Exclusive Interview with Senator Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders on defining the Word “Socialism,” How He Plans to Pay for Everything, the Failure of the War on Drugs, Prison Reform, Corporate Media, the Koch Brothers, Citizens United, How the Fossil Fuel Industry Controls the Republican Conversation on Climate Change, and How the Economic System Is Totally Rigged

Maranda Pleasant: Can you speak about the climate crisis?

Senator Bernie Sanders: Absolutely. I am a member of both the Senate environmental committee and the Senate energy committee, and I can tell you that I have heard from scientists, not only across America but all over the world, who tell us that absolutely the debate is over. Climate change is real. Climate change is caused by human activity, and climate change is already causing devastating problems in our country and around the world. What we’re talking about is not only rising sea levels, droughts, floods, and the warming and the acidification of the ocean, but what we’re also looking at, if we do not transform our energy system, is more international war and conflict as countries fight over limited natural resources, including water and land to grow their crops. That’s the bad news. The other bad news is we see how campaign finance has impacted the Republicans’ view by and large on climate change. Most Republicans are not prepared to stand up to the fossil fuel industry because they get a lot of their campaign funds from the Koch brothers and other people in the fossil fuel industry. That tells me why we have to reform our campaign finance system. That’s the bad news. The good news is that we’ve seen in recent years significant reductions in the cost of solar panels and wind production. We know how significant an impact we can have by moving towards energy efficiency and transforming our transportation system. So we know what has to be done. We have to develop the political will to do it, and, as president, this would be an issue of huge concern to me.

MP: Well, you just covered campaign finance and the Koch brothers. Let’s talk a minute on the need for prison reform.

BS: Absolutely. A very important issue. What every American should know is that we have more people in jail today than any other country on Earth, more than China. We have some 2.2 million people in jail. What that means is that a lot of lives are being destroyed. When people get out of jail, it is not easy for them to find a job. It is not easy for them to return to civil society. In my view, one of the major reasons that we have so many people in jail is that we have turned our backs on a lot young people. Youth unemployment for high school graduates in this country if they are Hispanic is 36 percent and African Americans 51 percent. When you have kids that have no jobs and are not in school, too often they get themselves into trouble. So what we have got to do is invest in education and in jobs, something which I have fought for, rather than more jails and incarceration.

Second of all, I think it is now widely understood that the so-called “War on Drugs” has largely been a failure. Too many people have developed criminal records for smoking marijuana. Too many people have gone to jail for nonviolent crimes. So I think it’s important for us to rethink the war on drugs. I think that it is absolutely imperative that we reform a very broken criminal justice system which allows for mandatory minimums, which has police departments that are not reflective of the communities that they serve, and a lot more. So criminal justice reform is something that we have got to address in a very bold way.

MP: Thank you. Let’s talk about how our political system is owned by a minority of billionaires. Many people feel like the system, Democrat or Republican, just stays the same. It seems like you’re giving millions of people hope.

BS: Right.

MP: Citizens United. Our government seems to be funded by corporations and, like you said, with the Koch brothers and climate change, I feel like oil and gas bankroll a lot of politicians. Can you talk about that and the growing inequality?

BS: Absolutely. Thank you. This is a very important issue that the corporate media chooses not to talk about a whole lot, that we have an economic system which is rigged, which means that at the same time as the middle class of this country is disappearing, almost all of the new income and wealth in America is going to the top 1 percent. You have the top one-tenth of 1 percent owning almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent—58 percent of all new income is going to the top 1 percent. That’s economically. Politically, as a result of Citizens United, billionaires are now able to spend as much money as they want on campaigns, which means that you have a political system which is heavily dominated by corporations and wealthy individuals. Unless we get a handle on this issue, the degree to which our economy and our political system is controlled by a small number of very, very wealthy people—I fear very much that it is not going to be easy to transform our nation and make government work for the middle class. So this is an issue of huge consequence, something we have been focusing on very much during this campaign.

MP: I went to my family reunion in the South and mentioned your name to my relatives, mainly farmers. I thought they would be pro-Bernie, and the words out of my uncle’s mouth were, “I’m not voting for a socialist.” I think a lot of people are so scared and misunderstand that word. Can you answer what that means to you?

BS: Well, it means several things to me. First of all, it means a government that reflects the needs of the middle class and working families, the vast majority of our people, and not just the top 1 percent, which is currently the case. It also means that the United States has got to join the rest of the industrialized world in making sure that working families of the middle class have benefits that they absolutely need. We are the only major country on Earth that does not guarantee health care to all people as a right. We are the only major country on Earth that does not provide paid family and medical leave. There are many countries around the world which make sure that public colleges and universities are tuition-free. In our country, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to afford to go to college. What I think people should realize is that programs like Social Security, programs like Medicare, programs like the Veterans Administration, programs like your local park and your local library—those are, if you like, socialist programs; they’re run by [and] for the public, not to make money. I think in many ways we should expand that concept so that the American people can enjoy the same benefits that people all over the world are currently enjoying.

MP: Well, that doesn’t sound very scary.

BS: {Laughs} No, in fact virtually all of the programs that I am advocating have the support of the vast majority of the American people.

MP: How would we do that? I think when they hear that, they think, “Are you going to take money away from people that are working hard and give it those who refuse to work?” Are you advocating, instead, ending corporate welfare (subsidies) for large companies making record profits that most Americans don’t even know about? Some numbers say that the government spends twice as much on corporate welfare to profitable companies as all social welfare combined, including things like food stamps and housing assistance.

BS: That’s a good question, and here’s the answer—for the last thirty years, we have seen a massive redistribution of wealth, from the middle class to the top one-tenth of 1 percent. In other words: The middle class is shrinking while at the same time the people on top are doing phenomenally well. And I think it is time to ask the wealthiest people in this country and the largest corporations to start paying their fair share of taxes so that we can protect the needs of the middle class of this country, working families, the elderly and the children, and the sick, and I think if we can do that, we can create a much stronger country and a much fairer country.

MP: Thank you so much, Senator Sanders. Thank you so much for your time. | BERNIESANDERS.COM