Our panel discusses how Sanders must walk a fine line between appealing to white Trump voters and dealing with systemic racism and reparations – with Jacqueline Luqman, Eugene Puryear, Norman Solomon, hosted by Paul Jay
PAUL JAY: Hi. I’m Paul Jay with The Real News Network, and we’re continuing our discussion about the Bernie Sanders CNN town hall Monday, February 25.
So we were talking in the last segment about the fine line Bernie has to walk between trying to deal with the question of systemic racism, as well as appeal to poor and other white working class sections of the electorate and population who might have voted for Trump. Here’s a segment on how Bernie plans–he’s asked “How are you going to win over Trump voters?”
WOLF BLITZER: If you’re elected president of the United States, Senator, how would you reach out to Trump supporters to try to unite the country?
BERNIE SANDERS: I’m not going to say that within Trump’s camp there aren’t some people who are racists and sexists. There are. We have seen that. But I don’t believe that is the case for most of those folks. I think many of these people are people who’ve worked hard their entire lives, and their standard of living is going down. In many cases they’re making less today than they did 30 or 40 years ago. They’re looking at their kids, and they’re seeing that their kids will have a lower standard of living than they do. In fact, in many rural communities in America, if you can believe it, life expectancy is going down. Opioid epidemic. What they call, the doctors call, the diseases of despair. Heroin, opioids, suicide, alcoholism. Serious problem all over those communities. We have got to reach out to those people. And we have got to stand with them for decent jobs, decent healthcare, decent education. And I think we can win many of them over.
WOLF BLITZER: Why do you think you’re the most qualified to beat Donald Trump?
BERNIE SANDERS: Well, first of all, let me say that there are a lot of really good candidates in this race. And many of them are personal friends of mine. I’ve known Elizabeth Warren for, like, 25 years. But as I look at what happened in the last election, I look at states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Florida, I think we could win those states. I think the message of our campaign is that we’ve got to bring our people together, black and white and Latino, bring our people together around an agenda that creates a government that works for all of us.
PAUL JAY: So that’s Bernie Sanders at the town hall. Norman, when he talks in his broad scope of how he’s going to win over Trump voters, you don’t hear, then, him talking about systemic racism and the need to address it. Can he do both? Can he, when he’s in a debate or when he’s being attacked from the right wing in these areas, these swing states, and they say, “Oh, he’s for reparations. He wants to hand out cash to black people, he’s going to take your tax money.” He’s going to have to fight this on both fronts. How’s he going to do it?
NORMAN SOLOMON: Well, at first glance, the clip we just heard was standard sort of Democratic Party rhetoric. But then when you hear what Bernie Sanders has been saying, including during that hour-long CNN town hall, you hear that he’s qualitatively different in actually addressing the economic disparities and the class bias of the entire system. And I think when he gets systemic in his analysis and his prescriptions for change, then he moves ahead of the pack. And he opens the door, widens the door, and runs through it for progressive populism.
And right now we have a way in which the mainline Democratic Party approach is to do what first running for president Bill Clinton did and Barack Obama did, which was “I really care about working people; they’re not getting a fair shake.” And then the recommendations, the proposals, the demands for change are very weak. They’re very surface. And Bernie is way better than that. And what he has made clear, as he did in 2016, and I think he’s beginning to do now in this campaign, he’s made clear that he is different because he’s for fundamental change. He will name the oligarchy. He will talk about what has to be done to end the antidemocratic oligarchy in this country, and deal with economic inequality in a substantive, programmatic way. I think he begins to leapfrog over a lot of these problems.
Something else I should mention is that all of these candidates are dealing with and navigating through a corporate media environment. And that terrain is very damaging, and offers many blockades towards meaningful discussion of the intersections between racism and corporate capitalist power, which by definition when you really look at it candidly is about rapacious economic inequality.
One other thing I’d mention is that I think in terms of this decade, the roots of the momentum of the Bernie Sanders campaigns–plural now–and the programmatic push that is so powerful, the roots are the Occupy movement. When you go back almost 10 years, it is people who were, from the grassroots, raising the reality of the 1 percent versus the 99 percent. That became part of the political vernacular, and it came from the grassroots. And Bernie can convey–because he comes out of social movements, unlike all of his opponents in this campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. He understands that social movements are what may change, and that any campaign, including his, should be understood as a subset of those social movements instead of the other way around, which is the typical way that Democratic Party candidates deal with it.
Something else I want to say about electoral campaigns for president. In many ways the wonderful aspects of this Bernie Sanders campaign, again, has its roots in the Rainbow Coalition and what Jesse Jackson did during the 1980s. In 1984, and even more powerfully in 1988, Jesse Jackson was addressing this, if you will, contradiction between the fact that there has been and continues to be huge poverty and immiseration of people in this country on the basis of class, and exploitation, if you want to use that word. And also that racism has particularly toxic and generally damaging impacts on so many people. And I think, just as in the 1980s, Jesse Jackson will again today say that this is a problem that affects all people who are suffering from economic inequality. And he doesn’t get into it either-or. He doesn’t get into–and I don’t think ultimately Bernie Sanders is getting into it either-or, of we’re going to identify the problem as racism, or we’re going to identify a problem as class, economic inequality. It’s all crosshatched together.
And I think–finally, I’ll just sum up–this is a historic opportunity. What Bernie Sanders 2020 is about is changing the framework of debate, and changing power relations in this country.
PAUL JAY: Right. The question of using the words about oligarchy, calling himself a democratic socialist. But there’s been some critique from the left, or the left-left, of Sanders that he’s not straightforward enough about the role the oligarchy within the Democratic Party, and that by keeping the conversation in the Democratic Party he is, you know, that what he wants to achieve can’t be achieved. But from the right he gets attacked that he’s not really a Democrat, so how does he do this? There’s a question about this at the town hall. Let’s play Clip 3.
TOWN HALL AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hello, Senator. My question for you is why have you decided to pursue the Democratic nomination for president, despite the fact that you have consistently run as an Independent or other party for the last 50 years? And do you believe you can get a fair shake in the Democratic nomination process in light of your electoral history?
BERNIE SANDERS: OK. Let’s set the record straight. I am a member of the Democratic leadership of the United States Senate. I’ve been a member of the Democratic caucus in the Senate for the last 13 years, and in the House for 16 years before that. Won the Democratic nomination in my state. But in Vermont I’ve chosen to run as an Independent because it goes way, way back. And to answer your question, in 2016, I think I will not shock anybody to suggest that the DNC was not quite even-handed. I think we have come a long way since then, and I fully expect to be treated quite as well as anybody else.
Let me–a third point that I want to make, as an Independent. You know, the truth is that more and more people are disenchanted with both the Republican and Democratic plank. And especially young people. They are registering as Independents, or not affiliated folks. And I think as somebody who was an Independent, we can bring them into the Democratic Party to help create a party which will stand with the working families of this country, and have the courage to take on the very top powerful special interests, who wield so much economic and political power in America.
PAUL JAY: So that’s Bernie at the CNN town hall. Eugene, what do you make of the argument that some people make that this can’t be accomplished through the Democratic Party, and that eventually, by hook or by crook, the machine and the oligarchy that has their claws in the Democratic Party machine won’t let Bernie win the nomination? Why fight this out within the Democratic Party?
EUGENE PURYEAR: Well, I do think Bernie has a chance to win the nomination. I tend to agree with the general idea that the Democrats aren’t a vessel. I mean, I think that the Democrats ultimately, this is my belief, are going to go the way of the Whigs. I think these issues between the interests of working class people and the capitalist elites is too much to paper over for long. But I think it has to be an organic process. I think just like we saw with Bernie’s run in 2016 I think running as a Democrat this time around will open up more political space outside of the Democratic Party. I think the overall political conversation in the country has opened up because of the role Bernie Sanders is playing in making people look more seriously at ideas outside the Democrats, to look more seriously at socialism as opposed to capitalism.
And I think it’s that broader political motion is what we need to sort of focus on, and how do we continue to push that forward. I think there are going to be people who are Democrats, Greens, socialists, Independents who are going to be writing great campaigns and doing great work that are all pushing us towards this horizon, and what I think has to be a new constellation of forces to do exactly what Bernie says, which is take on corporate power. I think that what he will find is I don’t think he will be treated fairly.
I mean–you know, to harken back to my research, I found a county in southern West Virginia in 2016 in the primary, McDowell County, I believe it was. Bernie got more votes in that county in the primary than Trump did in the general. Half the people in West Virginia didn’t even vote. We see in Detroit, in Flint, in Cleveland, the number of black voters dropped significantly. St. Louis, same thing here. You look at the Medicaid fight and the ACA, it was people who didn’t really vote in the eastern Kentuckys, in the east Tennessees of the world, in Arkansas, who are coming out to these town halls and scaring these Republican legislators to back off this ACA repeal.
And I think there’s a silent majority of people who have been totally disaffected from the political process. And I think the type of conversation, total transformation, political revolution, you know, making health care, housing, all education, all human rights, people are really touched by that. And I actually believe that you can create a “regardless of party” label. I actually think that that whole question was a canard. A whole new constellation of people that–many of whom aren’t even coming out, some of whom are, that can challenge corporate power seriously. And I think that’s the power of saying let’s do this about ideas not strictly about party ID, or whatever it may be.
But I do think Bernie is being a little Pollyanna-ish. If he wins the nomination I believe, just like McGovern in ’72, he’ll be completely abandoned by Democratic elites. And unless he can build a grassroots coalition of many people who have already given up on the Democratic Party but still have the right to vote, I don’t think he’ll have a chance in November. But if he can, I think he can defeat Trump, for sure.
PAUL JAY: Norman, Bernie says he thinks, in spite of the fact the DNC was not even-handed, and we know from the WikiLeaks email release that, in fact, the DNC was very much trying to undermine the Sanders campaign, he says there’s been progress, and he expects to be treated fairly. Do you agree with them? Has there been progress in terms of making this a more level playing field, and to Sanders’, and maybe some others’ advantage?
NORMAN SOLOMON: Oh, objectively I think there absolutely has been progress, and it wasn’t handed down from on high, which is virtually always the case. As Frederick Douglass says, you know, power never concedes without a struggle. There has been a two year-plus struggle after the 2016 campaign. It was largely led by the organization Our Revolution, Nina Turner, Larry Cohen, and others, in the leadership of Our Revolution. The organization I’m with, RootsAction.org, were put a lot of time and energy into it. We went to DNC meetings and we demanded an end to the power of superdelegates to have such a major role in selecting the nominee of the party for president.
We should remember in 2016 when the starting gun went off, Hillary Clinton already had more than half of the superdelegates, who were 1/7 of the entire convention. And she was able to do that because she had so many establishment Democrats, and some lobbyists, in her pocket before a single vote had been cast by one voter in a caucus or primary. That’s all gone. Because of this grassroots organizing, the DNC voted last August to have no superdelegate votes for the first ballot of the nomination for President. There hasn’t been a second ballot since 1952 at a national convention. And so I don’t think that Bernie is just sort of blowing smoke or being happy and hopeful about this. It’s a result of people organizing.
I do want to address this question of parties, because it is often such a stumbling block for progressive organizing in electoral terms. At the grassroots, an essential way to cut that Gordian knot is to recognize that in municipal and county elections you can build coalitions. It doesn’t matter, as Eugene was saying, it doesn’t matter about party and this and that. It’s about ideas and programs, commitment, and principles. I live near Richmond, California, where progressives are able to win election as genuine progressives, and the city council, sometimes as mayor. And they’re able to do it because there’s no partisan designation on the ballot.
And that’s true across this country, and we have many progressive mayors who have been elected. It’s not a partisan race. They’re in power. We have DAs like in Philadelphia. Again, not partisan races. That’s the place where you can set aside party issues. But when you get to Congress, let’s face it, if Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had not run in the Democratic primary, she’d still be tending bar. And that’s not anything against people tending bar; it’s to say she wouldn’t be in Congress. Another self-described democratic socialist, Rashida Tlaib in Detroit. There’s reasons why she ran first for the state legislature, successfully, now for Congress, successfully.
PAUL JAY: Norman, I’m going to have to jump in, because Eugene has to go. Let me just ask you one quick question, Eugene, before you go. So if Bernie does win, and I don’t rule out the possibility, because I don’t think this machine, Democratic Party or Republicans, but Democratic Party machine, was ever created thinking that people could raise millions and millions of dollars on the Internet. The way the rules were created you had to go through billionaires to get the nomination. Now maybe you don’t. But if he wins, do the Clinton-type forces, the Wall Street forces that are really behind the Clintons and the Schumers and such, do they actually go out and campaign for a Bernie Sanders?
EUGENE PURYEAR: I do not think they will. I think that’s certainly what we saw with Mr. McGovern, who did win the nomination, and didn’t get the support he needed. And I think that there is a false narrative about him getting blown out by Nixon because he was terribly unpopular. I think that we’ve seen consistently this sort of turnabout is fair play type situation. I mean, you know, quite frankly, the Clinton supporters in 2008 did less for Obama than Bernie’s supporters did for Hillary Clinton, and we don’t hear that.
And I think that’s in some ways OK, though. I think, quite frankly, Bernie’s brand, in some ways, is to show how this sort of entire kind of centrist political class of people doesn’t have a vision that can really change the country. I think there are more than enough people with the right to vote that could get behind a vision like Bernie Sanders to actually win the election. I think his biggest problem would be to try to triangulate after a convention to reach, you know, the suburban people who are worried about how you’re going to pay for universal health care. I mean, I’ll bet you a steak dinner right now, Paul, that if Bernie Sanders is the nominee he will get more black votes in Detroit and in Flint and in Cleveland than Hillary Clinton did, because people there who are in those dire circumstances know and understand their basic needs, and I think will rally behind them vis a vis Trump. And I think it’ll be something that’ll be interesting for the country, and really set the stage for a potential new era where if we’re willing to struggle on the ground I think a lot of things will be possible.
PAUL JAY: All right, thanks to both of you. And we’re going to continue doing some more segments about the Sanders town hall, so watch out for them. Thanks for joining us on The Real News Network.