- Self-identified socialist
- Served in the House of Representatives from 1991 to 2007
- Founded the Congressional Progressive Caucus
- Has served in the U.S. Senate since 2007
- Believes that global warming is caused, in large measure, by human industrial activity
- Favors a single-payer, government-run healthcare system
See also: Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee National Rainbow Coalition
Congressional Progressive Caucus
Bernard “Bernie” Sanders was born in Brooklyn, New York on September 8, 1941, to Polish immigrants of Jewish descent. After attending Brooklyn College for one year, he transferred to the University of Chicago (UC) and earned a bachelor's degree in political science in 1964. At UC, Sanders joined the Young Peoples Socialist League (youth wing of the Socialist Party USA) as well as the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Peace Union. He also was an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, worked briefly for the communist-led United Packinghouse Workers Union, and participated in an American Friends Service Committee project at a California psychiatric hospital.
After college, Sanders lived briefly on an Israeli kibbutz, then moved to Vermont where he worked variously as a carpenter, filmmaker, writer, and researcher. In 1971 he joined the anti-war Liberty Union Party (LUP), on whose ticket he made unsuccessful runs for the U.S. Senate in 1972 and 1974, and for Governor of Vermont in 1976. Sanders's LUP platform called for the nationalization of all U.S. banks, public ownership of all utiliies, and the establishment of a worker-controlled federal government. According to the Guardian, a press release from his 1974 campaign stated that as a means of addressing the problem of rising energy prices, Sanders advocated “the public takeover of all privately owned electric companies in Vermont.” it stated. The Guardian noted, as a qualifier, that "[t]he press release ... is annotated and could be a draft."
Around 1976, Sanders left LUP and spent about two years as an amateur historian and film-maker, selling educational film strips to schools in New England. "His main project," says the Guardian, "was a short documentary about his hero, Eugene Debs, an early 20th-century union leader who was a six-time presidential candidate for the Socialist party."
After resigning from LUP, Sanders became a political Independent. In 1979 he was elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont, by a margin of just 10 votes. He was subsequently re-elected three times and served as mayor until 1989. Sanders created some controversy when he hung a Soviet flag in his mayoral office, in honor of Burlington's Soviet sister city, Yaroslavl, located some 160 miles northeast of Moscow.
According to an Accuracy In Media report, Sanders during the 1980s "collaborated with Soviet and East German 'peace committees'" whose aim was "to stop President Reagan’s deployment of nuclear missiles in Europe.” Indeed, he “openly joined the Soviets’ 'nuclear freeze' campaign to undercut Reagan’s military build-up.”
In 1985 Sanders traveled to Managua, Nicaragua to celebrate the sixth anniversary of the rise to power of Daniel Ortega and his Marxist-Leninist Sandinista government. In a letter which he addressed to the people of Nicaragua, Sanders denounced the anti-Communist activities of the Reagan administration, which he said was under the control of corporate interests. Assuring the Nicaraguans that Americans were “fair minded people” who had more to offer “than the bombs and economic sabotage” promoted by Reagan, he declared: “In the long run, I am certain that you will win, and that your heroic revolution against the Somoza dictatorship will be maintained and strengthened.”
Following his trip to Nicaragua, Sanders penned a letter to the White House indicating that Ortega would be willing to meet with Reagan to negotiate a resolution to the conflict. The mayor also sought to enlist the help of former president Jimmy Carter, telling him that the people of Nicaragua were very fond of him. Sanders even invited Ortega to visit Burlington, though the Nicaraguan president declined.
By no means was Sanders's trip to Nicaragua his only trek to a Communist country. He also visited Fidel Castro's Cuba in the 1980s and had a friendly meeting with the mayor of Havana.
In an August 8, 1985 interview on a Vermont government-access television station, Sanders discussed his recent trip to Nicaragua and drew parallels between the Castro and Ortega regimes. "In 1961," he said, "[America] invaded Cuba, and everybody was totally convinced that Castro was the worst guy in the world, that all the Cuban people were going to rise up in rebellion against Fidel Castro. They forgot that he educated the kids, gave them health care, totally transformed the society. You know, not to say Fidel Castro and Cuba are perfect -- they are certainly not -- but just because Ronald Reagan dislikes these people does not mean to say that the people in their own nations feel the same way. So they expected this tremendous uprising in Cuba; it never came. And if they are expecting a tremendous uprising in Nicaragua, they are very, very, very mistaken." (For video of this 1985 interview, click here.)
During the same interview, Sanders also stated that he "was impressed" with Nicaragua’s Foreign Minister Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, a Catholic priest whom Pope John Paul II had barred from celebrating Mass because Brockmann had defied a church rule forbiding priests from holding government jobs. “If this guy is the foreign minister of a 'terrorist nation,' then they should get another foreign minister, because he is a very gentle, very loving man,” said Sanders. Moreover, Sanders characterized Daniel Ortega as “an impressive guy” while criticizing then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan. “The Sandinista government, in my view, has more support among the Nicaraguan people, substantially more support, than Ronald Reagan has among the American people,” said Sanders. “If President Reagan thinks that any time a government comes along, which in its wisdom, rightly or wrongly, is doing the best for its people, he has the right to overthrow that government, you're going to be at war not only with all of Latin America, but with the entire Third World.” (For video of this 1985 interview, click here.)
In 1986 Sanders ran unsuccessfully for Governor of Vermont, and two years later he made a failed bid for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
When Sanders in 1988 married his wife, Jane, the couple honeymooned in Yaroslavl, Russia. In an interview with that city's mayor, Alexander Riabkov, Sanders acknowledged that housing and health care were “significantly better” in the U.S. than in the Soviet Union, but added that “the cost of both services is much, much, higher in the United States.”
In November 1989 Sanders addressed the national conference of the U.S. Peace Council, a Communist Party USA front. The event focused on how to “end the Cold War” and “fund human needs.” Fellow speakers included such notables as Leslie Cagan, John Conyers, and Manning Marable.
Choosing not to seek re-election to a fifth term as mayor, Sanders spent 1989-90 working as a lecturer at Hamilton College in upstate New York and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
By 1990 Sanders was a leading member of Jesse Jackson's National Rainbow Coalition, and he ran successfully for Congress as a socialist, representing Vermont's single at-large congressional district. The following year, Sanders founded the Congressional Progressive Caucus along with fellow House members Tom Andrews, Peter DeFazio, Ron Dellums, Lane Evans, and Maxine Waters.
During the 1990s, Sanders participated multiple times in the Socialist Scholars Conferences that were held annually in New York City.
During each year of the Bill Clinton administration—starting in 1993, shortly after the first al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center—Sanders introduced legislation to cut the U.S. intelligence budget sight unseen. He justified this approach by noting that “the Soviet Union no longer exists,” and that such concerns as “massive unemployment,” “low wages,” “homelessness,” “hungry children,” and “the collapse of our educational system” represented “maybe a stronger danger [than foreign terrorists] for our national security.”
Sanders was a vocal critic of the Patriot Act, the anti-terrorism bill passed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, as an assault on civil liberties.
In 2006 Sanders co-sponsored a resolution by Rep. John Conyers to impeach President Bush on grounds that he had led the United States into an illegal and immoral war in Iraq.
In November 2006 Sanders ran successfully for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Then-Senator Barack Obama, whom Sanders described as “one of the great leaders” of that legislative body, campaigned enthusiastically on Sanders's behalf. When a Washington Post reporter asked Sanders just prior to the election: “Are you now or have you ever been a Socialist?” Sanders replied, “Yeah. I wouldn’t deny it. Not for one second. I’m a democratic Socialist.”
In 2007 Senator Sanders and Rep. Maurice Hinchey together introduced the Media Ownership Reform Act, which was designed to tightly restrict the number of radio stations that any firm could own. It also sought to resurrect the so-called “Fairness Doctrine”—a measure that, if passed, would greatly diminish the influence of conservative talk radio.
Sanders has long maintained that “global warming/climate change” not only threatens “the fate of the entire planet,” but is caused chiefly by human industrial activity and must be curbed by means of legislation strictly limiting carbon emissions. In 2007 Sanders and Senator Barbara Boxer proposed the Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act, which, according to an MIT study, would have imposed on U.S. taxpayers a yearly financial burden of more than $4,500 per family, purportedly to check climate change. In February 2010 Sanders likened climate-change skeptics to people who had disregarded the Nazi threat prior to WWII: “During that period of Nazism and fascism's growth … there were people in this country and in the British parliament who said, 'Don't worry! Hitler's not real! It'll disappear!'” Accusing “big business” of being “willing to destroy the planet for short-term profits,” Sanders in 2013 said that “global warming is a far more serious problem than al Qaeda.” Stating unequivocally that “the scientific community is unanimous” in its belief that “the planet is warming up,” Sanders the following year declared that the “debate is over” and emphasized the importance of “transform[ing] our energy systems away from fossil fuels.”
In September 2011, Sanders was the first U.S. Senator to support the anti-capitalist Occupy Wall Street movement, lauding its activists for focusing a “spotlight” on the need for “real Wall Street reform.”
In March 2013, Sanders and fellow Senator Tom Harkin together introduced a bill to tax Wall Street speculators. “Both the economic crisis and the deficit crisis are a direct result of the greed, recklessness, and illegal behavior on Wall Street,” said Sanders.
On April 29, 2015, Sanders announced that he was running for the Democratic Party's 2016 presidential nomination, citing economic inequality, climate change, and the Citizens United Supreme Court decision as issues of particular concern to him.
In May 2015, Sanders told CNBC interviewer John Harwood that he was in favor of dramatically raising the marginal tax rate on America's highest earners. “[When] radical socialist Dwight D. Eisenhower was president,” Sanders said sarcastically, “I think the highest marginal tax rate was something like 90 percent.” When Harwood asked whether Sanders thought that was too high, the senator replied: “No. What I think is obscene, and what frightens me is, again, when you have the top one-tenth of one percent owning almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 [percent]. Does anybody think that is the kind of economy this country should have?”
In his first public speech as a presidential candidate in Burlington, Vermont, Sanders in May 2015 broadly laid out the major planks of his campaign's agenda:
- He declared that financial inequality "is immoral, it is bad economics, it is unsustainable."
- Vowing to send "a message to the billionaire class," he said: "[Y]ou can't have huge tax breaks [for the rich] while children in this country go hungry ... while there are massive unmet needs on every corner.... Your greed has got to end.... You cannot take advantage of all the benefits of America if you refuse to accept your responsibilities."
- He pledged to enact "a tax system that is fair and progressive, which tells the wealthiest individuals and the largest corporations that they are going to begin to pay their fair share."
- Claiming that "the current federal [hourly] minimum wage of $7.25 is a starvation wage and must be raised ... to $15.00 an hour."
- He described the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) as a "modest" step in the direction of rightfully forcing the U.S. to "join the rest of the industrialized world and guarantee health care to all as a right." "And we must do it through a Medicare-for-all, single payer health plan," he explained.
- He called for "pay equity for women workers," and "paid sick leave and guaranteed vacation time for every worker in this country."
- Describing the rising costs of a college education as "insane," he vowed to "fight to make tuition in public colleges and universities free, as well as substantially lower interest rates on student loans."
- He pledged to "expand Social Security benefits" and mandate "a universal pre-K system for all the children of this country."
- Asserting that "there is nothing more important" than fighting global warming, he said: "The debate is over. The scientific community has spoken in a virtually unanimous voice. Climate change is real, it is caused by human activity, and it is already causing devastating problems in our country and throughout the world." He elaborated that in the absence of government intervention, America would inevitably see "more drought, more famine, more rising sea level, more floods, more ocean acidification, [and] more extreme weather disturbances," he elaborated, in the absence of government intervention.
- He called for the government to use taxpayer dollars to rebuild America's "crumbling infrastructure" by repairing "our roads, our bridges, our water systems, our rail and airports." Sanders added he would begin this process by working to advance, in the Senate, a five-year, $1 trillion bill that he himself had proposed, claiming that it "would create and maintain 13 million good paying jobs."
In September 2015, Sanders's presidential campaign received the support of the former Weather Underground terrorist Bill Ayers, who wrote: "I believe that among the Sanders supporters there are thousands who are dissatisfied, who are disgruntled, but who do not have a coherent left analysis, who therefore are open to our ideas as they weren’t before they got involved in the Sanders surge.... So, why don’t we joi[n] a Sanders local campaign or go to a mass rally?... We could have lists of places and projects where anarchists and others are working with people in projects that are using anarchist and community participatory ideas and vision. Places where Bernie supporters might get involved once they knew about them."
In a September 14, 2015 campaign appearance at Liberty University, Sanders was asked: "If you were elected president, what would you do to bring healing and resolution to the issue of racism in our country?" His reply made it clear that he viewed racism as a trait found chiefly in white people:
"... I would hope and I believe that every person in this room today understands that it is unacceptable to judge people, to discriminate against people, based on the color of their skin. And I would also say that as a nation, the truth is, that a nation which in many ways was created—and I’m sorry to have to say this—from way back on racist principles. That’s a fact. We have come a long way as a nation. Now I know, my guess is probably not everybody here is an admirer or a voter for Barack Obama. But the point is, that in 2008, this country took a huge step forward ... in voting for a candidate based on his ideas and not the color of his skin.... We all know to what degree racism remains alive in this country. [Sanders then cited a recent incident where a white South Carolina man had shot and killed nine black mebers of a church.] And I cannot understand, for the life of me, how there can be hundreds of groups in this country, whose sole reason for existence is to promote hatred [against] African Americans or gays or Jews or immigrants or anybody that is different from us.... [L]et us be clear, that when you have unarmed African Americans shot by police officers -- something which has been going on for years -- That is also institutional racism and cries out for reform."
In a September 18, 2015 appearance on CBS This Morning, Sanders discussed his plan to raise taxes on the wealthy; to provide free public college tuition for all Americans; to provide 12 weeks of paid family leave and paid vacation time for all workers; to “create universal health care for every man, woman and child”; to put private health insurance companies “out of business”; and to require “the wealthiest people in this country who are doing phenomenally well” -- along with “large corporations that are making billions of dollars in profits” -- to “start paying their fair share of taxes.” Following are some highlights of his exchange with co-hosts Norah O'Donnell and Vinita Nair:
- O'Donnell asked, "Would that mean taxing the wealthiest Americans at 90 percent, as you’ve suggested in the past?" Sanders replied, "No, I don't think you have to go up to 90%, but you can remember that under people like Dwight David Eisenhower [under whom the top tax rate was approximately 90 percent], we had a tax system that was far more progressive than it was today.... But we will come up with some very specific ideas."
- O'Donnell asked how Sanders proposed to pay for "free health care for everybody, college for everybody, [and] paid leave." Sanders replied: "This is what we would do. If you want tuition-free public colleges and universities, which I believe we will have a tax on Wall Street speculation, which will more than pay for that. We will end the fact that profitable corporations, in some cases, in America today, pay zero in federal taxes because they stash their money in the Cayman Islands and in Bermuda."
- Nair pointed out that The Wall Street Journal had estimated that all of Sanders's proposed programs would cost $18 trillion to implement. Sanders replied: "But what The Wall Street Journal said, and we responded to, it is that that included 15 billion dollars for [a] national health care program. What they forgot to say is that you would not be paying, and businesses would not be paying, for private health insurance. So, in other words, right now if you're paying $12,000 a year for Blue Cross/Blue Shield, you would not be paying that. In fact, every study indicates that we pay more per capita for healthcare than any nation on earth. We would lower that cost."
- O'Donnell said, "You're calling for a single payer health care system but your home state of Vermont tried that in 2011 and the Democratic governor has said we can't afford it and rolled it back. Your own state can't even carry it through. How is America going to do it?: Sanders replied, "Because every other country in the world, in one way or another, does it." O'Donnell then asked, "Then why couldn’t Vermont figure it out?" Sanders responded: "Well, you’ll have to ask the Governor for that. I'm not the Governor of the state of Vermont, but you can ask the conservative prime minister of Canada how they have a single-payer health care system. You can ask every other major country on Earth how they guarantee health care to all of their people with far less cost per capita than we do in the United States."
- Sanders said: "Thirty million people [in America] today have zero health insurance, and millions more are underinsured. No one debates that fact. What the story is, how can you create universal health care for every man, woman and child and do it in a cost effective way? Other countries do it. The United States of America can do it. Now, I know the private insurance companies don't like this idea. We’re going to put them out of business. And the drug companies that are ripping off the American people and charging us the highest prices in the world don't like the idea. Tough luck."
During a Democratic presidential debate on November 14, 2015 -- in the aftermath of the horrific ISIS terror attacks that had killed well over 100 people in Paris the day before -- Sanders was asked if he still thought (as he had indicated on numerous prior occasions) that climate change was the biggest threat facing the world. He replied: “Climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism and if we do not get our act together and listen to what the scientists say, you’re going to see countries all over the world ... struggling over limited amounts of water and land to grow their crops and you’re going to see all kinds of conflict." Sanders then proceeded to explain how this was already playing out with the Paris attacks: “Well, what happens in, say, Syria … is that when you have drought, when people can’t grow their crops, they’re going to migrate into cities. And when people migrate into cities and they don’t have jobs, there’s going to be a lot more instability, a lot more unemployment, and people will be subject to the types of propaganda that al Qaeda and ISIS are using right now. So, where you have discontent, where you have instability, that’s where problems arise, and certainly, without a doubt, climate change will lead to that.”
In a November 15 interview on CBS's Face the Nation, Sanders doubled down on his claim, saying: “If we are going to see an increase in drought and flood and extreme weather disturbances as a result of climate change, what that means is that peoples all over the world are going to be fighting over limited natural resources. If there is not enough water, if there is not enough land to grow your crops, then you’re going to see migrants of people fighting over land that will sustain them, and that will lead to international conflict.”
Over the years, Sanders's political campaigns have received strong support from such organizations as the AFL-CIO, the American Association for Justice, the Backbone Campaign, the Council for a Livable World, the Democratic Socialists of America, and Peace Action.
Sanders is a strong supporter of the Apollo Alliance, a coalition of environmentalists and big labor that wants the federal government to take over America's energy industry.
Although Sanders is officially listed as an Independent, he caucuses with the Democrats and votes with them nearly 100% of the time. For an overview of Sanders's voting record on key issues during his career in the House and Senate, click here and here.
For additional information on Bernie Sanders, click here.