Democracy or Oligarchy
By Senator Bernie Sanders
The most important point we can make about contemporary politics is to understand how extraordinarily successful the Koch brothers have been in turning the American political scene to the right.
Some of you may remember people like Dwight David Eisenhower. And in my state we had a whole list of moderate Republicans who actually were concerned about the environment, education, women’s rights. They didn’t have our politics, but they had deep concerns about the welfare of ordinary people.
I want to start off by sharing with you a document of the 1980 Libertarian Party. The candidate for Vice President from that party was one David Koch, who is half of the Koch brothers. When you see this document, you understand how far the Republican Party has moved to the right. Take a look at these exact quotes from the platform that David Koch ran on. It’s not just that he received 1 percent of the vote. It’s that many of the ideas that he put forth in that campaign were thought to be crazy, wacky, fringe ideas.
But listen to how those ideas reflect today’s mainstream Republican thinking.
This is a quote: “We urge the repeal of federal campaign finance laws and the immediate dissolution of the despotic Federal Election Commission.”
Right now, as you know, because of the efforts of the Republican Party, the Koch brothers, and others, the Supreme Court gave us the disastrous 5 to 4 decision in Citizens United, one of the worst decisions in the history of the United States of America. The decision says corporations are people, and corporations and wealthy people can spend as much money as they want on independent expenditures.
For the Koch brothers and today for the leadership of the Republican Party, you have to understand, that does not go far enough. They want, and this is what David Koch was talking about thirty-five years ago, they want billionaires to be able to directly hand checks of $50 million to the candidates of their choice. That is now the position of the top of the Republican Party.
Here is also what they talked about back then and what they believe today: “We favor the abolition of Medicare and Medicaid programs.”
And here is another quote: “We favor the repeal of the fraudulent, virtually bankrupt, and increasingly oppressive Social Security system.”
In the papers today, the Republicans in the Senate are talking about what their agenda will be if, God forbid, they gain control of the Senate. They are back again to talking about “entitlement reform.” And when they talk about “entitlement reform,” know exactly what they are talking about: massive cuts in Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. We will not allow them to do that.
Another quote from that 1980 Libertarian platform: “We propose the abolition of the U.S. Postal Service.” And they’re trying to do that today. And despite what you read, the truth is the Postal Service this year, excluding the horrendous $5.5 billion pre-payment for future health care retirees, is actually making money.
Now all of you know that right now the federal minimum wage of $7.25 is a starvation wage. And I hope all of us are united on raising the minimum wage.
But I want you to hear what the Koch brothers’ view is on the minimum wage: “We support the repeal of any requirement that impedes any person from finding employment, such as minimum wage laws.”
So employers will be able to say to workers, “I don’t have to pay you the minimum wage. I’m going to pay you three bucks an hour, and if you don’t like that, there are thirty other workers who will take that.”
No minimum wage, no worker safety protection on the job. That’s their vision.
Let me tell you what the Koch brothers’ view is on education: “We advocate the complete separation of education and state. Government schools lead to the indoctrination of children and interfere with the free choice of individuals. Government ownership, operation, and subsidy of schools and colleges should be ended.”
Well, very succinctly stated, that’s the end of public education in America. So if you’ve got the money, you can send your kids to fine private schools. But if you don’t have the money, tough luck.
Goodbye, as I read this, state universities. Goodbye Pell grants. All gone.
And this next part should not surprise us coming from folks who have made most of their money from fossil fuel. Many of us, and I’m on both the environment and energy committees, are struggling with how we reverse carbon emissions, and get a handle on global warming. This is their view: “We support the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency.”
There are a lot of parts of the 1980 document, but this is the last one I want to share with you:
“We oppose all government welfare, relief projects and ‘aid to the poor’ programs. All these government programs are privacy invading, paternalistic, demeaning, and inefficient. The proper source of help for such persons is the voluntary efforts of private groups and individuals.”
Now do you know what that means in English?
It means that if you are seventy-five years of age and you’re diagnosed with cancer, Medicare is not there. If you are poor and you want to go to a doctor, Medicaid is not there. If you are a worker who loses his or her job and needs unemployment insurance, that’s gone.
What this is about, and indeed what the Republican Party is telling us today, is that they have moved to become a rightwing extremist party. Their goal is to repeal virtually every major piece of legislation passed since the 1930s to protect the elderly, the sick, the middle class, and the poor.
This is their agenda.
The fact is that today we have more serious problems than at any time since the Great Depression. And if you throw in the enormous planetary crisis of global warming, it may well be that these are the most challenging times facing our country since the Civil War.
The reality is that the middle class, the working class in this country, is stressed out. We have millions of people working longer hours for lower wages. Median family income has gone down $5,000 since 1999. That median male worker, that guy right in the middle, made $283 less last year than he did forty-four years ago. Female workers earned $1,700 less last year than they did in 2007.
In other words, the American working class is on the move. The problem is they are moving in the wrong direction.
What galls people is not just that the middle class is in decline, not just that we have more people living in poverty than at any time in the history of the United States of America, but that the wealthiest people in this country are doing phenomenally well. And the largest corporations are enjoying record profits.
Today in America, we have the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country on Earth, and worse in America today than at any time since 1929.
Today in America the top 1 percent owns 37 percent of the wealth, while the bottom 60 percent owns 1.7 percent of the wealth.
Today one family the Walton family of Walmart, owns more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of the American people.
Today twenty-five hedge fund managers, the wealthiest, make more money than 435,000 public school teachers.
Now why is this an issue of huge consequence?
First of all, it is a moral issue.
From a moral perspective, are we content as a nation to see a proliferation of millionaires and billionaires at the same time that the middle class disappears and we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on earth? Is that the country we aim to be? The answer is no!
But it is not just a moral issue. It is a political issue. Because what the billionaire class is doing is not putting their incredible wealth under the mattress. Many of them, led by the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, and others, are apparently not content to have billions of dollars in wealth. One might think that if you were the Koch brothers and you had $80 billion that might be enough. But apparently it is not. Last year they increased their wealth by $12 billion. And what these people currently feel an enormous urge to do is not just to collect more money for themselves, but they feel impelled to destroy Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the programs that working people and the poor survive on.
Frankly, I think what you’re looking at is not even a political problem here. It is a psychiatric problem.
We all know people with substance abuse problems. There are people who can’t get enough to drink and wreck their lives. There are people who need more and more drugs.
Well, these people are addicted to greed and money, and it is a sickness that is destroying the economy of the United States of America.
It is also an economic issue. We have tens and tens and tens of thousands of American workers who literally have no money to spend. I was in Mississippi a couple of weeks ago, talking to workers who have worked at McDonald’s for years. And they are not kids. They’re mothers. And they make $7.35 an hour. Now if you make those wages, or you’re unemployed, you cannot go out and buy products. You cannot go out and buy services. You are not spending money in your community. And if working people are not spending money, jobs are not being created.
Let me talk about what I see as a progressive agenda.
Issue number one: We need a grassroots movement from California to Wisconsin to Vermont demanding the overturn of Citizens United and moving us to public funding of elections.
Number two: If we are serious about the future of this country, we have to understand that while we are better off than we were sixty years ago, we have to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and put millions and millions of people to work. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that in order to get our crumbling infrastructure system up to par, we need to invest $3 trillion. Now interestingly enough, $3 trillion is exactly what we spent on the damn war in Iraq that we never should have gotten into in the first place. But if we were conservative and only invested $1 trillion in rebuilding our infrastructure, we could create thirteen million decent-paying jobs, and that makes sense to me.
And we also have to talk about an issue that the media doesn’t talk about. I am proud to tell you that I have never voted for one of these damn trade agreements that result in shipping jobs out of the country. It was a bipartisan corporate drive, in Washington, with Bill Clinton and the Republicans working hand-in-hand. Young people in America don’t know that there was actually a time when you could walk into a department store and buy a product made in America, not in China. We need to start making products again in Wisconsin, and Vermont, and all across this country.
The United States of America is the only major country on Earth that does not guarantee health care to all of its people as a right.
I believe the Affordable Care Act has helped us in some ways. But it is a modest step forward. Our job is to pass a Medicare-for-all, single-payer program to guarantee health care for all.
On the issue of education, if you can believe it, about thirty years ago the United States led the world in terms of the percentage of people graduating from college. Today we are in twelfth place. There are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of bright young people who have given up the dream of going to college because they can’t afford it.
And there are millions of others who come out of school $30,000, $50,000 in debt. God didn’t create free education up to the twelfth grade. And there are countries all over the world that say to their young people, if you have the ability, you will go to college without cost, because we need you to help develop a strong economy. That is a lesson that we should learn.
The crises facing this country and the world are enormous. But these crises have been caused by human decisions—policy decisions made by people in state capitols and in Washington. They were made by human beings, and they can be addressed by human beings.
What we have got to do, it seems to me, is reach out and find commonality among the people of this country.
And I want to tell you some very good news in that respect—the truth is, on every major issue facing this country, the American people are united.
You go to the most conservative states in this country, and you say, “Hey, I think we should cut Medicare and Social Security, and give tax breaks to billionaires, what do you think?”
And the people in Alabama, and in Mississippi, and Oklahoma, and all the conservative states will say, “You are nuts.”
And then you go out and you say, “Hey, what do you think democracy is about? Is it about billionaires buying elections?” And they will tell you, “No! That’s not what democracy is about. We need campaign finance reform.”
And you go out and you talk to people and you say, “Do you think the federal government should invest in infrastructure and create jobs all over this country?” That’s what the American people are saying.
We have to understand what the stakes are that we are playing for.
Do we create an economy that works for the middle class and working people?
Do we create a political system where everybody is empowered?
Or do we create an oligarchic system, where the billionaire class not only controls the economy, but they control the political life of this country?
That is the struggle we are engaged in. Nothing less than that.
I know that in Wisconsin and in Vermont and all over this country, people politically are feeling under the weather. They are dispirited. They are discouraged.
But do not ever forget that real change does not come easily. People have fought and died year after year, decade after decade for human rights and dignity.
Let me just give you a few examples that we take for granted, although we should not.
If we were here together thirty years ago and someone stood up and said, “You know, I think thirty years from now, the United States of America will overcome its racism and elect an African American President, and reelect him,” nobody would have believed it was possible. People would have said, “Don’t be silly. Racism is too deeply embedded in our culture.” Well, the United States overcame that racism and elected an African American President.
And that is something we should be very proud of. It didn’t happen easily. People died, went to jail, to help us overcome racism.
We still have a long way to go. But no one can doubt that we have come a long way.
In terms of women’s rights, twenty-five years ago there were two women in the United States Senate. Today there are twenty, and in fifteen years half the Senate will be women.
Take disability rights. When I was growing up, kids with disabilities were shunted aside as somewhat less than human. They weren’t in public schools. They were in institutions. And people fought very hard to say no, people with disabilities are human beings. They’ve got to be integrated into our society.
And again, we take it for granted.
Last, but certainly not least, forget thirty years ago, forget twenty years ago, if ten years ago we were standing here and we were saying that conservative states in America would vote for gay marriage, you would have thought we were crazy.
And yet that’s exactly what is happening.
In many respects, because of your efforts, we have made some very profound changes in making this nation a significantly less discriminatory nation. And we should be proud.
Today we are up against something a little bit different and little bit harder. Today we are taking on a billionaire class that wants to move us into an oligarchic form of society where they have all of the power.
And this is not an easy fight. They have huge resources. They have think tanks. They have media. You name it, they’ve got it.
But there is one thing they don’t have. While they have unlimited sums of money, what we have is the people
And if we can overcome some of our differences, we can focus on the broad issues facing America: jobs, health care, education, the environment, the needs of children. And on these issues, believe it or not, we are a united nation.
So let us reach out to our brothers and our sisters, fellow workers, fellow family members, and let us create a movement that tells Washington: We are not asking you, we are telling you.
Change will take place in America not through some backroom negotiations.
Change takes place in America when millions of people demand it.
Let’s say it together. Let’s make that change. Thank you all, very much.
Bernie Sanders is the Independent U.S. Senator from Vermont. This piece was adapted from his speech at Fighting Bob Fest, co-sponsored by The Progressive on September 13, 2014, at the Sauk County fairgrounds in Baraboo, Wisconsin.