Robert Reich: Why I love Bernie Sanders – OpEd
By Robert Reich
A few weeks ago, Bernie phoned.
The Brooklyn patois was unmistakable.
“Listen, I want you to know that I recommended you to be the next secretary of labor.”
Bernie is not one for small talk.
“But I’ve been there. Done that. Don’t want to do it again.”
“Just wanted to give you a heads up. You’ll be getting some calls from the media.”
Did Bernie even hear what I said?
“Bye, and …” He was already off the phone.
Let me just come right out and say it: I love Bernie Sanders.
I love his authenticity. Some people like Donald Trump because he says whatever he wants and he’s an asshole. Bernie’s authenticity comes from saying what he wants and speaking the truth. And although he’s blunt, he’s anything but an asshole. When he growls “this grotesque level of income and wealth inequality is immoral,” he means it. And he’s right.
I love his chutzpah. On Tuesday, Bernie announced that Starbucks’s anti-labor CEO, Howard Schultz, has agreed to testify before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which Bernie chairs. The National Labor Relations Board has filed more than 80 complaints against Starbucks for refusing to negotiate in good faith with its workers in more than 280 Starbucks stores that have voted to unionize. Schultz had refused the committee’s request to appear until Bernie threatened to subpoena him. “I look forward to hearing from Mr. Schultz as to when he intends to end his illegal anti-union activities and begin signing fair first contracts with the unions,” Bernie said.
I love him because he sounds like a vintage record (even his voice has the crackle of worn vinyl).
I love him because he’s never been afraid to call himself a democratic socialist. Soon after he began running for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, his campaign manager warned me he was about make a speech to “introduce” the public to democratic socialism. I was impressed that he had the guts to do this but worried about his timing. “Does he have to do it now?” I asked. The campaign manager told me Bernie was committed to doing it and couldn’t be persuaded otherwise. It was pure Bernie.
Ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed for Social Security, Republicans have used “socialism” to scare Americans away from doing anything big that we need done.
But America is changing. As early as 2011, the Pew Research Center found that almost half of all voters under the age of 30 held a positive view of socialism while only 46 percent held a positive view of capitalism. In the 2016 Democratic primaries and then again in 2020, young people all over America wore buttons reading “Feel the Bern.” They were like the young admirers of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, another warrior who combined progressive conviction with elder crankiness.
I love Bernie because he has endless patience for important things and no patience for unimportant conversation. In 2010, he delivered an eight-and-a-half-hour speech on the Senate floor to protest the extension of tax cuts instituted during George W. Bush’s presidency. I was in the Capitol at the time and dropped by his office to congratulate him on his marathon. He quickly thanked me, then waved me off to take a phone call.
Just before the California Democratic primary in 2020, he gave a stemwinder of a speech in Oakland. We had a late dinner at a small dive on Shattuck Avenue that was empty except for the two of us — until a supporter spied us through the window and came bounding in with a Bernie poster.
“Senator, would you sign my …?”
“Not now! We’re eating!” Bernie barked.
In all my years of politics, I’d never come across a candidate willing to do this.
I love Bernie because he’s a true populist — a word that has gotten a terrible rap since Trump but should be redeemed. It means for the people and against the powerful. Trump pretends to be a populist, but he’s always wanted to be one of the powerful and has forever been in their pockets. Bernie is a true populist.
I love Bernie because he has almost single-handedly changed the national conversation — turning proposals that had once been on the Democratic fringe into respectable, and in some cases mainstream, Democratic positions. Creating jobs by rebuilding infrastructure. Providing free tuition at public universities. Breaking up the big banks. Guaranteeing workers paid medical and family leave.
The policies no longer seem far-fetched. And now that he’s chair of a powerful Senate committee, Bernie might be able to usher some of them through, if Democrats regain control of the House next year.
I love Bernie because even at the age of 81, his indignation hasn’t faded. Nor has his energy.
When he entered Congress in 1991 as an independent, he wasn’t particularly well liked. That may have had something to do with his telling the press that Congress “is not working. It is failing. Change is not going to take place until many hundreds of these people are thrown out of their offices,” and charging that “Congress does not have the courage to stand up to the powerful interests. I have the freedom to speak my mind.”
At the time, Congressman Barney Frank shot back: “Bernie alienates his natural allies. His holier-than-thou attitude — saying, in a very loud voice, he is smarter than everyone else and purer than everyone else — really undercuts his effectiveness.” Joe Moakley, another Massachusetts Democrat, then chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, complained that Bernie “screams and hollers, but he is all alone.”
Bernie’s lack of popularity on Capitol Hill didn’t hold him back. He was reelected to the House seven times and was one of the founding members and the first chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which has grown steadily from six members in 1991 to 71 today.
His ascent to the Senate in 2006 was astonishing — beating the Republican candidate, Richard Tarrant, one of the wealthiest men in Vermont, by 33 percentage points.
I backed Bernie in 2016 when he ran for the Democratic nomination for president against Hillary Clinton and backed him again in 2020. I took some crap for doing this from Clinton people, but I’m glad I did it. The system needed shaking up. It needed Bernie’s candidacy even if he wasn’t going to get the nomination.
I love Bernie because he has more guts than any politician I know. Hell, he has more guts than just about anyone I know.
But I’m still not going to be labor secretary again.