Breaking Up the Oligarchy

Sen. Sanders delivered the following speech at the CAP Ideas Conference in Washington, DC on May 15, 2018.

Let me thank CAP for the opportunity to join you today, and for all the important work that you have done over the years in terms of developing sensible economic, social, racial and environmental policies.

Today, we are going to hear a lot of thoughtful remarks about some of the most important issues facing this country.

Today, I am sure you will hear about the need to make certain that health care in this country is a right, not a privilege. You will hear discussion about the need to reward work and raise the minimum wage in this country to a living wage, $15 an hour, and to demand that women receive equal pay for equal work.

And I’m sure there will also be discussion about the need to protect a woman’s right to choose, and not have local, state or federal government take away that right.

There will be discussion I am sure about rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure and creating up to 15 million decent-paying jobs as we rebuild our roads, tunnels, wastewater plants, airports and build the affordable housing this country desperately needs.

I’m sure there will be discussion about fundamental education reform. About moving this country to universal and affordable child care, strengthening public education, making public colleges and universities tuition-free and lowering the terrible burden of student debt.

There will be discussion about the need to end institutional racism in our country, to end the failed war on drugs and to make dramatic reform of a criminal justice system which is failing us every single day.
There will be discussion about the need for comprehensive immigration reform, protecting the 1.8 million young Americans eligible for the DACA program and developing a path toward citizenship for the undocumented.

There will certainly be discussion today about the crisis of climate change and the need to transform our energy system away from fossil fuels towards energy efficiency and sustainable energy.

And there will also be, I am sure, ideas brought forth about the need to guarantee a job for every American and the need to pass legislation which will finally make it easier for workers to join unions.

All of these issues, and some others that I have not mentioned, are enormously important — and we must do everything possible to move them forward. But there is one issue out there which is so significant and so pervasive that, unless we successfully confront it, it will impossible for us to succeed on any of these other important issues.

The simple fact is that in the United States today, at a time of unprecedented income and wealth inequality, we have a very small number people — multi-billionaires who comprise less than one/one hundredth of one percent of our population — who exercise extraordinary power over our economic, political and social life.

In his great speech at Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln reminded us that this country is about a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Let us make no mistake about it. The oligarchy in this country, whose greed is insatiable, is destroying Lincoln’s vision of America, our vision of America, and is moving us toward a government of the few, by the few, and for the few. And that is a direction we must oppose with every fiber of our being.

Let’s be clear: the disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision is undermining American democracy. Today, we have the Koch Brothers and a few of their billionaire friends planning to spend up to $400 million in support of candidates who protect the wealthy and the powerful. We have Sheldon Adelson who just announced $30 million to prop up the Republican effort to maintain control of the U.S. Congress.

In campaign after campaign all across this country, we have super PACs funded by billionaires competing with other super PACs funded by billionaires to determine congressional representation.

Further, we have big money interests who are pushing voter suppression efforts all across this country to deny people of color, older people, poor people, young people the right to participate in the political process.

If we are serious about our desire to maintain representative government in this country, one person one vote, we must not only overturn Citizens United and end voter suppression and extreme gerrymandering, but we must move toward automatic voter registration. It is not a radical idea to say that every American citizen over the age of 18 should be automatically registered to vote. We must make it easier for people to vote, not harder. We must end the disgrace of having one of the lowest voter turnouts of a major country, and move toward having one of the highest voter turnouts.

But the move toward oligarchy in our country not only impacts our politics, it impacts our economy and the standard of living of working people.

Let’s be clear. The current grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in this country is not only immoral, it is causing massive suffering for the working families of our country.

Today, the three wealthiest people in America own more wealth than the bottom 50 percent — over 160 million people. Let me repeat that. The three wealthiest people in America own more wealth than the bottom 160 million people.

According to Time Magazine, from January 1st through May 1st of this year, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, saw his wealth increase by $275 million –every single day — for a total increase in wealth of $33 billion in a four-month period.

Meanwhile, thousands of Amazon employees are forced to rely on food stamps, Medicaid and public housing because their wages are just too low. And that is true of the Walton family of Walmart and other wealthy families. They get much richer while their employees hurt.

And when we talk about wealth inequality let us not forget that the wealth gap between white Americans and African Americans has more than tripled over the past 50 years. Today, the median white family has almost 10 times as much wealth as the median black family.

Right now, over 40 million Americans are officially living in poverty, but the truth is that 140 million Americans are struggling economically.

Over half of older Americans have no savings and no idea how they will be able to retire with any shred of dignity, and 44 percent of Americans don’t have the cash to pay for an unexpected $400 financial expense like a car accident or a medical emergency.

Unbelievably, up to 20 percent of people in jail in America today, some 400,000 people, are being imprisoned because they lack the money to pay for cash bail or to pay fines for minor violations.

The younger generation doesn’t know this, but 50 years ago, one wage earner could support his or her family. Today, despite all of the new technology and increased worker productivity, it takes two breadwinners often working very long hours to raise a family because the price of healthcare, prescription drugs, housing, education, energy and child care has gone up at a far, far higher pace than wages.

The American vision of the future, our vision, must be to create a government and an economy that works for all, not just a handful of billionaires. To do that we must have the courage to confront this oligarchy, to break up this oligarchy and to restore power to the many, not the few.

What does that mean?

It means that instead of giving over a trillion dollars in tax breaks to the top 1 percent and large profitable corporations, as Trump and the Republicans in Congress recently did, we must demand that Wall Street, the billionaire class and large, profitable corporations start paying their fair share in taxes.

Instead of trying to abolish the estate tax which impacts less than 0.2 percent of our population, we must substantially increase the estate tax not only to bring in needed revenue but to help dismantle the oligarchy.

At a time when governments all over the world are imposing austerity on their people including a Trump budget which proposed massive cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, education and environmental protection, the wealthiest people and most profitable corporations in the world are stashing at least $21 trillion in offshore tax havens and avoiding their tax responsibilities. We need not only national legislation but international cooperation to end that scam.

We need to stop imprisoning people for smoking marijuana and being poor and start prosecuting the crooks on Wall Street whose greed, recklessness and illegal behavior caused the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression 10 years ago.

Ladies and gentlemen, we live in an unprecedented moment in American history, and we need an unprecedented response. Together — black, white, Latino, Native American, Asian American, women and men, gay and straight, young and old — we must not allow Donald Trump or anyone else to divide us up. Because when we stand together as one people, united, fighting for a progressive agenda, there is nothing, nothing, nothing that we cannot accomplish.