by Jonathan Tasini/ Playboy/ October 17, 2013
At a time when politicians—particularly members of Congress—are almost universally reviled and blind partisanship seems to dictate the fate of every piece of legislation, one U.S. senator stands out as a unique voice.
Bernie Sanders has been a senator from Vermont since 2006. It’s hard for him to be caught up in partisanship: He’s one of only two U.S. senators who identify as independent. Although he caucuses with the Democrats, Sanders refuses to run as one and regularly chides them for abandoning the working class. He has never been much of a party man. When he was first elected to the House of Representatives, in 1990, he refused any party affiliation, making him the longest-serving independent member of Congress in American history.
His views are clear and differ radically from those of his Republican colleagues and often sharply from those of his closest allies, the Democrats. He describes himself as a democratic socialist and often praises Scandinavian-style social democracy. Fox News thinks he’s crazy, and he makes MSNBC look timid.
The 72-year-old Brooklyn-born Sanders moved to Vermont in 1968 after graduating from the University of Chicago and spending time on a kibbutz in Israel. Always a leftist activist, he became a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. That led him to politics, though he failed to win early races for the Senate and the governorship.
It wasn’t until 1981 that he won his first office, mayor of Burlington, Vermont’s largest city, by a total of 10 votes. His four terms were full of his trademark liberal ideas—low-cost housing, reining in the excesses of the local cable-TV operation and forming the Vermont Progressive Party. He has also taught at Harvard and at Hamilton College in New York.
Of course Vermont is one of the bluest states in the country (it gave us onetime presidential candidate Howard Dean), and Sanders is a hero to locals. He won reelection last year with 71 percent of the vote, and his approval ratings make him one of the most popular senators in the country. Nationally, he gained notoriety for his views on gun control (pro), foreign intervention (anti) and, most vocally, his passion for the plight of the middle class and the sorry state of the American economy.
We sent noted economics writer Jonathan Tasini, who previously interviewed Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman for Playboy, to sit down with Sanders for a series of discussions in Vermont and Washington. Tasini reports: “I was warned ahead of time: Bernie doesn’t do personal revelations. No question about it; he is the anti–Bill Clinton. The most extensive anecdote about Sanders the person came from a ticket agent at the Vermont airport. When I mentioned what I was doing in the area, she smiled and said, ‘Oh, we love Bernie,’ and proceeded to tell me how Sanders had helped her boyfriend, a veteran with a back injury who was having a hellish time getting the Department of Veterans Affairs to approve his medical costs. ‘By the time they were done, they were on a first-name basis,’ she said.
“After spending numerous hours with Senator Sanders, I came to understand why he resists suggestions from his followers that 2016 might be the right time for him to make a run for the White House. It’s not that he worries about losing. Although he wants to influence the debate, his hunger for power isn’t so insatiable that he would debase himself in the arena of what poses as serious political debate in America.”
PLAYBOY: You have said, “There are people working three jobs and four jobs, trying to cobble together an income in order to support their families.” Has the middle class died forever?
SANDERS: Well, I certainly hope it’s not forever, but one of the untold stories of our time is the collapse of the American middle class. From the end of World War II until 1973, we saw an expanding middle class, with people’s incomes going up. Since that point, and especially since the Wall Street–driven financial crisis, you’ve seen a real collapse. Since 1999 median family income has gone down $5,000. Real unemployment, counting people who have given up looking for work or who are working part-time when they want to work full-time, is more than 14 percent. More than 14 percent! You’re seeing millions of people working longer hours for lower wages. When I was growing up in a lower-middle-class family, the gold standard for blue-collar workers was union manufacturing in the automobile industry. As the big three have been rehiring, they’re hiring people at something like $14 an hour, half the wages. The U.S. has 46 million people living in poverty today. We have the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world.
PLAYBOY: How do you explain that?
SANDERS: We live in a hypercapitalist society, which means the function of every institution is not to perform a public service but to make as much money as possible. There’s an effort to privatize water, for God’s sake. I suppose somebody will figure out how to charge you for the oxygen you breathe. The function of health care, in a rational world, is to make sure every person, as a right, has access to the health care they need in the most cost-effective way possible. That is not the nature of our health care system at all. The function of this health care system is for people in the system—whether it’s insurance companies, drug companies, medical specialists—to make as much money out of it as possible. In five minutes one could come up with ways to make the system simpler and more cost effective.
PLAYBOY: Has this hypercapitalism accelerated lately?
SANDERS: People have lost sight of America as a society where everyone has at least a minimal standard of living and is entitled to certain basic rights, a nation in which every child has a good-quality education, has access to health care and lives in an environmentally clean community, not as an opportunity for billionaires to make even more money and avoid taxes by stashing their money in the Cayman Islands. Can you argue that the era of unfettered capitalism should be over? Absolutely. Does this system of hypercapitalism, this incredibly unequal distribution of wealth and income, need fundamental reform? Absolutely it does. You have the entire scientific community saying we have to be very aggressive in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Yet you’re seeing the heads of coal companies and oil companies willing to sacrifice the well-being of the entire planet for their short-term profits. And these folks are funding phony organizations to try to create doubt about the reality of global warming.