There’s been a lot of talk that Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont will run for President in 2015-’16, but last night’s speech at Pullen Church in Raleigh before a friendly crowd of a few hundred people was all about policy. Sanders, a self-described Democratic Socialist who will turn 72 in a couple of weeks, devoted the lion’s share of his talk to lambasting the nation’s exploding economic inequality and the people (the Koch Brothers and their fellow plutocrats) and the policies (the demise of campaign finance laws, regressive tax laws) that he believes are behind it.
Sanders highlighted the nation’s dramatic rightward policy shift over recent decades by reading at length from the 1980 national Libertarian Party platform under which David Koch was a candidate for Vice President. The senator then explained how many of the once-radical right policies that Koch had advanced at that time (e.g. the demise of the social safety net, the end of campaign finance regulations) were now considered mainstream conservative values.
Sanders also took partial credit for recent successful efforts of a broad coalition of progressives at the national level in beating back “entitlement reform” which he described as code words for slashing Medicare, Medicaid, federal education spending and veteran’s benefits.
Before taking several questions from the audience at the end of his talk, Sanders drew chuckles when he admitted that the long list of problems detailed in his speech was rather sobering and that they might drive those paying attention to want to take “anti-depressants.”
Daunting, however, as the current situation is, Sanders said, there is still plenty of hope for rapid change in the country. As evidence, he cited the rapid and progressive changes in American attitudes on numerous social issues — including LGBT rights and race relations (where, he said, despite the significant problems, huge progress has been made in recent decades). The challenge, he said, was to muster the same kind of progressive attitude shifts on economic policy — a feat that he admitted would be the biggest and most difficult one yet accomplished.
The evening began and ended with standing ovations from the audience. It will be fascinating in the months ahead to see whether such an unlikely figure as Sanders can actually help rouse the nation’s mostly somnambulant progressive movement.