At a time when politicians—particularly members of Congress—are almost universally reviled and blind partisanship seems to dictate the fate of every piece of legislation, one U.S. senator stands out as a unique voice.
Bernie Sanders has been a senator from Vermont since 2006. It’s hard for him to be caught up in partisanship: He’s one of only two U.S. senators who identify as independent. Although he caucuses with the Democrats, Sanders refuses to run as one and regularly chides them for abandoning the working class. He has never been much of a party man. When he was first elected to the House of Representatives, in 1990, he refused any party affiliation, making him the longest-serving independent member of Congress in American history.
His views are clear and differ radically from those of his Republican colleagues and often sharply from those of his closest allies, the Democrats. He describes himself as a democratic socialist and often praises Scandinavian-style social democracy. Fox News thinks he’s crazy, and he makes MSNBC look timid.
The 72-year-old Brooklyn-born Sanders moved to Vermont in 1968 after graduating from the University of Chicago and spending time on a kibbutz in Israel. Always a leftist activist, he became a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. That led him to politics, though he failed to win early races for the Senate and the governorship.
It wasn’t until 1981 that he won his first office, mayor of Burlington, Vermont’s largest city, by a total of 10 votes. His four terms were full of his trademark liberal ideas—low-cost housing, reining in the excesses of the local cable-TV operation and forming the Vermont Progressive Party. He has also taught at Harvard and at Hamilton College in New York.
Of course Vermont is one of the bluest states in the country (it gave us onetime presidential candidate Howard Dean), and Sanders is a hero to locals. He won reelection last year with 71 percent of the vote, and his approval ratings make him one of the most popular senators in the country. Nationally, he gained notoriety for his views on gun control (pro), foreign intervention (anti) and, most vocally, his passion for the plight of the middle class and the sorry state of the American economy.
We sent noted economics writer Jonathan Tasini, who previously interviewed Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman for Playboy, to sit down with Sanders for a series of discussions in Vermont and Washington. Tasini reports: “I was warned ahead of time: Bernie doesn’t do personal revelations. No question about it; he is the anti–Bill Clinton. The most extensive anecdote about Sanders the person came from a ticket agent at the Vermont airport. When I mentioned what I was doing in the area, she smiled and said, ‘Oh, we love Bernie,’ and proceeded to tell me how Sanders had helped her boyfriend, a veteran with a back injury who was having a hellish time getting the Department of Veterans Affairs to approve his medical costs. ‘By the time they were done, they were on a first-name basis,’ she said.
“After spending numerous hours with Senator Sanders, I came to understand why he resists suggestions from his followers that 2016 might be the right time for him to make a run for the White House. It’s not that he worries about losing. Although he wants to influence the debate, his hunger for power isn’t so insatiable that he would debase himself in the arena of what poses as serious political debate in America.”
PLAYBOY: You have said, “There are people working three jobs and four jobs, trying to cobble together an income in order to support their families.” Has the middle class died forever?
SANDERS: Well, I certainly hope it’s not forever, but one of the untold stories of our time is the collapse of the American middle class. From the end of World War II until 1973, we saw an expanding middle class, with people’s incomes going up. Since that point, and especially since the Wall Street–driven financial crisis, you’ve seen a real collapse. Since 1999 median family income has gone down $5,000. Real unemployment, counting people who have given up looking for work or who are working part-time when they want to work full-time, is more than 14 percent. More than 14 percent! You’re seeing millions of people working longer hours for lower wages. When I was growing up in a lower-middle-class family, the gold standard for blue-collar workers was union manufacturing in the automobile industry. As the big three have been rehiring, they’re hiring people at something like $14 an hour, half the wages. The U.S. has 46 million people living in poverty today. We have the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world.
PLAYBOY: How do you explain that?
SANDERS: We live in a hypercapitalist society, which means the function of every institution is not to perform a public service but to make as much money as possible. There’s an effort to privatize water, for God’s sake. I suppose somebody will figure out how to charge you for the oxygen you breathe. The function of health care, in a rational world, is to make sure every person, as a right, has access to the health care they need in the most cost-effective way possible. That is not the nature of our health care system at all. The function of this health care system is for people in the system—whether it’s insurance companies, drug companies, medical specialists—to make as much money out of it as possible. In five minutes one could come up with ways to make the system simpler and more cost effective.
PLAYBOY: Has this hypercapitalism accelerated lately?
SANDERS: People have lost sight of America as a society where everyone has at least a minimal standard of living and is entitled to certain basic rights, a nation in which every child has a good-quality education, has access to health care and lives in an environmentally clean community, not as an opportunity for billionaires to make even more money and avoid taxes by stashing their money in the Cayman Islands. Can you argue that the era of unfettered capitalism should be over? Absolutely. Does this system of hypercapitalism, this incredibly unequal distribution of wealth and income, need fundamental reform? Absolutely it does. You have the entire scientific community saying we have to be very aggressive in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Yet you’re seeing the heads of coal companies and oil companies willing to sacrifice the well-being of the entire planet for their short-term profits. And these folks are funding phony organizations to try to create doubt about the reality of global warming.
PLAYBOY: Aren’t they just taking care of their shareholders?
SANDERS: Big business is willing to destroy the planet for short-term profits. I regard that as just incomprehensible. Incomprehensible. And because of their power over the political process, you hear a deafening silence in the U.S. Congress and in other bodies around the world about the severity of the problem. Global warming is a far more serious problem than Al Qaeda.
PLAYBOY: Today, people who don’t have a union, pensions or health care feel resentful of those who do have those benefits.
SANDERS: That’s part of the Republican plan. It has worked very well. This is not a new idea. Think back 50 years, to the 1950s and the 1960s. The lowest-paid white workers in America were where? They were in Mississippi, in Alabama. How did those companies get away with paying them such low wages? They played them off against black workers, who were even worse off. Then over the years you play immigrants against native-born people; you play straight people against gay people. Rather than say, “Firefighters have a halfway decent health care program, and we have to make sure you get one as good as theirs,” Republicans are pretty clever in playing one group against another. When you have a president of the United States who is talking about cuts in Social Security and veterans’ programs, who was willing earlier on to give continued tax breaks to billionaires and unwilling to go after huge corporate loopholes, people sit there and say, “Both parties are working for the big-money interests.”
PLAYBOY: Ten years ago jobs were going abroad to low-wage countries. Now jobs are coming back because we’re seen as an even lower-wage country.
SANDERS: There’s a quote I can dig up for you from some guy saying General Electric can expand in the United States because the wages are now competitive with the rest of the world. You can now hire workers in America for wages so low it becomes a good investment for American companies. That is pathetic. The goal of all those trade agreements was, in fact, to shut down plants in America. We have lost almost 60,000 manufacturing plants and millions of good-paying jobs in the past 10 years. Products go to China, Vietnam and elsewhere, are manufactured and brought back to the United States, not only causing unemployment in this country but pushing wages down. That’s what corporate America has wanted, and it has significantly succeeded.
PLAYBOY: You’ve said that today the wealthiest 400 individuals in this country own more wealth than the bottom half of America, 150 million people.
SANDERS: One family, the Waltons, who own Walmart, has more wealth than the bottom 40 percent. The top one percent today owns 38 percent of all wealth. Take a wild and crazy guess as to what the bottom 60 percent own.
PLAYBOY: Probably five percent.
SANDERS: No, 2.3 percent. When we were growing up and read about oligarchic countries in Latin America and elsewhere, did you ever think that in the United States one percent would own 38 percent of the wealth and the bottom 60 percent only 2.3 percent? As part of the budget debate, I brought forth an amendment in committee. I looked at my Republican friends and said something like “I know you’ve been interested in welfare reform. So am I, and I want to give you the opportunity right now to take on the biggest welfare cheat in the United States of America.” In state after state, Walmart employees are on Medicaid, they’re on food stamps, they’re in publicly subsidized housing. I said, “If we can raise the minimum wage and get a living wage for these people, we’re going to save billions of dollars. The wealthiest family in this country, the Walton family, is getting welfare from the taxpayers of this country. Let’s end that.” You’ll be shocked to know I didn’t get any votes from the Republicans on that.
PLAYBOY: You make the U.S. sound like a banana republic in which a handful of families control all the economic and political power.
SANDERS: Yes, it is. In more technical economic terms I would call it an oligarchy. You have an economy where a very few people control a large part of the wealth. You have an economy where the top six financial institutions have assets equivalent to two thirds of the GDP of the United States, more than $9 trillion. That’s economic control. On top of that, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance, Citizens United, said to these folks, “Hey, so you own the economy. Fine. Now we’re giving you the opportunity to own the political process.” The other part of the story is what happens on the floors of the Senate and the House. If there’s a tough vote in the House or the Senate—for example, legislation to break up the large banks—people might come up and say, “Bernie, that’s a pretty good idea, but I can’t vote for that.” Why not? Because when you go home, what do you think is going to happen? Wall Street dumps a few million dollars into your opponent’s campaign.
PLAYBOY: Beyond Citizens United, has the Supreme Court become too partisan?