May 24, 2005

A socialist in the U.S. Senate?

At this point, that's the likely result of the 2006 elections in the US state of Vermont. The likely winner of the state's Senate seat is Bernie Sanders, the long-time 'independent' member of Congress from Vermont. ('Independent,' in Sanders' case, is the euphemism that the media arrived at to avoid the inconvenience of having to explain that Vermont has repeatedly sent a socialist to Washington.) Sanders will be running for the seat being vacated by Jim Jeffords, a former Republican who bolted his party after Dubya's first election to the White House.

As a member of the House of Representatives, Sanders has has consistently been on the left wing of that body, steadfastly working on issues affecting poor and working class people, and pressing for stronger civil liberties and environmental legislation. In These Times has an excellent article on Sanders, containing both excerpts of ITT's coverage of Sanders since he was first elected as mayor of Burlington (VT) in 1981, and a recent interview with Sanders on a range of topics.

Bernie Sanders
US Rep. Bernie Sanders

ITT: Over the years you've developed a strong base among working people in Vermont, a base that has ensured your re-election. How can other progressives running for public office do the same?

Sanders: When I was mayor of Burlington, low-income and working people supported me because they knew that I was fighting for their interests and succeeding. We significantly transformed working-class neighborhoods, provided programs for the kids and the elderly, and built affordable housing. As a congressman, I've worked hard to protect some of the most vulnerable people in our state, the people who don't make large contributions to the Republican Party. I've helped lead the effort against our disastrous trade policies and have protected the pensions of thousands of Vermont workers. My office has brought a federal program into the state which provides good nutrition for over 5,000 lower-income seniors, we've helped develop federally qualified community health centers and dental clinics that provide medical and dental care for people all over the state. I've held dozens of meetings for Vermont veterans, helping many of them get the benefits to which they're entitled. People in Vermont recognize that while they may disagree with me on this or that issue, I spend the bulk of my time fighting for their rights and that we have had some very significant accomplishments.

Too often, people on the left look at cultural issues as the most important issues. They are important, but we have to appreciate the reality that tens of millions of people are struggling hard just to keep their heads above water economically. They either have no health insurance or they are paying much more than they can afford for health insurance. They're desperately trying to get a decent education for their kids. They're scared to death about whether their pension is going to be there when they retire. To a large degree we've ignored those people. It's important that we reach out to them and let them know that we know what they're going through and that we're going to change the system. It is not acceptable that America is the only country in the industrialized world without national health care. It is not acceptable that we haven't raised the minimum wage in 10 years to a living wage, that we haven't addressed the major crisis in affordable housing. Homelessness is a problem, sure, but a bigger problem is that millions of people are spending 50 percent of their limited incomes on housing. When you are forced to do that, how do you have money to provide the basics for your family? The middle class in America is collapsing. And it's about time we started addressing that reality....

ITT: You've been examining issues and setting an agenda at town meetings across Vermont. What role does the media play in exploring issues and setting the national agenda?

Sanders: Corporate control of the media, media consolidation and growing censorship threats are enormous issues that we have been actively involved with. The central issue is not just the right-wing slant of the corporate media. That's obvious. All you have to do is look at how they covered the war in Iraq and how millions of Americans had to go to the BBC or the CBC to get an objective view. It's not just the difference of how they covered Bill Clinton who was under attack before he took office and under attack when he left office. This was Clinton, a moderate democrat, as opposed to Bush, a right-wing Republican, who gets very little scrutiny compared to Clinton.

The far more important issue is what they don't cover. To the average American today, the most important issue is why that person is working longer hours for lower wages and why his or her standard of living has declined over the past 30 years. But for much of the corporate media it's a non-issue. The growing gap between the rich and the poor, the fact that we have the most unequal distribution of wealth of any major country on Earth, the fact that we are the only industrialized country in the world without a national health care system--those are also non-issues. Will the media talk about our health care problem? Sure they will. Will they talk about how other countries are doing better for less? No they won't.

The reality of people's lives is not reflected in the media, and therefore people begin to question their very existence, as if they were the only ones struggling hard. And as a result they think their problems are unique to them, and are not social or political problems that we as a nation can solve by working together. The result of that is that people lose interest in the political process, don't vote or simply pay attention to the cultural issues that the right-wing propagates.

In my view, the corporate media is certainly one of the main factors in the depoliticalization of our country and the low level of political consciousness.

This magpie is definitely looking forward to seeing Sanders in the Senate.

Posted by Magpie at May 24, 2005 09:49 AM | US Politics | Technorati links |

a) It's Sanders, not Saunders

b) Bernie stopped calling himself a socialist a long time ago, probably before his first run for the House.

My point b) is not intended to imply that he's altered his political positions all that much, just that he had to be a bit more circumspect when campaigning in Windsor or St. Johnsbury or on Lake Memphremagog than he was in Burlington.

I agree that it'll be very good to see him in the Senate. Let's hope that the 60% of Vermonters who are liberal or progressive don't commit fratricide when it comes to filling his House seat.

Posted by: N in Seattle at May 24, 2005 02:13 PM

hey, i'm sick today and am spelling impaired. i can't be held responsible.

but i fixed the misspellings anyway :)

Posted by: Magpie at May 24, 2005 03:55 PM