Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Green Menace

From Comment is Free Guardian 14 April 2008

A small correction is in order, apparently the Senator is not actually a member of DSA, although he spoke at their convention and happily accepts donations _ Ian W.

In a country where many socialists seem to prefer sniping from academic ivory towers to active involvement in the political process, most Americans are blithely unaware of the US Senate's first and only avowed socialist. In Britain, Bernie Sanders would be a media celebrity like Tony Benn or Claire Short. In the US, the junior senator from Vermont is equally free with his strongly held opinions, but he would have to be caught tapping his feet in an airport toilet stall to hit the talk shows.

Brooklyn-born Sanders moved to Vermont in 1964, becoming mayor of Burlington in 1981. He represented the state in the House of Representatives from 1988 until 2006 when he won the Senate seat at the age of 65.

It's not as if he did it as a stealth socialist. Sanders is a card-carrying member of the Democratic Socialists of America, who represent the US at the Socialist International - but do not put up candidates of their own. Even so, his flat urban vowels, his challenged coiffure and couture, with his arresting look from behind his glasses combine to make him almost a stereotype of the earnest Brooklyn socialist intellectual who made his own way from the tenements.

But in Vermont, he is "Bernie", and hard work and palpable sincerity more than make for his serious demeanour and lack of gladhanding.

Perhaps fortunately for him, the tiny hard left in the US wants nothing to do with him and his pragmatic Old Labourish policies. When he (along with most of the European socialists) supported intervention in Kosovo, some of his staff resigned in protest.

Technically he is listed as "Independent", but he is no Lone Ranger. He takes the Democratic whip and co-founded the Congressional Progressive Caucus - a 72-member grouping of the lower house's most liberal members and the biggest such grouping on the Hill.

He speaks fondly of Harry Reid, Senate majority leader, discounting the suggestion that his five committees - "excellent assignments" for a junior senator - may be a consequence of his strategic importance to the wafer-thin Democratic majority. In his early terms in the House he used to tell his more conservative Democratic colleagues exactly what he thought of their timidity, but his approach has mellowed, not necessarily because they moved left, but because the Republicans went so far right.

Now, he sees some cause for optimism. "We've had probably the most right-wing government in the United States in modern history - perhaps forever," he says. "A year ago, extreme right wingers like Tom Delay and Bill Frist were running the Senate and House - but that's been pushed back."

But, as he often does, he immediately qualifies his enthusiasm: "I wouldn't be telling the truth if I said that a Democratic victory in the House or Senate gave us a progressive Congress. It's a lot better than a right-wing extremist government, but it is a centrist government over which big money has a lot of influence."

He concludes: "We still have a long way to go to develop a government which is going to represent the working families and middle classes of America." (British readers should note that the American "middle class" encompasses almost anyone with a regular job.)

Which leaves the question: what's so different about Vermont that it can send Sanders to the Senate? While admitting that on issues like healthcare, the example of nearby Canada helps, the senator does not think that his rural state is an aberration. "It about class," he declares. His electoral support is based on pragmatic and political attention to his constituents' economic interests. "In Vermont, and elsewhere, the most serious economic problem facing America is the collapse of the middle class. The vast majority of Americans have suffered a decline in their standard of living and we are engaged in a race to the bottom."

He shoots off the staccato statistics with the ease of frequent practice: since Bush took office, five million more Americans live in poverty, three million more have lost their pensions, seven million more have lost their health insurance and median household income is now $2,000 less. "That's the dynamic of the American economy. It's not talked about very often by the corporate media, not often discussed in Congress."

Implicitly he condemns many of his Democratic colleagues and suggests that their refusal to address such crass economic issues allows conservatives to trap them into fighting on the forlorn battlefield of social and cultural issues. He charges that "the media plutocracy in this country has tried to establish that you are liberal if you are pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-environment, and you are a conservative if you are against those."

Some liberals take him to task for voting against some gun-control legislation. "It's less of an issue now," he shrugs, and he points to Vermont's zero gun-control laws, high gun-ownership "and one of the lowest crime rates in the country".

So he opposed tort liability for gun makers and supports guns for hunting but voted against allowing "the import of assault rifles whose sole purpose is to kill people, and most hunters think so as well," which does not stop the NRA from giving him its lowest rating.

That does not mean he indulges in gratuitous red-neckery to win votes. "I'm probably one of the strongest environmentalists in the Senate," he notes, "and I have a 100% voting record on human rights and gay rights, civil rights," he declares matter-of-factly with no false modesty.

But, he returns inexorably to his theme, if the Democrats pounded away at the impoverishment of working Americans, the "tax breaks for the billionaires, the corporate welfare that goes to the oil industry and the banks and other big entities they could have a lot more success than they have had".

He explains their failure to do so: "As elections get more and more expensive, you have people in the Senate and House spending huge amounts of time raising money from the wealthiest people, listening to their concerns, and ignoring the needs of the middle class and working class."

But Sanders counters with his own example: "If you stand for something, you can raise money even in this corrupt campaign system." He relied on over 50,000 grassroots contributors to win two-to-one against a wealthy Republican "who spent more money per voter on the campaign than anyone else in the history of Senate elections". But he sadly accepts the likelihood of his colleagues going to the business interests, because that's where the money is.

Sanders points to real examples to demonstrate the feasibility of his programmes - "the many achievements that democratic socialist governments have made over the years in Europe and Scandinavia such as the various types of national healthcare systems. We're the only industrialised country in the world that does not have one, and yet we spend twice as much on healthcare as any other country."

He lists the benefits of European welfare states with envy at their achievement but indignation that "they are beyond anything the average American could dream of. In America, 18% of our children live in poverty, in Scandinavia it's 3 or 4 %."

So with a Democrat Senate, House, and an impending possible Democrat in the White House, can we expect a national health system soon? Sanders is careful to point out the obstacles: "I'm not much into speculation, but the power of the insurance companies is incredible and the power of the pharmaceutical companies is even more so - probably the most powerful lobby in the world. And they've spent hundreds of millions on lobbying and campaign contributions."

And in that context, he laconically ranks the major Democratic primary contenders. He considered John Edwards the "most progressive", but with Edwards having made an early exit he deems Barack Obama to be to Hillary Clinton's left. Although he thinks one of them is going to win the presidency, "even then, developing public policy that defends the middle class and working families will be extraordinarily difficult because of the power of big money over the Congress."

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