America has a serious problem with inequality. The gap between the rich and the poor is one of the widest among developed nations and has reached levels last seen in the Roaring Twenties before the Great Crash. Although the productivity and wealth of the nation have grown rapidly, the wages of ordinary workers have stagnated. Average wages have remained more or less the same for forty years. While wealth becomes increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, more and more people fall into poverty. Unions have had their strength drained from them and adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage is lower than it was fifty years ago. To be successful in America nowadays has less to do with your skill and abilities and more to do with where you were born and how rich your parents were.
This inequality is also having a damaging effect on politics. In fact the political system in America has become so corrupted that it often resembles little more than legalised bribery. In theory, a democracy should be open to everyone and all should have an equal say. In reality, America is being pulled away from its origins as a Republic and towards that of an oligarchy. Running for election has become enormously expensive and candidates must have millions in the bank before they can even consider running. It has gotten so bad that the first question reporters ask about a candidate is not about their vision for the country or whether their policies will benefit America, but whether or not they can raise enough money to run.
The people with the most money to donate to candidates are not ordinary people but the wealthy and corporations. Few of them donate as an act of charity, most of them want something in return. In fact, corporations look at donations as an investment and however much they donate, they expect to make a profit on it. To even consider running for office, a candidate must pander to the wealthy and tell them what they want to hear. Once elected, these donors want special access and influence to the politician. They often even draft laws and put huge pressure on how the politician will vote. A recent study showed that the ordinary citizen has next to zero influence on public policy, whereas elites have huge influence. In short, the votes of politicians are for sale.
Few politicians are willing to challenge the system. Bernie Sanders is one of the few exceptions. He has been criticising economic inequality for decades. He has been making a strong stand against inequality and even goes as far as to call himself a Socialist. He advocates taxing the wealthy and strengthening the welfare state. He wants to end corporate welfare (where big business gets billions of dollars in subsidies from the government) and clamp down on corporate tax dodging. He has proposed introducing a Financial Transaction Tax to combat financial speculation. Nor are these recent stances of his, he has been opposing financial deregulation for decades. Not only does he wish to re-instate the Glass-Steagall Act (one of the main pillars of financial regulation) but he voted against repealing it in the first place. His warnings of the dangers of unregulated financial capitalism have been proven correct.
Campaign finance reform is a major part of Sanders campaign and he is committed to removing money from politics. He has warned that America is in danger of becoming an oligarchy ruled by a handful of billionaires. He wants to limit influence of money and take donations out of the hands of corporations, instead requiring that only citizens can donate. Instead elections should be publicly funded to provide a level playing field without the influence of big business. He is particularly passionate in his opposition to Super PACs which basically allow unlimited donations (and therefore influence). He has put his words into action and is the only candidate who does not have a Super PAC raising money for him. All his donations are above board and come from ordinary citizens.
A key force in the battle against inequality are unions and Sanders is by far the most pro-union candidate (he even received a 100% rating from the AFL-CIO). Unions are an essential in promoting the welfare and rights of workers, without which they have a far weaker bargaining position. The decline of unions in America coincided with the rise of inequality and the decline in the share of national wealth that labour received. Sanders has also promoted co-operatives that give their workers a say in how the business is run. This essentially brings democracy into the workplace. He is a strong defender of the rights of low paid workers and supports raising the minimum wage to $15.
Unlike the minor and piecemeal reform that most Democrats (unfortunately including Obama) offer, Sanders proposes radical change. Instead of merely tinkering with the healthcare system, he has campaigned for a complete overhaul. Instead of continuing America’s current healthcare policy which manages to combine incredibly high costs with inefficient outcomes and gaping inequalities, Sanders wants complete universal healthcare. This has proven a success in many European countries, providing equal healthcare to all people regardless of their income while still costing less. Healthcare should be a right for all citizens, not a luxury for the rich.
Another major proposal of Sanders is to make college free for everyone. At the moment college in America is absurdly expensive, costing roughly $9,000 a year on average. College is a gateway to further opportunities but many people are blocked from following their dreams and careers because they don’t have enough money. Or they end up taking on huge levels of debts that takes many long years to pay off. Education should be a right, not a privilege.
He has a good record on the environment and proposed bills to drastically reduce global warming. He co-sponsored a bill that aimed to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 and supported a carbon tax. He is one of the only politicians to recognise that the War on Drugs cannot be won and disproportionately harms the lives of young black men. In fact he supports the decriminalisation of cannabis and medical marijuana, which is an enormous step forward for any politician to take. He opposes the death penalty and attempts to make the justice system even harsher, referring to instead focus on rehabilitation. He also supports the separation of Church and State. Unlike most candidates he doesn’t wave his religion around like a sword, instead he keeps it to himself (he describes himself as a Secular Jew). He has a long history of supporting a woman’s right to choose.
He is a strong defender of civil rights (in fact he took part in the March on Washington when Martin Luther King made his “I Have A Dream” speech) in particular voting rights. He opposes voter suppression measures taken by the Republicans and the gerrymandering of electoral districts that rig elections. He supports extending the right to vote to ex-felons and even those still in prison, in fact Vermont is one of only two states where even current prisoners may vote. He aims to reduce the American two party system by introducing an Alternative Vote system (where voters can rank the candidates in order of preference and there is no such thing as a wasted vote).
It would be hard to match Sanders’ record in Congress. He has been on the right side of pretty much every issue for the last two decades and even when Democrats went wrong, Sanders stayed true to his convictions. He voted against the Defence of Marriage Act (which prevented same-sex marriage), the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, the Bush tax cuts, welfare cuts, and the bank bailouts. He was a supporter of gay marriage long before it was popular and consistently opposed the War on Terror from the beginning. In contrast Clinton has only taken up progressive causes once the tide has turned and a clear majority support them.
Of course he isn’t perfect and there are areas where his views don’t fully match mine. His record on guns is mixed and he has voted against some gun control laws. However, there are other aspects of gun control such as bans on assault weapons that he supports. He is broadly pro-immigration, supporting the DREAM Act and opposing the fence with Mexico. However, he is not too positive on working visas, fearing that they might push down wages. But you will never find a politician with whom you agree 100%, so Sanders is as close as you can get.
Many say that Sanders has no chance of winning and that Clinton is guaranteed to be the Democratic nominee. This was constantly repeated when Sanders entered the race and the polls were 60-10 in Clinton’s favour. However, since then Sanders has been riding a huge wave of enthusiasm and shot up in the polls so that it is a much closer 42-27. He is even winning in New Hampshire and polling strongly in Iowa. Surprisingly, he has almost matched Clinton in terms of money raised last quarter, raising $26 million from ordinary people, compared to $28 Clinton raised with the help of a Super PAC and extensive fundraising among financial institutions who would surely prefer her over a Socialist. Sanders has even gotten over a million donations a feat Obama didn’t reach until after the Iowa Caucus in 2008.
But most importantly of all, Sanders has built a huge grassroots movement. He has held enormous rallies that are beyond what any other candidate can compare. Tens of thousands of people show up to hear him speak at stadiums all over the country. No other candidate can match him for the enthusiasm or passion of his base.
But judging a candidate solely based on their chances of winning is missing the bigger picture. Elections are not simply a horse race where the only thing that matters is who wins, they are also a national discussion in how we view society and which direction we want the country to go. Sanders is putting issues like economic inequality and campaign finance front and centre of the debate and preventing them from being swept under the carpet. He is mobilising huge numbers of people and getting them active in politics for the first time. Elections are not won simply by running to the centre, but by energising voters and giving them a strong reason to vote for you.
Hillary Clinton simply cannot match this. While she is better than any Republican, she is still part of the establishment. She is heavily funded by financial institutions, often the same ones who were responsible for the financial crisis. She is too embedded in the system to challenge it and has no fresh ideas. She has no vision or ideas that will change America, instead she offers more of the same. A Clinton presidency would be like a third term of the Obama administration, things won’t get worse (as they currently would under a Republican) but things wouldn’t get too much better either. Many people support Clinton because they believe she is the only Democrat who can win, but what is the point of winning if you don’t change anything?
So I am proud to say that when the New York Democratic Primary comes, I will vote for Bernie Sanders and hopefully, so will you.