Between the Lines – Bernie Sanders’ appearance at the Hay Festival

By Campaign Agent Luke Walpole

Though Bernie Sanders spoke at the Hay Festival last week, it seems apt to view what he was saying in the light of last Thursday’s General Election. Of Jeremy Corbyn, and the Labour Party en masse, Senator Sanders applauded the leader’s attempt to “revitalise democracy” and to “make Labour a grass roots party.” Indeed, the parallels between Corbyn and Sanders are plain to see. Both lean naturally to the left, and both see the issues with wage inequality throughout the world. 

True, also, is that until recently, both were stranded in the margins of political discourse. Corbyn the truculent back-bencher, and Sanders the shrewd independent Senator from Vermont.
To see these men, and the movements they represent, as the counter-point to right-wing populism is tempting. Whilst the keynote advents of Brexit and Trump suggested that the right was ‘winning’, we may look to the General Election as a slight re-balancing of this scale. Make no mistake, Corbyn et al didn’t ‘win’ the election, but they certainly changed the political weather. So too in America. Though Hillary Clinton took the nomination, it is Sanders’ wing of the party which is providing much-needed vitality to the Democrat Party.

Sanders’ talk naturally hinged on an attack of Trump and his ailing tenure. Speaking of the President’s decision to ditch the Paris Climate Change Agreement, Sanders was adamant. It was “incredibly stupid”, “incredibly backwards” and will “hurt the US and hurt the entire world.” This conclusion is unsurprising, given Sanders’ dedication to tackling climate change. Yet this criticism fitted into a broader attack on Trump’s unilateralism.

“What Donald Trump doesn’t understand is the need for international solidarity,” began Sanders, before surmising that “If he thinks the US can go it alone, he is not speaking for the vast majority of the American people.” Put simply, regarding climate change and terrorism in particular, “we need to work together.”

Throughout his talk, Sanders worked himself up into a controlled rage. Trump’s campaign was “a lie”, his Executive Order banning immigration from selective Muslim countries was “disastrous and ugly.” More brutal was the Senator’s conclusion that the President had shown a “deep disrespect for democracy, for tolerance, and for American institutions.” Whilst many politicians were prone to being flexible with the truth, Trump is a “pathological liar.”

Sanders continued. Though “the job of any leader is to bring people together,” Trump was responsible for an “intentional and sinister desire to divide America up.” Clearly, there is no love lost between Sanders and Trump, but at least the Senator was able to partially explain his adversary’s rise. Though the post-Crash Obama-era had seen jobs increase and the economy heal, “many Americans were falling further and further behind in the global economy.” Trump told these people that he felt their pain, and offered change. You didn’t need to agree with Trump’s views on women, immigration or climate change, but his promise to put America first resonated.

Senator Sanders’ advocates a different remedy to these issues. The big banks need to be broken up, and replaced by a system which “works for the people.” The Democrat Party needs to mould itself into “a party for all of our people, and not just the 1%.” American needs to embrace progressivism, and to form coalitions which can tackle the base inequalities in society. Coming towards the end of his talk, Sanders rounded by stating that “we are in the majority, the racists and the oligarchy are in the minority. They have the money, but we have the people.” Much like his ire for Trump’s unilateral decision making, Sanders outlined the necessity of working together in order to achieve a more equal and just society.

Though this speech was thin on workable detail, the progressive future Sanders advocated was clearly popular. The applause which met the Senator upon arriving, and departing, was close to euphoric. The difficulty, as ever, will be making this wide-ranging and revolutionary platform palatable to a broad electorate. The splits in the Democrat Party are testament to these persistent issues, as the party struggles for a clear platform and a clear leader to rally behind. Back in 2008, Barack Obama appealed to a similar sense of hope to Sanders, and a desire for collective change. Yet the frustrations of the Obama administration perhaps provided a cautionary tale. Whether Sanders’, or indeed Corbyn’s, even more radical platform can be converted into tangible power is a question which will loom heavily over politics for years to come.

Image rights: Brookings Institute @ Flickr

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