The following is a December 1, 1987 interview with then-mayor Bernie Sanders by the Gadfly, a University of Vermont (UVM) student newspaper. It is reproduced for the first time here in full with addition of relevant hyperlinks, images, and video.
Gadfly: How did you in your youth view electoral politics, both on a national and on a local level?
Sanders: I don’t think any differently than anybody else in my family, my family was a reasonably non-political family. So the issue: electoral/non-electoral was not relevant. When I was a kid, I think I was reasonably sensitive to the plight of the underdog. Both within the context of classrooms as well as nationally: Black people, Native Americans, these sorts of issues.
Gadfly: When you ran for student body president in high school, did you view yourself as a serious contender or were you running for some of the same reasons you espoused later with Liberty Union, as a gadfly of sorts?
Sanders: I was a child then! … No, interestingly enough, in running … (and I did not win); in running I was serious.
Gadfly: When you turned 21 did you vote?
Sanders: Actually, I didn’t. Politics interested me in the sense of basic social issues such as social justice, poverty, the condition of Black people or war and peace issues, but I would say, I certainly did not gravitate towards electoral politics. I think probably, I won’t swear to it, that the first time I voted was in the state of Vermont, probably for myself.
Gadfly: When you were involved in politics in college, the civil rights movement, etc. did these activities complement a commitment to change within the existing system or were you already committed to radical change through other channels?
Sanders: When I went away to college, I did knot a whole lot about politics. I was not particularly widely read. And in fact it was at the University of Chicago where I began my political education by reading rather carnivorously, everything I could get my hands on: psychology, political science, history, etc. etc. That is where I developed my political background. I did not learn a whole lot in classes at the University of Chicago; that’s not very unusual is it?
But I did learn a whole lot off campus. The Hyde Park campus, had a long tradition of progressive activity. There were people who were communists, there were people there in the civil rights movement, and there was a group called the Student Peace Union, which you would have never heard of I am sure. This group began at the University of Chicago, and went on to become a national movement of some degree. And also the Congress On Racial Equality (CORE), an older organization, developed a chapter at the University of Chicago, which became one of the more active northern civil rights organizations. The campus chapter worked with Black groups in the city of Chicago.
And so at that point, what was important to me, to my education, was in a sense, going from, if you like, liberalism to radicalism. What I learned at that time, finally, was that all of these issues: nuclear proliferation, war and peace, civil rights, and environmental issues are related. They are not separate issues. And that you have to ask yourself questions such as: who owns the country? Who in fact develops the policies that we fight?
President Kennedy was elected while I was the University of Chicago, that was 1960. I remember being physically nauseated by his speech and that doesn’t happen very often. He debated Nixon on Cuba. And their hatred for the Cuban revolution, both of them, was so strong. Kennedy was young and appealing and ostensibly liberal, but I think at that point, seeing through Kennedy, and what liberalism was, was probably a significant step for me to understand what conventional politics or liberalism was not what was relevant.
Gadfly: From there you spent time on an Israeli kibbutz, after you graduated.
Sanders: Yes, after I graduated, my wife and I went to Europe and to Israel and we spent some months on a kibbutz.
Gadfly: Did that affect your political views in terms of governing systems or was it mainly an experiencing of alternative lifestyles or alternative types of societies?
Sanders: What I learned, a long time ago, about 1964, is that, in fact, you could have a community in which the people themselves actually owned the community. Seeing that type of relationship exist and the fact that these units in the kibbutz were working well economically, made a strong impact on me. I learned that in a small way, you had an economic unit that educated its kids well, where there were no “bosses” and there were no “workers,” and that was very democracy. Women were in a much better position there than they were in the U.S. at that time. It was not unusual for women there to be in leadership positions.
It was a precedent from a social point of view. I saw people there 40, 50, or 60 years of age, who were very alert intellectually. They had discussions, they were part of the socialist movement in Israel, people wrote for newspapers, debate, thought. So the level of consciousness was pretty impressive. So I would say that if I would compare the quality of life that I saw on that kibbutz, compared to the quality of life that I would see in the neighborhood that I grew up in in Brooklyn, it was significantly superior on the kibbutz.
In terms of what I learned, people looked younger, they were in better physical condition, they were in better mental condition, they had a sense of purpose, they were striving for something. It was not unimpressive.
Gadfly: How did you become involved in the Liberty Union Party?
Sanders: What happened was when Senator Winston Prouty died, and as a result there was a special election held in the end of 1971. I ran against Robert Stafford, who was then in Congress, on the Liberty Union ticket for U.S. Senate. Then in November 1972 there was a regular election in which I ran for Governor.
Gadfly: Why did you join Liberty Union party?
Sanders: Essentially because of Jim Raider, a good friend of mine who is now our City Clerk. Jim knew some people who were involved in Liberty Union and asked me if I wanted to go to their convention with him at Goddard. So I went down there, and because I am a slightly crazy human being, I decided to declare myself a candidate. There were about 40 people in the room and they announced that they had to stand candidates for the special election. Nobody even knew me, with the exception of Jim, but I went up there, and I gave a speech. That is how I became a candidate for the Liberty Union party.
Now what happened, of course is that after I ran for the Senate, then for Governor, I eventually became chairperson of the Liberty Union. I’m very proud, in fact, that Liberty Union still exists today. I think it’s a very different type of party than it was then. But what Liberty Union did was to use the electoral process and other areas, such as utility rates, to educate people and organize people.
From that point on, in every single place, people would hear not only from a Democrat or a Republican, but hear from progressives as well. We had some really outstanding candidates: Michael Parenti, Nancy Coffman, Martha Abbott, someone from the trade unions ran for Lt. Governor, etc. We had a number of articulate and bright people who could use the debate formats, radio, television and newspapers, to offer the people of the state of Vermont an alternative vision. The early years had focused primarily on the opposition to the war in Viet-Nam, and a need for radical changes in the economic structure of the country.
When people ask me how I became mayor [of Burlington], I stress that the election in 1981 was preceded by over 10 years of very hard work on the parts of a lot of people in this state to educate the public not only political, social, and economic issues but about the fact that there was an alternative to the Democratic and Republican parties. And that third-party tradition has gone on in the state of Vermont for 20 years. The people of Vermont have 20 years of knowing there is an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans. The people who founded Liberty Union in the late sixties deserve a lot of credit, they were a small group of people and they did a good job.
Gadfly: Todd Manley of the Liberty Union said that, “The Liberty Union does not believe electoral politics offers a real chance of solving Vermont’s or America’s fundamental problems, but we do see electoral work in Vermont as a legitimate course of action for serious work.” Did you endorse this view that it was to raise awareness, to educate and not to win electoral office?
Sanders: Well, when you run for office and people ask are you running to win, the answer is of course you are running to win. Would reject it if you won more votes than your opponent? No, of course not.
However, when you understand that you are going to be outspent by 100 to 1, you realize it’s a long shot. I think what Todd was saying was that nobody in Liberty Union, nobody that I know now in the progressive movement, thinks that electoral politics is the only answer. One has to be an idiot to believe that.
There is no way. Not to use electoral politics in this country as a means to educate people, for example, to use the opportunity of challenging the Democratic or Republican opponents, to use the newspapers… is absolutely stupid.
On the other hand, if someone says, “I believe in electoral politics, but I don’t believe in building a mass movement and a grassroots movement to deal with the basic social conflicts that exist in this country, well, you gotta be crazy not to understand the importance of that.”
You move in every direction you can move in.
For example, and I throw this out hypothetically: do I think that in the great scheme of things, it is terribly important who becomes student council president of the University of Vermont? Obviously in one sense it doesn’t, the issues student council presidents weal with are not the burning issues of our time. However, if a serious group of students at UVM wanted to compete in that arena and won the presidency and then used that office to make radical demands on the University of Vermont, as to what kind of University it could be, I think that would be a fine effort. Is that the only thing they should do? No.
So I guess the answer to electoral or non-electoral, is that nobody has convinced me that it is not sensible to enter that arena if you can educate people, if you can show up the contradictions of the system, if you have the opportunity to debate Democrats and Republicans. This media is very tightly controlled in the United States. It is very hard to get out an alternative point of view. The electoral system is one means which one can do that. Occasionally, very rarely, a progressive will win.
In the United States Today, we believe we are the only third party in office in the entire country. It doesn’t happen every day. Was it good or was it bad that we won? I think history will show, what the accomplishments of the last six years will show is that in many areas it was important that we won. Not only for the specific concrete achievements we brought about which improved the lives of people, but as a means to use the forum of mayor or board of Alderman to educate people. We get involved, talk about national issues, state-wide issues, we are now talking about health care. In my view, because of the issues we have raised here in Burlington on health care these will be important issues that the state governor and the Vermont State Legislature will have to deal with. We need a national health program in the United States. We are talking about that, uniquely now. People are going to start picking that up. If I were not mayor of the city of Burlington, we could not do that.
The state of Vermont now has three Congresspeople, all of whom are voting against contra aid. My guess is that the people of Vermont by a pretty strong vote would be against contra aid. That did not happen in a vacuum, I think that happened because many people in the state of Vermont, including myself for the last five years, have spoken out on that issue. We use this office not only to deal with the day-to-day problems that we have to deal with, and I think we do a pretty good job on that, but we use it also as an educational forum to talk about why things are the way they are.
Gadfly: Some would say that while it may be effective to work in electoral politics on a local level either for example, in student government or in the Mayor’s office, on other levels, such as within national politics, electoral politics is not effective.
Sanders: That is a valid point. These are very difficult questions and I have to tell you at the start I don’t have all the answers. But I am not sympathetic to people who think they do have all the answers.
To give you an example, is Jesse Jackson’s presence good or bad? I think you would have to be crazy not to understand that Jackson has had an important impact on the American political scene. I am not a member of the Rainbow Coalition I am a member of the Progressive Coalition. I do not agree with Jesse Jackson on all of his issues by any means and I disagree with working within the Democratic Party, okay? But when you have a person who commands a national audience, talking about Nicaragua, talking about the basic inequities which exist in our country, talking about environmental protection or the progressive point of view and communicating to millions of people … Is this important, or is this not important? I think it’s important. But it is simpler, no question about it, dealing on a local level.
I am not a great fan of the situation in the left today. The left is not in particularly good shape in America — obviously and it goes without saying — and it hasn’t been for many, many years. And one of the things that amuses me is that half the people on the left spend all their time criticizing the other half of the people on the left and they are all sure they have the magic way in their particular movement to solve all of the problems of the world. I disagree very strongly with that and I try to function and our movement tries to function in as non-sectarian way as we can.
One of the areas that the left in my view, has not paid enough attention to, is the whole concept of local government. I am disappointed that after being mayor of this city for seven years, still as I look around the state of Vermont, I do not see a movement in any other community in this state. And I can not tell you what that is so. I can’t tell you why in Brattleboro or in South Burlington, there has not been a greater grassroots movement to involve people in local politics. What we have done here in Burlington among other things is double the voter turnout. Twice as many people now vote in local elections as did before I became mayor. I would love to see that type of movement spread out. I would like to see local government become strong in the state of Vermont because local government is a manageable level. People can be involved. We try and involve people in the process and we are a city of 40,000. You have a city of 2,000, you can involve people, people can serve on the board of select persons. And we have not done enough of that.
Gadfly: Perhaps I should not bring up [anarchist] Murray Bookchin as he is frequently accused of being a left-basher, yet he suggested a couple of weeks ago that perhaps because of the fact that you were elected there are not more people involved in Burlington politics.
Sanders: Let me tell you the danger of that argument. It smacks of the argument that took place in the late twenties and the early thirties, in Germany. Communists were saying, “it is better Hitler than the socialists [win] because now the air is clear and we know which side we are on.” There are those people who hold that type of a view.
Here we have doubled the voter turnout in the city of Burlington, we have involved significant numbers of people, this is clearly the most political conscious city in the state of Vermont, by many, many times. We have increased the voter turnout, we have educated people about political issues, there are real debates, we have started neighborhood planning assemblies. Are we perfect? No. But compare us to who? So to say that it is too bad that they got elected, doubled the voter turnout, significantly increased voter turnout because if they had not got elected by God then… what would have happened? Well, I don’t know what would have happened. But that is the argument that says it is better for bad people to be in office than it is for good people to be in office and I don’t accept that.
Gadfly: Another goal of the Liberty Union Party spoken about by Todd Manley was towards building a radical party with revolutionary aims instead of reinforcing the reformist Democratic Party. Could you define those revolutionary aims?
Sanders: Flaming rhetoric Todd used! It is hard for me to go back 16 years. But I am pretty sure I know what he was talking about. What we were saying then, I say we but we were different people and I don’t speak for everyone, is that from an economic point of view to start with, this nation has the resources to provide a decent standard of living for every man, woman, and child. Poverty, racism, sexism, could be eliminated. I can’t fly to the moon – it would be silly for me to say that I could – but you can have a society where people have decent housing, decent income, decent health care, and decent educational opportunities where you can have people controlling their lives rather than working for other people.
Fewer people now control the system than ever before. It is not like the rise of the gigantic corporations but you are seeing through the control of the media … we used to have lots of media, well now you don’t. Increasingly you have CBS, NBC, ABC, few people with the power, other people become docile and follow instructions whether they are workers, TV consumers, or consumers in general. So I think what Todd was referring to is democracy. Democracy is pretty revolutionary. What democracy means to the greatest extent possible is that people have the right to control their own lives. And again, nobody but an idiot has a blueprint of how you bring that about in a country of 230 million people in a highly complex economy. We do know a direction in which we should be moving. Democracy means public ownership of the major means of production, it means decentralization, in means involving people in their work. Rather than having bosses and workers, it means having democratic control over the factories and shops to as great a degree as you can. It means people actually participating in the political life of their country rather than sitting back and listening to 30-second TV ads as a basis for electing their government.
This was what Todd was talking about, that we can fundamentally remake the society to make it a just society. And certainly that capitalism as an economic system has got to be radically altered and changed. And we have to move into a new type of economic relationship for that to come about.
Gadfly: Are third-party candidates tolerated within the current political system? What would be the reaction of the ruling elites nationwide if the Liberty Union or any other third party’s goals were taken up by Vermonters?
Sanders: It is difficult. For example, taxation. We believe in progressive taxation. The legislature has refused. Why? The legislature gives cockamamie reasons. If we broke [Burlington’s] dependence on property taxes, we would be an example. We attempted a couple of years back to change, to restructure electric rates. We were shot down. I ran for governor so that Vermont could set an example. Vermont could set an example to the rest of the nation similar to the type of example Nicaragua is setting for the rest of Latin America. And yes, the Reagan administration would be concerned.
Gadfly: To get back to the Liberty Union party, why did you leave L.U.?
Sanders: The L.U. was successful to a certain extent in educating people but were not successful in bringing together large numbers of people. That’s basically it.
Gadfly: What does it do to you to morally to have to take positions that oppose those that you believe in? For example, not being able to take a strong stand on General Electric’s (GE) production of the Vulcan mini-gun, an issue that began in 1983, your decision to back [Democrats] Mondale/Feraro [for president/vice-president] in 1984 or the current decision to remove the homeless encampments from City Hall Park?
Sanders: First of all to begin with the issue of the homeless, I get very upset when people make these accusations. Would [Democratic governor] Madeline Kunin have removed them from the lawn of the State House? No. Because Kunin would never have let them be there in the first place. While Burlington has not resolved the situation of the homeless, it has not been for lack of effort. Within the last three years, Burlington has spent more than $450,000 on a program for the hungry and homeless.
The issue of GE is a good example of where my politics differ with those of some of the left or peace movement. My concern with what is going on at GE is that I don’t believe that the closing down of the GE plant here in Burlington and the throwing of 2,000 people out of work and the replacement of that plant in the south with non-union labor is going to be a very positive development in terms of building an anti-war movement. In fact, the result would be that you have 2,000 very bitter people who in fact would probably swing to the right and believe that the peace movement is out to destroy their economic existence. Yet their kids are the ones who can’t afford housing. Those workers know that their kids are the ones who are going to get killed in the jungles of Nicaragua. It’s not going to be the college kids who are going to go. Think about it. They know what the issues are. Around all of the issues, philosophically and ideologically they are opposed to Reaganism. So I get very discouraged when as a result of people pointing the finger of guilt at them, they suddenly become pro-Reagan because they see a segment of this city or this society threatening [sic] them with their job existence.
The way to stop the war machine is to change the government. I think people lose sigh of what the real issue is. The real issue is power: who has it? Who is using it? And what we know is, of course that is not discussed. How many demonstrations take place in front of the banks, in front of the television stations? That is where power really is, with people who have money. 2% of the population controls one-third of the wealth in this country. They will determine whether we have affordable housing, they buy and sell candidates, Democrats and Republicans, they own the media, they own the Burlington Free Press.
The issue is not to me all of the good causes; there are thousands of good causes out there from save the whales on up. And they are all right, and they are all good. What has got to develop is a mass movement, which seeks to change the control of the economy from the billionaires, from corporate executives, from banks from large corporations, to a democratic-type of society.
Gadfly: I think a lot of people are starting to understand that now but in order to protest the whole system you do have to raise awareness on specific issues. How do you raise issues of militarism without bringing up GE and how do you bring up the issue of GE without alienating workers?
Sanders: I think you need to do several things. The last rally held, the moratorium did very well, the literature was exactly right. You know how you do it? You say to the people:
“The reason your property taxes are so high, the reason you can’t afford health care, the reason that your streets are not paved, the reason your kids are not getting the quality of education they deserve, is because of all your Goddamn tax dollars are going to kill the people of Nicaragua.”
That is the contrast you make.
Another issue you have to talk about is that there are millions of workers who are scared to death of peace. They are afraid of losing their jobs. So what you need right now is a massive effort on the part of federal government to convert the weapons factories the whole armaments industry into peaceful production. It is not easy but that is the task which has to be undertaken so the workers will understand. The average worker here would just as soon be producing refrigerators as guns if the wages were the same and we have got to do that.
Gadfly: How do you counter the argument that by participating in electoral politics you are legitimizing the system?
Sanders: You used the example before about my campaigning for Mondale which in fact was a very difficult thing to do. So do you know what you do? When I’d go around talking about Walter Mondale, I would say that if elected president, I felt, Walter Mondale was going to be a pretty bad president. But I was doing this because I am concerned about nuclear war and I am concerned about the destruction of the people of Nicaragua. And that is why at that moment I explained that I thought Mondale would be superior to Reagan. Of course you are honest with people! Now, sometimes you may have to make painful decisions. If you go around saying that Mondale people would be a great president, you would be a liar and a hypocrite. That is not what I was saying. Now there has been terrible pain and suffering in Nicaragua; with Mondale, would it have been any different? Who can say?
Being a mayor is very very difficult. It is especially hard because it is in the cities and towns of America where the problems manifest themselves. But on the other hand, the cities and towns do not have the tools, the financial resources to deal with these problems. The governor announced the other day that she has a $25 million surplus because she has a dozen broad-based taxes. We have the goddamned property tax which is a regressive way to raise revenue. So we have the problems and they have the revenues. The people look to city hall and they say, “my God, there is problem three blocks away, do something about it.”
So to conclude: I am very proud of what this city has done in a wide variety of efforts. We have made progress not only in cleaning up the Lake [Champlain], but in opening up the lakefront to people of all different parts of the town. There is the bicycle path, we have increased park facilities, we have worked on zoning which is going to discourage poor development. I am proud of many of the things that we have done. It is too easy to say “all of that is irrelevant, we know what the issues are.” The real truth is that you have to spread it out every single day and do the best that you can, raise peoples consciousness, educate people to what are the basic causes of social problems.
It is not easy.
I said before, you are up against a system which is spending tens of billions of dollars to lie and to obfuscate what the real issues are.