Bernie Sanders says he is "prepared to run for president of the United States." That's not a formal announcement. A lot can change between now and 2016, and the populist senator from Vermont bristles at the whole notion of a permanent campaign. But Sanders has begun talking with savvy progressive political strategists, traveling to unexpected locations such as Alabama and entertaining the process questions that this most issue-focused member of the Senate has traditionally avoided.
In some senses, Sanders is the unlikeliest of prospects: an independent who caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate but has never joined the party, a democratic socialist in a country where many politicians fear the label "liberal," an outspoken critic of the economic, environmental and social status quo who rips "the ruling class" and calls out the Koch brothers by name. Yet, he has served as the mayor of his state's largest city, beaten a Republican incumbent for the US House, won and held a historically Republican Senate seat and served longer as an independent member of Congress than anyone else. And he says his political instincts tell him America is ready for a "political revolution."
In his first extended conversation about presidential politics, Sanders discussed with The Nation the economic and environmental concerns that have led him to consider a 2016 run; the difficult question of whether to run as a Democrat or an independent; his frustration with the narrow messaging of prominent Democrats, including Hillary Clinton; and his sense that political and media elites are missing the signs that America is headed toward a critical juncture where electoral expectations could be exploded.
John Nichols : Are you going to run for president in 2016?
Bernie Sanders : I don't wake up every morning, as some people here in Washington do and say, "You know, I really have to be president of the United States. I was born to be president of the United States." What I do wake up every morning feeling is that this country faces more serious problems than at any time since the Great Depression, and there is a horrendous lack of serious political discourse or ideas out there that can address these crises, and that somebody has got to represent the working-class and the middle-class of this country in standing up to the big-money interests who have so much power over the economic and political life of this country. So I am prepared to run for president of the United States. I don't believe that I am the only person out there who can fight this fight, but I am certainly prepared to look seriously at that race.
When you say you are "prepared to run," that can be read in two ways. One is to say you have the credentials, the prominence, the following to seek the office. The other is to say that you are making preparations for a run. How do you parse that?
If the question is, am I actively right now organizing and raising money and so forth for a campaign for president, I am not doing that. On the other hand, am I talking to people around the country? Yes, I am. Will I be doing some traveling around the country? Yes, I will be. But I think it's premature to be talking about (the specifics of) a campaign when we still have a 2014 congressional race in front of us.
I want to push back at some of what you are saying. Political insiders define presidential politics, and they are already hard at work, in both major parties and in the broader sense, to erect barriers to insurgent, dissident, populist campaigns. Don't progressives who come at the process slowly run the risk of finding that everything has been locked up by the time they get serious about running?
Obviously, if I run, both in terms of the positions that I'll be advocating, and the process itself, it will have to be a very unconventional campaign. I hear what you are saying, and I think there is truth in what you are saying. But, on the other hand, I think there is profound disgust among the American people for the conventional political process and the never-ending campaigns. If I run, my job is to help bring together the kind of coalition that can win--that can transform politics. We've got to bring together trade unionists and working families, our minority communities, environmentalists, young people, the women's community, the gay community, seniors, veterans, the people who in fact are the vast majority of the American population. We've got to create a progressive agenda and rally people around that agenda.
I think we've got a message that can resonate, that people want to hear, that people need to hear. Time is very important. But I don't think it makes sense--or that it is necessary--to start a campaign this early.
If and when you do start a full-fledged campaign, and if you want to run against conventional politics, how far do you go? Do you go to the point of running as an independent? That's a great challenge to conventional politics, but it is also one where we have seen some honorable, some capable people stumble.
That's an excellent question, and I haven't reached a conclusion on that yet. Clearly, there are things to be said on both sides of that important question. Number one: there is today more and more alienation from the Republican and Democratic parties than we have seen in the modern history of this country. In fact, most people now consider themselves to be "independent," whatever that may mean. And the number of people who identify as Democrats or Republicans is at a historically low point. In that sense, running outside the two-party system can be a positive politically.
On the other hand, given the nature of the political system, given the nature of media in America, it would be much more difficult to get adequate coverage from the mainstream media running outside of the two-party system. It would certainly be very hard if not impossible to get into debates. It would require building an entire political infrastructure outside of the two-party system: to get on the ballot, to do all the things that would be required for a serious campaign.
The question that you asked is extremely important, it requires a whole lot of discussion. It's one that I have not answered yet.
Unspoken in your answer is the fact that you have a great discomfort with the Democratic Party as it has operated in recent decades.