Bernie Sanders has been getting a bum rap from people who purport to be his fellow progressives. He’s been chastised for not supporting open borders: Totally open immigration, the Vermont senator told Vox’s Ezra Klein, was “a Koch brothers proposal” that would erode the “concept of the nation state.” He’s been accused of downplaying the effects of racism by emphasizing the effects of classism — a more valid criticism to which Sanders, after his initial, grumpy response to protesters last month, has responded more recently by highlighting the racism of many police practices. Some critics have added that Sanders’s allegedly blinkered vision stems from his decades in nearly all-white Vermont, or from his admiration for the social democracies of nearly all-white Scandinavia, or from the purported racial blindness of social democracy itself.
To fault Sanders for failing to support open borders, however, is to hold him to a standard that no present-day elected official in any nation I know of has met. Like his fellow liberals and, polling shows, most Americans, Sanders supports offering citizenship to those immigrants, documented and not (excepting those who’ve committed serious crimes), who are already here, and stopping the efforts to deport them. Like most Americans, Sanders clearly supports the continuation of legal immigration.
When Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders told The Nation last year that he was “prepared to run for president,” he said he would do so only if it was clear that progressives were enthusiastic about a movement campaign seeking nothing less than “a political revolution.” It was an audacious proposal—but after traveling the country for a year, Sanders decided that the enthusiasm was there and announced in late April as a candidate for the Democratic nomination. There were plenty of doubters then. Two months into the campaign, however, everything about this candidacy—the crowds, the poll numbers, the buzz—is bigger than expected. That says something about Sanders. But it also says something about the prospects for progressive politics. In late June, The Nation sat down with Sanders for several conversations that asked the longtime Nation reader (“started when I was a University of Chicago student in the early 1960s”) to put not just his campaign but the moment in historical perspective for our 150th-anniversary issue:
The Nation: Your campaign for the presidency has surprised people. The crowds are big; the poll numbers are stronger than the pundits predicted. You’re a student of political history. Put what’s happening now in perspective. Are we at one of those pivot points—as we saw in the 1930s—where our politics could open up and take the country in a much more progressive direction?
Sanders: Obviously, we’re not in the midst of a massive depression, as we were in the 1930s. But I think the discontent of the American people is far, far greater than the pundits understand. Do you know what real African-American youth unemployment is? It’s over 50 percent. Families with a member 55 or older have literally nothing saved for retirement. Workers are worried about their jobs ending up in China. They’re worried about being fired when they’re age 50 and being replaced at half-wages by somebody who is 25. They’re disgusted with the degree that billionaires are able to buy elections. They are frightened by the fact that we have a Republican Party that refuses to even recognize the reality of climate change, let alone address this huge issue.
In 1936, when Roosevelt ran for reelection, he welcomed the hatred of what he called “the economic royalists”—today, they’re the billionaire class—and I’m prepared to do that as well. That’s the kind of language the American people are ready to hear.
The Nation: As long as we’re talking about the evolution of public policy, let’s talk about the evolution of a word: socialism. You appeared on ABC’s This Week and, when you were asked whether a socialist can be elected president, you did not blink; you talked about socialism in positive, detailed terms. I don’t believe a presidential candidate has ever done that on a Sunday-morning show.
Sanders: Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, often criticizes President Obama, incorrectly, for trying to push “European-style socialism,” and McConnell says the American people don’t want it. First of all, of course, Obama is not trying to push European-style socialism. Second of all, I happen to believe that, if the American people understood the significant accomplishments that have taken place under social-democratic governments, democratic-socialist governments, labor governments throughout Europe, they would be shocked to know about those accomplishments. One of the goals of this campaign is to advance that understanding…. How many Americans know that in virtually every European country, when you have a baby, you get guaranteed time off and, depending on the country, significant financial benefits as well. Do the American people know that? I doubt it. Do the American people even know that we’re the only major Western industrialized country that doesn’t guarantee healthcare for all? Most people don’t know that. Do the American people know that in many countries throughout Europe, public colleges and universities are either tuition-free or very inexpensive?
I have always believed that the countries in Scandinavia have not gotten the kind of honest recognition they deserve for the extraordinary achievements they have made…. The Danish ambassador, whom I talked to a couple of years ago, said to me that in Denmark it is very, very hard to be poor; you really have to literally want to be outside of the system. Well, that’s pretty good. In Denmark, all of their kids can go to college; not only do they go for free, they actually get stipends. Healthcare is, of course, a right for all people. They have a very strong childcare system, which to me is very important. Their retirement system is very strong. They are very active in trying to protect their environment…. And, by the way, the voter turnout in those countries is much higher; in Denmark, in the last election, it was over 80 percent. Political consciousness is much higher than it is in the United States. It’s a more vibrant democracy in many respects. So why would I not defend that? Do they think I’m afraid of the word? I’m not afraid of the word.