WASHINGTON — Seattle may have just elected socialist Kshama Sawant to the City Council, but Congress has had a socialist for 23 years — Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Sanders, however, is hardly an ideological revolutionary in Sawant’s mold.
He rails against the “oligarchy” he believes has hijacked the nation’s political system and the economy. But raising the minimum wage immediately to $15 an hour, as Sawant aims to?
Sanders says the federal rate should be at least $10.10 an hour, and indexed to inflation.
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Sanders supports universal preschool and regards college education as a right, not a privilege for the fortunate few. But while Sawant’s Socialist Alternative party calls for free schooling starting from diaper age to undergraduate years, Sanders will go only as far as to say government can make education lot more affordable.
“That may not be radical enough for you, but that’s what I believe,” Sanders said during an interview this past week in his Dirksen Senate office.
Progressive winds from Seattle to New York City are blowing — or at least wafting — in Congress. At age 72, Sanders says he’s gratified to see the causes he’s long championed getting renewed attention.
Even conservative Republicans, including Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky, are laying out their anti-poverty agendas. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a fiscal hawk who wants to trim Medicare spending by giving seniors vouchers to buy their own coverage, recently proposed consolidating welfare programs to help boost “income mobility.”
Yet Sanders remains disenchanted with President Obama and others on the left he feels have failed to tackle the country’s most urgent problems with enough zeal: unemployment, a record number of poor Americans, global warming and skewed distribution of wealth, among others.
In November, Sanders threatened to enter the 2016 presidential race unless a strong liberal steps in. He’s still weighing a run, though more as goader than a would-be commander in chief.
“I don’t wake up in the morning saying, ‘My god, I have to be president,’ ” said Sanders, who has a vaguely disheveled air of a man whose hair won’t stay combed.
“There has been a class warfare waged in this country for many, many years. Unfortunately, the top 1 percent are winning that war.”
Sanders embodies the strong populist vein in Vermont, a small, homogeneous state that is moving to a single-payer health plan that will eliminate employer-provided insurance. He served four terms as mayor of Burlington, eight terms in the U.S. House and in 2012 won his second term in the Senate.
Officially, Sanders is an independent who caucuses with Democrats. He’s treated as a Democrat for all practical purposes, and inherited the chairmanship of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in December 2012 after Sen. Patty Murray jumped to take helm of the Budget Committee. But he calls himself a Scandinavian-style democratic socialist.
Sawant, by contrast, explicitly ran as a socialist for the nonpartisan Seattle City Council seat. Her Socialist Alternative party embraces more sweeping changes than Sanders endorses.
Those changes include turning over private corporations such as Starbucks and Amazon so they’re “publicly owned and democratically run,” said Philip Locker, a spokesman for the Socialist Alternative party and Sawant’s former political director.
Katherine Scott, assistant historian with the U.S. Senate Historical Office, said fringe political parties have rarely found welcome in Congress.
“Historically, the term socialist has carried with it a great deal of baggage in the United States,” she said.
Sanders is the longest-serving independent in congressional history and longest-serving third-party member in nearly 200 years. His independent streak is partly why the Capitol Hill publication National Journal rated Sanders as only the 32nd most-liberal Senate member in 2012.
In February 2012, for instance, Sanders joined five Democrats in voting against a successful measure to renew a payroll-tax holiday and to extend unemployment benefits. Sanders said he worried another reduction in Social Security withholding would jeopardize its trust fund.
On average, Sanders voted more liberally than 71 percent of his Senate colleagues. That’s well below 89 percent for Murray (No. 5) and 85 percent for Sen. Maria Cantwell (No. 11).
Maria Svart, national director for the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the nation’s largest socialist organization, said Sanders’ ideology largely mirrors that of her group. Common to their beliefs is that unchecked capitalism and its quest for private profits hurts societies.
The United States is wealthy enough, Svart said, that it could make colleges free for all if the people demanded it. And if that sets off a stampede for, say, Harvard, she said, “Why would that be any different from today” except more students would have a shot?
Mobilizing people behind such tectonic change, Svart said, will most likely happen at local or state levels, not in Congress. Svart said she would be open to collaborating with Sawant and other Socialist Alternative followers, even though they’re pushing for more radical changes more quickly than either the DSA or Sanders.
Sanders has read about Sawant’s victory, but otherwise knows little about her.
Sawant has electrified followers with her call for economic justice. Sanders, on the other hand, talks and talks, sometimes even when few are listening.
In December 2010, he commandeered the Senate floor for 8½ hours to inveigh against renewing the George Bush-era tax cuts. He counts as among his achievements the frequency with which he is listed in the Congressional Record speaking about children living in poverty, the menace of big banks, checkbook democracy and a host of ills he believes can be fixed if only people rise up.
“It’s important that these issues get a voice,” he said.
Sanders has positioned himself as a bulwark against even Democrats who might accept raising Medicare eligibility age or trimming Social Security benefits in the name of fiscal responsibility.
Locker, the Socialist Alternative spokesman, said his party would welcome a Sanders presidential candidacy. Even if Sanders doesn’t run as a socialist, Locker said, he could represent a genuine alternative to the Democrat-Republican duopoly.
Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @KyungMSong