This is What a Socialist Sounds Like

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

VT Senator Bernie Sanders

Most people are smart enough to resist the attempt of the radical right, and the Republican politicians who are courting them, to replace their brain cells with string cheese by clamoring for Barack Obama to come up with a valid birth certificate. But even some of these folks look askance at the president when GOP leaders call him a “socialist,” as though that were some kind of slur rather than a description of his philosophy.

It’ s easy, however, to demonstrate that Obama is no socialist. A socialist has principles and stands up for them when they are challenged. The principles involve social and economic justice, and they are not open to compromise.

On December 10, Bernie Sanders, the junior senator from Vermont, stood in the well of the Senate and for eight and a half hours showed us what a socialist sounds like. The full transcript of his speech runs 124 pages, and if you can make the time to read it you will be rewarded by being in the virtual presence of one of America’s finest men. Or you can see Bernie on C-SPAN and listen to as much as you have time for.

What I have here are some excerpts, chosen to give the the flavor of the man’s thinking.  Keep this reading in mind, next time you hear someone denigrate a socialist. That person will be telling you more about him/herself than about the person being slurred.

Read this and you will know the difference between a socialist, one who cares about the well being of all people, and a right-winger, who cares only about the interests of the rich and powerful — and who hopes, if he or she is not already in that class, to be there some day.

Thus speaketh Bernie:

On the Social Security “tax holiday”:

Even though Social Security contributed nothing to the current economic crisis, it has been bartered in a deal that provides deficit-busting tax cuts for the wealthy. Diverting $120 billion in Social Security contributions for a so-called “tax holiday” may sound like a good deal for workers now, but it’s bad business for the program that a majority of middle-class seniors will rely upon in the future.

While this idea of lowering the payroll tax sounds like a good idea, in truth, it really is not a good idea. This idea originated from very conservative Republicans whose intention from the beginning was to destroy Social Security by choking off the funds that go to it. This is not just Bernie Sanders’ analysis. There was recently – I distributed it recently at a meeting we held – a news release that came from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. The headline on that press release is “Cutting Contributions to Social Security Signals the Beginning of the End. Payroll Tax Holiday is Anything But.” What the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, which is one of the largest senior groups in America, well understands is that there are people out there who want to destroy Social Security. And one way to do that is to divert funds into the Social Security trust fund and they don’t get there.

On the need to repair our nation’s infrastructure:

You can turn your back, if you are a mayor or Governor, on the roads and the highways because you do not have the money to fix them today, but they are not going to get better next year. At some point, they are going to have to be repaired and fixed. We may as well do that right now.

So I believe the money, the very substantial sums of money in this agreement between the President and the Republicans, which goes into tax breaks for corporate America, could be effectively spent on infrastructure.

According to the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, $225 billion is needed annually for the next 50 years to upgrade our surface transportation system to a state of good repair and create a more advanced system. The Federal Highway Administration reports that $130 billion must be invested annually for a 20-year period to improve our bridges and the operational performance of our highways. At present, one in four of the Nation’s bridges is either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. One in four of our bridges is either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Yet in this agreement struck by the President and the Republican leadership, to the best of my knowledge, not one nickel is going into our infrastructure. We need to invest in our infrastructure. We need to improve our infrastructure. When we do that, we can create millions of jobs.

On economic justice and the Republican goal:

The passage of this agreement would mean we would continue the Bush policy of trickle-down economics for at least 2 more years. That is not a good thing to do because, I think, as most Americans know, that philosophy, that economic approach, simply did not work. The evidence is quite overwhelming. I do not think there is much debate, when median family income during Bush’s 8 years goes down by $2,200, when we end up losing over 600,000 private sector jobs, and all of the job growth was in the Federal level, I do not see how anybody would want to continue that philosophy. But that, in essence, is what will happen if this agreement is passed.

During the Bush years, the wealthiest 400 Americans saw their incomes more than double. Do you really think that after seeing a doubling of their incomes under the Bush years, these people are in desperate need of another million-dollar-a-year tax break? In 2007, the 400 top income earners in this country made an average of $345 million in 1 year. That is a pretty piece of change. That is the average, $345 million. In terms of wealth, as opposed to income, the wealthiest 400 Americans saw an increase in their wealth of some $400 billion during the Bush years. Imagine that. During an 8-year period, the top 400 wealthiest people each saw an increase, on average, of $1 billion apiece. Together, these 400 families have a collective net of $1.27 trillion. Does anybody in America really believe these guys need another tax break so that our kids and our grandchildren can pay more in taxes because the national debt has gone up?

Let me also say there is no doubt in my mind what many – not all but many – of my Republican colleagues want to do; that is, they want to move this country back into the 1920s when essentially we had an economic and political system which was controlled by big money interests; where working people and the middle class had no programs to sustain them when things got bad, when they got old, and when they got sick; when labor unions were very hard to come by because of anti-worker legislation. That is what they want. They do not believe in things like the Environmental Protection Agency. They do not believe in things like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Federal aid to education. That is the fight we will be waging.

This point cannot be made strongly enough: What our Republican friends want to do – and they have been pretty honest and up front about it, especially some of the extreme, rightwing people who have been running for office and, in some cases, have won – they have been honest enough to say they want to bring this country back to where we were in the 1920s. Their ultimate aim is the basic repeal of almost all of the provisions that have been passed in the last 70 years to protect working people, the elderly, and children. They believe in a Darwinian-style society in which you have the survival of the fittest; that we are not a society which comes together to take care of all of us. You take care of me in need and I take care of you and your family; that we are one people.

On Bush’s adventure in Iraq:

In terms of the Federal budget, when President Bush first took office, he inherited a $236 billion surplus in 2001 and a projected 10-year surplus of $5.6 trillion. That is what Senator Landrieu was discussing. But then some things happened. We all know that 9/11 was not his fault, but what happened is, we went to war in Afghanistan. We went to war in Iraq. The war in Iraq was the fault of President Bush, something I certainly did not support, nor do I think most Americans supported. The war in Iraq, by the time our last veteran is taken care of, will probably end up costing us something like $3 trillion, adding enormously to our national debt.

So when we talk about Iraq, it is not only the terrible loss of life that our soldiers and the Iraqi people have experienced, let’s not forget what it has done to the deficit and the national debt. We did not pay for the war in Iraq. We just put it on the credit card.

On the distribution of wealth in America:

In America today – we don’t talk about this too much, but it is time we did – we have the most unequal distribution of wealth and income in the industrialized world. I haven’t heard too many people talk about that issue. Why not? Our Republican colleagues want huge tax breaks for the richest people, but the reality is the top 1 percent already today owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. How much more do they want? When is enough enough? Do they want it all? We already have millions of families today who have zero wealth. They owe more than they own. Millions of families have below zero wealth. We are living in a situation where the top 1 percent owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. The top 1 percent owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. That is simply unacceptable.

On the Federal Reserve Bank and the Wall Street bailout:

After years of stonewalling, the American people have learned the incredible, jaw-dropping details of the Fed’s multimillion-dollar bailout of Wall Street and corporate America – not just Wall Street. It is one of the things we learned. As a result of this disclosure, in my view – we are going to get into what was in what we learned–Congress has to take a very extensive look at all aspects of how the Federal Reserve functions and how we can make our financial institutions more responsive to the needs of ordinary Americans and small businesses.

Then, on top of that, a number of the wealthiest individuals in this country also received a major bailout from the Fed. The “emergency response,” which is what the Fed described their action as during the Wall Street collapse, appears to any objective observer to have been the clearest case that I can imagine of socialism for the very rich and rugged free market capitalism for everybody else.

On U.S. alternative energy policy:

The royal family of Saudi Arabia, which is our major source of oil, is doing just fine. Don’t worry about the royal family of Saudi Arabia. They have zillions and zillions of dollars. Maybe it is a good idea that we seek energy independence, that we break our dependence on fossil fuel, and become more energy efficient, which, by the way, investing in public transportation certainly will do, and we move to sustainable energy, such as wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass. Guess what. China is doing that. Many of the solar panels coming into this country are not made in the United States but are made in China. They are big into wind turbines.

When we talk about our good friends in the oil industry – and I am not here to make a long speech about BP and what they have done in Louisiana, et cetera. I want everybody to know this. I will get into this at greater length later. Last year, our friends at ExxonMobil – and ExxonMobil has historically been the most profitable corporation in the history of the world. Last year, ExxonMobil had, for them, a very bad year. They only made $19 billion in profit. Based on $19 billion, you might be surprised to know ExxonMobil not only paid nothing in taxes, they got a $156 million return from the IRS. How is that? For those of you who are working in an office, working in a factory, earning your $30,000, $40,000, $50,000, $60,000 a year, you pay taxes.

But if you are ExxonMobil, and you made $19 billion in profits last year, not only did you not pay any taxes this year, you got $156 million in return.

On the need for grassroots action:

I am an independent progressive. I can tell my colleagues in the last 3 days my office has received probably close to 3,000 phone calls, 98 percent of them against this agreement, probably higher than 98 percent, and a huge number of e-mails also overwhelmingly against this agreement. I suspect – I don’t know it for a fact – that this is the kind of message the American people are sending us all over America. But they have to continue to do so. They have to make it clear so we can win over at least a handful of Republicans and some wavering Democrats and say: Wait a second. We are not going to hold hostage extending middle-class tax breaks in order to give tax breaks to billionaires. We will not hold hostage extending unemployment for workers who have lost their jobs by giving tax breaks to people who don’t need it.

If the American people give voice to what they are feeling, that this is not a good agreement, that we can do a lot better, I think we can defeat this proposal, and we can come back with a much better proposal which protects the unemployed, extends unemployment benefits, protects the middle class, extends the Bush tax cuts for 98 percent of the population, and protects a lot of important programs, making college more affordable, making childcare more affordable, and helping us transform our energy system.

On greed and sharing:

Greed, in my view, is like a sickness. It is like an addiction. We know people who are on heroin. They can’t stop. They destroy their lives. They need more and more heroin. There are people who can’t stop smoking. They have problems with nicotine. They get addicted to cigarettes. It costs them their health. People have problems with food. We all have our share of addictions. But I would hope that these people who are worth hundreds of millions of dollars will look around them and say: There is something more important in life than the richest people becoming richer when we have the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world. Maybe they will understand that they are Americans, part of a great nation which is in trouble today. Maybe they have to go back to the Bible, whatever they believe in, and understand there is virtue in sharing, in reaching out; that you can’t get it all.

On Teddy Roosevelt and trust-busting:

In my view, if we are serious about understanding why the middle class is collapsing, if we are serious about getting this economy moving again long term, we have to have the courage to do exactly what Teddy Roosevelt did back in the trust-busting days and break up these banks. The point Roosevelt was making was, it is bad for the economy when a handful of entities control industry after industry. They have a stranglehold on the economy. You have to break them up. Yet I have heard very little discussion – I know there was an amendment from Sherrod Brown and Ted Kaufman, and I introduced legislation on this issue to start breaking them up. But, frankly, their lobbyists and their money are such that it becomes very difficult to do that. But that is exactly what we should be doing.

And finally:

Let me conclude. It has been a long day. Let me simply say I believe the proposal that was developed by the President and the Republicans is nowhere near as good as we can achieve. I don’t know that we are able ourselves to get the handful of Republicans we need to say no to this agreement. I do believe that if the American people stand – by the way, it may not just be Republicans. There may be some Democrats as well. If the American people stand and say: We can do better than this; we don’t need to drive up the national debt by giving tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires, that if the American people are prepared to stand and we are prepared to follow them, I think we can defeat this proposal and come up with a better proposal which reflects the needs of working-class and middle-class families of our country and, to me, most importantly, the children of our country.

With that, I yield the floor.

If what you’ve heard from Bernie doesn’t make you angry, you’d better take your pulse. If it does, think about what you can do to make things better for the 90 percent of us who live beyond the economy, who aren’t touched by joblessness or the fear of it, whose income hasn’t increased in real terms in a couple of gnerations, and whose children have scant hope of living as well as we do, let alone better.

We owe Bernie Sanders a ton of gratitude and it’s up to us to see that he doesn’t stand alone.

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2 Responses to “This is What a Socialist Sounds Like”

  1. I’m a little concerned that people on the left might not understand socialism that well.  Sanders is *not* a socialist because he’s got principles, and they involve a commitment to social and economic justice.  Nearly anybody can claim the same thing.  Sanders is a socialist because he believes what socialists (well, DSA) believes (me too), including stuff around popular control of markets – socialism through small-d democratic means (which necessarily includes an anti-Communist position).

    My feeling is that if you like what he said you might want to take a closer look at the Democratic Socialists of America, but I think the bottom line is that socialism is not simply an unwavering commitment to principle or concern for those who have the least.

  2. Of course you’re right, Melinda. I was being rhetorical, and I guess I overdid it. Thanks for setting me straight — and for the reference to DSA, which I should have provided.

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