In the wake of several recent successful challenges from the left to centrist, “establishment” Democrats, most notably Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders isn’t on record telling anyone “I told you so.”
But Sanders has long argued that “better than the Republicans” isn’t enough for Democrats (or anyone else) to win elections — a bold political vision is needed to excite voters enough to turn out for candidates. We can’t know what will happen with progressive challengers like Ocasio-Cortez and Maryland gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous if and when they take office. But their campaigns seem to vindicate Sanders’s basic argument about the appeal of unapologetic, “anti-establishment” politics.
In a recent interview with Daniel Denvir for Jacobin Radio’s The Dig podcast, Sanders discusses Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other recent shakeups within the Democratic Party, and why a bold political vision is good politics. You can subscribe to Jacobin Radio here and support The Dig here.
No, I don’t think the Democratic leadership fully appreciates the significance of Alexandria’s victory. She has gotten a lot of attention, and her victory was extraordinary. She ran a really smart, grassroots campaign. She knocked on a heck of a lot of doors. She had great volunteers. It was a brilliant campaign. But it’s not just Alexandria.
On the same night that Alexandria won, Ben Jealous took on the Democratic establishment in Maryland and became the Democratic gubernatorial nominee. On that same night, several young people in the Baltimore area, progressives, defeated incumbent members of the state senate in a huge upset.
We are seeing that type of activity all over this country: people who are running progressive, grassroots campaigns are doing very, very well taking on establishment politicians.
Socialism, capitalism — these are big words that can mean different things to different people. If you look at what Alexandria was talking about, what I talk about, what other progressives talk about, by and large, they are very popular, not only among people who consider themselves Democrats or progressives but the American people as a whole. It’s important to understand that the ideas that I fight for, that Alexandria fights for, are very popular ideas.
For example, right now we have a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, which is essentially a starvation wage. Nobody can live on that. When we advocate for a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage, the American people support that.
When we talk about pay equity for women, the American people overwhelmingly support that. When we talk about Medicare for All — an idea which seemed kind of radical a few years ago — that is now mainstream, with a pretty good majority supporting it. The American people understand that health care is a right, not a privilege; that Medicare is working well for seniors right now, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be expanded to every man, women, and child, with the result of not only providing health care to all people but saving this country substantial sums of money on health care. Because right now, we spend far more per capita than any other country.
When we talk about the greed of the pharmaceutical industry — that you’ve got five drug companies last year making $50 billion in profits, paying their CEOs outrageous compensation packages while one in five Americans can’t even afford the drugs their doctors prescribed — the American people are with us. When we talk about demanding that the wealthiest people, who are doing phenomenally well, start paying their fair share of taxes, the American people support that.
When we talk about making public colleges and universities tuition-free, the American people support that. They support immigration reform. They support criminal justice reform. In Philadelphia, Larry Krasner has done a great job in that area.
You could label these things any way you want, but I call it basic ideas dealing with social, economic, racial, and environmental justice. The American people are there with us on them.
Alexandria gave a good response. She said, in many of the Midwest states, we either did very, very well in the Democratic presidential primary in 2016, or we won them. We won Indiana. We won Michigan. We won Wisconsin. In a couple, like Illinois, we lost by very few. The ideas we are talking about make sense in every state of the country.
Four years ago, in the 2014 midterm elections, we had the lowest voter turnout in seven decades. We had something like 36 percent of the American people voting. When ordinary Americans…