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Bernie Sanders: ‘We are taking on very powerful people who will fight us tooth and nail’

The US senator and left-wing firebrand on the war in Gaza, the rise of oligarchy and why, despite their differences, Joe Biden is by far the preferable presidential candidate

Last week, left-wing US senatorial firebrand Bernie Sanders was in Dublin to take part in a Dalkey Book Festival event at O’Reilly Hall in UCD. He was in the country to talk about his book, It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism, a pragmatically idealistic encapsulation of his progressive politics. But the discussion was halted several times when young protesters took to their feet to challenge Sanders on America’s support for Israel’s lethal bombardment of Gaza. (There were also people picketing outside; similar protests accompanied an event in Trinity the following evening.)

Sanders has been more pro-Palestinian than many in US politics (a few days before the event he was among just three Democratic senators who voted against more military funding for Israeli government. For the protesters, however, he is a direct line to a US president who has been uncritically supportive of Israel’s war.

The day after the UCD event, I meet Sanders in Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Hotel. He and his wife, Jane, have just been with the Irish president for lunch. “I felt a real comradeship with him,” he says. “You should be proud. Ireland should be very proud that they have Mickey D as their president.”

He shakes my hand firmly, then fiddles with our table lamp to turn the brightness down. Jane sits nearby. He’s seems very fit for 82. He’s eager to get into the ideas contained in his book and outlines these in full, spoken paragraphs peppered with frequent “okay?”s and “right?”s and “can you believe that?”s to make sure I’m following along.


The gist of his argument is that voters and politicians are in denial about how much of our lives are presided over by super-wealthy individuals who have captured the middle ground of politics. We talk about this before we get to the subject of Gaza.

“What this book is about, is oligarchy,” he says. “In America, three people have more wealth than the bottom half of society. We have seen more concentration of ownership in recent years than we’ve ever seen. In every sector of the economy, it’s a handful of large corporations who control what goes on, what’s produced and how it’s distributed ... 1 per cent of the world’s population owns more wealth than the bottom 99 per cent ...

“Since Covid in 2022 a third of all the new wealth created in the world has gone to the top 1 per cent. That’s extraordinary. It is something that we should be talking about every day. How does that happen, that so few have so much wealth and so much power and so many people have neither? Don’t you think that’s an issue we should be talking about every day?”

Sanders has been thinking about this stuff for decades, about the way that radical voices have been kept out of mainstream political narratives. And while the book is slightly depressing in its depiction of relentless class-warrior billionaires undermining democracy, there are also dashes of hope when he describes how a new progressive coalition of young people and people of colour has grown in America and around the world.

It strikes me, I tell him, that a few things are splintering that progressive coalition, not least the fact that many of the activists who supported him cannot support Joe Biden on Israel. One of the young protesters who interrupted him from the audience the night before kept repeating the words, “Bernie, I campaigned for you.” The young man seemed hurt and angry.

“If all the people who say they campaign for me campaigned for me, you’d be talking to the president of the United States,” he says, but then his face softens and he relents a bit. “But maybe I’m wrong.”

He outlines his position. “There’s no question that what we’re seeing now in Gaza is horrific. And I have been trying with others to do what I can to reverse the role of the United States. What I have been focusing on is the absurdity of legislation, which was just voted on [at] five o’clock in the morning a few days ago, which would provide, among other things, $14 billion to Netanyahu from the US government. And that is to me unconscionable. What Netanyahu is doing is immoral. It is wrong and we’ve got to use our influence to stop it, not provide him with $10 billion more in offensive military aid.”

Sanders knows this is a huge issue and he understands people’s outrage. “I almost had my doubts about coming to Europe,” he says. “I should be focusing on this. For a start, I think that Biden should make clear to Netanyahu that he’s not going to get a nickel from the United States to support this horrendous war ... It’s an extreme right-wing government ... to give Netanyahu $10 billion more is totally unconscionable.”

One of the things that angered protesters at the UCD event was that Sanders declined to describe Israel’s ongoing bombardment of civilians as “genocide”. “I’m not a lawyer,” he says. “Genocide is a technical term. What’s going on, it’s horrible ... The killing of 27,000 Palestinians, two thirds of them women and children, is unconscionable. And the wounding of another 70,000, the destruction of housing, the fact that right now we’re looking at the starvation of hundreds of thousands of children. Usually in my mind when the word genocide [is used], you think of Rwanda, you think of Cambodia, where millions of people were killed ... I don’t know what the legal term is. It’s clearly something that’s absolutely horrific and unacceptable, whatever term you want to use.”

Would he consider the attacks on the civilian population of Gaza to be war crimes? “I think at this point there is evidence that there are war crimes, absolutely.”

Was he surprised by the protesters at and outside his event? He shakes his head firmly. “Not at all ... In terms of the protest, the vast majority of the people are outraged by what Israel is doing and I share that outrage. There are some, a small minority, who are sympathetic to Hamas and that I do not support.”

And he is aware that the issue is potentially splitting what is termed the progressive left. “What Biden is doing by supporting Israel clearly is demoralising millions of young people, millions of progressives, who understand that Trump is an enormous threat to our country and the world and want to see Trump defeated but at the same time are having a harder and harder time being supportive of Biden. So your point is right.”

Democracy is based on respect for the rules. You lost the election, then you congratulate the guy who won the election. Trump does not believe in that and he will work to undermine American democracy and move us toward an autocratic type of society

When we return to discussing the contents of the book, he visibly relaxes. The book outlines the ways he and his people worked with the Biden administration to get significant progressive legislation passed but also enumerates all the progressive policies stymied by pro-corporate politicians in the Democrats. He argues that the party is also in thrall to big business oligarchs.

Despite this he argues strongly that his followers should support Biden over Trump, who he sees as an autocrat. I suggest that that’s a depressing choice for idealistic young voters to have to consider.

“You’re right,” he says. “If you had a candidate that everyone was excited about versus somebody [who] wants to undermine democracy and give tax breaks to the rich, [it would be] a pretty clear situation, right? This is more complicated, unfortunately. Between the two candidates, there’s no doubt in my mind that Biden is far, far, far more preferable for a thousand different reasons. But you’re going to have to explain to young people that in the world that we live in, unfortunately, at this moment, the choices are not black and white. Despite Biden’s views on what’s happening in Gaza, despite Biden’s views on a number of other issues, he is far and away the most preferable candidate.”

Of Trump he says: “Democracy is based on respect for the rules. You lost the election, then you congratulate the guy who won the election. Trump does not believe in that and he will work to undermine American democracy and move us toward an autocratic type of society. That’s number one. Number two is that on economic issues, [a Trump presidency means] more tax breaks for the rich, throwing millions of people off the healthcare that they have, massive cutbacks in education and other programmes that are really needed ... He doesn’t even acknowledge the reality of climate change.”

So what’s Trump’s appeal? “I have said many, many times that the working class people who support Trump don’t do it because he wants to give tax breaks to billionaires. They don’t do it because he is anti-union, or he wants to cut back on education. There is a vacuum in American politics. You’re seeing that all over Europe as well. If you’re an average working person, and government is not working for you, you are resentful, you’re tired of the status quo, you want change.

“Trump is promising change. It is a dark change. It is an anti-democratic change. It is a change in support of autocracy but [to] the disenfranchised he’s saying: ’The system is not working for you. Give me the power. I’ll make things happen. And by the way, the reason that you can’t afford healthcare, that you’re not making any money, it’s the immigrants, or it’s the gay community or it’s women. Those are your enemies.’ Meanwhile, he’ll get huge amounts of money from the rich and the powerful.”

Sanders thinks politicians on all sides are reluctant to discuss the structural realities underpinning Trump’s support. “If you are an average worker in America today, your real inflation-accounted-for wages are lower than they were 50 years ago,” he says. “Can you believe that? Isn’t that rather an astounding reality? With all the increase in worker productivity, that’s the reality. And Biden has got to get up there and say, ‘I recognise that’.”

Politics, he says, has been significantly captured by the super-rich. This is most extreme in America where Super PACs (political action committees) allow billionaires to funnel unlimited funding to politicians of their choice. Politicians who want that support frequently modify their policies accordingly. “Right now, and for the next nine months on American television, there could be all kinds of ads, from groups called [things like] Americans for Freedom, paid for by a handful of billionaires. They make massive contributions to both political parties. You’ll have groups like the pharmaceutical industry, which contribute to both political parties. I mean, just think about that. There’s not even an ideology, [they’re saying] ‘no matter what your views are, I want to control you’.”

How does Sanders stay optimistic? “Well, it’s my job. That’s what I’m paid to do. And in the midst of difficult times, you’ve got to keep fighting. And in fact we have some accomplishments ... I’m very proud, [as] chairman of the budget committee, we worked with Biden to create what we call the American rescue plan, which was an extraordinary piece of legislation, which took America out of a very bad economic period, helped us fight Covid and dealt with public health, and it showed the American people the government could respond to their needs.”

He wants to stress to progressives that politics is a process and that meaningful change can take time. “It would be very easy if I said, ‘vote for me and tomorrow I’m gonna provide quality healthcare to all people, I’m gonna raise your wages, I’m gonna solve climate change. And I promise you, I’m going do that in two days.’ That’d be pretty easy. That’s just not true.”

He returns to the subject of wealth and oligarchy. “What has to be recognised is the enormity – not only in the United States, but all over the world – of the nature of the opposition ... We don’t talk about it. How often do you talk about oligarchy here in Ireland? Correct me if I’m wrong, but probably very little. Yet, if you google it you will find that companies like BlackRock and Vanguard and State Street and these large Wall Street firms have enormous power all over the world.”

I note that Ireland courts many companies with favourable corporate tax policies. “It’s not just Ireland. All over the world right now, governments are saying, ‘We just don’t have enough money to provide quality healthcare’ ... We have to cut back on education all over the world. Meanwhile, you have billionaires and large corporations parking, not billions, but trillions of dollars in tax havens, the Cayman Islands, Bermuda ... It has to be dealt with globally. The bottom line is this planet has enough wealth to provide decently for all of our people but you have massive inequality. And that inequality is worse because so much money is held in secret accounts, tax havens around the world.”

Does he thinks that the US government should target Ireland’s generous corporate tax laws? “If they do it, it won’t [just] be for Ireland but it would be for the world in general. I think that has to be looked at. Yes.”

He doesn’t think billionaires should exist. “Our kids and grandchildren have gone to public schools. Their kids go to the finest private schools in the world. Our people worry about childcare. They have nannies coming into their homes. When their kids leave school, they will get great jobs, because Daddy called a friend at a firm. They live in another world.

“In America, we have a lot of problems with addiction, drug addiction, alcohol addiction. These guys are addicted to greed ... It’s not just the wealth and what you can buy, it’s the incredible power. [They] have enormous influence over media. Rupert Murdoch, he’s enormously powerful. Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post. [Elon] Musk now owns Twitter. Billionaires own many of the papers and television networks. That’s power.”

Sanders is still hopeful. He thinks there has been, at the grassroots, a return to the New Deal politics of Franklin DRoosevelt and his hero, the socialist trade unionist Eugene V Debs. “In the US House of Representatives you’ve got 435 members ... I was in the House in 1990 and when I was elected, I helped form the Progressive Caucus, which at that point had five people. Today it has over 100, and many of them are younger people, often women, people of colour. The House Democratic Caucus is far, far more progressive than was the case when I was there. All over the country, you’re seeing people elected to city councils, to school boards, who are very, very progressive. And that’s a really good thing.

“Second of all, what we have seen in the last four years is a real upsurge in progressive trade unionism. For many years, the trade union movement in the United States was rather ossified and dormant ... that has radically changed. You see grassroots organising in an unprecedented way, major unions like the UAW taking on the automobile industry and winning a tremendous victory.”

He’s even optimistic about how technology such as AI could, if controlled democratically, be a net positive for ordinary workers. “Artificial intelligence and robotics, if used appropriately, can be a great source of wealth for the world,” he says. “That’s the struggle. Who benefits from all this technology? I think we need people to stand up and say that technology is part of human genius and all of us should benefit and not just the corporations who utilise that technology.”

The economist John Maynard Keynes once predicted that automation would lead to a 15-hour working week. Sanders is currently advocating a 32-hour working week with no loss of pay. “Just to make this point, that with all of this new technology, with all of this increase in worker productivity, workers should benefit.”

Does he ever worry that when he’s talking to more oligarchically minded business people and politicians, he’s just shouting into a cavern of indifference? He shakes his head.

“They’re not indifferent,” he says. “They’re opposed. We are taking on very powerful people who will fight us tooth and nail. That is the struggle that we are in right now. It is working people taking on oligarchy. Oligarchy is enormously powerful. It impacts every aspect of our society. And one of the things they managed to do through media and everything else is to say: ‘You can’t win. You have no power. We’ve got it all. So just get back to work.’ That’s the message. They make you feel helpless, and we’re not.”

So, at 82, Bernie Sanders plans to keep working? He’s already standing, shaking my hand and off to his next appointment. “We’ll keep them busy.”

It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism by Bernie Sanders is published by Penguin

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