“IN CONVERSATION WITH BERNIE SANDERS” – HAY FESTIVAL 2017

By Benedict Barrett

Speaking at the 30th annual Hay Literary Festival, Bernie Sanders, United States Senator from Vermont and presidential candidate in last year’s election, made two things clear – firstly, that Donald Trump does not speak for the majority of the people of the United States, and that radical reforms – both to the economy of the US and to his own Democratic Party – are necessary.

Introduced and chaired by the actor Michael Sheen, the Senator’s speech began by saying, “We’ve got to talk about Trump”. The event was held the day after President Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris agreement of 2015, and so this was a topical start which was relevant and engaging for everyone, regardless of how much they knew about American politics. Trump notwithstanding, Sanders said, influential states such as California, which would be the world’s fifth largest economy if it were a country, have already pledged to continue their commitment to green energy and the terms of the Paris agreement, while overnight, “150 US cities told the President exactly where he could put his climate proposals”, meaning that US commitment to low carbon emissions is not radically changed, even if the concept will no longer be enshrined in law. Sanders also said that for Trump to be so against green energy is like deciding to invest in Blockbuster stores just as Netflix is becoming popular, or to try to sell cassette tapes as a reaction to the CD disk revolution – even North Korea is signed up to the agreement, and the US is beginning to look increasingly backward and protectionist. We know, he said, that alternative energy sources are already more profitable than fossil fuels, and so in this way money speaks – if a ‘green revolution’ doesn’t happen from the top down as a result of Trump’s actions, it will happen from the bottom up. Just because Trump is “stupid”, Sanders said, “the American people aren’t”.

Another area where the leadership of the USA is looking dangerously out of tune with the zeitgeist, Sanders said, is healthcare. 26 million people in the country – almost half of the UK’s entire population – have no access to any form of healthcare. America is the country, according to the Senator, where the dialogue between the individual and the state is along the lines of: “You just got cancer and you don’t have insurance? Tough luck, you’re on your own.” He added that the UK should be very proud that in 1948 it set a precedent for the rest of the world by saying, through the foundation of the NHS, that healthcare is a right and not a privilege. Is it in any way moral, he asks, that at the same time that the incumbent President is trying to introduce a new form of healthcare that would take coverage away from another (net) 23 million people often among the most vulnerable, while at the same time is trying to introduce a budget bill that would give 2.3 trillion dollars to the very richest in tax cuts. “I know that, here in the UK, you are familiar with the tale of Robin Hood,”, Sanders said. This President is a “reverse Robin Hood”.

Sanders rallied against Republican gerrymandering and pushes for voter ID, which he says are partisan moves to disadvantage ethnic minority voters and to minimise support for the Democrats. He said these, combined with Trump’s attacks on the independent judiciary, and his open, loud support for leaders such as Putin, Duterte, and the Saudi Royal Family, all represent a “worrying” move towards authoritarianism. This, he said, as well as the President’s stances on the climate and healthcare, may be disconcerting to some, but he urged us not to worry – Trump is the least popular President after four months in office in history, and it is important to note that even his fellow Republicans in the House and the Senate have already openly scrutinised and even blocked some of his proposals – so there is a glimmer of hope. If Trump is so unrepresentative of the will of Americans, then Sanders asks, why did he win? “It is not so much,” the Senator said, “that Trump won the election, but that the Democrats lost – they forgot about the working class for too long. Obama made positive economic progress, but this left working whites worst off.” For this reason, Bernie Sanders is trying to change the Democratic Party, with the help of leading “progressive” figures such as Elizabeth Warren. For forty years they have been in decline as a result of “dependence on Wall Street, celebrities and billionaires”, and have forgotten to try to appeal to the working class. The Democrats have been increasingly “top down”, rather than “bottom up”, alienatingmany.

In Bernie Sanders’ book Our Revolution, part account of the 2016 election, part personal manifesto, which I have tried to read in preparation for this article and which he was at the Hay Festival to promote in the first place, he writes; “The United States has a Bill of Rights, which deals with social issues – should it have an economic Bill of Rights too?”. It is this platform of genuine socialist economic reform which became a central part of his 2016 presidential bid. He adds: “Should people have a right to a stable job, a right to a certain salary so that they can feed their kids – a right to a certain number of working hours? This was key to my campaign.” 52% of all new income in the United States is fed directly to the top 1% of earners, demonstrating, as he said in his speech, that ‘trickle-down economics’ has failed and that tax breaks for the rich will never benefit the poor. In fact, he pointed out that in America there are now millions of jobs with zero holiday, zero health insurance and zero paid leave, either parental or for sickness. He said that this poor quality of life was unjustifiable when the 8 wealthiest on earth own more than the bottom 3.5 billion, and especially when these billionaires can “buy” elections to suit their own interests, rather than the interests of the bottom 50%. This is why, he said, it was time to dramatically change the way the capitalist economy is run, and to raise the living wage, as it has so far failed the most vulnerable. Social issues such as racism and sexism are being fought against, and the momentum is towards change in those areas. Meanwhile, in terms of economic issues, Sanders says, the US may even be taking a retrograde step, and this needs to be solved.

Sanders himself was proud to tell us that he had never in his political life been “bought” by donors, and especially proud that he ran his election campaign without a single super PAC. In fact, with millions of donations from individuals at an average of $27, he won 46% of the vote and 22 out of 50 states in the Democratic Primary. In all 50 states, he said, he won the youth vote by a landslide. But the most interesting thing that came out of this analysis of his grassroots bid for the presidency, he said, was that the establishment Democratic Party adopted over 90% of his proposals once they saw where the real enthusiasm was, and so he said that if you can build a big enough popular movement, you don’t need to win to change politics, a theme present throughout his book. “Despite being in the minority,” he writes, “our supporters ended up shaping much of [Clinton’s] platform”, citing the $15-an-hour minimum wage policy, and a bolder stance on healthcare. When asked of his opinion of the (then undecided) 2017 UK General Election, he praised Jeremy Corbyn for following a similar agenda to his own – changing the Labour Party to become more “bottom-up” than “top-down”, and for tackling the one area where UK politicians “seem to deny” need for radical reform – economic rights and equality. It is, he said, high time to ask the question Corbyn is asking: “Is it appropriate for so few to have so much when so many have so little?”.

When the Senator was asked whether reform of education is necessary to bring about the sort of economic future he envisions, he replied that it is unreasonable to have a large chunk of the workforce who are saddled with massive debt in order to become employable in the first place, so his first priority was university reform, and making college tuition free, which should lead to more employable workers, who are also then better placed to spend money to feed back into the economy. When he was asked if he was considering another run for President in 2020, he replied that it was “too early” to think about that election now.

Bernie Sanders’ characteristic anger at the system and fierce rhetorical style were evident throughout, and with enthusiastic contributions from both Martin Sheen and the audience, his speech was an enjoyable one.

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