PLAYBOY: What is the importance of manufacturing jobs? What’s the matter with service-sector jobs?
SANDERS: That’s a good question. First, we know that historically, in terms of wages, service-industry jobs—McDonald’s, Walmart—pay significantly less than manufacturing. Often in the past those were unionized jobs.
PLAYBOY: And McDonald’s is not unionized. That’s the fundamental difference, isn’t it?
SANDERS: So you’re arguing if McDonald’s workers were organized tomorrow and were paid $20 an hour, what’s the difference? The answer is, I’d like to see that. There is something psychologically important about being able to say, “I created this product,” whether it’s an automobile or a table. Do I want to see McDonald’s workers make a living wage? Absolutely. Is that important? It’s enormously important. Should we organize them, unionize them? Absolutely. But I think it says something about a society if it is capable of producing the goods it consumes rather than just importing them.
PLAYBOY: Where do you stand on immigration?
SANDERS: Look, my dad came to this country as an immigrant.
PLAYBOY: He was only 17 when he came, correct?
SANDERS: From Poland, without a nickel in his pocket. It was difficult. I mean, he came here, as many immigrants do, without any money and didn’t know how to speak the language. He had maybe one or two relatives here. He started from the bottom. He never made much money, but he was a proud American who appreciated the opportunities this country gave him and never forgot that. The ultraconservative or libertarian types say we shouldn’t have any rules. If capital needs labor, bring them in. Let them get the cheapest possible labor. I think we need a sane immigration policy, and the lifeblood of this country is immigration. But that doesn’t mean open the doors and say to a black kid who can’t find a job, “Hey, we’re going to bring in people to work for lower wages than you would.”
PLAYBOY: When you talk about America, you don’t often talk about American exceptionalism, saying we have the greatest workers in the world. That’s different from most politicians.
SANDERS: We are largely a nation of immigrants, with people from all over the world coming to this country. We have from our earliest days held democratic values. We rejected early on the class nature of Europe, believed in social mobility regardless of where you were born. Those are all extraordinary virtues of this country that we should be very proud of. I think we have a lot to be proud of. Do I think we were born superior to the folks in Mexico or Canada, that God somehow stopped at the border? No, I don’t think that.
PLAYBOY: The country has moved rapidly to a different view on gay marriage. In 10 years will the country look back and wonder what all the fuss was about?
SANDERS: Absolutely. There has been a huge societal transformation on this issue. Today, state legislatures all over the country are passing gay marriage bills—and hardly anybody cares. For younger people it is totally a nonissue.
PLAYBOY: Vermont has quite a few gun owners. How do you position yourself on the debates regarding gun ownership and restrictions?
SANDERS: Vermont does have many gun owners who enjoy hunting, target shooting and other gun-related activities. But most people in Vermont understand that as a nation we must do everything we can to end the horror of mass killings we have seen in Newtown, Connecticut; Aurora, Colorado; Blacksburg, Virginia; Tucson, Arizona and other American communities. Clearly, there is no single or simple solution to this crisis. While the legislation [to expand background checks] recently brought forth in the Senate would by no means have solved all our gun-violence problems, it would have been a step forward, and that’s why I voted for that legislation.
PLAYBOY: Does the public care all that much about the issues you’re passionate about?
SANDERS: If you go out and talk to people and say, “Hey, the Celtics beat the Knicks last night. Let’s talk about that, or let’s talk about the football game,” that’s part of the vernacular. If you say to somebody, “What are you doing to try to improve life for the middle class?” they’ll look at you as if you’re crazy. “What are you talking about? What am I supposed to do? I’ve got a job, I’m working 50 hours a week.” Or “I don’t have a job. I’m unemployed. I’m knocking my brains out trying to find work, taking care of my kids.” The idea that collective action can improve our quality of life and make gains for working families—I don’t think that’s part of people’s worldview.
Let me tell you a story outside of school. I go to the Democratic caucuses every week, and every week there is a report about fund-raising—Republicans have raised thus and thus; this is what we have done. In the six years I’ve been going to those meetings, I have never heard five minutes of discussion about organizing. It’s about raising money. Not five minutes to say, “Look, West Virginia, we have rallies, we’re doing this, we’re doing that, we’re knocking on doors.” In six years, I have heard no discussion about that at all.
PLAYBOY: Why is the hatred of Obama so extreme from some quarters? Is that a function of race or ideology or both?
SANDERS: The hatred of Obama is extreme, and it is frightening. There is no question race is one of the factors behind that hatred, but it is not race alone. Today millions of Americans get all their political information from right-wing media outlets that have totally distorted the reality of who Obama is and what he stands for. That is one of the reasons so many right-wing Republicans were shocked at the election results. In their world it was impossible to believe anyone would support Obama.
PLAYBOY: People just seem to think the system doesn’t work for them, whether they’re in the Tea Party or on the left.
SANDERS: The system doesn’t work for them. I think they’re exhausted.
PLAYBOY: Are we stuck with the two-party system?
SANDERS: There’s no question there is a massive amount of cynicism and displeasure toward our current political system and Republicans and Democrats. Clearly most people vote for one or another party not because they strongly believe in the goals of that party but because they see it as the lesser of two evils. Having said that, no one should underestimate the enormous difficulty of creating a broad-based third party that speaks to the needs of working families. That party in all likelihood would have to be organized through the trade union movement and its millions of members.
PLAYBOY: Many of your hardcore supporters are urging you to run for president in 2016. Are you considering it?
SANDERS: Well, the answer is that to run a serious campaign, you need to raise hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s number one, and I don’t think——
PLAYBOY: Barack Obama proved candidates can raise money.
SANDERS: Obama went to his friends on Wall Street the first time around.
PLAYBOY: That’s true, but he still raised a fair amount of money in small donations.
SANDERS: Yeah, but I’m not Barack Obama. That’s the point. I do not take corporate money. I think people are hungering for a voice out there. It would be tempting to try to raise issues and demand discussion on issues that are not being talked about: inequality in wealth and trade policy, protecting the social safety net, moving aggressively on global warming. Those issues are not being talked about, and it would be tempting, but….
PLAYBOY: Hillary Clinton will probably be the Democratic nominee. Does that offer an alternative to the country?
SANDERS: No, it does not.
PLAYBOY: Are you absolutely ruling out running for president, 100 percent?
SANDERS: Absolutely? 100 percent? Cross my heart? Is there a stack of Bibles somewhere? Look, maybe it’s only 99 percent. I care a lot about working families. I care a lot about the collapse of the American middle class. I care a lot about the enormous wealth and income disparity in our country. I care a lot that poverty in America is near an all-time high but hardly anyone talks about it. I realize running for president would be a way to shine a spotlight on these issues that are too often in the shadows today. [pauses] But I am at least 99 percent sure I won’t.