Independent Bernie Sanders says he wants a “political revolution” in the United States to “transform our country economically, politically, socially and environmentally”. And if his popularity among young Democratic voters is any indication, so do they.
The senator from Vermont has become the walking embodiment of Democratic disenchantment with the status quo.
A self-proclaimed democratic socialist, the 78-year-old Sanders has railed against the country’s wealthy classes and called on millions of working Americans to help him change the face of the country’s politics. Issues once considered fringe – universal healthcare and free university tuition among them – have vaulted into the mainstream since he rose to the top of the Democratic field of candidates.
He commands a solid group of supporters, but is up against a crowded field of Democratic candidates, many of whom, like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, have also touted some of the same positions.
Sanders – who lost the nomination to Hillary Clinton in a bitterly contested 2016 primary – is the oldest candidate running, and if elected would be the oldest president in US history. On the campaign trail in October, he suffered a heart attack and was rushed to hospital. Three weeks later, he was back and promising supporters at a rally in New York City that his time in the spotlight is far from over.
“I am happy to report to you that I am more than ready, more ready than ever to carry on with you on the epic struggle that we face today,” Sanders told a crowd of 25,000 admirers.
“I am more than ready to assume the office of president of the United States.”
“To put it bluntly,” he added, “I am back.”
Medicare for All
Sanders’s signature issue is healthcare. In April, he introduced legislation that would transform the US’s multi-faceted healthcare system into a single-payer, government-run system that provides insurance coverage to all Americans with no premiums, deductibles or co-payments.
The plan would effectively eliminate private health insurance and ban employers from offering healthcare plans that compete with the government.
“The United States must join the rest of the industrialised world and recognise that healthcare is a right of all, and not a privilege,” Sanders said.
The bill was co-sponsored by 14 Democrats, including fellow presidential aspirant Warren. It was not as warmly received by others in the race, however, not to mention legions of legislators and pundits. Former Vice President Joe Biden, a frontrunner among the Democrats, called the plan unrealistic.
How to pay for a plan that some have estimated would cost $34 trillion over 10 years has never been fully explained. Sanders has said only that he would finance the overhaul by taxing the wealthy and cutting payment rates to pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and other health industry actors.
“Look, I am not denying that we’re going to spend a lot of money,” Sanders said on PBS. But “the average American will pay less for healthcare under Medicare for All,” he promised.
Middle class disappearing
Born in Brooklyn, New York, to a Jewish working-class family, Sanders has made wealth inequality another pillar of his campaign.
He has denounced the country’s tax system, which he argues favours the super-rich and large corporations and enables them to accumulate wealth at the expense of middle-class and poor Americans.
“For 40 years, the American middle class has been disappearing. Millions of people are working longer hours for lower wages despite a huge increase in technology and productivity,” Sanders said in a 2016 interview.
“And what we have seen during that period is a massive transfer of trillions of dollars from the middle class to the top one-tenth of 1 percent of America – massive wealth and income inequality,” he added.
To address the issue, in October 2019 he proposed an “Income Inequality Tax” on companies with large pay disparities between executives and workers. The plan calls for increasing the corporate tax rate by half a percent on companies that pay their chief executives 50 times more than their median employee wage, and increasingly more for companies with wider pay gaps. The current corporate tax rate is 21 percent.
Sanders, whose father was an immigrant from Poland, has said the US is a “nation of immigrants” and released an immigration plan that would overturn Trump policies intended to stem the flow of immigrants to the US.
He pledged to push for programmes that would provide a path to citizenship to the roughly 11 million undocumented migrants in the US, with priority status for children and young people.
“Undocumented workers are doing the extremely difficult work of harvesting our crops, building our homes, cooking our meals, and caring for our children,” he said in a 2015 speech. “They are part of the fabric of America.”
Sanders also said he would overturn Trump’s criminalisation of border crossings, reversing a “zero tolerance” crackdown that has led to thousands of migrants being detained, prosecuted and deported, and over 2,000 children separated from their parents on the US-Mexico border.
Sanders, the longest-serving independent in the history of Congress, has advanced the idea that domestic and foreign policies are inextricably linked, and has not shied away from criticising US foreign policy and military intervention abroad.
In an op-ed in June 2019, he said that he would extricate the US from wars in the Middle East and reorient its foreign policy so that it prioritises “diplomacy and working collectively with allies” over military action.
He has argued that his vision does not involve a US retreat from the world stage, but rather the use of diplomacy and cooperation instead of force to further US interests.
“We need to rethink the militaristic approach that has undermined the United States’ moral authority, caused allies to question our ability to lead, drained our tax coffers, and corroded our own democracy,” he wrote.
He has pledged to withdraw troops in Afghanistan, a war that has lasted 18 years, and blasted the so-called “war on terror” as “staggeringly wasteful” and leading to the proliferation of terrorism, not its destruction.
“American power should be measured not by our ability to blow things up, but by our ability to build on our common humanity, harnessing our technology and enormous wealth to create a better life for all people,” Sanders wrote.
Sanders has also been outspoken about Israel-Palestine, one of the most politically charged conflicts in the world. He has said that he supports a two-state solution to the decades-old conflict, and has opposed the US decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
He also criticised statements by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that backed Israel’s right to build settlements in the occupied West Bank – which the US had long maintained were an obstacle to peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
“Israeli settlements in occupied territory are illegal. This is clear from international law and multiple United Nations resolutions,” Sanders tweeted after Pompeo’s announcement.
During the Democratic party’s fifth presidential debate in November, Sanders added: “It is no longer good enough for us to be pro-Israel. I am pro-Israel. But we must treat the Palestinians with the dignity they deserve.”
On the campaign trail, Sanders has vowed to make climate change central to his presidency and backed a so-called “Green New Deal” put forth by Ocasio-Cortez and others which declared climate change a national emergency.
“Climate change cannot only be addressed by the United States. It is a global issue,” Sanders said in Iowa at the time. “But my promise to you is, instead of ignoring this issue as Trump does, I will help lead the world in bringing countries together to address the issue.”