If it seems like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is fighting for his political life amid a series of negative articles, it might be because he always is. The Sanders campaign is grounded in a principle that an absence of controversy would be the real indication of trouble.
It’s not a cliché: Sanders is always, literally, embattled, among other things because his version of politics is a battle, a zero-sum clash of economic interests in particular. “The way he fights is unique,” says his campaign manager, Faiz Shakhir. “He goes to Walmart and confronts the CEO over wages. He goes and stands with striking McDonald’s workers directly.”
The latest brush-fire, a series of negative articles trumpeting a poll surge by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren as the latest indication of Bernie’s oft-predicted demise, is just par for the course.
Sanders this week gave a major address, explaining why he calls himself a “Democratic Socialist.” He did this in 2015, and after much discussion this spring it was decided he needed to do so again.
Speaking at George Washington University, Sanders described his campaign as a continuation of FDR’s legacy, specifically the so-called Second Bill of Rights, as enumerated in the 1944 State of the Union Address. He plans on releasing an “Economic Bill of Rights” that will essentially provide government guarantees for a living wage, affordable housing, health care and a complete education. Echoing a famous line by Roosevelt, he talked about his confrontations with corporate interests.
“They are unanimous in their hatred of me, and I welcome their hatred,” he said, to cheers.
Unlike the last election, when the policy difference between himself and opponent Hillary Clinton was so great it scarcely needed explaining, Sanders in 2019 is running in a much-altered Democratic Party environment. In part due to his own efforts in 2016, and in part due to a growing movement driven by the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others, he’s now chasing the nomination in a field full of candidates expressing varying degrees of support for policies once considered radical: Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, free college, even a guaranteed income.
This is an accomplishment on the one hand, but also a complication: How does Sanders stand out now in a political landscape that (policy-wise, anyway) has made wholesale moves in his direction since 2016?
In an odd way, Sanders defines his campaign by the negativity it attracts. Other campaigns that might talk the talk on issues like climate change can’t be taken seriously, Bernie Sanders tells me in a phone call from Washington, D.C., unless they “frontally confront the fossil fuel industry.” If you’re not “embattled,” you’re not real. In this vein he derides the “middle ground” platform of someone like current frontrunner Joe Biden, which Sanders says “antagonizes no one, stands up to no one, and changes nothing.”
Asked why he chose this week in particular to give an address on Democratic Socialism, Sanders says the motivation was “twofold.”
“The first is to try to move this country away from an austerity policy,” he says. “We must recognize that economic rights are human rights. People are entitled — and I underline the word entitled — to a decent job that pays a living wage. They’re entitled to health care. They’re entitled to a complete education, to affordable housing.”
He goes on to elucidate probably the biggest difference between himself and Warren.
“In the words of Roosevelt,” he says, “the Republic at the beginning was built around the guarantee of political rights. But he came to believe that true individual freedom can’t exist without economic security.
“It’s time to guarantee economic rights. [FDR] said this 80 years ago.”
Warren and Sanders have nearly identical critiques of how screwed up American capitalism has become in the global economy age. The main difference is that while Warren seems to want to fix the problem by re-invigorating those original political rights, Sanders wants to take what he calls the “next step” into guaranteeing economic security.
I ask him about the headlines of this week, and how he would best characterize the difference between himself and Warren, whom he describes as a “friend.” He answers by describing how he came to his decision to run.
“I thought long and hard about this,” he says. “My wife and I thought about it for months and months. We talked about it more than we ever talked about anything else. We’d be sure of one thing on Monday, then Tuesday it would be different.”
He pauses. “I reached the conclusion that I’m the strongest candidate to beat Donald Trump, but that wasn’t all. I wouldn’t just have to beat Trump — the goal would be to create a movement to fundamentally transform the country, so the future wouldn’t be threatened by later Trumps, either.”
Sanders then explains that the only kind of candidacy that could succeed now would be one like his own. “It won’t work,” he says, “unless you have the courage to take on the very powerful special interests that are entrenched and wield so much influence. If you want to fix the climate change problem, you can’t do it unless you frontally confront the fossil fuel industry. You want to rebuild the infrastructure? You have to take on the 1-percent, get them to pay their share.
“I believe from the bottom of my heart my approach is the only way,” Sanders says. “The middle of the road approach isn’t going to cut it.”
I asked him if he’s settled into a psychological strategy for dealing with the media negativity, which seems relentless. Specifically, did he ever think about taking the Trump approach, and embracing the negative media, turning it to his advantage?
He laughs, but only a little.
“It’s hard,” he says. “My views on the press are nothing like Trump’s. I don’t believe that the media is the enemy of the people. ‘They’re not terrible people, it’s not fake news — there are a lot of great reports in the New York Times, we use their work every day here on the campaign.
“But,” he says, “at the end of the day, the media work for huge multinational corporations. And as you know — you’re one of the few who does know — anyone with my agenda is going to attract a lot of opposition. I mean, last time, I think in a day or two, we had 16 different negative stories in the same paper [the Washington Post].
“As for finding a new way to handle it, psychologically, I think we’re getting there. I think we’re figuring that out.”