If you’ve ever listened to the coarse, Brooklyn-accented voice of Senator Bernard Sanders for more than 30 seconds, you’re probably aware of some troubling statistics regarding the ongoing four-decade decline in the American standard of living. For example, almost 80% of American workers live paycheck-to-paycheck, 35,000 Americans die each year due to lack of access to healthcare, 500,000 Americans are bankrupted by medical bills each year, 44% of Americans can’t afford a $400 emergency, 45 million Americans are burdened with a cumulative $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, and, on a related note, about 40,000 senior citizens have their Social Security benefits garnished.
In the wealthiest country in modern history, these facts should be shocking. But just in case you’ve grown accustomed to them, here are a few more harsh realities: Americans are taking Ubers to emergency rooms instead of ambulances. They’re traveling to Canada to buy the insulin they can’t afford in the U.S. (because it is ten times the cost). Millions of Americans are being poisoned by lead-contaminated water (Flint is just the tip of the iceberg). The white/black racial wealth gap is ten to one. Oh, and slave labor is still a thing.
These appalling circumstances might make the good ol’ U.S. of A. seem like a dystopian hellscape, but some folks are actually doing quite well. While wages have been stagnant for the last four decades (despite a consistent increase in productivity), the top 1% has increased its share of the pie dramatically, now owning 40% of the wealth and receiving more than 90% of all new income in recent years. This ongoing process of wealth concentration is no accident; it is an outcome of specific policies that began in the late 1970s — often broadly referred to as deregulation or neoliberalism.
This brave new era was characterized by mass incarceration (powered by the disastrous War on Drugs), an obliteration of social programs, a historic decline in the prominence of labor unions, a mass-outsourcing of American jobs, and unfettered corporate hegemony — notably in the realm of political lobbying and campaign contributions. The Clinton administration’s 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act set the stage for a dark climax in this age of austerity — the financial crisis of 2008. In the United States, this global catastrophe resulted in about 8.7 million Americans losing their jobs and as many as 10 million losing their homes.
Such bleak observations aren’t merely academic; for me, they’re personal. I graduated from a private art and design college in late 2007 — right before the aforementioned financial crisis and subsequent recession. After serving in AmeriCorps for a year, I found that job prospects were quickly diminishing (most companies and organizations I applied to were downsizing). More than a decade later, I still have yet to find a full-time job in my field of study.
With well over $100,000 in student loan debt, I struggled to make even minimum payments after my grace period ended, as I bounced between manual labor and restaurant jobs. I currently work two jobs to make ends meet, often avoiding the doctor due to financial difficulties. In addition to the insurmountable burden of the debt itself, the resulting stress, anxiety, and despair are immeasurable.
To paraphrase Bernie, if we can afford to bail out the white-collar criminals on Wall Street who destroyed our economy, I believe we can also afford to “bail out” the floundering working class. Bold solutions like Medicare for All, student debt cancellation, tuition-free public college, and publicly-financed elections were widely perceived as utopian pipe dreams during the 2016 presidential primaries when they initially entered public consciousness. But, much to the chagrin of the political establishment, Bernie’s stubborn humanism has essentially set the policy agenda for the 2020 Democratic primaries (in no small part because these proposals now enjoy broad popular support).
Sanders vs. Warren
This brand of rapid social progress is admittedly not for everyone. If you just want a “return to normalcy” and generally supported the Obama-era status quo, then you have a slew of candidates to choose from, including Biden, Buttigieg, and Bloomberg. But if you consider yourself a true progressive — if you, for instance, believe healthcare should be a human right, or if you, as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says, believe no one should be too poor to live — then I must address the elephant in the room: Why choose Bernie Sanders over Elizabeth Warren? After all, aren’t their respective policy positions “almost indistinguishable”?
Contrary to popular belief, there are substantial differences between the policies, voting records, strategies, and overarching philosophies of Sanders and Warren. Let’s go through some of the simple ones first:
- Warren voted to approve Ben Carson as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (Sanders did not).
- Sanders has a plan to eliminate all medical debt (Warren does not).
- Sanders has a plan to eliminate all student loan debt (Warren has a plan to eliminate most student loan debt).
- Warren voted for Trump’s military budget increase in 2017 (Sanders did not).
- Warren has been inconsistent on Medicare for All, and her more recent plan even puts it on the back burner (Sanders has been consistent for decades).
Now let’s dig a little deeper and explore the philosophical and strategic differences between these two prominent progressives. I believe these distinctions can be encapsulated by the fact that Sanders refers to himself as a “democratic socialist,” whereas Warren has said, “I am a capitalist to my bones.” Furthermore, Elizabeth Warren’s accidental campaign slogan became “I have a plan for that,” whereas Bernie’s is “Not Me, Us.” Warren believes that the current system could use a few technocratic tweaks to make it less barbaric, while Sanders believes we need a massive, multiracial, grassroots, working-class movement to completely overhaul said system.
Indeed, the Sanders campaign has the enthusiastic support of just such a movement — a movement that is notably young and diverse. A recent update from Iowa even revealed that the campaign has had about 44,000 volunteers in that state alone, and, more broadly, has received a record-breaking five million individual donations from about 1.3 million Americans. But why is a “political revolution” coalescing around this specific old white guy?
In short, Bernie Sanders has an inspiring political vision that is firmly grounded in the material conditions of the working class. He has been consistently fighting for our interests for decades, most notably when it was unpopular to do so. This is why Bernie is one of the few trustworthy politicians in recent memory. In addition to his exclusively grassroots campaign finance model, he has an extensive resume that demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt that he is, in fact, incorruptible. With our help, a Sanders presidency could successfully confront our major enemies; the oligarchic billionaire class and climate change.
Defeating Trump and Beyond
There’s another elephant in the room, but this one doesn’t belong here. I’m referring to Bernie’s “electability.” Pundits from the corporate news media will often ponder whether or not Sanders is “electable” in a general election. But if we can eschew our world-renowned collective amnesia for a moment, we’d realize that these are the same folks who told us Hillary Clinton had a “99% chance” of winning the 2016 presidential election. To broach this topic, I’d recommend reading Matt Karp and Meagan Day’s piece in Jacobin, in which they make the compelling case that, not only is Sanders electable, but he’s our best shot at beating Trump. Here’s an important excerpt:
“Sanders has been crushing Trump in head-to-head polls for years now, and his lead is especially strong among lower-propensity voters. A recent SurveyUSA poll showed that in a matchup with Trump, Bernie actually runs a few points better than Biden (and much better than Warren) among voters making less than $80,000, and with voters who describe themselves as ‘poor’ or ‘working class.’ And those are just people who are already registered. Of the major Democratic candidates, Sanders clearly has the best chance to awaken the sleeping giant of young and working-class nonvoters and bring them into the electorate.”
Unless you occasionally find yourself patrolling the streets with a Tiki torch while chanting “blood and soil,” you are probably aware that Trump is a complete monster and needs to be defeated. But this election is about much more than ousting an ostensible aberration. A sober historical analysis will reveal that Trumpism emerged from specific material conditions. Although the term “economic anxiety” can function as a racist dog whistle, it is also a very real phenomenon.
As we all know now (and should have known all along), Trump is simply an opportunistic con man and a pathological liar. But he did tap into a deep-seated and justifiable distrust of the American political establishment, and for that he was awarded the presidency. Bernie Sanders not only has bona fide anti-establishment street cred, but he is committed to replacing neoliberalism with a system that works for the 99%. In addition to raising the American standard of living dramatically, this could prevent the rise of another orange-tinted nationalist somewhere down the line.
Picture this: Democratic nominee Elizabeth Warren confronts Donald Trump about his endless lies — while she herself has been lying about her ancestry for decades. Picture Warren confronting Trump about his inconsistent rhetoric or his reactionary ideology — when she herself had previously been a registered Republican until 1995. Or picture Pete Buttigieg confronting Trump on racism — after he himself fired South Bend’s first black police chief and after his own campaign lied about support from the black community.
Picture Joe Biden confronting Trump on racism after he himself supported segregation efforts (not to mention mass incarceration and the racist War on Drugs). Picture him debating Trump on jobs and the economy when he himself supported NAFTA, a trade policy that outsourced hundreds of thousands of American jobs. Picture him debating Trump on foreign policy after he himself voted for the invasion of Iraq and oversaw the destruction of Libya and the drone-bombing of thousands of civilians overseas. Picture him attempting to secure the Millennial vote after helping make sure American borrowers can’t discharge student loan debt in bankruptcy.
We’ve seen that movie already — back in 2016.
Now picture this: An honest, uncorrupted, scandal-free politician with a four-decade record of consistently fighting for average citizens confronting a washed-up Reality TV star and sleazy billionaire who brags about sexual assault and who demonstrates his corruption on a near daily basis. Picture someone who voted against the invasion of Iraq and drafted legislation to end U.S. involvement in Saudi Arabia’s genocidal war in Yemen debating a president who drops a bomb every twelve minutes and is attempting to initiate a war with Iran. Picture a progressive Jew whose family was murdered in the Holocaust deposing a right-wing bigot who runs concentration camps and whose conspiracy mongering helped inspire the largest act of anti-Semitic terrorism in American history.
Sometimes you just have to fight fire with water.