staggering personal fortune. Jeff Bezos, of Amazon, a long-term bete noire of Sanders, should also look out for an invitation. Expect TV ratings of Senate hearings to soar.
One of the inspiring things about Sanders’s devotion to his cause – in light of the factional divisions of the British left – has been his grownup willingness to get behind Biden’s programme and try to influence it from within. The two of them have profound political differences, but, as he outlines in the book, a sincere personal respect; their wives get along well. Sanders would probably hesitate to use a term as emotional as friendship for a political adversary, but that’s how it sounds.
“For us to get along was a) the right thing to do,” he says. “And b) good politics. If you’re a smart guy and you want to win an election, why wouldn’t you sit down and work closely with the person who came in second place? The results didn’t go as far as I would like, but there are solid ideas which have been incorporated, in some cases, into governmental policy.”
Having ceded the nomination, he was not interested in any kind of pious sulk that might have divided the Democrats and allowed Trump to return. He is very clear about the existential threat that Trump posed to American democracy. To what extent does he think that threat still will be a factor in 2024?
“Well,” he says, “just before talking to you, I came from a meeting with Lula [Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva], the president of Brazil. That is exactly what we talked about. He had the same phenomenon with a rightwing authoritarian, [Jair] Bolsonaro, refusing to accept the election result.” He had been discussing with Lula something Franklin Roosevelt argued in the 1930s: “FDR said freedom is not just the right to vote. It is the right to healthcare, housing, a secure job. When [government] works to do that rather than looking after the interests of billionaires, then people will say ‘you know what, I think democracy works’. If it doesn’t do that, bad things happen and Trump and Bolsonaro gain a foothold.”
The 6 January hearings about the insurrection at the Capitol were important historically but had a limited political effect, he believes. “Trump supporters don’t sit around watching CNN. Many of them still believe that the election was stolen and Trump is right.” He points to an ABC-Washington Post poll of a couple of days earlier that, while expressing little excitement about either candidate, had put Trump three points ahead of Biden in a presidential race.
One of the causal factors Sanders addresses in his book is the alarming growth of news deserts in the US: cities and regions where there are no local news outlets at all. In the absence of knowing what is happening in their neighbourhood, people become entangled in the seductive conspiracy threads of social media. But as well as proposing a method of federal funding for local news, Sanders also keeps the faith that social media – a powerful personal campaigning platform for him – can be redeemed. Isn’t there a certain naivety in this? Isn’t the divisive anger that drives the revenues of Twitter and the rest always more likely to be a reactionary than a progressive force?
“Well,” he says, “I think, the more we know, the more positive options are open to us. And in terms of anger, I think people do have the right to be angry. In America right now, weekly inflation-adjusted wages for workers are lower than they were 50 years ago. Should people be angry that their bosses now make 400 times what they make? I know in the UK you have in a lot of strikes and turmoil. It is about the fact that in the last 40 years, 50 years, there has been an unprecedented transfer of wealth, from the working families to the top 1%. Should people be angry about that? Damn right they should.”
The hero in his book is Eugene Debs, five times presidential candidate of the Socialist party of America at the turn of the 20th century. Before Sanders went into politics – when he was living somewhat off-grid in Vermont (“definitely not a hippy”) – he made a documentary about Debs, designed to be sent to schools across the country. He is the figure he has always tried to live up to.
“Debs is almost unknown now, but he was a remarkable man. A great orator, a great organiser. Contemporaries referred to him as almost a Christ-like figure, prepared to give you the shirt off his back. He ended up spending three years in jail for his opposition to world war one.”
I wonder, in relation to this, if any of his early interest in socialist history came from his family.
He suggests not. “My father immigrated to the United States from Poland at the age of 17, without any money at all. He got a job as a paint salesman and was a paint salesman his whole life. He was never a union man.”
What would his parents have made of how things have turned out for their son?
“Both of them died young. To be honest, I think they would have been delighted to discover I graduated college. Being a United States senator, running for president, all that would have been unthinkable.”
And would it have seemed unthinkable for him at the time too?
“It was never about a career,” he says. “When I was in college I got involved in the civil rights movement, then I worked for a union. Those were the things that I was motivated by. Eventually I ended up becoming mayor of Burlington, Vermont by 10 votes. But no, I never thought that I would get elected anything.”
With Sanders making noises about his schedule, this leads us to the billion-dollar – or $15 – question. His book-length manifesto ends with something of a rallying cry: “Let’s do it!” Is he still thinking of another run for the Democrat nomination for 2024?
“I think what’s going to happen,” he says, “is that President Biden is going to run for re-election. And if he does, I will support him.”
And does he think age is a key issue in that choice – for Biden and for himself?
“Age is always a factor,” he says. “But there are 1,000 factors. Some people who are 80 or more have more energy than people who are 30. I would hope,” he says, warming, as ever, to his theme, “that we will fight ageism as much as we fight sexism and racism and homophobia, judge people on how they are and not simply by their age. There are,” he says, “a lot of elderly people with a whole lot of experience who are very capable of doing great work.”
Even the Wall Street Journal should be grateful he still counts himself among them.
It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism is published by Penguin (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
Bernie Sanders will be in conversation with Owen Jones at a Guardian Live event at Oxford Playhouse and livestreamed globally, Sunday 26 February, 5pm. Tickets here
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