Bernie Sanders Believes the Pandemic Makes the Case for Sweeping Reform

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All of a sudden, there is some genuinely good news about the coronavirus, visible at least in the medium distance: seemingly plateauing case numbers in “second wave” pandemic hot spots Florida, Texas, and Arizona; encouraging news from the most promising vaccine candidates; and early results suggesting a particular drug therapy, inhaled interferon beta, could reduce coronavirus mortality by as much as 79 percent.

But while it may look like the beginning of the end of the pandemic in some places, like Europe, where the coronavirus has been almost universally suppressed and in many ways life has already returned to normal — “Right now, Paris is a street party,” the Financial Times reported last week — in the United States, the road ahead is going to be much, much bumpier. As bad as things may have seemed here in the spring, when more than a thousand Americans were dying every day, and as bad as they appear now, where the country has again breached that gruesome threshold, the worst of the country’s suffering is almost certainly to come. That’s because, as horrifying as the state of the disease itself is — almost 180,000 dead, according to a new “excess mortality” calculation, with the best pandemic modelers suggesting almost 80,000 more will die before November — the size of the social and economic wound the coronavirus has left in the country is perhaps even bigger.

The official American unemployment rate is today 11%, though that is a misleadingly low number, with likely many more Americans still effectively unemployed — in total, more than 40 million have lost their jobs since the spring. 1.3 million Americans filed new job-loss claims last week, and 1.4 million did this week. Those were the 17th and 18th straight weeks that the number was higher than a million. Those 18 straight weeks are the 18 weeks of highest American job loss ever recorded. That is, more people have lost their jobs in every single week of this pandemic than ever lost their jobs in any single week in the history of the statistic. The previous record of about 700,000 job losses was set during the peak of the financial crisis of 2008–9. The pandemic has broken it every week.

For most of these last few months, the struggles of those who’ve lost jobs has been temporarily alleviated by very generous extended unemployment benefits, which, for the median worker who lost a job, have actually paid more than the job did in the first place. But those benefits are set to expire at the end of the month. As Binyamin Appelbaum of the New York Times put it last week, “The federal government is currently ‘employing’ about 20 million Americans at a weekly wage of $600. In about 10 days, it plans to lay off all of them.” Perhaps because of those payments; or perhaps because the individual needs and struggles of the pandemic have narrowed Americans’ vision even more than usual; or perhaps because the nature of the quarantine and social distancing, which means we are, most of us, encountering fewer others every day; or perhaps because so many of us have been focused on the disease itself, we have not yet begun to reckon, beyond the terrifying scale of death and disease, with the truly historic scale of more universal human suffering it has brought about. The last few months have been tragic, and horrifying, and surreal, with echoes, wherever you looked for them, of the Great Recession. Depending on what additional relief is legislated in the next few days, the next few months may well feel more like the Great Depression. Already, 5.4 million have lost their health insurance, more than 20 million face the possibility of eviction, and food insecurity has doubled, according to one set of research, to 23 percent of Americans — that’s 76 million people.

On Wednesday, I spoke with Bernie Sanders about all of this — the terrifying and underappreciated scale of economic suffering produced by the pandemic and what that suffering demands of us, namely a dramatic change to the country’s basic political and social compact. That conversation, about what he calls “an unprecedented moment in American history,” is below. Remaking the American social compact has been, famously, Sanders’s stated mission for years, going back much farther than his two presidential campaigns. But even for those familiar with his calls for such change, the present situation should be eye-opening, if we can manage to really look directly at it.

Senator, thanks so much for taking the time. Great to talk again.

Hey, David.

I want to start by talking about just how deep a hole we’re in right now. It may sound weird to say, but to my view, most of the country doesn’t even appreciate just how bad a situation the pandemic has produced — tens of millions unemployed, tens of millions facing eviction, state budgets already squeezed. The relief that we’ve seen so far has been imperfectly designed, of course, but it was also big enough that it managed to cover up a lot of the damage that the disease and our response to it has produced. 

David, I think you’re right. I think the difficulty for people understanding where we are at today is we have never been in a position like this before. This really is unprecedented. So you’re looking at a pandemic which is now surging in a number of regions in the country, which has already claimed 140,000 lives, and nobody is quite clear how this is going to end before we get the vaccine.

You’re looking at an economic meltdown, which we have not seen since the Great Depression, where tens of millions of people have lost their jobs — and, with their job loss, their health-care loss. As you indicated, millions are frightened today that they’re going to be thrown out on the streets. People do not have enough food. I was amazed in my own state of Vermont a month or so ago— my God, there were cars lined up for seemingly forever for people getting emergency food. And the vast majority of those people would never in a million years have thought that they would be in that position.

And there may be more of them in a few weeks, if some additional support doesn’t come through.

On top of all that, as you well know, having written a great book on it, we’re dealing with a climate situation which is getting worse. We’re looking at massive income and wealth inequality, which is getting worse, even during the pandemic, unbelievably. People like Jeff Bezos and the Walton family have made out like bandits while tens of millions of people have seen a decline in their incomes and their wealth.

Add all of that together and this is an unprecedented moment in American history. And it’s not only that the average American may not perceive that; it’s certainly the colleagues here in the United States Congress who continue to think about life in a status quo way, continue to worry about where are they going to get their campaign contributions from rather than sitting down and saying, “Wow, how do we address this extraordinary and dangerous moment in American history?”

Yeah, it seems to me like one of the real stories of the Biden campaign since the resolution of the primary has been him waking up to this set of issues quite dramatically. But before I ask you about that, and him, I wanted to ask you about the state of play in the Senate, given how blinkered your colleagues have been, as you were saying. What are the highest priorities for you, in terms of pandemic relief, and what do you think is possible we’ll see in the next week or two from Congress?

Just today, I offered an amendment on the floor of the Senate as part of the Defense Authorization bill. And defense spending in this country is an issue that the media doesn’t cover and gets very little national attention, despite the fact that the DOD authorization bill is over half all the discretionary spending in America. Over half. Under Trump we’ve increased military spending by $100 billion — that’s a 20 percent increase.

It’s also just a tremendous amount of money.

Yes. But today, I am very proud. We had almost half of the Democratic caucus, 23 out of 47 senators, vote to cut spending by 10 percent and reallocate that money into lower-income communities all over America, where we’re really hurting. So it is hopefully the beginning of the understanding that we need to fundamentally transform our priorities in this country.

Republicans, I think, are in disarray, in the sense that you have some of their additional right-wing folks who don’t want to spend any money at all, while you got a lot of other folks, including a number who are up for reelection, who are running scared, who know that in their communities there’s a lot of pain and they’ve got to do something.

I think among the Democrats, there is a pretty deep understanding that we have got to bring forth a major, major, major piece of legislation. There will be a lot of debate among Democrats about the best way forward, but there is at least an understanding that we have got to deal with unemployment by extending unemployment benefits, including the $600 supplement. It’s just enormously important for lower-income workers throughout this country. It is the life staple for many, many, many families.

What we have also got to do, in my view, is provide a monthly stipend of $2,000 for every man and woman in this country. In my view, we should pass a paycheck-protection act. And I think we have got to, during the emergency, provide Medicare for All, at least during the emergency. Obviously it’s been our mantra, which I believe in general, but during the emergency we have had many millions of people, far more than the media has portrayed, that lost their health care because they’ve lost their jobs. And those people need help not only to deal with the coronavirus but to deal with the usual health-care needs — people who are still getting cancer and heart disease, kids coming into the hospital having broken their legs.

The question of the unemployment benefits is especially illuminating to me because so many Republicans are still citing their familiar talking points about not wanting to disincentivize the work ethic — about the risks of paying people for not working. But it’s not like people are struggling to find jobs because they’re lazy; they’re struggling to find jobs because the economy is in a really dire situation. The problem isn’t the behavior of the workers; it’s the state of the labor market. And that’s not a matter of personal failing; it’s a creation of the pandemic. 

Before the CARES Act was passed, which included the $600 stipend on top of normal unemployment, I was on the floor debating with some Republicans who were outraged that in some cases workers would actually be receiving more than they did when they were working. They just philosophically couldn’t believe it — “Why are we paying people more in unemployment than they received in their jobs?”

And what is very interesting is that for a variety of reasons the Congress ended up concluding that the normal wages that people were receiving, the $10 an hour or $11 an hour, were starvation wages that families could not survive on in general and certainly not during the pandemic. So you have a situation now with a Congress essentially on the record as saying that people need at least $40,000 — because $600 a week is $30,000 a year plus other unemployment. That is what people need to survive. That is a very profound statement, because one of the great crises facing our country now and before the pandemic is the fact that half of the people in America are living paycheck to paycheck.

So the Republicans got very, very nervous and very upset. “How could it be,” they say, “that you’re actually giving a benefit to workers off these same wages? Living wages.” How terrible is that? I mean, imagine workers getting used to the fact they don’t have to earn ten or 11 bucks an hour but should get a living wage.

So that for me is something very profound about that bill. And it tells me we should not surrender on this. Bottom line is people need at least $15 an hour to start with a modicum of dignity. And that is what the $600 bonus on top of normal employment is.

That’s all especially interesting to me because liberals have regarded Mitch McConnell in particular over the last decade as this “evil genius,” willing to go scorched-earth for the sake of partisan victories. But McConnell’s Senate doesn’t seem to want a partisan victory here; they don’t seem to want to do enough to help Americans that it would actually benefit Republicans in November. Instead, what I think we’re seeing now in response to the crisis is something more like the whole party taking an ideologically kamikaze approach to governing, where they’re going against their own obvious self-interest for genuine ideological reasons. It’s a pretty bleak portrait of at least that party, I would say.

I agree with everything you said. But in the Republican Party, you now have got the old die-hards — anti-worker, anti-government spending. But on the other hand, you’ve got some folks out there, including Donald Trump, I think, who are going to look around them and look at the polls and look at the possibility of Trump losing the presidency, of Republicans losing the control of the Senate. I think at the end of the day they’re going to move. That’s what I think. But in the Democratic caucus we have got to remain firm, remain clear about what we want. And I think if we do that, we’ll win the support of the American people and we’ll move it out in the election.

Thinking about November, and beyond, you mentioned earlier that this is an unprecedented moment in American history: There’s the pandemic, but there’s also all this large-scale, mass protest and what seems like social movement of really rapid speed. It seems, to me at least, a real generational shift in what is considered possible and what is considered acceptable. I’m guessing that from your perspective, whatever is achieved over the next few months with the Senate and with this president, it’ll just be the first step toward building a whole new social compact hopefully under the Biden presidency. 

It’s not only a Biden presidency. It will be a Democratic Senate and a Democratic House. I have talked to Chuck Schumer about this, and I have talked to Joe Biden myself, too. And what I think is, out of all of this pain that we are seeing — the hunger, the homelessness, the loss of jobs, 140,000 deaths, children not going to school at all — there is a growing understanding on the part of the American people that we have to rethink American institutions in very fundamental ways.

I think health care is maybe the clearest example. Everybody needs health care. How do we have a health-care system, which is tied to your job when we have seen tens of millions of people lose their jobs and many of them lose their health care as well? We have to talk about health care as a human right, not a job benefit. I think the American people are now waking up to that and saying, “You know what? I need health care today as much or more than I did yesterday when I had a job. How come I don’t have any health care? And why do we have such a complicated and incredibly bureaucratic and wasteful system?”

This system as a whole is an absolute disaster, only propped up by the campaign contributions and the lobbying of the health-care industry, which made $100 billion in profits last year. People are looking around and saying, “You know what? That’s bullshit.” I think that’s a very profound lesson that is being learned right now.

The second lesson that’s been learned in terms of the economy. It’s one thing to say, well, before the pandemic happens our people are living paycheck to paycheck. And that means that you don’t have any money in the bank and you pay your bills with the paycheck that came in on Monday. Now what happens when the paycheck doesn’t come in on Monday? Oh my God, you can’t pay your bills. You can’t pay your rent. You can’t pay your credit-card debt. You can’t pay the phone bill.

I think there’s now a growing realization here too. Even though unemployment was low before the pandemic, it was still an incredibly weak economy for so many people struggling to pay their bills and living paycheck to paycheck. And I think there will be a realization on the collapse. You know what? We’ve got to create an economy — and I’m not just being rhetorical here — that works well not just for billionaires but for all Americans that are in this country. Nobody should be living paycheck to paycheck. People should be able to have a living wage, put a few bucks aside in the bank for an emergency and maybe for a vacation.

I think there will be out of this terribly painful moment a realization that we need to look at our economy in a very different way, look at health care in a very different way. And I hope out of this there will be understanding that we can combat climate change. We can combat a crumbling infrastructure effectively, and we create millions of jobs doing that. That we don’t need hedge-fund managers who are only concerned about profits as the determinants of the future of our economy. That the American people have got to look at what our needs are. And our needs are infrastructure. Our needs are climate change. Our needs are health care. Our needs are education. And to invest in those areas, we can create millions of meaningful and decent paying jobs. So I may be a little bit too optimistic here, but I hope that out of this disaster that’s causing so much pain, so much death, that those are some of the lessons that our people will learn.

It seems inevitable to me that that will happen to some degree. For me, the question is: When that shifting mood gets processed through legislative politics, how much really comes out the other side in real policy? I guess I worry in particular about the limitations imposed by the filibuster but also, in general, a lot of the old habits of politicians across the board to worry about deficits, for instance.

David, I do think that, not only among the American people but some of my colleagues here in the Senate, there is now a willingness to look at our institutions and what has to be done in a very different light. And the role that I could play — that I think and what I hope will be the role the progressive community will play — is say to Joe Biden, say to Chuck Schumer, say to Nancy Pelosi, “You know what? You are going to have an extremely progressive first 100 days. We have to keep faith with the American people in their time of pain.”

Do you think that can be done with the filibuster still in place?

I think we can take care of the filibuster. Without divulging any great secrets here, I think I can say, on the major issues facing this country, the majority will rule.

When I look at Biden, I see a lot of evolution in his positioning over the last few months. I see him talking about an FDR-size presidency and really engaging with all of the crises that you’ve been laying out in a serious way. On most issues, he’s not going as far as President Bernie Sanders would have, but he’s going a lot farther than I would’ve thought Biden was capable of going just six months ago. Do you see that same movement?

I do. I do for a couple of reasons, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I don’t think Joe Biden is the world’s most ideological guy. I think that he is a smart guy who is looking out at the world that he sees, the country that he sees, the country that he loves. And he has considered himself his entire life to be a friend of working people. And he is seeing what’s going on. I can tell you, in talking to me, he said, “I want to be the most progressive president since FDR.”

And I think Barack Obama said it, too. If you called up Barack Obama, and if you asked Obama, “Should we just continue what you did?” Obama would probably tell you, “No, you’ve got to go further.” The world has changed. He’s proud of what he accomplished, but he will tell you that we’ve to go further.

And I was very pleased that Biden agreed to set up a series of task forces dealing with the major issues facing our country. The economy, health care, education, climate change, criminal justice, immigration reform. And we talked about the nature of the task force and who would be on them. The Biden team said we could add anybody you want other than people who are going to be personally attacking Biden. They didn’t want that.

Still, that’s extremely accommodating, to impose no ideological test at all. 

And if you look at the people we had on our task forces, from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Pramila Jayapal, they were there and negotiating with the Biden people. We didn’t get everything we wanted, on some things we had to move. But they had to move, too, and they did move — they didn’t get what they wanted. And at the end of the day, if the reports of the task force are implemented, Biden will in fact be the most progressive president since FDR.

The FDR comparison is really interesting to me because FDR was not a lifelong radical; he was a child of the aristocratic Establishment.

That’s why they hated him. They called him a traitor to his class!

Right. And Biden similarly finds themselves in a place in history that demands he somewhat change his politics. I’m curious how you see that dynamic, because you’ve always been in certain ways a coalitional politician but also, of course, an ideological advocate. And I wonder if your view of American politics has changed at all by the experience of the last few months — to now be able to imagine that we may indeed have this incredibly progressive presidency, but put forward by a leader who is not himself temperamentally, or by inclination, very radical at all. 

Well, I think of the similarities of the two moments. Roosevelt became president in the worst economic crisis in the history of the country. Biden, if he becomes president, will take office in a horrible time, too. We don’t know what the economy will look like then, exactly, but it could be the worst economic crisis since the Depression and the worst public-health crisis since the Spanish flu. And a good politician, and I think Biden is one, is somebody who looks around them and says, “You know what, we have millions of people in America who are hungry, good people, hard-working people who work every day in their life and they can’t feed their families. And they’re being evicted from their homes. And they have no health care. Unacceptable. Unacceptable! It doesn’t matter what I said a year ago. This is the reality of today.” I think Biden is that kind of politician.

My personal experience with him is that he’s a very compassionate guy, he’s a very special kind of guy. He responds to the pain of others, and he has lots of pain in his own life. And I think he feels that pain. And I think he as president wants to respond in any and every way that he can. And if we can provide him with some Democratic Senate and a Democratic House, and if we can rally the American people to take on very powerful and special interests who will want to move into different directions, I think we can do that.

‘We Should Not Surrender on This’