How the Bernie Sanders Political Project Mirrors our Call-Out Culture

Alex R
Alex R
May 18, 2019 · 8 min read
Thank You to Timothy Krause for this image of Senator Sanders in Brooklyn

For a politician who has received such a wide-ranging, personal level of support over the past 4 years, Bernie Sanders seems dismissive, borderline annoyed at the amount of appeal his personality seems to have.

In contrast to other Democratic candidates in the race who feel they’re “born to be in it,” Sanders is stubbornly committed to framing his campaign as a matter of “Not me. Us.” — which is the slogan blasted on Bernie’s campaign website and a phrase he repeats on the trail.

The Power of Individuals

Underlying “Not me. Us.” is an understanding of the power individual personalities can have in overshadowing the movements they represent. Similarly, Bernie’s political arguments often take the form of connecting real human faces to what he feels are corrupt economic systems.

When Sanders was asked about Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s comments that Trump would win re-election if someone who is not a “moderate” like Sanders won the nomination, Sanders responded with the most sarcasm a 77-year-old man could muster:

“Oh, isn’t that nice? Why is Howard Schultz on every television station? Why are you quoting Howard Schultz? Because he’s a billionaire.”

Schultz’s threat to run his own Independent campaign, Sanders argues, is completely about his own vanity rather than him having an iota of desire to help the people of this country. Sanders is in the majority here, the notion that Schultz should not run for president seems to be the consensus view among practically anyone not named Howard Schultz.

But perhaps more interesting is the other point Sanders is making, that the only reason Candidate Schultz is even a conversation topic is because we have a media system that treats all billionaires as if they are legitimate public servants deserving of political attention. And so called biased outlets like CNN will give billionaires like Schultz millions of dollars in free advertising, blindly repeating the problems of 2016.

Another set of billionaires Sanders calls out are the Koch brothers. During a 2015 interview, Bernie Sanders was asked what he thought about open borders, and his response is one you might not expect. This is an exchange between Sanders and his interviewer, Ezra Klein.

Sanders: “Open borders? No, that’s a Koch brother’s proposal.

Klein: “really?”

Sanders: “Of course, I mean that’s a right wing proposal which says essentially there is no United States.”

Klein: “But it would make a lot of the global poor richer, wouldn’t it?”

Sanders: “And it’d make everybody in America poorer. Then you’re doing away with the concept of a nation state. And I don’t think there’s any country in the world which believes in that…What right-wing people in this country would love is an open border policy. Bring in all kinds of people who’ll work for 2 or 3 dollars an hour, that would be great for them. I don’t believe in that.”

Similar to the case with Schultz and the media’s dangerous promotional habits, we have Sanders attempting to expose the system of immigrant worker exploitation. With the callout of the Koch brothers, Bernie is showing one of the many faces behind the greed.

Sanders also introduced the Stop BEZOS Act last year, calling out Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos for the low wages in his trillion dollar company, with many workers having to rely on government benefits. This pressure lead to a nationwide increase of Amazon workers wages to atleast $15 dollars an hour, with rival employers like Walmart now being pressured to follow suit.

Speaking of Walmart, the Walton family is another target of Sanders. Here is him attacking the Walton family for the absurd disparity between their wealth and the wages of their customers.

“The Walton family makes more money in one minute than Walmart workers do in an entire year. This is what we mean when we talk about a rigged economy.” — February 14th, 2019

Sanders’s factoid received the Washington Post fact checker’s rare checkmark of approval. This checkmark rating they say is reserved for facts that are surprisingly true. Depending on how you run the numbers, the typical Walmart worker makes $20,000–$24,000 each year, and the Walton Family makes about $3.1 billion a year from stock dividends, which, divided into a 40 hour work week ends up being $25,149 every minute.

The Power of Groups

Right around the time he was elected to the House of Representatives, Sanders gave a speech at Harvard called Creating a New Political Agenda and in it he repeatedly voiced his frustration with what he sees as single-issue groups.

“We can’t continue to be single issue people. If you are concerned about the environment, it’s not enough just to be concerned about the environment, you’ve got to be concerned about the fact that people are sleeping out on the street, that working people are seeing a decline in their standard of living. If you’re concerned about the peace movement, and what goes on in the world and we’re spending 290 billion dollars [in defense spending], you’ve got to be concerned that elderly people can’t afford prescription drugs. And you’ve got to bring all those people together.

His view is that in order to have a powerful political movement, not only do people need to come together, but groups of different interests need to join up as well.

“Our job is to say what the fight is about is not the environment, it’s not peace, it’s not healthcare, but the fight is about power. That’s what politics is about. They’ve got it; our people do not have it. That’s what it’s about.”

Keep in mind that this speech was given two decades ago, and while Sanders is not quite as explicit in stating these beliefs in 2019, their implications still seem to matter today, particularly with how Sanders relates to the Democratic Party.

Bernie has received criticism for supporting anti-abortion candidates in the past (”I think you just can’t exclude people who disagree with us on one issue.”) He is also less fond of the idea of reparations compared to other candidates. Reparations being an idea that specifically benefits one group rather than the whole of the country. And we could continue going down the line of policy across healthcare, education, and so on, and the presence of universality, of “us-ness” is valued above all else.

I made this.

Universal Programs & Race Relations

There is a certain political logic to programs that cover as many Americans as possible, mainly that there is a direct relationship between how many people a policy helps and how popular it becomes. Our country’s most expansive policies of Social Security and Medicare are incredibly popular, whereas more targeted programs like SNAP, the Affordable Care Act, and Medicaid have struggled to receive continued support. The GOP tax cut bill of 2017 was perceived as helping the wealthy more than working families and has received minimal public support even a year after its passage.

The main problem with universal policies, however, is that they can be expensive, inefficient, and often politically confusing. The “for-all” in “Medicare-for-all” seems to be the problem — why should the government pay to provide healthcare to the sons and daughters of billionaires?

The wonky argument, one that Medicare-for-all sponsor Congresswoman Jayapal makes, is that a healthcare plan that is partly government-funded for middle and lower income people, and privately-funded for the wealthy, just does not work well enough to justify a lack of universality. It ends up creating a multi-tiered system that remains too complex to see the massive reduction in administrative costs that a single payer program would give.

But there is a moral case to be made, too. With universal policies, a government can say this: I do not care who you are or where you come from or how much money you have. You are an American and you have a right to be healthy, to be fed, and to be free from the worst of destitution.

This moral argument takes us somewhat full circle as we return to single issue groups. Since Lyndon B. Johnson expanded the social security state in the 1960s, conservatives have dipped in and out of race-based attacks thinly veiled as political attacks towards almost every federal aid program. While it is true that in 2019 you can find some Republicans who will genuinely argue that these programs are ineffective or wasteful, the most common and the most successful arguments throughout history have always centered around moral judgements towards people who don’t look like you.

When a Ronald Reagan chasistes the so-called welfare queen, or when current Republican-led governorships aim to “reward work,” they are making the not-so-subtle case that food stamps and Medicaid and anything else that feels like a handout, all of these are programs that have been created specifically for people who are poor, black, and Democrat. True or not (it’s not), this racist political strategy has always placed a cap on how popular these programs can become. And this is a problem that is almost completely solved with universal policies.

To put it bluntly, government benefits tend to only feel like handouts when it’s other people who receive them. But when every single citizen gets a Medicare insurance card in the mail, or when every person in your neighborhood receives a $1,000 monthly Universal Basic Income (as candidate Andrew Yang has suggested) — when every American you know, regardless of race or income is helped out, then it becomes very challenging for a Trumpian candidate to come around and claim that brown people are stealing your jobs or your money. And in a seemingly roundabout way, a country can make strides in relieving racial tensions by appealing to everyone. This is, as it appears to me, to be Bernie’s vision for unifying the country across all demographics.

He has acknowledged, however, that there is nuance that needs to be addressed in terms of racial disparities within programs, as he was telling Trevor Noah in a recent interview.

“That it’s not just [about] health care for all, I talked to a young black women the other day and she said, ‘my mother hesitates to go to the doctor because she doesn’t think that that white doctor is gonna treat her with the respect that she deserves…I talked to a guy in Milwaukee, a successful black businessmen, he said ‘Bernie, I can’t get a loan. I’m black, I cannot get a loan.’ …So I think I will do a better job this time in understanding and talking about those type of issues.”

Mind you, this response was Bernie’s answer to Trevor asking him what he’s learned about race while running for president. And while these insights Sanders is just now making would be exceedingly obvious to a candidate from a more diverse state like California or Texas, for the Vermont Senator, it is still an area where he needs to grow. The broader mission however, that of “us,” has been one that is decades in the making. And the dangers of failing this mission have never been more clear. As Sanders said in 1991: “If we don’t get hope to people that the enormous problems that their facing are going to be solved, then I think David Duke-type politics becomes the politics of the future.”

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