When Bernie Sanders took to the stage at this year’s Hay Festival, it was to a room of cheers and clapping. The US senator may not have been nominated as the Democrat candidate, but his international influence and support has certainly not disappeared in the year since his fight for the White House ended.
Though the talk was “ostensibly” an opportunity to promote his new book – on the story of the 2016 primaries campaign – his overall message was to support the new kinds of progressive government some believe the world wants and/or needs. He said:
Countries will disagree with each other, argue with each other but we must not withdraw into our own worlds. We must not be America first, or UK first, or France first, we all have our own interests but we’ve got to be an international community.
More poignantly, Sanders identified four main dynamics driven by President Trump that he believes are moving the US towards a more authoritarian society. First, Trump has been discrediting and undermining the mainstream media and has positioned himself, mostly via Twitter, as the only source of truth – a dangerous myth spread most recently by Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, Chair of the House Science Committee.
Trump has also been undermining the judiciary with his tweets about the “so-called” judge who blocked his travel ban. Furthermore, the President’s claims of voter fraud have not been random either, but have been a signal to Republican governors to step up their already aggressive efforts to restrict voting rights.
Finally, Trump shows great esteem for and has reinforced connections with authoritarian leaders like Erdogan, Putin, Duterte and the Saudi royal family, while at the same time lecturing (and straining relations with) European allies.
But there is still a glimmer of hope, at least according to Sanders.
As in the 2016 primaries, Sanders is at his best when he highlights staggering numbers relating to financial and economic inequality. As he put it, the most fundamental truth about the US today is that “we are moving towards a oligarchic form of society.”
But this problem is not just restricted to the US: the top 1% globally have more wealth than bottom 99%. The eight wealthiest people on the planet, have more wealth than the bottom 50%. This, as Sanders correctly noted, is not only a financial problem, but also a political one. Big money is playing a more and more prominent role in elections.
Sanders’ campaign was initially considered a joke by the media. But it was a campaign – and this is perhaps Sanders’s proudest achievement – that raised millions of dollars from small donors, with an average donation of $27 (although that figure is contested).
The campaign came from the bottom-up; it was able to reach young people, working-class people and forgotten communities. It won 46% of Democrats’ pledged votes, and won the youth vote (under 40) often by landslide.
Sanders is still a Democratic Party outsider. He is extremely critical of how it has forgotten working class people and how, by doing so, it opened the door for Trump to present himself as the man of the people. The party lost the White House and almost 1,000 legislative seats in State capitols all over America in the 2016 election.
On this score, Sanders acknowledged in his speech that while America has made much progress in the civil rights sector, economic rights have not progressed at the same pace. Invoking Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union address, Sanders – as he did in his 2016 – called for an “economic bill of rights”.
Economic rights – like a decent job, education, good health care and good housing – Sanders stressed, are human rights and, even more importantly, preconditions for enjoying the rights protected by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It should be the objective of our societies, he argued, to provide every human being on the planet with a minimum standard of living and, Sanders is confident, this is an objective we can achieve.
Trump notwithstanding, the future of the US in Sanders’s eyes is a progressive one. Before the elections, the Democratic Party accepted much of the platform behind Sanders’s campaign. Today, Sanders argues, legislators in Congress are pushing many of the measures included in his platform.
While acknowledging problems, Sanders has massive confidence in the power of the people to make things happen. On the Supreme Court, for example, he quips that it “does not live on Mars” and if the people are committed, even a conservative court can accept progressive change, as in the case of marriage equality.
When a young member of the Hay Festival audience asked what she can do for change, a passionate Sanders replied:
Rethink your role in a democratic society … Stand up and fight back and you will be surprised at the amount of change you can achieve.
There is hope, even in the age of Trump.