Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Bernie Sanders: Zenger’s Newsmagazine cover, March 1998
Bernie Sanders supporters in the rain at San Diego Pride, July 18, 2015
Crowd at “Bernie Man,” Observatory North Park Theatre, July 29, 2015
“Bernie Man” Merchandise Table, San Diego, July 29, 2015
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) has long been one of my culture heroes. Ever since he emerged from the political wilderness of third-party politics and won election as mayor of Burlington, Vermont’s largest city, in 1981 I’ve been one of his fans. I cheered when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1990 as Vermont’s only Congressmember (the state is so small it gets just one) and when he won an overwhelming victory for Vermont’s junior U.S. Senate seat in 2006. In between the two, Sanders scheduled a speech in San Diego in 1998 and I grabbed the chance to do a phone interview with him to promote his appearance. He was the cover boy for Zenger’s issue 44 in March 1998, and the topics we spoke about in our interview — the vastly unequal distribution of wealth and income in the U.S. and the control of American politics and media by giant corporations and the super-rich individuals who own and run them — are the foundation of his Presidential campaign today.
But I hadn’t anticipated that I’d end up supporting Bernie Sanders for President. I came into the 2016 Presidential campaign — and it’s a measure of how absurd U.S. politics has become that the 2016 Presidential campaign is already in full swing nearly six months before anyone will actually have the chance to vote in it — expecting, reluctantly, to support Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination. When progressive activists in the Democratic Party pressured Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) to run for President, I heaved a sigh of relief when she said no. When Sanders stepped in, with the air of an understudy filling in for the billed actor in a stage play — “Senator Elizabeth Warren is indisposed and will not appear tonight. Her part is being played by Senator Bernie Sanders” — I worried about whether or not this was the right strategy.
My assumption was that America is in the grip of a major ideological offensive by a far-Right Republican Party which already controls three-fourths of the federal government — both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court — and needs only the presidency to achieve total control. What’s more, they’ve made it clear what they will do with that control: reverse all the progressive reforms of the 1890’s, the 1930’s and the 1960’s; abolish what’s left of the social welfare state, including Social Security, unemployment compensation, Medicare, Medicaid and, of course, Obamacare; end all meaningful regulation on corporations; privatize public education; nullify workers’ rights to organize into unions; enact huge tax cuts and rewrite the tax laws to benefit the rich; end all rules governing worker health and safety; end all laws protecting the environment; end all limits on media consolidation and turn the Internet into an exclusive preserve for pro-corporate and pro-Republican political views; severely restrict all immigration (not just so-called “illegal” immigration!) and make the immigrants already here permanent indentured servants to their employers; end women’s access to safe and legal abortion and contraception, making them permanent slaves to their wombs; and stay in power indefinitely by gerrymandering electoral districts and passing laws restricting the right to vote so people who would be inclined to vote against them will not be able to vote at all.
The Republicans want to do all this because they’re in thrall to an extreme Libertarian ideology that regards government’s only legitimate functions as national defense, maintaining internal order and providing a mechanism to resolve contract disputes between otherwise unfettered private businesses. The much-talked about “splits” in the Republican Party are not about the basic core of this ideology, but simply over how fast to push it through. We know that Republicans in total control of the U.S. government will push this agenda in as relentless, unscrupulous and authoritarian a fashion as possible because that’s what they’ve done in states in which they had the governorship and both houses of the legislature: Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, Rick Snyder’s Michigan, John Kasich’s Ohio, Bobby Jindal’s Louisiana, Sam Brownback’s Kansas, Rick Perry’s and Greg Abbott’s Texas.
What’s more, the historical odds in 2016 overwhelmingly favor the Republicans. Since the passage of the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1947, which limited the president to two terms, only once has the same major party won three Presidential elections in a row — the Republicans, with Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and George H. W. Bush in 1988. The parties come into 2016 on the heels of an economic debacle in 2008 and an anemic “recovery” whose benefits have overwhelmingly gone to the top 1 percent of the U.S. population. Though a lot of the blame for this can be traced to Republican policies and priorities, both major parties are dependent on financial contributions from wealthy individuals and corporations — the Republicans a bit more so than the Democrats — and therefore both parties, as Sanders said when I interviewed him and is saying again in his speeches, have passed laws and policies that benefit the rich at the expense of everyone else.
Nonetheless, because Barack Obama has been president since January 20, 2009, it will be the Democrats — not the Republicans — who will suffer at the polls for the fact that so few of the fruits of the so-called “recovery” have trickled down to ordinary middle- and working-class Americans. The Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives in 2010 and the Senate in 2014 largely through faux-populist appeals stating that the Democrats had skewed America’s economy in favor of the rich and it was only by voting Republican that working- and middle-class Americans could put the balance right again. It worked because, as the late political scientist V. O. Key said, Americans do vote on issues, but “retrospectively and negatively” — that is, they vote against what hasn’t worked for them in the past, not on what candidates and parties are promising to do for them in the future.
Hillary Will Self-Destruct Again!
I entered 2015 feeling reluctantly resigned to Hillary Clinton — with her awesome name recognition and well-stocked, corporate-funded war chest — as the only Democratic candidate for President who could beat the post-1947 historical jinx against either major party winning three presidential races in a row. It was certainly a lesser-of-two-evils choice, but as I argued with my friends who’ve long since departed the Democratic Party (as well as my husband Charles, who has never been a Democrat — he registered with the Peace and Freedom Party as soon as he was old enough to vote and he’s been with it ever since), sometimes you have to vote for the lesser evil because the greater evil is so evil. This was the case in Germany in the early 1930’s, when the pointless and self-destructive conflicts between the Social Democrats and the Communists allowed the greater evil, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, to come to power. And it is true in the U.S. today, with the Republicans pushing an agenda so insanely destructive of basic human values and civil rights that it has to be stopped at all costs, no matter how many compromises we have to make to do so.
So why did I change my mind and endorse Bernie Sanders? Partly for the same reason I endorsed Ralph Nader in the 2000 Presidential election over both George W. Bush and Al Gore: I had a hard time sitting on the sidelines and making historical analogies — excuses, really — for not supporting a candidate who was saying so much of what I believe. Partly for personal reasons: just before the Pride events, my husband Charles came back from a vacation in the Bay Area, in which he visited the memorial museum to socialist author Jack London and came back fired up with radical pride and a determination that our participation in this year’s Pride Parade should be with an openly radical political contingent. And partly because the way the campaign has been playing out, I’ve re-evaluated my original analysis that Hillary Clinton was the Democrats’ best hope and have decided that she is simply unelectable: her nomination will consign the Democrats to electoral oblivion in 2016 and ensure the victory of whatever crazy Republican survives their marathon-dance nomination process.
I soured on Hillary Clinton big-time after the atrocious meeting of the San Diego Democrats for Equality, a club originally organized in 1974 to push for Queer rights within the Democratic Party and get local Democrats to support Queer issues, on June 30. It was one of the club’s marathon meetings, lasting four hours, and the main agenda of the club’s leadership was to shove through an endorsement of Hillary Clinton no matter how many dissenting members they had to alienate or how many pretzel shapes they had to bend the club’s rules into to do it. The meeting attracted a lot of Sanders supporters, but many of them are not registered in the Democratic Party and therefore weren’t eligible to vote in the club’s endorsement process. (Under California law, many of them won’t be able to vote for Sanders in the state’s presidential primary, either, since they’re registered in alternative parties like Peace and Freedom or the Greens.)
With one significant exception — Andrea Villa, who opposed all the election endorsements that night on the ground that was simply too early to be making endorsements for 2016 in June 2015, months before the period for candidates to file to run even begins — the club’s current and former presidents, David Warmoth, Craig Roberts and Doug Case, formed a solid phalanx behind Clinton. There were two votes on whether the club should endorse for president at all, and both of them were ties; Warmoth used his chair’s prerogative to break the ties and push through the endorsement. He also prevented people who weren’t club members from participating in the debate, even though at previous meetings non-members have been allowed to speak once all the members who wanted to talk had been heard. Roberts, with a tinge of panic in his voice, said, “We’ve got to get this done before Pride!” Though the in-person vote on whether to endorse at all had been virtually even, Clinton won the endorsement by 50 votes to 21 for Sanders and 12 for no endorsement, mainly because club members had been allowed to show up, cast ballots and then leave — and Clinton’s supporters in the club had obviously done their get-out-the-vote work well and turned out most of the voters who didn’t stay.
Why the big push? Because, as Roberts and other Clinton supporters in the room said, her nomination is inevitable anyway and if the Democrats for Equality want to retain any credibility with the party, they’ve got to get on board the bandwagon before it leaves without them. When it was my turn to speak, I said that if we’d debated a presidential endorsement in 2007, we’d probably have heard the same thing: Hillary Clinton will be the nominee. She’s got the major party leaders behind her, she’s got the big money, she’s got the campaign organization. But the true progressives in the Democratic party had other ideas; instead of accepting Clinton as inevitable, they rallied behind a young, inexperienced Democratic Senator from Illinois named Barack Obama and he became the next president.
Obama won partly because he worked harder than Clinton did — that’s what happens when you’re the scrappy underdog instead of the establishment favorite — partly because he put together a larger network of small donors, partly because he had Clinton’s horrendous mistake on the war in Iraq to help him (she voted to authorize Bush’s war in 2003), and partly because Hillary Clinton is simply a terrible politician. She’s been able to conceal this for a long time because she’s married to a great politician. But on her own, Hillary Clinton can be counted on to self-sabotage every campaign she gets involved in. She did it in 2008 and she’s doing it again. What’s more, polls show that 45 percent of the American people simply don’t trust her — and while the ongoing scandal about her use of her private e-mail server to conduct official government business as Secretary of State isn’t all that important intrinsically, it is reinforcing voters’ basic distrust of her.
Hillary Clinton didn’t come up from hardscrabble roots in Arkansas like her husband did. She was born to a well-to-do family in Illinois and her public persona just drips with a sense of entitlement, a sense that she deserves things just because of who she is. If she’s the nominee, we can expect months of Republican propaganda skillfully reminding voters of the gap between who they are and who she thinks she is. Much of it will be unfair, and no doubt some of it will be out-and-out lies, but it will work. Bill Clinton famously claimed that as President he would “feel your pain.” It’s impossible to imagine many Americans — except maybe other married women whose husbands can’t or won’t keep their dicks in their pants — who would think that Hillary Clinton could feel their pain.
Bernie Says What I Believe
Bernie — like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, he’s almost invariably referred to by his supporters with only his first name — officially kicked off his campaign with a nationwide video event July 29 called “Bernie Man.” (His supporters seem addicted to bad puns on his name; at the merchandise table for that event were T-shirts with a cartoon drawing of him and the slogan, “Feel the Bern.”) The idea was to use the modern technology of Internet video streaming to broadcast Sanders giving a short speech at locations throughout the country. In San Diego, the campaign chose the Observatory North Park Theatre at 29th and University — and Charles, recovering from an appendix operation, and I chose to attend as our first public outing since his surgery. It was that important to us to be there.
The theme of his speech was, “Enough is enough.” Americans, Sanders said, have had it with a ruling elite that grabs more and more of this country’s — and the world’s — wealth and income for itself. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that there is something immoral when the top one-tenth of one percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent; when almost all of the new income being created in America is going to the top 1 or 2 percent.” (When I interviewed him in 1998 his lament was that the top 1 percent of Americans owned almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent; that’s an indication of how an already severely unequal distribution of wealth and income has worsened in the last 17 years.)
“The American people understand also that it is simply not right that major corporation after major corporation, many of whom are making billions of profits, pay nothing — zero — or, at most, very little in taxes, because they stash their profits in the Cayman Islands,” Sanders said. “We have got to reverse the decline of the middle class over the last 40 years. People are asking how does it happen, with all of the new technology out there, with all of the increase in productivity that workers are producing, that millions of people are working longer hours than ever before?” And that, of course, is if they’re lucky to have a job at all; as Sanders said, America’s actual unemployment rate is not the “official” 5.3 percent, but 10.5 percent — a statistic you can expect to hear a lot of Republicans cite next year, even if their policies would likely only make it worse.
“One of the great tragedies we are experiencing, that we do not talk about at all, is youth unemployment,” Sanders said. “A recent study came out that said kids between the ages of 17 to 20 who have graduated from high school have an unemployment rate of 33 percent — if they’re white. If they are Hispanic, it’s 36 percent. If they’re African-American, it’s 51 percent. In other words, we are turning our backs on an entire generation of young people. And if anyone thinks it’s a coincidence that we end up having more people in jail than any other country on earth, you would be mistaken. It seems to be that instead of having 5 ½ million young people throughout this country who have no jobs and no schooling, maybe it makes a lot more sense for us to be investing in jobs and education than in jails and incarceration.”
Sanders’ comments on race — particularly his acknowledgment that, as badly as white people are being screwed by an economy run for the benefit of corporations and the rich, it’s even worse for people of color — are especially important given the fraught relations between him and the African-American community in particular. For some reason, when the “Black Lives Matter” movement decided to start disrupting Presidential campaign events, the first candidate they picked to go after was not any of the Republicans (for whom Black lives really don’t matter because Blacks — if they vote at all — overwhelmingly vote Democratic anyway), nor was it Hillary Clinton. It was Bernie Sanders, at the Netroots Nation conference of on-line progressive activists June 18.
They were demanding that Sanders give them time on the podium — which he was willing to do, though the audience vetoed it — and that he speak the name of Sandra Bland, the latest victim of the police onslaught against the lives of African-Americans. A 28-year-old African-American woman who had already collected videos of police abuses and posted them online, Bland was stopped by state trooper Richard Encinia in Prairie View, Texas July 10 for failure to signal a lane change. After the two got into an argument, Encinia pulled Bland out of her car, threw her to the ground and arrested her. She was held in jail for three days and found hanged in her cell on July 13; the authorities claim she committed suicide, but the incident sparked nationwide protests by activists convinced she had been murdered.
Judging from his comments on the “Bernie Man” video, Sanders got the message loud and clear. “All of us are tired, sick and tired, of seeing institutional racism at work; of seeing Black people handcuffed and thrown to the ground, as in the case of Sandra Bland,” he said. “People should not die because they didn’t put a signal on. We need significant criminal justice reform. We need to deal with a whole lot of issues, but the bottom line is we cannot and should not lead the world in the number of people who are in jail. We should lead the world in having the best-educated population.”
Sanders has also been criticized by some progressives for a mixed record on gun legislation — he’s voted for some restrictions but not others, reflecting the large hunting community in Vermont — and for not taking a strong enough anti-war and anti-imperialism stand in his current campaign. An August 4 e-mail from RootsAction urged recipients to sign an appeal to Sanders to add anti-war points to his platform. “Militarism and corporate power are fueling each other,” the RootsAction e-mail said. Sanders has a strong anti-war record in Congress. In 2003 he spoke against then-President Bush’s request for Congress to authorize the Iraq war, and in 2006 he criticized the “outing” of Valerie Plame, wife of Iraq war critic Joseph Wilson, as a CIA agent.
“The revelation that the President authorized the release of classified information in order to discredit an Iraq war critic should tell every member of Congress that the time is now for a serious investigation of how we got into the war in Iraq and why Congress can no longer act as a rubber stamp for the President,” Sanders said on the Plame matter in 2006. But as of August 16, the “Issues” list on his Presidential campaign Web site, https://berniesanders.com/issues/, lists “Income and Wealth Inequality,” “Getting Big Money Out of Politics,” “Creating Decent-Paying Jobs,” “Racial Justice,” “A Living Wage,” “Real Family Values,” “Climate Change & Environment,” and “Reforming Wall Street” — nothing about militarism, imperialism or foreign policy in general. And the “Bernie Man” speech also avoided foreign issues except for a brief reference to “the military-industrial complex” — a phrase coined in 1961 by former Republican President Dwight Eisenhower — towards the end.
Nonetheless, Bernie Sanders remains a bright light in a depressing Presidential campaign otherwise containing either dim bulbs or potentially destructive fires. He’s a candidate with a long-standing commitment to progressive issues, not another Bill Clinton or Barack Obama seeking the progressive community’s support and then selling us out once he’s been elected. In some ways he’s the Left-wing version of Donald Trump, saying what the other politicians fear to say and articulating the real ideals of their respective parties’ bases. But while the multibillionaire Trump is unwittingly laying bare the true ugliness of the Republican party and its ruling ideology, and his main campaign backer is himself, the non-rich Sanders is articulating a hopeful, optimistic progressive vision from what the late Paul Wellstone called “the democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” What’s more, he proudly boasts that in the era of unaccountable “super-PAC’s” and the other well-heeled beasts let loose by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, the average contribution to Bernie Sanders’ campaign is … $35.
Whether Bernie Sanders wins the nomination or not, the massive attendance at his rallies and his upward climb in the polls will hopefully end the collective paralysis of Democratic activists in the face of Hillary Clinton’s so-called “inevitability.” Though the optimal goal of supporting Bernie Sanders is to get him nominated by the Democratic Party and elected President, his campaign will be at least a partial success if he either moves her closer to the Left (and she’s been making more populist, more anti-corporate speeches since he entered the race and began to steal her thunder) or paves the way for another Democrat who might defeat Clinton and stand a chance at winning the election.
Read the original 1998 Zenger’s Newsmagazine interview with Bernie Sanders (copyright © 1998 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine) below: