Recently, I had the chance to sit down with the brother of Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Larry Sanders has lived in Oxford for decades and has been described by Senator Sanders as one of his greatest political influences. Over the space of less than an hour we managed to cover topics ranging from Bernie and Larry’s childhood to economic inequality to Donald Trump. Here are a few of the highlights.
On the question of how the Democratic presidential contender first formulated his political ideology, long dominated by economic policies focusing on bettering the plight of America’s middle class, Sanders mentioned the fact that his family grew up, “not poor, but what was significant was the financial insecurity. Whenever my parents argued, money was at the root of the argument.” Sanders also mentioned his family’s support for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s progressive New Deal policies, designed to alleviate the effects of the Great Depression through the creation of large-scale economic and social programs such as Social Security. Sanders discussed how President Roosevelt was looked to “as a kind of demigod” in his household and was someone Bernie idolised during his youth. According to Sanders, “I think Bernard is the prominent American politician who has been most influenced by and most resembles Roosevelt,” – high praise, considering the admiration with which Roosevelt is viewed in America.
While discussing Bernie’s remarkable success so far in the Democratic primary, Sanders suggested that people should not seem so surprised. To the question of how a self-proclaimed democratic socialist could be doing so well in a country like the US, Sanders remarked that, “Americans are a conservative people with a radical strand. America was not started by people who wanted the status quo. There is a strand in American life, from the beginning, that wants something else that is quite radical and is determined to [create] a better life for all.” Sanders believes that his brother is tapping into an underlying current in American life that shares his ideas on a deep, fundamental level. He also discussed Bernie’s appeal on the economic front, focusing on how the average American worker’s income, after inflation, has not increased for forty years, an issue on which Senator Sanders has extensively focused during his campaign. “Bernard sees that the way the American economy has developed has not helped the average American move closer towards the American dream. Instead, the majority of the wealth went to a very small number of very wealthy people.” Finally, Sanders cited Bernie’s authenticity and his willingness to take on the establishment as reasons why the Senator is performing so well this election cycle. According to Sanders, “Bernie is a very unusual popular politician. To get ahead in any set of institutions, normally you have to ‘go along to get along.’ People who rock the boat are not always popular. Most politicians shift to a point where they are not terribly open to criticism, a move to the middle in a sense… but Bernard bypassed that… he comes to the public now as a person with 35 years in public life, with a consistent record, and I think people recognize that.”
I then asked Sanders about what he thinks of Donald Trump and the rise of the far right in the US. Comparing the Republican frontrunner to Nigel Farage’s UKIP and Marine Le Pen’s National Front, Sanders recognised a recurrent political theme: The rise of demagogues, people who blame the ills of the country on immigrants and minorities; we’ve been through that. These things don’t get better; they are very dangerous.” Sanders talked of the alienation many conservative Americans are feeling nowadays as they find themselves unable to find stable, well-paying jobs while simultaneously watching their country fundamentally change before their eyes. “There is something in the right-wing developments of recent decades that has left a large chunk of people feeling quite rudderless. They are willing and ready therefore to say that everything is rubbish, except for this guy [Trump] who is rich, has a good looking wife, and is just marvelous.”
As for whether or not a President Sanders would be able to fully enact his wide-reaching proposals if the Republicans were to maintain control of the House of Representatives or the Senate, Sanders remarked that it would take a “political revolution,” as Senator Sanders likes to call it, to defeat the “oligopoly” that has come to rule over the American political system. According to Sanders, “if a large number of American people say we are going to elect you President and we are going to continue on campaigning and we are going to create and intensify a real movement, I believe we can do it.” On the other hand however, Sanders seemed optimistic that his brother would be a successful President even with the current levels of political gridlock in Washington, calling his brother “a different kind of politician: he’s not looking towards the next election but is focusing on the longer term.” Sanders also cited his brother’s proven record of generating compromise on difficult issues and his willingness to work “across the aisle,” in conjunction with politicians from across the political spectrum, to move his agenda forward.
Finally, I suggested to Mr. Sanders that, were his brother elected President, his life would drastically change. Is Larry Sanders ready to leave his life in Oxford behind in order to help his brother move America forward? According to him: yes. “Bernard will make the decisions, obviously, but I would like to be involved in some way,” Sanders remarked. “I have been a politician for many years, although not at the level or success of Bernard, so I am ready to play a role, but I’m sure that it would not be a major role.”
Americans living in Oxford and wishing to vote for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary will be able to do so by visiting either the Rothermere American Institute at 1a South Parks Road, OX1 3UB from noon to 7 PM on March 1st or by visiting the Turl Street Kitchen at 16-17 Turl Street, OX1 3DH from 10 AM to 2 PM. American citizens who are registered to vote may cast their presidential primary ballot at either of these two polling locations or may post, fax, or scan-and-email their ballot by joining Democrats Abroad. Please consult the Democrats Abroad website for details on how to join and how to submit your ballot and please note that you must join Democrats Abroad by January 31st if you wish to vote by post, fax, or scan-and-email.