U.S. Sen. Bernie Sander (D-Vt.) brought his presidential campaign to the McCreary Community Building in Perry Monday, where about 325 people enthusiastically cheered ideas he jokingly referred to as “radical.”
Sanders opened his remarks by describing his motivation for seeking the Democrat nomination for the U.S. presidency.
“We ran because we had a gut feeling that the American people were sick and tired of establishment politics and establishment economics,” he said. “We have a corrupt campaign finance system that allows billionaires to buy elections. We have a middle class that is disappearing. We have massive levels of income and wealth inequality. We have more and more people in Iowa and Vermont and around the country who are working longer and longer hours for lower and lower wages, and almost all of the new income being generated is going to the top 1 percent.”
With economic justice as his theme, Sanders then turned to a series of issues and discussed his position on each.
“At the top of my list,” he said, “and I’m proud that more and more people are discussing this issue, is the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in this country.”
He said the top one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. The 20 richest individuals own more wealth than the bottom 50 percent. One family — the Walton family, owners of the Wal-Mart retail empire — owns more wealth than the bottom 40 percent.
Sanders said the Walton family is also the nation’s largest welfare recipient because many Wal-Mart workers are paid wages and benefits so low they qualify for food stamps, Medicaid and subsidized housing. In other words, U.S. taxpayers subsidize Wal-Mart’s sub-living wages.
“But you know what?” Sanders said. “I’ve got a radical idea. Maybe they should pay their workers decent wages and benefits.”
With so much wealth in so few hands, a “rigged economy” has emerged in the U.S., he said, so while U.S. workers put in longer hours than workers in any other industrialized country, 58 percent of new income goes to the top 1 percent.
Sanders said the extreme concentration of wealth has also corrupted of the democratic process, permitting Wall Street billionaires, drug and insurance company billionaires and individuals like Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson basically to buy candidates and buy the lawmaking process in the U.S..
“That is not democracy,” Sanders said. “That is called oligarchy, and together we have got to change that.” The audience cheered loudly and applauded.
Sanders said he would he would not nominate anyone to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court unless the nominee supports overturning the high court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The court ruled on First Amendment grounds that limits on political donations by nonprofit corporations were illegal.
“With this decision,” said longtime consumer advocate and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader, “corporations can now directly pour vast amounts of corporate money, through independent expenditures, into the electoral swamp already flooded with corporate campaign PAC contribution dollars.”
On the issue of employment and jobs, Sanders called for raising the federal minimum wage to a “living wage” of $15 per hour and said he would support a $1 trillion program to employ 13 million people in rebuilding the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.
The issues of jobs and wages also gave Sanders a chance to say pay equity for female workers is a necessary change in U.S. working conditions that he would push, and he will “strongly support and fight for” the establishment of a law requiring a three-month-paid family and medical leave.
Another gender-specific issue — abortion — seemed to bring out Sanders’ satirical edge.
“I think there is no greater example of hypocrisy than when it comes to a woman’s right to choose,” Sanders said. “You’ve got Republicans running all over this country, telling us how much they hate the federal government, how much they hate government in general. They want to cut Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid and everything else. They hate the government. They want to get the government off your backs. They want to let you live your lives in a free country, make your own decisions — except when it comes to the very personal decision that women sometimes have to make. Then they love the government, and they want the government to tell every woman in America what her choice should be. That’s wrong. That’s hypocrisy. I will fight that tooth and nail.”
Sanders turned in conclusion to the topic of breaking up the big U.S. banks and financial institutions and a final sally on economic justice.
“It’s important for us to have the courage to take on some extremely powerful special interests,” he said, “because at the end of the day — without getting too rhetorical here — real change never takes place without struggle.” He mentioned civil rights, union rights, environmental right, women’s rights and gay rights as examples of social movements only accomplished through struggle.
“Right now, when we talk about our economy, we have got to understand that the greed, the recklessness and the illegal behavior of Wall Street is doing disastrous things for the working men and women in this country,” Sanders said.
He said three of the four largest financial institutions that U.S. taxpayers bailed out in 2008 are much bigger now than they were when they collapsed the economy in 2008. He said the six biggest financial firms have assets equivalent to 60 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, and they issue two-thirds of the credit cards and one-third of the mortgages in the U.S. He said the major financial institutions have paid more than $200 billion in fines and out-of-court settlements for illegal activities since 2009.
“In my view, when you have a financial institution too big to fail, it is too big to exist. I believe we should break them up,” he said. “We should not have banks that are too big to fail or bankers who are too big to jail.”
Sanders’ call for a “political revolution” brought the McCreary Community Building crowd to its feet.
“We are all living in an extraordinary country. But over the last 30 years, what we have seen is a massive transfer of wealth from the middle class to the top one-tenth of 1 percent. The percentage of wealth owned by the top one-tenth of 1 percent has doubled — doubled — in the last 30 years. Nothing that I am talking about this afternoon is particularly radical. Everything that I am talking about exists in other countries around the world. And virtually everything I’m talking about is supported by the vast majority of the American people. The American people want us to raise the minimum wage. They want pay equity for workers. They want us to rebuild our infrastructure. They want us to provide jobs for kids rather than put them in jail. They want us to make sure that we lead the world in addressing climate change. They want all of our people to have healthcare. These are not radical ideas. But what has happened over the last many years is the United State government has become more and more separated from the needs of the middle class and working families. And that has everything to do with the fact that the government is now controlled, through campaign donations, through lobbying, by a small number of corporations and very, very wealthy individuals. So what this campaign is about is not just electing a president — of course, I’m here to ask for your support — but it’s to create a political revolution in which millions of people, many of whom have given up on the political process, begin to stand up and say loudly and clearly that our government belongs to all of us and not just to a handful of wealthy campaign contributors.”
His closing was met by a loud and sustained standing ovation. After answering half a dozen questions, often in considerable detail, Sanders shook a few hands before being whisked away by his campaign staff to afternoon and evening meetings in Pleasantville and Des Moines.