Sen. Bernie Sanders On How Democrats Lost White Voters

Nov 19, 2014
Originally published on November 20, 2014 8:09 am

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is one of two independents in the Senate. Now, the self-described socialist says he may run for president.

Sanders is aligned with Senate Democrats, but he has spoken lately of a problem with the Democratic coalition that elected President Obama. He says working-class white voters have abandoned Democrats in large numbers. The party, he says, has "not made it clear that they are prepared to stand with the working-class people of this country, take on the big money interests."

NPR's Steve Inskeep sat down with Sanders in his office and talked about the senator's plan for the middle class, how he says the Democratic Party lost its way, and American action against the Islamic State.


Interview Highlights

On what the Democrats should learn from their midterm election defeat

To see where the Democratic Party is, I think, it's important to understand where America is. And where America is, is that today we are seeing the collapse, the continued collapse, of the American middle class. You have working-class families who have given up the dream of sending their kids to college. My family never had any money. My father came ... from Poland without a nickel in his pocket. He was able to send two of his kids to college. That dream is now not a reality for a whole lot of folks in this country.

And then people look out and they say, "Gee, the wealthiest people are doing phenomenally well." And where are the Democrats? Do people see the Democratic Party standing up to Wall Street? Any of these guys going to jail? Not really. The average person is working longer hours, lower wages, and they do not see any political party standing up and fighting for their rights. What they see is a Republican Party becoming extremely right wing, controlled by folks like the Koch brothers. But they do not see a party representing the working class of this country.

On why he says Democrats are losing white voters

Well, I am focusing on the fact that whether you're white or black or Hispanic or Asian, if you are in the working class, you are struggling to keep your heads above water. You're worried about your kids. What should the Democratic Party be talking about, Steve? What they should be talking about is a massive federal jobs program. There was once a time when our nation's infrastructure — roads, bridges, water systems, rail — were the envy of the world. Today that's no longer the case.

I would say if you go out on the street and you talk to people and say, "Which is the party of the American working class?" People would look to you like you were a little bit crazy, they wouldn't know what you were talking about, and they certainly wouldn't identify the Democrats.

On African-American support for Democrats

Well, here's what you got. What you got is an African-American president, and the African-American community is very, very proud that this country has overcome racism and voted for him for president. And that's kind of natural. You've got a situation where the Republican Party has been strongly anti-immigration, and you've got a Hispanic community which is looking to the Democrats for help.

But that's not important. You should not be basing your politics based on your color. What you should be basing your politics on is, how is your family doing? ... In the last election, in state after state, you had an abysmally low vote for the Democrats among white, working-class people. And I think the reason for that is that the Democrats have not made it clear that they are prepared to stand with the working-class people of this country, take on the big money interests. I think the key issue that we have to focus on, and I know people are uncomfortable about talking about it, is the role of the billionaire class in American society.

On why Americans are uncomfortable talking about the 'billionaire class'

Because they fund organizations like NPR and the media in general. Because they make huge campaign contributions, to politics, to politicians of all stripes.

On the U.S. approach to battling the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq

I think the president is ... moving us in the right direction. My own view is that if we're gonna be successful in defeating this brutal organization called ISIS, what needs to happen is that the people in the region, the Muslim nations, are gonna have to take the responsibility of leading that effort. It cannot be the United States of America. In many ways I think that's exactly what ISIS wants. They want this to be a war of the United States versus ISIS, of the West versus the east, of Christianity versus Islam. What has got to happen is countries like Saudi Arabia which, by the way, has the fourth-largest defense budget in the world ... they're gonna have to step up to the plate and take the leadership in fighting ISIS.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Senator Bernie Sanders is thinking of running for president. He's thinking that even though Democrats just got clobbered in a midterm election.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Sanders is an Independent, a socialist aligned with Senate Democrats.

SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: We just went through a campaign. What was really distressing about this campaign is we learned that one candidate for the Senate could shoot a gun better than the other. We learned that one candidate for the Senate knew how to castrate pigs. These are terribly important issues. But maybe it might be more important to talk about why the middle class is disappearing in America and why we have so much income and wealth inequality.

INSKEEP: We met Senator Sanders in his Senate office yesterday. Lawmakers were preparing a vote on the Keystone XL pipeline, which he is firmly against. Sanders is less clear on running for president. He says he could try as an Independent or in Democratic primaries. He admits he'd be a long shot. He's spoken lately of a problem with the Democratic coalition that elected President Obama. That diverse coalition has a flip side. Sanders says working-class, white voters have abandoned Democrats in vast numbers.

What, if anything, should Democrats learn from their election defeat this month?

SANDERS: Well, you're asking my view as an Independent from outside of the Democratic Party.

INSKEEP: Sure.

SANDERS: And I think to see where the Democratic Party is, is, I think, it's important to understand where America is. And where America is, is that, today, we are seeing the collapse - the continued collapse of the American middle class. You have working-class families who have given up the dream of sending their kids to college. My family never had any money. My father came from Poland without a nickel in his pocket. He was able to send two of his kids to college. That dream is now not a reality for a whole lot of folks in this country.

INSKEEP: What are the Democrats missing about that?

SANDERS: Wow, good question. Then people look out, and they say, gee, the wealthiest people are doing phenomenally well. And where are the Democrats? Do people see the Democratic Party standing up to Wall Street? Any of these guys going to jail? Not really. The average person, working longer hours, low wages and they do not see any political party standing up and fighting for their rights. What they see is a Republican Party becoming extremely right-wing, controlled by folks like the Koch brothers. But they do not see a party representing the working class of this country.

INSKEEP: When you say the working class, are you thinking about the white working class specifically?

SANDERS: I'm thinking about the working class in general. When you talk about unemployment, do you know what real unemployment is? In counting those people who have given up for looking for work and are working part-time, when they want to work full-time. For African-American kids, it is 30 percent. Who is fighting for these folks?

INSKEEP: Here's why I ask about the white working class. Of course, President Obama has assembled a coalition that depends heavily on minority voters. You have argued in the past that Democrats are losing too much of the white vote. There were states in Senate races in November where Democrats couldn't even get 25 percent of the white vote.

SANDERS: That's correct.

INSKEEP: Why have you been focusing on that?

SANDERS: Well, I am focusing on the fact that, whether you're white or black or Hispanic or Asian, if you are in the working class, you are struggling to keep your heads above water. You're worried about your kids. What should the Democratic Party talking about, Steve? What they should be talking about is a massive federal jobs program. There was once a time when our nation's infrastructure - roads, bridges, water systems, rail - were the envy of the world. Today, that's no longer the case.

INSKEEP: Haven't Democrats been raising some of these issues...

SANDERS: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...And weren't they raising them in the election that they just lost?

SANDERS: Some candidates did raise some of these issues. But I don't think you see the kind of forceful development of this idea and forceful need to raise the issue about job creation that we should be talking about. I would say, if you go out on the street and you talk to people and say, which is the party of the American working pass - class - people would look to you like you're a little bit crazy. They wouldn't know what you're talking about, and they certainly wouldn't identify the Democrats.

INSKEEP: Help me understand what's going on here though because you have mentioned the white vote in the past. The African-American working class has been voting for Democrats. If you looked at single women, who were often working class...

SANDERS: You're going into this - Steve, you're going into this demographic stuff, which I reject. That's not my cup of tea.

INSKEEP: Although, you talked about it.

SANDERS: Yes. Well, here's what you got. What you got is an African-American president. And the African-American community is very, very proud that this country has overcome racism and voted for him for president. And that's kind of natural. You got a situation where the Republican Party has been strongly anti-immigration. And you've got a Hispanic community, which is looking to the Democrats for help. But that's not important. You should not be basing your politics based on your color. What you should be basing your politics on is, how is your family doing?

And your point is well taken. In the last election, in state after state, you had an abysmally low vote for the Democrats among white, working-class people. And I think the reason for that is that the Democrats have not made it clear that they are prepared to stand with the working people of this country, take on the big money interest. I think the key issue that we have to focus on - I know people are uncomfortable about talking about it - is the role of the billionaire class in American society.

INSKEEP: Why are people uncomfortable in your view?

SANDERS: Because they fund organizations like NPR and the media in general, because they make huge campaign contributions to politics of politicians of all stripes.

INSKEEP: If I might, you're on NPR. I've seen you on CNN.

SANDERS: Yes.

INSKEEP: You get your voice out. Are you being drowned out?

SANDERS: No, I'm doing pretty well lately as a matter of fact. But that's because I've given thought to running for president.

INSKEEP: That's Vermont's Senator Bernie Sanders. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.