“Obviously, the election on Tuesday night went a hell of a lot better than we had anticipated.”
This was Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) scientific assessment of the 2022 midterms. He watched returns at home in Vermont — “I try to keep out of D.C. except when necessary,” he offers — and stayed up until four in the morning waiting for results. The night had been full of bright spots for the 81-year-old Democratic socialist, but the most promising had been John Fetterman’s decisive win in Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate race. “There’s no candidate who ran who was more strongly identified with the working class of Pennsylvania than John Fetterman,” Sanders says. “He really hit a nerve that I hope we can all learn from.”
Fetterman’s candidacy had a Rorschach test quality to it, one that led most corners of the Democrats’ big tent to claim his win as their own. To Sanders, Fetterman’s victory validated the Vermont senator’s conviction that Democrats can win if they embrace a working-class oriented economic message. Sanders had set out on the campaign trail last month out of concerns that his party wasn’t doing enough to lift that message up.
But as he looked around at Democrats in the midterms’ final days, he saw a party that had, even in the smallest ways, taken up some sliver of his ambition. House progressives “had the best night ever” as a new slate of left-wing federal lawmakers won their races. Young people turned out to vote, shoring up Democratic victories in places where they were far from guaranteed. Even Sanders’ more centrist colleagues, like Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), had run on banning stock trades among members of Congress. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), with whom Sanders has often clashed, “deserves credit as well” for keeping Ohio’s U.S. Senate race competitive on a workers-first platform.
There’s been a tendency, ever since Sanders’ dark horse 2016 presidential primary run, to view divides in the Democratic party through an ideological lens — one that makes it feel like the primary never really ended. Sanders himself remains far from satisfied with the state of the county or party: “Democrats have got to stand up for the working class,” he says when asked what the party should focus on over the next two years. But the Democrats who won on Tuesday night looked much more like champions of that vision than ever before.
“It’s hard to deny that in the last few weeks, from the president on down, more and more discussion about the economy,” Sanders shared in his post-election assessment. “And I’ll tell you, I think that had a very strong impact.
Sanders joined Rolling Stone to discuss election outcomes, the state of the party, and what he hopes Democrats will focus on as they retain control of the Senate.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Your chief concern heading into the midterm elections was that Democrats weren’t doing enough to talk about the economy — about the dangers Republicans posed to economic well-being and the agenda that Democrats should champion going forward. Do you feel like the party came around to stronger economic messaging in the final days of the campaign?
It’s hard to deny that in the last few weeks, from the president on down, more and more discussion about the economy, more and more discussion about Republican efforts to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. And I’ll tell you, I think that had a very strong impact.
I think it’s fair to say — a lot of great campaigns out there, great people — but the marquee race was Pennsylvania. I know his stroke kind of distorted the whole campaign and changed focus onto his health, but there’s no candidate who ran who was more strongly identified with the working class of Pennsylvania than John Fetterman. And he ended up winning — despite his stroke, which raised so many questions — a very strong victory. I think, frankly, if he had not had that stroke and continued along after he won the primary, I would not have been surprised if he won by double digits. I don’t know if you listened to his victory speech on Election Night. He said, ‘I tried to get to every county in the state. I know, we didn’t turn every county blue, but I wanted to talk to working class people.’ And I think in that sense, he really hit a nerve that I hope we can all learn from.
Even in Ohio, Tim Ryan lost, but he got close to 47 percent of the vote and ran way ahead of where people thought he would be. He deserves credit as well.
So look, the issue of abortion, enormously important. Democrats appropriately took on an extreme right-wing Supreme Court. The issue of Trump’s threats to democracy — enormously important. We have to stand up for democracy and I think that was a very, very important factor in this election. But I think — when you are seeing working people falling further and further behind massive income and wealth inequality, massive homelessness, people can’t afford their rent, people can’t afford health care — it would be absurd to ignore the economy.
I’m glad you mentioned abortion, since exit polling seems to credit that issue with delivering the election for Democrats. But it sounds like you’re giving abortion and the economy credit.
Tens of millions of people vote and they all have their different main interests. For some people, abortion was the only issue. For some people, the economy was the only issue. For some people, defending American democracy or climate change was the only issue. But I think there is not one issue.
By the way, if you look at states like Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Arizona, young people played a decisive role. I think Republican opposition to addressing the crisis of climate change played a role in that, as well as economic issues. So you know, any campaign has multiple issues, but abortion, very important, democracy, very important. And creating an economy that works for all, not just a few, also important. I think Fetterman would be the example of that.
During your run for president in 2016 and 2020, you argued that young people would eventually come out and support this kind of agenda — an agenda that focuses on working people, that speaks with authority about climate change, for example. I’m wondering if you’re feeling validated in that work from where you’re sitting right now.
Now, none of these things are exact science, but according to a number of exit polls, I’m just reading this right here, young people in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Arizona supported Democrats by over 70 percent in those states. So the support among young people for Democrats was very high. Turnout was good, not as high as I would like. During my campaign blitz we worked with NextGen [America, a political organization focused on youth voter engagement. The reason for its existence is to get more young people voting and involved in the political process. So yeah, I think we did a good job on that.
What should your party’s priorities be for the next two years?
We must continue to protect a woman’s right to control her own body. We have got to do everything we can to defend American democracy. One of the other factors not talked about, I think, enough is the degree to which billionaire money impacted this election. It’s disgusting. As I mentioned, I was in Pittsburgh with Summer Lee. She had to run against millions of dollars of AIPAC super PAC money coming in the last couple of weeks, and she ended up beating it back. This is a major, major problem.
So when you’re looking at democracy, it’s not just Trump. It is the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which has got to be dealt with. I think the last thing that I would say is, if you look at Biden’s popularity, its ups and its down, you will find that it was at its highest peak in I think March of 2021, when we passed the American Rescue Plan. Because they were hurting both from a health point of view, they were hurting from an economic point of view, they wanted their government to respond to their needs — we did it. And if you look at the provisions in Build Back Better, enormously popular.
So I think in the next few years, the Democrats have got to stand up for the working class in this country, which is being battered. Inflation is hurting people today. Working people are making less in real inflation adjusted dollars than they made 50 years ago. Can you believe it? I mean, unbelievable, despite the huge increase in worker productivity. So I think our focus has got to be to take on the greed of the one percent and the CEOs in the corporate world and create an economy that works for all, not just a few.
I don’t surprise you by saying that, right?