Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders – just plain “Bernie” to his backers – is the unlikeliest of political sensations. The self-styled “democratic socialist” has packed arenas and meeting halls from Seattle to L.A. to Atlanta, drawing nearly 400,000 supporters to his rallies. Decrying a “rigged” economy and a political system corrupted by billionaires, Sanders has refused Super PAC politics, instead drawing on 750,000 grassroots donors. On the strength of $30-average checks, he has built a campaign war chest to rival the Hillary Clinton juggernaut.
Sanders has already altered the course of the 2016 campaign. His resonance with the Democratic Party’s activist base has forced Clinton to tack left, repeatedly. But don’t mistake this as Sanders’ endgame. “Bernie’s campaign is more than symbolic – it’s real, and it can succeed,” says senior adviser Tad Devine, a veteran of Al Gore’s 2000 bid. The Sanders machine is built to slingshot to an early lead, propelled by grassroots excitement in Iowa and New Hampshire, and then to fight, delegate by delegate, all the way to the convention. And recent polls counter the notion that Sanders is “unelectable.” An October NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey shows Sanders besting Donald Trump by nine points, Marco Rubio by five.
Sanders has a unique ability to drive turnout among “lower-income working whites,” Devine insists. But an October National Student Town Hall at George Mason University – a public school in leafy Fairfax, Virginia – suggests a far broader resonance. Sixteen hundred roaring students pack the volleyball stadium to the rafters. The audience is startlingly diverse: African-American and African immigrant, Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, white, preppy, hipster, jock and dreadlocked. Kianoosh Asar, a 22-year-old Iranian immigrant, wears a homemade T-shirt that reads “CAUTION THE POLLS MAY CAUSE SERIOUS BERN.” For Asar, Sanders’ substance is the selling point: “I really care about all the issues,” he says. “And I care about a candidate who talks for my generation.” That Sanders would be 75 on Inauguration Day doesn’t even seem to register.
Rolling Stone spent three days on the campaign trail with Sanders in May.
The town hall is intimate in physical scale, but expansive in virtual reach: simulcast to watch-parties in all 50 states at campuses as unexpected as Mississippi State. Sanders’ stump speech is heavy on facts – about wealth inequality, marijuana arrest rates, young-voter turnout – and short on rhetorical lift. But amid the fierce statistical urgency of his pitch, a moment of raw emotional power emerges. A Sudanese-American student who wears a blue hijab, pinned with a Bernie 2016 button, asks Sanders how he can counter Trump and Ben Carson “bashing Muslims.” Sanders motions the student, Remaz Abdelgader, up to the stage, pulling her into a hug. “Let me be very personal,” he says. “My father’s family died in concentration camps.” The tableau of a bald white Jew from Vermont embracing a young black Muslim woman to denounce America’s “ugly stain of racism” has the audience fighting back tears. After the rally, Abdelgader, an aspiring human rights lawyer, is euphoric, declaring without a trace of irony, “I feel like he’s my Jewish dad.”
Rolling Stone met with Sanders over two afternoons in his Senate offices. His waiting room features a life-size cutout of a black-and-white cow. His personal office is stately, if cluttered. By the window hangs a plaque honoring Eugene V. Debs, the union leader and Socialist politician who ran for president in 1920 while serving time in prison for his opposition to World War I.
Sanders has no pretension to presidential pomp. Tossing off his suit jacket, leaving it rumpled on the couch beside him, he dons a sky-blue Burlington College fleece and kicks rubber-soled shoes up on his coffee table, next to a copy of Robert Reich’s new book, Saving Capitalism. Sanders engages like a college professor in a bull session. As he reaches deep for an idea, his eyes dart back and forth like a metronome behind bifocals. His demeanor is harried; the competing demands of his campaign and Senate schedule would be grueling for a politician half his age. But nothing clouds Sanders’ thinking or dulls his off-kilter wit. At the conclusion of our interview he’s due to meet with representatives of the Syrian opposition forces – who he jokes are “probably gonna break in here and shoot” if we don’t wrap on schedule.
What made you, personally, decide to run for president?
I am the longest-serving Independent in the history of the United States Congress. In 1990, I was the first democratic socialist elected in 40 years. So my path is a very unusual political path. I never believed that I would ever become a mayor, a congressman or a United States senator. And I can assure you from the depth of my heart that when I grew up in a three-and-a-half-room apartment in Brooklyn, New York – a rent-controlled apartment – that no one ever thought, or I ever thought, I would become president of the United States. I am not running to fulfill some long-held ambition. I am running for one simple reason: This country today is facing extraordinary crises in terms of climate change, income and wealth inequality; in terms of a political system which is now corrupt and is leading us toward oligarchy; in terms of the collapse of the American middle class; in terms of more people in jail than any other country on Earth; and in terms of an immigration policy which is clearly completely broken. I just do not believe that establishment politics are going to address these issues.
Does that get to the core of why you believe Democrats should vote for you instead of Hillary Clinton?
In this particular moment in American history, where a small number of extraordinarily wealthy people increasingly control our economic and political life, what Democrats have to determine is which candidate is best prepared to take on and defeat these powerful special interests and revitalize American democracy so that government works for all of us, not just the large campaign contributors.
I say with utmost sincerity: I have known Hillary Clinton for 25 years. I knew her as first lady. We’re not best friends, ya know, but I know her. She is a very impressive woman, very intelligent and has a huge amount of experience. Nobody denies, Hillary Clinton least of all, that she is an establishment candidate. You can’t go around the country touting all the governors and senators and people who support you without acknowledging that you are the candidate of the establishment. Hillary Clinton has a Super PAC, which will raise money from a whole lot of wealthy individuals and corporate interests. That’s just the way it is.
I do not say, “Elect Bernie Sanders for president, I’m going to solve all of these problems.” We need millions of people to stand up and fight back, to demand that government represents all of us, not just the one percent. I’m trying to create a movement. That is what my campaign is about – that is not what Hillary Clinton’s establishment campaign is about.
You have called the explosion of wealth and income inequality “the great moral, economic and political issue of our time.” What’s at stake if we don’t fix this?
The Koch brothers and their friends will be spending more money on this campaign than either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party – just one family. That is oligarchy, and that will only get worse.
To address America’s economic imbalance, you’re proposing a platform of democratic socialism – what does that mean to you?
Our goal should be a society in which all people have a decent standard of living, not a society in which a few people have incredible wealth while 47 million live in poverty. What it means to me in English is a national health care program that guarantees health care to all people. It means high-quality public education from preschool through graduate school – and one of the important points of the platform that we’re running on is to make public colleges and universities tuition-free. Anybody in this country, regardless of their income, should be able to go get a higher education.
It means dealing with the fact that significant numbers of people in this country are paying a very large proportion of their incomes in housing. It means that if you’re gonna work 40 hours a week, you don’t live in poverty; that we raise the minimum wage to a living wage.
Look, nobody knows the magic formula to happiness. But if you have economic security, your life is a lot better than people who are struggling every single day. And I want to create that type of economic security in America.
You have a plaque of the Socialist political leader Eugene V. Debs on your wall. You have called him “one of the important heroes of American history.” In 1979, you even recorded a documentary of Debs…
And I would probably be doing videos like that today if I hadn’t become mayor of Burlington by 10 votes. I would have done a series, not just on Debs but other radicals that no one in America has heard of – I doubt that 10 percent of the American people know who Debs was, OK? And it’s important that people know what he stood for, and the struggles that were going on in the early part of the 20th century.
In the documentary, you voice the part of Debs – re-enacting his famous speeches. Some of the language is pretty hot by today’s standards. It’s jarring to hear his words in your voice, talking about wage earners as “slaves” oppressed by “some capitalist parasite,” calling on workers to fulfill their “great historic mission” to “overthrow the capitalist system.”
Those were Debs’ [words]. You’re not quoting me as saying those things.
But people can go on the Internet and hear you say those things.
Did that reflect your thinking in 1979, at the dawn of the Reagan era?
No. The essence of what he was talking about [was] trying to create a society where all people had a decent standard of living rather than the types of massive exploitation and inequality which he saw in his time, and which is here today. It looks different: Children are not working in factories and they’re not working in the fields, but you have millions of families today who do not know how they’re gonna feed their kids tonight. That’s a fact. So many of these problems remain, maybe not as severe. But his vision is a vision that I share.
Including an “overthrow of the capitalist system”?
No, no, no. Now you’re being provocative. If you follow my campaign, have you heard me talk about overthrowing the capitalist economic system?
No, I haven’t.
OK. What I do talk about is a political revolution. We had an election last November in which 63 percent of the people didn’t vote; 80 percent of young people didn’t vote. That’s, to me, not a democratic system. So what we have got to do is not only overturn Citizens United, but we have got to move, in my view, to public funding of elections. We have to pass universal legislation that makes everybody in this country who is 18 or older eligible to vote, so we do away with the Republican voter suppression around the country.
You’ve had a front-row seat for the gridlock here in D.C. dogging President Obama. What chance do you see of getting your agenda through Congress?
If we win this election, it will have said that the political revolution is moving forward. In other words: I will not get elected unless there is a huge increase in voter turnout. That’s a simple fact. And I will not get elected unless there are a lot of working-class people, who have turned their backs on the political system, now getting engaged in the system. Young people now getting engaged. And I will not get elected unless there is a significant increase in public consciousness.
The Republicans get away with murder. They cast horrendous votes with the full expectation that most Americans don’t know what they’re doing. If I am elected president, the American people will know what [Republicans] are doing. And here’s the good news: The Republican agenda is a very unpopular agenda.
If people really understand what goes on here in Washington, and the power of big money and the power of corporate America and the power of Wall Street, then we will be able to get that agenda through.
How would you keep your supporters involved from the Oval Office?
Look, politicians respond. If the people are asleep and not involved, they respond to the lobbyists and donors. But when people speak up and fight, if you want to survive [as a politician], you have to respond. My job is to activate people to fight for their rights and to force Congress to respond to the needs of working families.
What the president can do is to say to the American people, “OK, if you think that it is important that public colleges and universities are tuition-free, and that that program be paid for based on a tax on Wall Street speculation, well, on March 15th there is going to be a vote in the House, and let’s see if we can bring large numbers of people here to Washington to say hello to members of Congress. Let us make every member of Congress aware that millions of people are involved in this issue. They know how you are going to vote.” Of course we’ll win that.
Sanders, speaking to Rolling Stone in May, discusses why he believes personality is not the most important factor in a campaign.
What policies would you enact to address the income disparity in America?
Real unemployment today is not five percent. Real unemployment, including those who have given up looking and those who are working part time, is 10 percent. That’s a lot of people. We need a massive federal jobs program. We have legislation that I will fight for, which would create up to 13 million jobs rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure – roads, bridges, rail, airports, water systems.
You’ve got millions of people in this country working very long hours because their wages are inadequate. We should do what Seattle and L.A. have done, what New York is thinking of doing, and that is raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Clinton has said that the $15-an-hour figure might work for Seattle or New York, but maybe it’s not right for everywhere.
Oh, I disagree with Secretary Clinton on that. Whether you’re living in some rural area, whether you’re living in New York City, you need a decent income in order to provide adequately for your family. And $15 an hour is the benchmark we should be shooting for.
What’s the top income-tax rate under President Sanders?
We have not come forward with a specific program right now – we will – in terms of individual tax brackets. But this is what I can tell you: We do away with the tax provision now that allows corporations and individuals to stash their money in the Cayman Islands and other tax havens and, in some cases, avoid paying any nickel of federal income tax. That’s gone.
We have a progressive estate tax, which says to billionaire families that when the family head dies, there will be a steep tax in the transfer of that wealth to the rest of the family. In order to pay for free tuition at public colleges and universities, we impose a small speculation tax on Wall Street.
Tuition inflation is rampant. How do you compel colleges to hold down costs, particularly if the federal government is paying the tuition bill?
We pick up the bill, but not for everything. You want to build a new football stadium? The federal government is not gonna pay for that. You want to build luxury dorms? The federal government is not gonna be paying for that.
You have called global warming the gravest threat that we face. How would you approach this crisis?
Everything being equal, climate change is a greater threat to this country than terrorism. Terrorism is a very serious threat. We spend $600 billion a year on our military. We have got to begin to summon the resources and the political will. We gotta look at it like it was a Manhattan Project. We have to look at this like a major threat to the planet. This is an international problem. It can’t be addressed solely by the United States. So the United States has got to be a leader. We lead by not only talking the talk but walking the walk.
You’ve endorsed a tax on carbon and methane and sponsored the Keep It in the Ground Act – which would halt new coal, oil and gas leases on federal lands.
We have to boldly transform our energy system away from fossil fuel. And at the same time – being mindful that the coal industry and the oil industry will be impacted – we have to protect the workers in those industries. We have to make sure that they have new jobs. You can’t just ditch those guys. That’s wrong.
In many ways, we know what to do. You move aggressively to energy efficiency. We can aggressively move to solar – both solar panels and other types of solar technology for utility-scale facilities. Wind: In Iowa, pretty soon 40 percent of their electricity is going to be coming from wind. We should be doing this all over the country.
You once called Obamacare “a good Republican program.” Do you see Obamacare as a failure?
No, it’s not a failure when you provide insurance to maybe 15 million people who had no health insurance – that’s not a failure. When you do away with this obscenity of pre-existing conditions, that’s not a failure. Obamacare has done good things, but we still have a long way to go.
We still have 29 million people who have no health insurance. You have millions of people who have $5,000 deductibles. That means that people hesitate to go to the doctor when they should go.
We are the only wealthy country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee health care to all people as a right. Yet we spend far more money per capita on health care than anybody else. And our health care outcomes are not all that good compared to other countries. So where does that leave you? The conclusion is, we should move toward a national health care program, which I believe should be in the form of a Medicare-for-all, single-payer-system. But I’m not gonna tell you it’s gonna happen on the first day of my administration.
How do you control drug costs?
I was the first member of Congress to take people over the Canadian border to buy prescription drugs. We are told that it is OK to bring in lettuce and tomatoes from unregulated farms in Mexico. That is not a problem. But we cannot safely bring brand-name drugs from the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world across the Canadian border. That is the most absurd situation I have ever seen. That only speaks to the power of the drug industry. I have described the pharmaceutical industry as like Rocky Marciano. You know who Rocky Marciano is? Undefeated. They never lose. And the result is we pay by far the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs – one out of five people can’t afford prescription drugs.
Re-importation would be a good start. If we end up paying the same prices as Germany or Canada, it’ll be a huge reduction. Number two, the federal government buys a hell of a lot of drugs. Medicare, obviously, should be able to negotiate drug prices with the pharmaceutical industry.
If you really want to be radical – and I have introduced legislation about this in the past – what you do is you create a prize mechanism, and you say that we [the federal government] will provide a substantial amount of money – devil is in the details – to the company that provides a major breakthrough. We are not concerned about treating my baldness or athlete’s foot. We are worried about Alzheimer’s, cancer and diabetes. And if your company comes up with that cure, you’re gonna be a very wealthy company. And we’re gonna motivate you to do that.
Do you have a message for the young executive Martin Shkreli, who hiked the cost of his AIDS drug to $750 a pill?
That is the kind of casino capitalism which I detest and which I will vigorously fight. It’s not just him. What you’re seeing are drug companies raising prices for one reason, and that is because they can. They have a product that people need, and they will charge as much as they possibly can. And that’s wrong. Under my administration, trust me, that will not happen.
You have said that on Wall Street “fraud is a business model.” Are we still vulnerable to a speculative crash?
Absolutely. Absolutely. We bailed out Wall Street because the major banks were “too big to fail.” Today, three out of the four largest banks are much larger than they were when they were too big to fail. Do I worry about the possibility of having to bail them out again? I do. Congress does not regulate Wall Street, Wall Street regulates Congress.
If you look at Wall Street just from a competitive situation, the six largest financial institutions have assets of about $10 trillion – which is equivalent to about 60 percent of the GDP of this country. They issue two-thirds of the credit cards, 35 percent of the mortgages in this country; they have 40 percent of all bank deposits. For that reason alone, Glass-Steagall should be re-established and the large financial institutions should be broken up. They’re just too powerful. And I believe it. It’s not just rhetoric. If a bank is too big to fail – which they are – they are too big to exist.
Do you think Hillary Clinton would be tough enough on Wall Street as president?
Of course not. Why would you think she would? For a start, look at where Hillary Clinton has gotten her money and support in the past. And if you look at her unwillingness to deal with the basic issues – and that is the re-establishment of Glass-Steagall and the fact that we have got to break up these large financial institutions – that is not Hillary Clinton’s position.
And if you want to look at Hillary Clinton’s history on these issues compared to mine, please do. You’re looking at a guy on the House Banking Committee who helped lead the effort against deregulation in the 1990s – when the Clinton administration and Alan Greenspan, Wall Street, much of the media was saying that we have to pass deregulation. Wall Street spent $5 billion – that’s a “b” – $5 billion over a 10-year period to deregulate Wall Street, which led us to the financial crisis of 2008. This has been my position for a very long time. And do I think Hillary Clinton is strong on this issue? No, I don’t.
The Obama administration has been widely criticized for not prosecuting Wall Street executives who presided over the financial crisis. Would you have tried to send them to jail?
…And do they still deserve to go?
I’d like to be able to tell you more than I can. I think meetings that one has with the president have got to be held private. But what I can tell you: About a half-dozen of us went to visit the president, I’m guessing six months into his [first] term. And we went into the White House, and Larry Summers was there and [Tim] Geithner was there. We had all their money people, all their financial people. That was the issue.
I like the president very much, and I have supported him. We’ve worked together. But these are some of the disagreements we have. The American people were crushed by the greed and illegal behavior on Wall Street, right? And the American people wanted justice.
And we said to the president – I wasn’t alone on this – we said, “Mr. President, you gotta do something. You gotta be tough on this issue.” The end result was seven years have come and gone and there are still no high-ranking CEOs who are in jail. There are kids who smoke marijuana who have criminal records, but not CEOs of large corporations. No matter what kind of crimes and illegal activity, these guys [Wall Street CEOs] are too big to jail?
That is one of the reasons why people become alienated from the political process. They just don’t see justice. From a public-policy point of view, in terms of holding people accountable for serious crimes, the Obama administration blew it. From a political point of view, in giving people confidence that we have a criminal-justice system that works for all, regardless of their wealth or power, it blew it.
Now what do you think a president should have done? On Day One, I am appointing a special committee to investigate the crimes on Wall Street. We’re gonna move this quickly, and if these people are found guilty, they will be in jail. Nobody in America is above the law. Is that what Barack Obama said? Mm – not quite.
Is that what Bernie Sanders would say on Day One?
Absolutely. People have got to be held accountable for their crimes, and these guys committed some very serious crimes.
Is there any Republican now running that would make a tolerable president?
As the longest-serving Independent in the history of Congress, who has worked with many Republicans, who has friends who are Republicans, I hate to appear to be overly partisan. I really do. But if you look at this whole slate of Republican candidates for president, we are looking at a party that has moved very, very, very far to the right. And a party with many people who lie all the time in order to obfuscate what they really stand for.
If you scratch away the nuances, this is what they believe in: more tax breaks for billionaires; almost all believe that we should cut Social Security, some believe we should privatize it; cut Medicare; cut Medicaid; cut federal aid to education; cut nutrition programs. And many of them are seemingly interested in getting us in another war in the Middle East.
I would say Rand Paul, on occasion, comes out and says something that is sensible. On the other hand, what did he recently say? That I’m like Pol Pot? So we don’t want to overdo it here in expressing great sympathy for Rand Paul. But he has shown a consistent attention to the invasion of our privacy rights both from the federal government and corporate America. And he is much [more] reluctant than his colleagues to get us into another war. On those two issues, he has stood above the other Republican candidates.
A lot of progressives agree with your ideas, but they view Hillary Clinton as more electable. And given the dangers you just articulated in terms of the Republican agenda, does that not argue for moving ahead with a more traditional candidate?
The answer is that progressives who think that are wrong. And I mean that very sincerely. Look up the polls for a start. The last polls that I saw – check ’em out; they’re in the machine – will show you that Bernie Sanders does better against Trump than Hillary does. On many of the matchups, I do better, OK? That’s just a fact.
Number two, the only way that Republicans win elections is when voter turnout is low. We have brought out over 300,000 people to our meetings – a significant majority of those people are nontraditional voters. I would say 90 percent of the people who go to my meetings have never been to a Democratic Party meeting in their life, OK? The energy and the enthusiasm that we are developing in this campaign with young people, with low-income people, with working people, is the kind of enthusiasm that is needed to create large voter turnouts.
Frankly and honestly, Hillary Clinton is not generating enthusiasm. She has very strong establishment support. But establishment support will take you only so far.
Let’s shift gears. What music are you listening to now?
On my iPad I have all of Beethoven’s symphonies. I like classical music. I am a child of the Sixties – I like the Motown sound and the Supremes and the Temptations. I am one of the few human beings – and this will not find favor with Rolling Stone readers – but I like disco music. I like Abba. We played some Abba at my wedding. I like the Bee Gees. I am pretty across-the-board in my musical tastes. I like Celine Dion. I like country music.
Are there a couple of albums that have meant a lot to you in your life?
Temptations, Supremes. I used to wake up in the morning and put ’em on and go off to work.
Sanders, in May, discussing some of his favorite music.
How did your Jewish upbringing shape your moral vision of politics?
My dad and mom were not political. They voted, they were Democrats, as was almost everybody in our community. My brother was political and introduced me to politics. But we were not a political family.
Clearly, one of the factors that influenced my life was the knowledge, as a kid, that my dad’s family – and probably my mother’s as well, but I knew more about my dad – that many members of his family were killed by Hitler. So what you learn, not intellectually when you’re seven years of age, but it goes into your emotional, instinctual base, is that politics makes a difference. Hitler and the Nazis were elected to office in Germany. And 50 million people died in that war, including 6 million Jews.
That’s why many African-Americans pay attention to politics in a different way. Politics meant that segregation and lynching existed in this country. And that’s why African-Americans are very sensitive to what goes on in politics. And the same thing with Jewish people. That is how, instinctually, if you like, or emotionally, I gravitated into politics.
You mentioned your brother being more political…
He had a very strong influence in my intellectual development. He went to Brooklyn College, and he was active in the Young Democrats in Brooklyn College. So when he had to babysit me, he would drag me along, not happily, to meetings. My parents did not go to college. My father dropped out of high school. We didn’t have many books in the house. And my brother brought books into the house. He exposed me to not only politics but psychology and so forth. He would bring in books by Freud, novels, books on political science.
Are you observant?
Do you believe in God?
Yeah, I do. I do. I’m not into organized religion. But I believe that what impacts you impacts me, that we are all united in one way or another. When children go hungry, I get impacted. When kids die because they can’t afford medicine, I get impacted. We are one world and one people. And that belief leads me to the conclusion that we just cannot turn our back on human suffering.
You’re so Brooklyn that it’s imprinted on your vocal cords. What kind of reinvention did it take to become a Vermonter?
When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, we lived in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in an apartment. I went to Boy Scout camp for three or four years. And going into the country was transformational for me. I remember on one occasion when I came back, I was crying, getting back into the city.
For whatever reason, very, very deep into me, I become a much more relaxed person being in the countryside in Vermont. I love it, ya know? If you leave Burlington and head out to the rural areas, like the Northeast Kingdom, my blood pressure goes down. Until this campaign, every year we used to do a pig roast in the town of Troy, Vermont. We’d have hundreds of people coming out. It is a spectacularly beautiful farm. I can picture it in my mind right now, the incredible beauty of the mountains near the Canadian border and just – people who I love very much. Vermont has obviously transformed my life.
People in Vermont are extraordinary people. If you stay in the state of Vermont, you don’t make a lot of money, in general. If you want to make money, you go to Boston or you go to New York City. So people who were born there, who stay there, they stay there because they’re attracted by both the physical beauty of the state and the human beauty of the state. And that makes a very, very good state.
Are there other ways that you unwind when you can’t get to Vermont? I mean, you are a high-strung guy.
[Shouting] What did you say?!
You got me [laughs].
The truth is, Washington is a very strange world. Before this campaign, I would always go home to Vermont on weekends. That’s where we did town meetings, that’s where I was with my family. And I would find when I would come back to Washington, I would suddenly feel myself a little bit depressed. It was the transition of coming from Vermont back to D.C.
There is a style here, a way of life here in D.C., which is significantly phony. In that everybody is nice to each other – “Oh, my good and honorable friend” – and then they’re spending $18 million to try to destroy who you are. That’s the nature of it. And you’ve got staffers who butter up their bosses and everything else. There is a very high level of phonyism and careerism. And you go back to Vermont – and I see it in Iowa and you see it all over the country – where people are people. That’s all. And when you go home, you settle into a way of life where people are people.
You made news recently calling for federal legislation that would safeguard state marijuana legalization.
It’ll be a major step forward if we take marijuana out of the Controlled Substances Act and allow those states – there are four, plus D.C., and others will follow – to do what they wanna do and legalize marijuana.
Would you consider wholesale pardons of nonviolent drug offenders?
The president has begun that initiative. And I want to credit the president for taking actions that are pretty courageous.
Would you expand that?
Yes. Surely, I would. I will not be the president of a country that has more people in jail than any other country.
Happily, there is a growing, bipartisan consensus that the criminal-justice system is very broken. The goal is to not spend $80 billion a year locking up our people. The goal is to get corporations out of the business of running jails. The goal is to demilitarize our local police departments and to create police departments that are part of the community, not seen as an oppressive force. The goal is to do away with mandatory-minimum sentencing. So there’s a lot, lot, lot that has to be done – but we have an opportunity to make real progress in this area.
The consensus among Democrats is that the NRA has a singular block on any federal gun control. What do you do to break its hold on Washington?
It is true. The NRA is a very, very powerful and effective lobbying force. But it also turns out that the NRA does not necessarily represent the views of gun owners, in general, and even their own members.
For decades now, people have been shouting at each other. There are some people in the extreme, want to ban every gun in America. And other people who say, “Yeah, I want a nuclear missile in my backyard, what’s the problem with that?” But I believe there is a strong consensus which can move this country forward in trying to end the kind of massacres that we have seen in recent years.
It’s not like ideas that I’m pulling out of my head. These are ideas that, without exception, have the support of the majority of the American people. And they are expanding and improving the instant background check to make sure the guns do not get into the hands of people who are criminals, or have mental problems. That’s kinda common sense. Number two, you got this loophole that now exists for gun shows, which enables guns to be sold to people without a background check. That’s got to be eliminated. Number three, and I think there’s majority support for it, I don’t think certain types of assault weapons that are military weapons, designed just to kill people, should be sold in the United States, and I would ban those as well.
We’re gonna have to bring law enforcement together. We’re gonna have to bring some of the sensible gun people together with some of the gun-control advocates and work on that consensus. If we do that, we can do something significant.
You have praised the lawsuits that humbled the Big Tobacco companies. Why are guns different? Why did you vote in 2005 to strip – from gun victims and the states that pick up the cost of gun violence – the same right to sue these gun companies? Didn’t ending the threat of lawsuits remove any impetus to have safer products, or to clean up distribution networks to keep guns out of the hands of criminals?
It’s a piece of legislation which has a number of provisions in it. I come from a state that has virtually no gun control and, thank God [knocks on wood], has a reasonably low crime rate, OK? That is the culture of my state. But you can go through every vote I cast on guns. Now we can talk about Hillary Clinton representing Wall Street as a senator from New York, right? That’s what happens in a state, OK?
I had voted for instant background checks, to do away with the gun-show loophole. That’s a pretty strong record for somebody that comes from a state that has no gun control. Every one of those votes was opposed by a lot of people in my state. So that’s the context.
Now this legislation. We have a lot of gun stores in Vermont, small shops. If Mr. Smith, the gun-shop owner, sells you a gun legally, you have your instant background check, you get the gun. Then you flip out and you shoot your wife. It happens. Should the gun-shop owner be held liable for selling you the product?
I would think the courts could make that determination.
No. Well, let me make it: I don’t think he should. I honestly don’t think it should any more than if you picked up that table and banged me over the head and killed me. Would you hold that person [who sold the table] liable? We know what guns do. Guns have the capability of killing people. But I do not believe that somebody who lawfully sells a gun to somebody else should be held responsible if somebody uses that product wrongfully. That was in that bill.
Now, there are provisions in that bill which I disagree with. I am certainly willing to look at that legislation again and do away with the pernicious aspects of it.
Have you been supportive of Obama’s approach to the War on Terror?
What Obama has been trying to do is thread a very difficult needle. And that is not to put American troops back into combat. I support that. Number two, to try to support forces who can take the war to Al Qaeda and to ISIS. That’s very difficult – to make sure that the people we are arming do not end up surrendering their weapons to anti-American forces. In Syria, we all want to get rid of Assad – who is a horrendous dictator – but a greater priority is to defeat ISIS. And the president is right, that if we can work with Iran, with Russia, with Saudi Arabia to defeat ISIS, that will be a step forward.
How would President Sanders approach Israel?
The United States will support the security of Israel, help Israel fight terrorist attacks against that country and maintain its independence. But under my administration, the United States will maintain an even-handed approach to the area. I believe in a two-state solution, where Israel has security and the Palestinians have a state of their own. The United States has got to work with the Palestinian people in improving their standard of living, which is now a disaster, and has been made much worse since the war in Gaza.
You’ve said of Netanyahu, “I’m not a great fan.” What’s your issue with him?
Do I think that Netanyahu overreacted? Yes, I do. War is terrible unto itself. But I think that Israel overreacted and caused more civilian damage than was necessary. They have very sophisticated weapons systems. They make the case, and I respect that, that they do try to make sure that civilians are not damaged. But the end result was that a lot of civilians were killed and a lot of housing was destroyed. There was terrible, terrible damage done.
As president, would you consider pardoning Edward Snowden?
I would have the attorney general negotiate with his attorneys. I think he broke the law. On the other hand, he educated the American people about the extraordinary degree of surveillance that takes place in this country, which in many ways may be unconstitutional. Clearly, that has got to be taken into consideration when you talk about what kind of punishment he receives. He should not be treated like a common criminal. He’s gonna have to come home. He has the opportunity to make his case. He’s gonna be tried by a jury of his peers, and we have to await that decision.
We talked about Debs. Who are your other political or personal heroes?
Martin Luther King. And I know – so what? Everybody likes Martin Luther King Jr. But he grew to broaden his critique of American society beyond that of racism and segregation, and that was an extraordinary step forward. He was a man of unbelievable courage who took on the war in Vietnam at great risk, who took on the issue of poverty in America, not just black poverty. Before he was assassinated, he was planning a poor people’s march on Washington – of blacks and whites and Native Americans, Hispanics. In the years before he died, he wasn’t considered an American hero. Martin Luther King talked about the fact that, in this country, we have “socialism for the rich and rugged free enterprise for the poor.” He didn’t have to do that. He did it.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a moderate-type governor of New York, became president of the United States and made a decision. In 1936, after he’s renominated, he gets up and says, “I welcome the hatred of the economic royalist. They hate me, and I welcome that hatred.” Where we are today, we need candidates for president, we need presidents who can do the same thing. Roosevelt was saying, “I’m on the side of the poor and working people of this country. I am gonna take these people on, and, yes, they’re gonna hate me, and I welcome that hatred.”
A guy who has not gotten the credit that he deserves is Jesse Jackson. What he did in the concept of the Rainbow Coalition, we take for granted now. The political concept that we can bring blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asian-Americans together is a very important development in American political history. It certainly laid the groundwork for Obama.
You describe a nation beset by crisis after crisis, and have said, “The challenges we face now are more dire than at any time in our modern history.” What gives you the most hope for the country?
I’ll tell you what gives me the most hope for the country. You saw it [at the rally] last night. These kids give me enormous confidence in the future. To see the faces on these kids who are adamant in their opposition to racism, to homophobia, to sexism, who want a world of peace, not of war. The young African-American girl who started it off talks about a climate of love, not hatred. Beautiful, just beautiful stuff. And I see that all over the country. I just see a lot of beauty out there, and a lot of good people who want to transform this country in a way that makes it a very different nation than we have right now.