ZUG, Switzerland (Reuters Breakingviews) - Bernie Sanders was still relatively young, in a grey zip-up hoodie, a chequebook dangling precariously from the back pocket of his jeans. Yet to turn 50, he was in a soundproofed room at a recording studio in Burlington, Vermont, whose citizens had six years earlier elected him the first avowed socialist mayor of a biggish American city.
As local musicians harmonised over civil-rights hymns such as “We Shall Overcome”, Sanders leant into the microphone, earphones positioned like a rock star, decrying “war, starvation, the degradation of our environment” in a pronounced Brooklyn accent.
What I remember most about the scene, which I was covering in 1987 for the Vermont Cynic, the University of Vermont’s weekly paper, was how serious the mayor was. Sanders wasn’t taking this lightly, or with the irony that my 20-year-old self viewed the event. When I mentioned it to him a few years ago, he quickly changed the subject.
There was one thing I failed to see as a member of the press corps covering a quirky mayor who had put Burlington on the national map as a centre of progressivism: his remarks to some of the 30 artists during a break. A video shot by local television shows Sanders exhorting them to take up social issues in their work: “We’ve doubled the number of billionaires in America in the last year,” he tells them. “How come musicians aren’t writing about that?”
That was more than three decades ago, and the man hasn’t changed much during his trajectory from the City Hall on Church Street to the House of Representatives and the Senate. He’s older, has less hair, doesn’t wear sweatshirts in public and probably doesn’t write cheques anymore. But the intensity of his mission and the focus on progressive issues, especially meat-and-potatoes economic ones, is still there. It may even propel him into the White House.
Sanders is likely to win big in the Iowa caucuses, the first of the primaries that will determine who gets to challenge Donald Trump for the presidency in November. If he emerges victorious in Iowa, and then Vermont’s neighbouring state of New Hampshire eight days later, national enthusiasm will follow, along with money from his army of small donors.
Financial markets and big business will be disconcerted. First, they are frustrated by their lack of influence on the candidate, who has criticised the toxic role of money in politics and campaigned for a repeal of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which ruled that corporations have the same rights as individuals to express political preferences. Unlike some of his competitors, Sanders doesn’t want their money.
Second, Sanders scares them for all the things he says – and has been saying for 30 years – about billionaires having too much power, corporations exerting too much influence on American democracy, Wall Street needing to be tethered, and for his unswerving focus on workers’ rights. To his critics, Sanders is practically a Marxist – someone whose inclination is to put the means of production under state control.
Back before he cut his record, Sanders did indeed sound more Marxist. He campaigned for the Socialist Workers Party, which admired Leon Trotsky. He visited Nicaragua as a guest of Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega. He talked about nationalising utilities and banks. He honeymooned in the Soviet Union in 1988 (and can be seen shirtless drinking vodka with his hosts in a video).
Such behaviour brought a certain flair to Vermont’s largest city, especially because it occurred during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. During the Sanders years, the University of Vermont became known as a hotbed of social justice that fought for issues such as the financial divestment by companies and endowments from apartheid South Africa.
But what’s often overlooked in Sanders’ record is the way he managed the city. It was perhaps communitarian, but far from communist. Maybe he used his sympathies with leftist leaders abroad as marketing, but he focused on bread-and-butter issues, such as upgrading sidewalks and increasing affordable housing. Many UVM students of that era will recall the enforcement of new city noise ordinances, which turned weekend house parties into more expensive affairs as Burlington police doled out hefty fines with abandon.
More famously, Sanders did not intervene in the 1985 arrest of trespassers protesting a General Electric facility that manufactured Gatling guns used against the Sandinistas in Central America. He said it kept workers from doing their jobs. Over the years, Sanders has championed federal grants for defence-related work in the state, worked with companies including Lockheed Martin and supported the deployment of F-35 fighter jets to the Vermont National Guard.
True, Sanders is more radical than some of his Democratic rivals, like former Vice President Joe Biden or Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. But most of what he champions – higher taxes on extreme wealth, eliminating personal medical debt, honouring commitments to veterans, even healthcare for all citizens – is already law in most of the rich nations that are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Also, few, if any, of his promises would be achievable without congressional approval. Even if Sanders were to try to override the filibuster-proof majority for key pieces of legislation – the way Republicans have for Trump’s Supreme Court nominations – he would need a majority in the Senate, where Democrats still have just 47 votes. Expensive pledges, like Medicare and college for all, are far from foregone conclusions. As president, he would of course be in a strong position to make a case that the world’s richest country has a moral duty to try to make those things happen for its citizens. Why should anyone fear that?
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