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Reigniting the Fire: The Politics of Bernie Sanders

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Democratic candidate for President (Image  ©  Mark King). 

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Democratic candidate for President (Image © Mark King). 

He declares he wants a “moral and political” revolution against the system, and the “billionaires and corporate leaders on Wall Street” whose policies and greed, he says, are “destroying the middle class.” Calling the system “horrifically” unbalanced, referring to the “top 400 Americans owning more wealth than the bottom 150 million,” he is adamant about his campaign not just being about electing a president, but about transforming America.

He believes in universal healthcare, free college tuition, and the public funding of elections. He champions laborers and the middle class. Counter intuitively (or at least to conservatives) he wants to create jobs by rebuilding infrastructure. He heralds these and other things like Social Security and single payer healthcare systems like Medicare as the tenets of his brand of democratic socialism.

He’s Bernie Sanders, junior senator from Vermont, one of three candidates including Martin O’Malley, and front-runner Hillary Clinton, who are vying for the nomination of President of the United States under the Democrat Party ticket. At 73, if he should win, he will be the oldest person ever to be elected president. And, the first of Jewish descent. 

He claims to want to reignite the fire of hope in millions of Americans who believe the electoral process is broken. When he speaks of political revolution what he’s asking Americans to do is participate and suspend the disbelief in the electoral process; to take part in caucuses, primaries and the general election,  in doing so, believe it will change something for them. He hopes that people will see him as that candidate, distinctly different from the rest, who will help make change happen.

He says he envisions a society in which all people can live with dignity, that the causes and issues he espouses are not, as The Wall Street Journal, Tea partiers and many right-wingers call them, radical ideas at all, but common sense and the foundation of any democratic society, by the people, for the people.

Does this sound vaguely familiar? Perhaps it’s because you’ve heard these ideas before.

With his head of white hair perpetually tousled, disregard for fashion and the teleprompter, and rough and raspy Brooklyn plain-speak, by today’s standards Bernie Sanders might not be your typical Washington publicist-polished candidate, however, his politics and his ideas are as American as Crayola, Wonder Bread and Harley Davidson, and though the Republican right might continue to decry it, they are nowhere near radical.

Though he stands staunchly, even defiantly, by his leftist label of democratic socialist, in truth Sanders is no more socialist in ideals than many other presidents of the pre and post progressive eras of the early 20th Century. Some of these presidents were integral in passing acts that have become standards and fundamental components of our society.

Among them, trust busting presidents Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, who broke over 100 trust and big company monopolies between them during their administrations, including Standard Oil, American Sugar and Northern Securities.

When J.P. Morgan, the leading financier of his day, went to the White House to meet with President Theodore Roosevelt and Attorney General Philander Knox in late February 1902, the government had just announced the first antitrust suit against Morgan's recently formed railroad monopoly. Morgan argued that his industrial trusts were essential to American prosperity and competitiveness. He wanted a deal.

Roosevelt was blunt: "That can't be done,” he said. Attorney General Knox summarized the president’s philosophy, "We don't want to fix it up. We want it stopped." Using the precedent established under the Sherman-antitrust Act of 1890, the Roosevelt administration presided over 45 anti-trust actions. The Taft administration went even further, pursuing a total of 90 lawsuits in all.

Today, the top six banks have assets of over 10 trillion dollars, issue half of the mortgages and two-thirds of the credit cards, controlling 60% of US gross domestic product, which is why Sanders feels the need to ensure that no bank is too big to fail again.

As Bernie was quoted saying, “That is too much wealth and power in the hands of a few. If Teddy Roosevelt were alive today he'd tell us to 'break them up.' And he'd be right."

Even Bill O’Reilly had a difficult time disagreeing with Sanders on this point conceding in a recent edition of Bill Maher’s Real Time, "You know, Teddy Roosevelt, did a little bit of what you're suggesting."

Theodore Roosevelt was also a proponent of a national health insurance and income and inheritance tax, arguing that the latter would promote, “equality of opportunity.” On February 3, 1913 the Sixteenth Amendment was passed, when 88% of states agreed that it was time to tax the income of its citizens, but only those making over a certain amount would be taxed. Franklin Delano Roosevelt stated, “Taxes shall be levied according to ability to pay. That is the only American principle.” According to Felix Frankfurter’s book Mr. Justice Holmes and the Supreme Court, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (son of the poet and writer, physician Oliver Wendell Holmes and abolitionist Amelia Lee Jackson) Justice Holmes said this to a young law clerk complaining about paying taxes, “I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization.”

Drawing heavily from the ideals begun in the Progressive era of a decade before, and as a response to the worldwide stock market crash of 1929, which left the American economy in shatters and the labor force bereft as unemployment rates rose to 24.75%, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, upon his election, promised the American people a “New Deal.” FDR immediately moved toward government regulation of the economy, influenced by the dispelling of centuries long notion that poverty was a personal moral failure, rather than a product of impersonal social and economic forces.

Congressional laws established under the New Deal between 1933 and 1938 included: social security under the Social Security Act; The National Housing Act, which established the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which set housing standards and conditions, providing adequate home financing through the insurance of mortgage loans, stabilizing the mortgage market; the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority; the Banking Act of 1933 which established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, (FDIC), renewing public confidence in the banking system by insuring citizen deposits; the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established  the 40-hour work week; and, the Wagner Act, which set up the National Labor Relations Board preventing employers from interfering with workers' unions and protests in the private sector.

FDR signs the Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933. 

FDR signs the Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933. 

FDR’s New Deal changed the federal government’s relationship to the U.S. populace. And, though these government social programs were experimental projects that aimed to restore the dignity and prosperity of many Americans, viewed through an evolutionary lens, The New Deal was much bigger than just a collection of acts and agencies; it was the instrument that created the preconditions for the American middle-class to exist.

The American middle class is not a “natural” state. It is artificially created with regulations, unions, and trade policies. In a deregulated capitalist economy, it would not exist. In its natural state, capitalism is a lot like feudalism. There is a small sliver of mega rich who rule over everyone, followed by a slightly larger class of middle managers and professionals. The vast majority of people, though, fall into the category of working poor, reminiscent of serfs who have no power whatsoever under the yolks of unfettered capitalism. History has proven this. And this is what American society looked like before FDR became president.  

But for the efforts of these individuals and their social programs there would be no American Dream, the ideal that every citizen should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative, or as James Truslow Adams, put it in his 1931 book, The Epic of America, "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”

The politics of Bernie Sanders seem to center around the core principle behind the New Deal: creating the type of society in which the middle-class can thrive.

And those trust busting presidents, Taft and Theodore Roosevelt?

They were Republicans.

Socialist ideas have a long history in the United States. That Bernie Sanders is somehow considered radical is a clear indication of just how far the zeitgeist of the present day Republican Party has fallen away from its own roots and history.

The Democratic Socialists of America website says this when defining itself:

“Democratic socialists believe that both the economy and society should be run democratically—to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few. To achieve a more just society, many structures of our government and economy must be radically transformed through greater economic and social democracy so that ordinary Americans can participate in the many decisions that affect our lives. “

It would seem that democracy and socialism, by definition go together, and that socialist inspired policies have a long history in the United States, including with Republicans, even if the label does not. Worldwide, social democracy concepts have had great successes on the governments and economies of France, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and others. It hasn't interfered with the success of multinational corporations like Mercedes-Benz, Nokia, Barclays Bank, or Ferrari, either. Oh, and by the way, education tuition is 100% free in Finland, and they have a 100% literacy rate.

On June 10, 2015, PBS host Charlie Rose interviewed Bernie Sanders on his show, observing easily that many of his positions are just  “not radical,” even suggesting that perhaps the Democratic candidate not use the socialist label when campaigning: “I'm the first person trying to argue you away from the idea that you're a socialist.” 

Bernie responded, “If the argument is do I think that the government should take over every mom and pop grocery store, no, that's not my view. But do I believe everybody in this country is entitled to healthcare as a right? Yeah, I do.”  

Charlie Rose then questioned, “But you don't believe that the state should control your life?”

“Of course not,” Sanders responded

“There are those, when they see the word —”  

“I understand,” Bernie finished.

Currently, though still trailing Hillary Clinton in the polls, approval ratings for Sanders have gone from 10 to 31.2 % in the last six months, despite labels. With his no-nonsense New Yorker demeanor and Brooklyn accented truth-to-power speeches he has captivated the younger 18 to 24 demographics, a Gallup poll from July indicating an approval rating of 69%.

    There is something beautiful about Bernard Sanders and his genuine belief that honesty, integrity and the will of a people can actually win over money. But can somebody who calls himself a democratic socialist, a label many Americans view questioningly, become president?

“Well, we’ll find out,” he says. “I think people will focus on ideas and programs and problems and solving problems and not on labels.”

So far people are listening.