What Makes Bernie Speak?

Listening to Senator Bernie Sanders “mini-filibuster” on December 10 it was easy to compare the moment to Jimmy Stewart’s last stand in Frank Capra’s Mister Smith Goes to Washington. But there’s a big difference. For the movie hero, a naïve freshman, it was a desperate expression of frustration that led to a storybook ending. For Bernie, who has served in Congress for 20 years, it was a continuation of essentially the same speech he’s been giving since he first emerged as a Vermont third party candidate in 1971. And the Senate speech, though it resonated with many people, doesn’t appear to have changed the outcome of the pending tax deal.

“My views about what I believe is right and what I want to see in this country have changed very little,” Bernie once told me during an interview. They still haven’t, and this may be the secret of his success. He is nothing if not consistent, managing to stick with essentially the same talking points no matter what the political climate. The surface image has evolved – from fast-talking third party radical in jeans and sandals, struggling angrily to be heard, to self-assured statesman who couches his criticisms with frequent acknowledgements of his Republican “friends.” The message, however updated with fresh evidence, is remarkable consistent.

“You have two political parties that are controlled by monied interests,” he argues. “You have a corporate media. When you talk about consolidation, you are talking about oil and gas, banking, and perhaps most importantly, the media – where there are very few voices of dissent regarding our current position on the global economy. That gets to even the more fundamental issue – the health of American democracy. Do people know what’s going on? And how can they fight what’s going on? I fear that they don’t.”

He’s also critical of his “friends” on the Left. As he put it while serving as Vermont’s only Congressman (1990-2006), “I have long been concerned that some progressive activists do not stand up and fight effectively or pay enough attention to the needs of ordinary Americans. Right now, one of the issues I am terribly concerned about is what is being proposed for social security, which I think would be a disaster. It affects senior citizens today. It affects future generations. How much discussion is there of that issue among activists and intellectuals, who should understand it? I’ve heard very little.”

Sanders had little idea of how Congress operated before he arrived. It was a rude awakening, similar to his early days as Burlington mayor (1981-1989), dealing with an unsympathetic legislature and entrenched bureaucracy. Although he certainly knows how the game is played by now, it still galls him that “what we read in the textbooks about how a bill becomes a law just ain’t the case.”

One unusual aspect of Bernie’s approach in Congress has been to wage congressional battles with people whose stands on other issues he abhors. In fact, much of Bernie’s legislative success has come through forging deals with ideological opposites. An amendment to bar spending in support of defense contractor mergers, for example, was pushed through with the aid of Chris Smith, a prominent opponent of abortion. John Kasich, whose views of welfare, the minimum wage and foreign policy could hardly be more divergent from Bernie’s, helped him phase out risk insurance for foreign investments. And it was a “left-right coalition” he helped create that derailed “fast track” legislation on international agreements pushed by Bill Clinton. The power of that strategy may have reached its apex in May 2010 when Bernie’s campaign to bring transparency to the Federal Reserve resulted in a 96-0 Senate vote on his amendment to audit the Fed and conduct a General Accounting Office audit of possible conflicts of interest in loans to unknown banks.

Having conservatives as allies may sound strange for a socialist. His explanation is unapologetically pragmatic: the job is to pass legislation rather than moralizing. “If you are a good politician – and I use that in a positive sense – you seize the opportunity to make things happen,” he believes. And as he has put it in fundraising letters, that sometimes means not only going after “the reactionary Republican agenda but the move to the right” by the Democrats.

Another role, perhaps closer to his heart, is provocateur. “I respect people who are in the political process,” he says. But he also enjoys flushing them out, which partly explains his long Senate speech in opposition to continuing tax breaks for the rich. It irks him that most people are unaware of issues that affect them. “I think, as a result of the role I and other have played, there may be more transparency,” he argues. “But obviously the issue goes beyond that.”

This gets close to the core of Bernie’s analysis: politicians and international financial groups protecting the interests of banks and the wealthy at the expense of the poor and working people behind a veil of secrecy. Governments reduced to the status of figureheads under international capitalist management. Both political parties kowtowing to big money flaks. And media myopia fueling public ignorance. His task, he says, is to raise consciousness and, when possible, expose the real agendas of the powerful.

He has also often stated that people should “keep working on what is a very difficult task; that is, creating a third party in America.” Despite this position, however, he has done little to help develop one in Vermont since leaving the anti-war Liberty Union Party in 1977. When I asked about it, he replied curtly. “I am very much preoccupied and work very hard,” he said. “I am not going to play an active role in building a third party.”

On the surface, it seems like a contradiction. But what those who view him as a possible breakaway presidential candidate in 2012 need to keep in mind is that Bernie has maintained an arms-length relationship with Vermont’s Progressive Party, which his own early victories helped to create. And although he frequently expresses the hope that the base for a third party will expand, and sometimes selectively lends support to candidates, sustained and active involvement in party-building would strain his mutually advantageous détente with Democrats.

So, the speech has remained the same, but Bernie Sanders long ago made his peace with pragmatism. He isn’t embarrassed about playing to win. Forced to choose between being “virtuous” and effective, he opts for success – as long as it doesn’t violate long-held beliefs.

On the other hand, “There are not very many members of congress who hold my views,” he argues. “The President does not hold my views. The corporate media does not hold my views. That is the reality I have to deal with every single day.” His job, as he has defined it over the years, is to understand the constraints and “do the best you can with the powers you have. You don’t just stand on a street corner giving a speech.”

It’s an unintentionally ironic comment. After all, giving a speech – in fact, basically the same speech – is clearly one of the things that Bernie Sanders does best. And when the timing is right, he is ready to stand alone in the US Senate. His street corner has become C-Span and the viral potential of the Internet.

Greg Guma worked with Bernie Sanders in Burlington during the 1980s and wrote The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution.