Bernie Sanders’ campaign has officially been brought to an end, but even those who saw this coming can agree that the lasting impact is impossible to disregard. Bernie has become an icon and beacon of hope in the eyes of youth who crave change, and despite not being President, he will be in our history books, regarded as the first democratic socialist in the United States to reach extremely significant popularity among voters.
He has become such an iconic figure –to say the least– in this highly eventful presidential election that people are largely unaware of the nonpolitical side of Bernie. We are all familiar with the famous photos of him as a youth participating in civil rights rallies, but his more personal background remains obscure. Many are unaware that others in the Sanders family are just as active in state politics. Larry Sanders, Bernie’s older brother, is the Health Spokesperson of the Green Party in the United Kingdom.
Professor Gerard Slamon, who teaches speech at the FSU London Study Centre, is closely acquainted with Larry and gave his FSU International Programs class the pleasure of meeting Sanders to have a discussion about any questions we had, Bernie-related or not.
At 82 years old, Larry is is Bernie’s senior by eight years, and has lived in the UK since the late sixties, when he attended Oxford. He was involved in the Labour Party for many years, but changed his affiliation to the Green Party in 2001. Larry will be a delegate from Democrats Abroad for his brother Bernie Sanders at the Democratic National Convention.
Larry began our class discussion by telling us about what he likely believed we were most excited to hear about: Bernie, or as Larry refers to him, Bernard. The discussion opened with some details on the environment in which the two brothers grew up.
“Bernard’s childhood was astonishingly normal,” he began, “He was born in Brooklyn, New York in a very interesting neighborhood in one particular way: it was not socially engineered. We had six story apartment houses on the corners, and then detached houses down the street. So you had a lower/middle class and working class corner and upper middle class/professional street. So here you have what happens when classes meet, and on our street, it worked out very well – I never noticed, it was only 30 years later with a sociology degree that it occurred to me to even ask the question. Some of the descriptions of Bernard kind of made it out to be like a log cabin in Brooklyn. It wasn’t exactly Abe Lincoln – but, it was a situation where money was an issue; it was primarily an issue because our parents fought about it.”
Astonishingly normal, but fitting, in terms of what one might imagine the environment in which Bernie Sanders grew up to be like: an economically diverse area in New York. He then continued to describe the extent to which his brother has been significant after a long presidential campaign.
“It’s really a question of not knowing; this is not history made, this is history in the making,” he began, “What Bernard has done so far, I feel, is extraordinary – certainly outside the norms of the last 60 or 70 years. As you will know, American politics has been dominated by money. In the future, it might no longer be necessary for candidates to be very rich themselves or to seek money from very rich people, and if that is the case, that would be a transformation. I think the other big thing is the policies Bernard has put forth. We have had (not only in the US) 30 or 40 years of increased inequality. If you look at the statistics, it is astonishingly clear. There are two big kind of headings under which you look at equality. The first is the relationship between how much money is going to people in earnings (wages, salaries) and how much is going into unearned income (profits, dividends, grants, and so on.) And that was a very stable relationship for many years, and then that took off. And the unearned income element has increased quite dramatically, and obviously the earned income has gone down. The second factor is that within the earned income, the income of the top 1% has zoomed off the boards and the rest has either stagnated or gone down. So the vast majority who get both of their income from working, 99% of them are getting a smaller amount of a smaller pie. The result is that for something like half the American population, the median income, their income has not only not grown in the last decades but has actually gone down substantially. Now, before Bernard’s campaign, I don’t think any of you would have read that in the newspapers. It is not being talked about. So that to me is incredibly important; that willful ignorance is gone for the time being.”
Larry had a lot to say on the matter of his brother’s significance; the hour and a half long discussion could have gone on to be all about that subject. Larry clearly wanted to introduce to us what he knew we were curious to hear about firsthand. After all, we were a classroom full of college students, who were the primary age demographic of Bernie’s supporters. After giving firsthand insight, the discussion was opened up to questions., leading to a more in-depth conversation on British politics.
Student 1: How has your experience in politics in the UK been different than your brother’s in America, because I feel they’re very similar countries but very different in many ways?
Larry Sanders: I’ll start with a similarity, the US is kind of out on its own in terms of inequality. The UK tends to turn out second or third. The UK does a fairly ‘good’ job of inequality, and has a long history of a particularly nasty class system, elements of which have weakened but still persist. And part of that can be summarized by the fact that we had the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions. Both have been very successful in what they set out to do, which is to take a path toward decreasing inequality and turn that around to greater inequality and greater poverty. The biggest difference is the health system. The US one is uniquely crazy. There are no other industrialized countries that don’t offer – as Bernard often says – healthcare as a right and not as a privilege. There’s a battle in America to maintain an insurance-based, profit-based health system, which is immensely profitable. In this country, what you’ve had is a very efficient, sometimes underfunded health system in which a lot of the corruption has been fixed. The head of the NHS is an interesting character, his name is Simon Stevens. He was Tony Blair’s main person in his private office toward transforming the NHS. He then went from Blair’s service to become the number 2 or 3 man in one of the biggest insurance companies in the US, I’ve forgotten the name, and was one of their hitmen for imposing Obamacare. And then the conservative government came in and he came back to run the NHS. So you see that there’s a huge impetus toward bringing people into the system whose goal is privatization.
There are certainly things America has done a lot better, but I am more and more convinced that the old fashioned idea of class warfare has a lot of accuracy to it. There are underlying conflicts between people with lots of money and the lower population, and sometimes it’s better; but there is an underlying tension that doesn’t go away. So as a brief summary there are ways in which Britain and the US have similarities, but the differences have not always been in favor of the UK with social problems.
This firsthand account of UK politics was eye-opening to most of us, because for the most part, we do not hear about the corruption across the pond. That is, until a majority of UK citizens voted in favor of the Brexit and Americans became a little more fearful of a Trump presidency, given the disillusion faced by a large number of Britons who did not think that such a referendum could possibly be passed. A parallel can be drawn between Larry and his brother on this matter, because both politicians have tried to combat this corruption in their political careers. Bernie has been an independent politician for nearly his entire political career, while Larry is active in the Green Party, which currently holds just one seat in Parliament.
Student 2: Why, then, do you think it’s so important to keep these smaller parties going and keep them engaged in politics even when they only have one or two seats in Parliament?
Sanders: The answer is similar to almost asking the question of why does someone like Bernard take on the Democratic party. And it is really because the Labour Party here, the more left of the major parties, has gone so far in a certain direction – negative in my point of view – that we didn’t even have the debate that we need. They put the case for a different, more egalitarian approach. I was very active in the Labour party in the 80s, and I drifted out and joined the Greens around 2000. And if you feel that the debate that needs to happen isn’t happening, you need to find a way to do it, and in a democratic society a way to do that is through parties like the Green Party. So how do you break through when you have these first past the post type politics? If you have proportional representation – in the last election we got 4 or 5% of the vote, that would have resulted in 20 or 30 MPs within Proportional Representation. For instance, Germany is way ahead in renewable energy because in the 90s there was a very powerful presence of the Green Party, which was in the coalition government during that period. So if we had PR here or in the states, a minority party would be able to make a go of it. But without that it is very difficult, and the question of what you do when things are very difficult is, very difficult. As long as there is a need for a party that is making the case for issues such as ending privatization of health (my particular area of concern as green party spokesperson for health) and all the other issues, as long as that is necessary then I’ll stick to it.
Proportional representation, a system in which votes correspond directly to seats in Parliament, is widely used in Europe, but is not used in the UK. In the UK, Parliament is elected using a “First Past The Post” majority system, in which citizens vote for a single MP at a time and whoever gets the most votes wins, and any other votes do not matter. This results in party politics in which parties and candidates adopt centrist policies; it is also why the UK has two large parties and several comparatively much smaller parties in Parliament.
Student 2: So, would you find it more favorable if the UK leaned more toward adopting proportional representation?
Sanders: Yes, I think it would be better. The key thing about all of this, though, is we have no utopias. There are countries with proportional representation that have dysfunctional governments. Early in my life I thought you could have the success of one party or idea. Democratic society is about constant struggle, and it doesn’t work very well but it is the best we’ve got.
This is where the discussion shifted a bit, and we began to ask about Bernie some more. This time, students began to ask Larry about the debate in America over the misunderstood idea of socialism.
Student 3: So, obviously the word socialism has a negative connotation to it but do you think democratic socialism has been more well-received here in the UK than in the states; if so, why?
Sanders: Well, yes. Socialism –meaning democratic socialism– has been a normal part of British life for 80 or 90 years from the first Labour government in the 1930s. I think one of the key things from Bernard’s campaign is that there are now a number of Americans who would identify as socialist.
Professor Slamon: But why did Bernie not suffer that stigma against the word ‘socialist’?
Sanders: Well, it hasn’t been problematic in Vermont even in early stages when he did badly in elections, that was not a big thing, even when he began to win elections. And Vermont is a pretty ordinary American state in terms of political makeup. I like to think Bernard is tapping into a group of people who want America to run differently, but it may be that Bernard has come across as being more honest. Something about him personally makes people think, well I may not agree with him but I don’t think he’s a dreadful guy – and if socialists are ‘creepy’ well he’s not creepy. It may have something to do with his personality.
Professor Slamon: What about the idea of Bernie being independent – the longest-serving independent in the US. How did he even do that?
Sanders: The first thing to say is that he is not independent because he is somewhere in between the two parties. He felt both the Republican and Democratic parties were not doing what political parties should do, so he did not join them. But the most astonishing thing – he was mayor of Burlington for several years, and he was elected by ten votes, and you can imagine the shock of the community. They wouldn’t give him any money, and wouldn’t let him have a secretary. So all the work would be done around people’s kitchen tables. But he won the next election by more votes, double the amount of people showed up to vote – which is something Bernard has always been fixated on, people don’t vote because they don’t think it matters. His view is that if someone is making things change then more people will vote. And once he had eight years as mayor, he managed to become well known. And when he ran as independent he wasn’t suddenly appearing, he had a track record. So that’s how he got elected to Congress.
Professor Slamon: I listened on YouTube to a compilation of his speeches over the years, and it strikes me that this guy has been saying the same thing with great fervor and conviction, in his own words. There are so many carefully molded speeches, focus group-tested speeches. That is what they are all doing now. No politician will open their mouth to say anything until it has been tested. How does he avoid all of that?
Sanders: He could not bear the idea that in a rich country you should have poor people, and people who have no place to live. So once he stuck with something like that – which really, most people agree with – you don’t need a focus group. It’s like saying you need a focus group for going on a date with someone who matters to you. And he’s managed to get ahead and be elected by saying what matters to him without apologizing.
Here, Larry put into very simple terms something that has been a largely discussed topic throughout this election. A large argument among both liberal and conservative voters throughout this election is that Hillary Clinton has not been honest or consistent, instead giving into pandering, while Bernie Sanders has been consistent throughout his career. This was a large factor in the split caused in the Democratic Party before Clinton’s presumptive nomination, as voters –mostly youth- began to call for an end to dishonesty among politicians. A large number of people were refreshed by the consistency in Bernie Sanders’s political beliefs. Larry put it very succinctly: he had one, basic belief that he passionately believed in, and stuck with it.
Student 4: Your brother has been criticized by the media for having a lack of foreign policy experience and policy overall, And I think the Democratic Party as a whole gets a lot of flack by the Republican Party for not calling out radical Muslim attacks. Where do you think your brother stands on foreign policy?
Sanders: He does not think America should be the police of the world. He thinks America should defend its own interests and own citizens. But most of the wards and interventions have been mistaken in removing governments. The American intervention of changing other countries’ governments has not only been bad for those countries, but has been bad for the US. The impact on Iran was disastrous for a long period of time, and other countries similarly. The stupidity of the idea that you bomb countries and that somehow solves a problem – sometimes it’s necessary, he’s not a pacifist and I’m not a pacifist – the simplicity of that idea, these Cheney types apparently hold that. They put up these private companies who benefit from it, but not most American citizens and certainly not most in other countries.
Here, Larry touched on one of the largest arguments against Bernie Sanders being commander-in-chief, and something with which Hillary Clinton had a large advantage. During elections, people tend to overstate the powers that a President actually holds, but one duty that cannot be ignored is command of the military and foreign policy. Bernie was criticized for lacking the expertise needed for this role.
Student 5: What has it been like being on the campaign trail?
Sanders: Well, first thing, it’s been very odd walking down the street with your brother, and you’ve been walking down the street with him for many years, and everybody knows his name. And the other thing is the sheer affection people show towards him – though slightly jealous-making.
Those with younger siblings can only imagine how strange it would be to watch as their little brother becomes extraordinarily famous and widely adored during one of the most eventful elections in recent historical memory. Both brothers have been involved in politics for such a long time, however, that it makes sense for such a thing to be happening to the Sanders siblings of all people.
This discussion was a rare opportunity, given that Bernie Sanders’s brother is the person who can give the most personal insight into Bernie as a person as well as a politician. Larry is able to put his brother’s beliefs into succinct and simple terms, as the person who has known Bernie longer than anybody else out there. There is no better person to talk to in order to achieve an understanding of Bernie Sanders, unless one is able to meet and interview the man himself. Above all, however, Larry Sanders, as an accomplished politician in his own right, was able to open up our eyes as American students to the world of British politics, a world that has been recently in the news in an unfavorable light after the surprising Brexit referendum. We have seen that it is not a world without party corruption, and that there are things to be fixed in the UK that Larry wishes to see fixed, similar to his brother in the US. The end of Bernie’s campaign does not mark the end of the ideas he put forth, nor the end of his political career, and both brothers are going to continue to put forth their beliefs in their respective political realms.