Inside Story

Against oligarchy: the book of Bernie

Books | Bernie Sanders’s critique of American democracy assumes heightened relevance in the Trump era

Tom Greenwell 28 November 2016 2083 words

Man for the moment: Bernie Sanders on his feet earlier this year. Phil Roeder/Flickr

Our Revolution: A Future to Believe in
By Bernie Sanders | Allen & Unwin | $29.99

When, during the first Democratic primary debate, Bernie Sanders told Hillary Clinton that “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails,” the sound bite rocketed around the world. And yet, as Sanders comments in his new book – part campaign memoir, part manifesto – the substance of his statement fell victim to elision.

After the much-quoted line about “damn emails,” Sanders continued:

And let me say something about the media as well. I go around the country, talk to a whole lot of people. The middle class of this country is collapsing. We have twenty-seven million people living in poverty. We have massive wealth and income inequality. Our trade policies have cost us millions of decent paying jobs. The American people want to know whether we’re going to have a democracy or an oligarchy as a result of Citizens United. Enough of the emails. Let’s talk about the real issues facing America.

As it turned out, the obsessive media coverage of Clinton’s email woes was only just beginning. And Bernie Sanders is still doggedly trying to get the focus back to the real issues. Promoting Our Revolution in Manhattan last week, he declared, in typically gruff fashion: “There’s no gossip in it. There’s no juicy stuff” – and that is largely true.

While the text was completed before Clinton’s shock loss on 8 November, Sanders’s discussion of whether he would have been a stronger opponent against Trump is notable mostly for its brevity. He confines himself to pointing out that his lead over Trump in twenty-eight out of thirty polls was useful in negating the argument that he was unelectable.

The only reference to the Sanders campaign’s famously fractious relationship with the Democratic National Committee and its former chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, is a comment about the DNC turning down requests for more debates. “The DNC and Debbie Wasserman Schultz were not terribly interested in what we had to say,” Sanders notes dryly.

Similarly, there is little that is revelatory of the campaign’s internal politics. Sanders makes no reference to alleged missteps – spending too much time in the Senate in 2015; delaying attacks on Clinton’s Goldman Sachs speeches – disclosed to the New York Times by top aides in his campaign’s dying days.

Perhaps the most candid Sanders gets is when he discusses his decision to focus heavily on Iowa and New Hampshire. (He proudly notes that he held sixty-eight rallies in New Hampshire, directly connecting with as many as one in four people who voted for him there.) “It was the right decision,” he insists. But writing of his campaign’s predicament after the early states had voted, he allows that “we were paying the price for that choice… We were running out of runway.” Sanders had failed to achieve the hoped-for clean sweep of the early states and there was very little time left to appear before voters in the dozens of states that would be up for grabs in March.

If Sanders mostly eschews gossip and disclosure, though, he does so to reiterate the core message of his campaign. Tens of millions of Americans are living in poverty, and as many as one in five of them are children; mortality rates for poor middle-aged whites have gone up 10 per cent since 2000; the federal minimum wage has nearly a third less purchasing power than it did half a century ago; the median annual income has declined almost US$1400 in real terms since Bill Clinton left office. Forty-one per cent of American workers didn’t take a single day of paid vacation in 2015; a third of workers in the private sector aren’t even able to take paid sick leave. The majority of retirees try to get by on an annual pension of US$11,000 or less.

To add insult to injury, the “billionaire class” has ballooned. There were fifty-one billionaires in America in 2000; there are now 540 (with a net worth of US$2.4 trillion). The wealthiest 0.1 per cent of Americans own almost as much as the bottom 90 per cent. The Walton family (owners of Walmart) alone have more wealth than the poorest 130 million Americans. The overwhelming majority of Walmart employees earn less than US$15 an hour and many rely on food stamps, subsidised housing and Medicaid to get by. Walmart’s CEO took home US$19.4 million, or US$9000 an hour, in 2015 and the company made US$15 billion in profit.

Moral outrage simmers through Sanders’s book as it did through his speeches on the campaign trail. “Is it moral,” Sanders asks

that, when millions of seniors are unable to afford the medicine they need, the top one-tenth of 1 per cent owns as much wealth as the bottom 90 per cent? Is it moral that, when we have the highest rates of childhood poverty of almost any major country in the world, the twenty wealthiest people in the country have more wealth than the bottom half of America – 160 million people? Is it moral that, when our citizens are working longer hours for lower wages, 52 per cent of all new income generated today is going to the top 1 per cent?

In Sanders’s analysis, these statistics are not an accident but an artefact of a political system that is tending more and more towards oligarchy. The capacity of corporations and very wealthy individuals to spend unlimited amounts on elections, via super PACs, gives them inordinate power over politicians.

Some other observers, like former editor of the New Republic and the Dish, Andrew Sullivan, suggest that Sanders himself is walking proof that money no longer matters. How could Sanders have been so successful, Sullivan has asked, if the corporate donors call all the shots? Sceptics also point to the Republican primary where, in New Hampshire for instance, Jeb Bush spent US$36 million to come in fourth, nine times as much as the victor, Donald Trump. It’s true that having the most money isn’t always determinative of the outcome; but it remains a significant advantage, one that all candidates seek. Sanders certainly broke new ground in building a campaign on millions of small donations, averaging US$27, but it’s quite another step to claim he eliminated the power of big donors. In explaining his decision to run for the Democratic nomination, Sanders points to the Clintons’ long history of raising campaign donations and speaking fees from corporate America, and comments: “It is simply not credible to believe that candidates who receive significant amounts of financial support from some of the most powerful special interests in the world would make decisions that would negatively impact the bottom lines of these donors.” Whether or not a winning candidate is the one who had the most largesse bestowed upon them, their donors still receive the kind of access and influence ordinary citizens can only dream of. The influence of money is also more insidious than Sullivan and others acknowledge. Sanders cites a sympathetic headline from August 2015 to illustrate a theme he reiterates throughout the book: “Bernie Sanders Speaks to 28,000 People in Portland, While Hillary Hosts $2700-a-Head Fund-Raiser.” The sheer amount of time that candidates for office typically devote to courting very wealthy donors means that they disproportionately absorb the concerns and preoccupations of a tiny elite.

The other problem with the Sullivan line is the fact that the lion’s share of the dollars sloshing around US politics is not spent on campaigns. It’s spent on lobbying. As Sanders has pointed out, Big Pharma alone has more than twice as many lobbyists in Washington than there are elected officials in Congress.

Revealingly, Sanders nominates Pope Francis as a key influence on his campaign message. From Francis, Sanders drew the inspiration to think big and elevate the moral dimension of economic debate. It was in a similar spirit that Sanders chose to speak at Liberty University, the home of the religious right, in the summer of 2015. There, he appealed to students trying to understand the meaning of morality that “we have to… understand that there is no justice when so few have so much and so many have so little.”

If Sanders’s moral clarity is a virtue, it is perhaps disappointing that he doesn’t delve more deeply into the complexities raised by the issues he traverses. For instance, he appears to agree in broad terms with Trump consigliere Steve Bannon that “the globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia.” Even accepting that characterisation and the zero-sum game it implies, it seems incumbent on a progressive Democrat like Sanders to be more thoughtful about the dilemma it poses. The emergence of a middle class in Asia has been an extraordinary leap forward in human wellbeing. At what point is Sanders prepared to defend protectionist policies that deny economic opportunities to workers in poor countries? Unfortunately, he doesn’t tell us.

Sanders almost certainly envisaged Our Revolution as a popular program for pulling President Hillary Clinton leftwards. Trump’s surprise ascendancy only makes the book’s argument against oligarchy even more pertinent.

The appointment of a Supreme Court justice sympathetic to Citizens United will likely embed unlimited campaign expenditure as a feature of American politics. And, as Sanders points out, the right wants to go even further. The next step is to remove the requirement that unlimited donations can only be made to political action committees (and not directly to candidates).

Regardless of how well the richest Americans have fared in recent decades, their lot is set to improve even further under President Trump. According to analysis by the Urban Brookings Tax Policy Center, Trump’s proposed tax cuts will reduce revenue from corporate America by US$3 trillion over the next decade. Individuals who earn over US$3.7 million annually will enjoy an average tax cut of US$1.3 million. As the analysis notes, cuts of this scale “would require unprecedented cuts in federal spending.” Congressional Republicans, led by Paul Ryan, are already laying out plans that ensure that programs like Medicare will be the first to be hit.

While the poor will almost certainly get poorer in the Trump era, they’re likely to have even less purchase on government. Trump’s pick of senator Jeff Sessions, an avowed opponent of civil rights, as attorney-general is an ominous sign. A justice department with Sessions at the helm is very unlikely to act against voter suppression efforts or provide meaningful federal oversight of discriminatory policing.

As Democrats fight back, Sanders is likely to play a critical role. Clinton’s loss – and the apparent resonance of Trump’s economic nationalism in the rustbelt states – has already increased his stature within Democratic ranks. Since 8 November he has become part of the Senate leadership team, and close Sanders ally Keith Ellison is a leading candidate to become the new DNC chair.

Sanders’s response to Trump’s win has been to distinguish sharply between his bigotry, on the one hand, and his economic message, on the other. As Sanders said immediately after the election result, “to the degree that Mr Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him.” This strategy appears to be designed either to force Trump to pursue policies that go against GOP orthodoxy or, in the likelihood that doesn’t eventuate, to reveal the hollowness of Trump’s anti-elitist rhetoric and start chipping away at his electoral appeal.

The moments when it became apparent that Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin were swinging Trump’s way – and with them the election – brought multiple shocks. It wasn’t just Hillary’s candidacy and career that were suddenly over but the Clinton era itself. The Democratic Party faces the task of fighting an extreme right-wing agenda and unprecedented assaults on democratic norms, all the while trying to interpret the meaning of the success of Trump’s authoritarian populism. As Our Revolution shows, the moment is made for Bernie Sanders. •