Senator Bernie Sanders

The Senator discusses his latest text Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In.

A self-described democratic socialist, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is the longest-serving independent member of Congress. The senator's legislative interests include a focus on America's shrinking middle class and widening income gap, and, in the current Congress, he serves on five standing committees, including Veterans' Affairs, which he chairs. In 2016, Senator Sanders sought the Democratic nomination for president. He later endorsed Hillary Clinton who ultimately lost the presidency to Donald Trump. Senator Bernie Sanders is out with a new book, Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In, where he outlines his ideas for continuing a political revolution.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with Senator Bernie Sanders. Nearly one week after Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in one of the most shocking upsets in presidential politics, the senator from Vermont is calling for the creation of a grassroots movement to transform the country. We’ll ask him how in a moment.

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Tavis: Tonight I’m pleased to welcome Senator Bernie Sanders back to this program. His latest text, “Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In”, is available online and hits bookstores tomorrow all across the country. He joins us tonight from New York. Senator Sanders, good to have you back on this program, sir.

Bernie Sanders: Great to be with you, Tavis.

Tavis: I know that in all the other shows you’ve appeared, you’ve been asked repeatedly to offer your postmortem on the election. I’m gonna spare you those questions tonight because you’ve been asked them everywhere else. I want to talk about something different, what you actually have in the book as a plan for the future. It is the case that every election is never about the past, always about the future.

So let’s talk about how we navigate our way forward in the future and not do any more postmortem questions on what happened last week, as legitimate as those questions may be. I want to take your list of 10 things to fix America in reverse order. Number 10 on your list is corporate media and the threat to our democracy. That’s a bold statement that corporate media is a threat to our democracy. Unpack it for me.

Sanders: Okay. Here’s where we are with that, and this is an issue that is never discussed, certainly not on corporate media. What you got today, Tavis, is about a half dozen major media conglomerates that own and control the distribution of the information that the American people receive. That is a massive concentration of control.

And what is never discussed about is what is the goal of these major media conglomerates? Is it to educate the American people? Is it to give the five sides of the issue? No. Their function as major media conglomerates owned by very large financial interests is to make as much money as they possibly can. That is their interest.

Now what does that mean in the day-to-day life of the American people? It means that, number one, in a campaign the likes of which we have just had, over 90% of media, television, for example, did not discuss the important issues facing the American people.

Their coverage was devoted to political gossip, to polling, to money being raised, the stupid things the candidates said, to personalities, rather than saying, okay, here are the problems facing the American people. And this is how candidate Trump feels about it, candidate Clinton or candidate Sanders feels about it. You decide which proposal makes more sense to you.

In other words, the campaign was not presented as an issue impacting the American people, but more of a personality contest between the different candidates. That is a disaster for democracy. Second point, if anybody thinks that advertising on television does not play an important role in terms of what gets covered, you are sorely mistaken.

Climate change, according to the scientific community, is the great global crisis that we face. Yet there is unbelievably little coverage of climate change and I believe that has a lot to do with a lot of the fossil fuel advertising and the special interests that dominate television. So those are some of the issues that concern me about media.

Tavis: How did you process–as I move quickly to get to get to these other nine things on your list–how did you process in the campaign not getting the kind of media coverage? This is not Tavis kissing up to Bernie Sanders. The data is clear and everywhere about this. How did you process Trump sucking the air out of the room, the media room, that is, and Bernie Sanders having to fight to get coverage at all?

Sanders: Look, we had the misfortune about speaking about the real issues impacting the American people. That’s not a good way to get media coverage. You want me to get media coverage? “Tavis Smiley is a — !” Wow, that’s really interesting. Let’s go through that. Bernie Sanders said this about Tavis, Tavis said this about Bernie. We can go on for weeks on that!

But if I talk about why the middle class in this country is in decline, why we have a grotesque level of income and wealth inequality, well, you know, that’s kind of wonkish. That’s kind of boring. Who wants to talk about that? So that’s the kind of problem that we–now Trump who is nobody’s fool understands. You say outrageous things, you got the media all over your place.

And it’s not just Bernie Sanders. If you talk to people like Marco Rubio, you talk to people like Governor Bush, Jeb Bush, Trump got infinitely more coverage than they got because media likes that and that’s a real problem for democracy.

Tavis: So finally before I move on, what then do you make of the media’s complicity in helping to create Donald Trump as juxtaposed now with their rush to normalize his election?

Sanders: Well, I think it is no secret. There were quotes, I think, from the head of CBS, the head of CNN, and that is that Donald Trump is great for business. We put Donald Trump on, we have him attacking Hillary Clinton or his Republican opponents, a lot of people watch. It is great TV, a lot of advertising. We make money.

But, you know, I think that–I got to tell you. I’m not here to say to the corporate media, reform yourself. I don’t think that that’s gonna happen. I think what we have to do is through the internet, through good shows like yours, focus on the real issues impacting the American people. I don’t think the corporate media is gonna do it. I think the conflicts of interest are just too great.

Tavis: Number 9 on your list, Senator Sanders, of how to fix America is to protect our most vulnerable. If Americans really cared about the most vulnerable, wouldn’t this outcome have been different?

Sanders: Sure, it would have. What, again, the media does not talk about, what was not discussed in this campaign, is a very simple reality. Tavis, if we were a poor country, and God knows there are poor countries throughout the world, we would say, well, it is terrible that elderly people are barely making it.

They can’t afford their medicine, that disabled veterans are suffering, the veterans are sleeping out on the street. Bottom line is, we are the richest country in the history of the world. And if I have to say that 100 hundred times a day, seven days a week, I will say that. We are the wealthiest country.

We can and must do well for all of our people. There is no excuse. Not talked about. Media is not interested in this one. You got millions of people who are trying to get by today on $10, $11, $12,000 social security, elderly people, people with disabilities, disable vets. You can’t do it.

Who talks about it? Who knows that they exist? They are hurting. As a compassionate, democratic society, our job is in fact to protect the most vulnerable. That is the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor. Poor? Poverty?

You tell me, Tavis. How often is the word poverty mentioned on television? You got 43 million people living in poverty and an issue not discussed. Of course, we can afford to take care of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Tavis: Number 8 in your list is immigration reform now. I’m trying to juxtapose your call for immigration reform now with Mr. Trump saying just days ago that one of the first things he’s going to do is to deport two million people.

Sanders: Not if I have anything to say about it. Look, nobody knows exactly, but we think we have 10, 11 million undocumented people in this country. Many of them, the vast majority of them, are working hard. Many of them are getting ripped off by their employers, underpaid because they have no legal rights to defend themselves.

You got kids, young Latino kids, scared to death they’re gonna go home from school tomorrow. Their mom or their dad may be deported.

What the American people want and, by the way, as in many other issues, Trump’s view is a minority view, a minority view. The American people, by and large, want to see comprehensive immigration reform and a path toward citizenship. That is something that I will fight for.

Tavis: Number 7 on your list is real criminal justice reform. Now here it gets tricky for me because we know where Mr. Trump stands on the issue of criminal justice reform. He’s all about law and order, law and order, law and order. We heard that a thousand times, law and order, law and order.

What’s trickier though that Secretary Clinton, of course, is married to a guy who made some really bad moves and had to apologize for it later with regard to criminal justice reform. So I quite frankly am not sure if she had won or the fact that he has won means that any real criminal justice reform was actually going to come forth. What do you think ought to happen, though?

Sanders: This is what ought to happen. And, by the way, for a variety of reasons, this is one area where right wing people are working with progressives. And that is the understanding that it is basically insane and counterproductive that in the United States of America today, we have 2.2 million people in jail. 2.2 million people, disproportionately African American, Latino and Native American.

We are spending $80 billion dollars a year locking people up. So if you’re a conservative and you’re just worried about money, you’re saying, “Gees, that’s a lot of money”, doesn’t it make more sense to make sure these kids are in school, they have decent jobs, than locking them up?

And then you got the whole issue of police department reform, understanding that lethal force should be the last response, not the first response. Training police officers, and it’s a very difficult job being a cop today. To understand how to deal with people with mental illness, for example.

So there is a lot that has to be done, understanding that we should not have the rate of recidivism that we do, that when people leave jail, they should be prepared to return to civil society with education and jobs. So that is just a very significant issue that needs a lot of work.

Tavis: Number 6, you referenced earlier in this conversation as it’s combating climate change. Since you referenced it earlier, let me tweak my question and ask something a bit different, which is how concerned are you that President-elect Donald Trump and his administration will just not take the science on this or any other issue seriously?

Sanders: Tavis, this is a monumental issue and it’s not just obviously an American issue. This is an issue that impacts the whole planet. Let’s be clear. Donald Trump is not a dummy and let’s simply hope that the scientific community can get to him and say, you know, “Mr. President, you are wrong. Climate change is not a hoax. It is a frightening reality for our planet, for billions of people.”

And I’ll tell you, Tavis. If the United States withdraws from the effort to combat climate change, this is a message that goes to every country in the world. It goes to Russia, China, India, Europe. Why are they are gonna transform their energy system when the largest economy on earth is not doing it?

And this means–it scares the hell out of me because I got seven grandchildren–this means that the planet we’re gonna be leaving our kids and our grandchildren and future generations will not be a healthy planet, to say the least. I am very worried about this and Trump’s position on this is disgraceful. It is totally ignorant and it has got to change and we’ve got to make him change that.

Tavis: Your protestation notwithstanding, it’s so abundantly clear, given what he said during the campaign, that he thinks this is a hoax.

Sanders: Look, you’re right. But all I can hope is–and it’s a hope–is that when you become president and you’re not out there pandering to various sections of our population or representing the fossil fuel industry, when you sit down in an office with scientists who say, “Mr. President, this is what’s gonna happen in 5 or 10 years or 20 years if we do not transform our energy system”, let us hope that Mr. Trump is smart enough and open enough to hear their concerns.

Tavis: Number 5 on your list is making higher education affordable. It is the one issue that you and Secretary Clinton agreed on. When you got out of the campaign, you campaigned with her specifically on this issue. Sadly, though, neither you nor she will get a chance to enact that plan. Of course, you’re still in the Senate, but how do we move forward on this issue?

Sanders: Well, the issue is simple enough. It says that in a highly competitive global economy, if we are gonna do better now and in the future, we need the best educated workforce we can possibly have. We used to 30, 40 years ago, Tavis, have the highest percentage of college graduates of any country on earth.

This is no longer the case, and the gap between other countries and us is growing wider. That does not look well for the future for us if they have better educated workforces. So what do we do? What we do is, for a start, make certain that public colleges and universities are tuition-free.

That sends a message to every kid in this country who grew up in a family like mine where my parents never went to college, that if they study hard and take school seriously, yeah, they’ll make it to college and make it into the middle class. It is a very significant issue. We also have to deal with the issue of student debt, millions of people really being saddled with incredible debt which impacts their lives.

Trump talked about it and one of the things that I intend to do and others will do is we are going to remind Mr. Trump of all that he said on the campaign trail. He talked about being a champion for the working class. Well, we’re gonna hold him to account.

Tavis: What do we make of the fact while we’re on this point that student loan debt now exceeds credit card debt?

Sanders: What can I tell you? It is an extraordinarily significant issue. You have a lot of young people now who can’t buy a car or they can’t buy a home, they can’t get married, they can’t have kids. They’re saddled with incredible debt.

My solution was to allow people to refinance at the lowest possible interest rates and forgive debt for those people who are going into public areas where they’re working as teachers or doctors in underserved areas and so forth. But it is an issue that cannot be swept under the rug.

Tavis: Number 4 on your list is healthcare for all. I want to ask before you address this issue whether or not you are in any way heartened by what Mr. Trump said last night on 60 Minutes regarding Obamacare, that there were some provisions that he wants to protect?

He wants to protect the preexisting conditions provision, he wants to protect the provision where kids staying at home who are still on their parents’ insurance. So there are at least a couple parts of Obamacare he says he wants to keep, although during the campaign, he made it very clear to repeal and replace. What do you make of what he said last night?

Sanders: Well, I think in terms of Obamacare and in many other areas, you’re gonna see him rethinking the rhetoric that he espoused during the campaign. But here is the issue. The issue is we are–and I talk about this at great length in the book–whole chapter on it–we are the only major country on earth that doesn’t guarantee healthcare to all people.

And yet we end up spending significantly more per capita on healthcare than do the people of any other country. That’s pretty crazy stuff. I live 50 miles away from the Canadian border. They have a single-pay healthcare system. Works pretty well. They spend much less per capita.

So my view is that we have got to move, get insurance companies out of the health insurance. It should not be a profit-making situation. We’ve got to move to healthcare for all in a cost-effective way which, to me, is a Medicare for all, single-payer system.

Tavis: Donald Trump said repeatedly that he thought the campaign, that the election specifically, was rigged. Your third point is that we have to end a rigged economy. What do you mean by a rigged economy?

Sanders: Again, these are issues that as a nation we do not talk enough about. What do I mean by a rigged economy?

What I mean is that today in terms of distribution of wealth–and I hope people hear this–top one-tenth of 1%, not 1%, but one-tenth of 1% owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90%. In the last several decades, there has been a massive transfer, trillions of dollars, from the middle class to the top one-tenth of 1%.

It means that today, while people are working two or three jobs, people working 50, 60 hours a week, 52% of all new income is going to the top 1%. It means that you have a handful of large financial institutions, six in fact, that have assets equivalent to 58% of the GDP.

So what you have is an economy today that is working very, very well for large multinational corporations, very well for the top 1%, while the middle class continues to decline and 43 million people live in poverty. That’s a rigged economy.

Tavis: Number 2 on your list is the decline of the American middle class and how we have to fix that. Let me ask this question, and I’m not naïve in asking this. But why is it that all the data is clearly indicative of the fact that the middle class in fact has declined?

In some ways, the middle class has all but disappeared. And yet in any campaign for the White House like the one we just endured, everybody in the campaign continues to talk about the middle class as opposed to talking about what happened to the middle class.

Sanders: Well, then you got to go to Section One in the book [laugh], which is fighting against oligarchy. What you have right now, this is the way politicians look at it. What they’re saying is, first of all, I got to raise a billion-plus dollars and I get the money from the wealthy and the powerful and I got to pay attention to their needs.

Poor people, Tavis, in case you haven’t noticed, do not go to $10,000-a-plate fundraising dinners. So in that sense, they become irrelevant. Voting ratios for low income people is not particularly high, so why do I have to pay attention to them? They don’t contribute to the campaign, they don’t vote, they become invisible.

On the other hand, obviously, a handful of wealthy people will contribute to half of my campaign for an average politician. Those are the people I have to pay attention to. But what we have right now is a middle class which, for 40 years, has been in decline.

We’re better off today than we were eight years ago, but for 40 years, what we have seen is a middle class in decline. Average people–you know why people voted for Trump? Because they are making less in real income today than they did 40 years ago, and they are seeing almost all new income and wealth going to the top 1%.

And they are crying out and they’re saying, “I can’t afford childcare for my kids.” “I’m 50 years of age and I got nothing in the bank and I’m about to retire in a few years.” Or “I just saw my job go to China and I’m earning half of what I did three years ago. Who is listening to me?”

“I am worried that my kid will have a lower standard of living than I do, won’t be able to pay off his or her loans, won’t be able to afford to go to college. Who is hearing my pain?” Not the television, not corporate media. No one’s paying attention to them there.

Has the Democratic Party been doing the right thing by those people? Absolutely not. And, you know, that’s why Trump picks up votes there. But bottom line is, and what this book is about, is to say here is what we can do to transform our economy so that it represents the needs of the middle class.

Raise the minimum wage, pay equity for women, rebuild our infrastructure and create millions of decent-paying jobs, a new trade policy so the corporations cannot just shut down in America and go abroad. Start investing in our young people so that we don’t have 30% unemployment in minority youth communities. There is a lot that we can do and the book, I think, spells it out pretty clearly.

Tavis: So now we arrive at the first thing on your list that you just referenced, defeating oligarchy. There are some who say that the reason why you are not president today is because you were anti-Wall Street, you were anti-wealth, you’re anti-corporate America.

You know the old ad is that America in some ways was a corporation before it was even a country. And when you use the word oligarchy or use the word plutocracy, it turns some people off when you don’t refer to it as a democracy. So how do you go about defeating oligarchy?

Sanders: No, I don’t agree with that assertion. I think most people–I mean, the problem is the oligarchs know that we’re an oligarchy. They feel pretty good about it [laugh]. One of the Koch Brothers was [laugh]. The Koch Brothers–it’s amazing how little discussion there is about what the Koch Brothers actually stand for.

Tavis, the Koch Brothers don’t want to cut social security, Medicare, Medicaid and federal aid to education. They want to abolish it all, abolish it! They want to take us back to the 1920s when working people, the middle class poor people, had absolutely no rights at all.

And by the way, that is the first chapter in the book because, of all of the rest, this concerns me the most. And that is, as a result of Citizens United, we are losing our democratic tradition. Billionaires are buying elections. Follow what happened in just the last week or two of this campaign.

The billionaires poured huge amounts of money. I’m talking about tens and tens of millions of dollars into Wisconsin, into New Hampshire, into New Mexico, into Pennsylvania, to make sure that their candidates for the senate won. And I’ll tell you this, and you’re hearing it first, people like Mitch McConnell are not satisfied with Citizens United. They want to go further.

They want to end–what the Koch Brothers want–end all campaign finance regulations. Meaning, Tavis, you want to run for the United States Senate, just go to some billionaire, writes you out a check for a few hundred million dollars, you work for that billionaire. That is the direction we are moving in. That’s what they want and they’re moving in that direction.

That is not democracy in any stretch of the imagination. That is oligarchy. Furthermore, if I may say, it’s not only billionaires buying elections through Citizens United, it is the vicious, ugly attempt at voter suppression.

I am embarrassed I have to tell you what you already know, that in the year 2016, after all of the struggles that we have gone through as a nation for voting rights, you got Republican cowardly governors all over this country trying to make it harder for poor people, for old people, for people of color, young people, to vote. How disgraceful is that?

Combine big money in politics, voter suppression, both of which will increase under Trump unless we stop them. You’re not looking at a democracy, I have to tell you. You’re looking at an oligarchy.

Tavis: And there you have it straight from the mouth of Bernie Sanders. His new text is called “Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In”. Senator Sanders, thank you for coming on this program. Throughout this campaign and, once again, tonight, I appreciate you, sir.

Sanders: And, Tavis, thank you for the great work you do.

Tavis: Earlier today, PBS NewsHour co-host, Gwen Ifill, succumbed to her battle with cancer. She was a colleague and an outstanding and beloved journalist. Her contributions to this network and beyond will be missed into the future. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

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Last modified: November 15, 2016 at 2:38 pm