In a highly anticipated event, the Oxford Union hosted United States Senator Bernie Sanders, who gave a speech and Q&A with Union President Charlie Mackintosh and other Union members.
Sanders is a prominent figure in the American left-wing and the progressive movement worldwide. The senator, who currently chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, ran twice to be the Democratic nominee for President, despite caucusing with Democrats as an Independent in the Senate.
Since President Biden’s election in 2020, Sanders has been influential in shaping Biden’s economic platform. His appearance at the Union drew a large and enthusiastic crowd of students which included the SU President Michael Akolade-Ayodeji. Students queued for over three hours to see him.
Sanders has been on a whirlwind media tour of the UK promoting his new book It’s OK to be Angry about Capitalism. He has made media appearances on The News Agents, Sky News, and LBC, as well as speaking at an event with Owen Jones at the Oxford Playhouse. Sanders’s brother Jerry Sanders is a former member of Oxfordshire County Council and former health and social care spokesman for the Green Party.
Charlie Mackintosh thanked members for coming out in such large numbers and introduced Sanders as a “self professed democratic socialist”.
In his address, Sanders addressed what he perceived as the erosion of the American working and middle classes alongside the concomitant rise in the prosperity of the ‘top 1%’. At one point, he quoted Franklin Roosevelt in saying that ‘people cannot really be free unless they have basic economic rights’.
Sanders also vociferously asserted that rising inflation was the result of extensive increases in concentration of ownership and corporate greed which made it easier for corporations to engage in price-fixing ‘under the guise of supply chain problems or the war in Ukraine’. He illustrated his point by noting that oil giant ExxonMobil made $200bn in profit in 2022.
The ‘right-wing’ Supreme Court was also criticised. In particular, Sanders addressed the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United, arguing that unrestricted and untraceable contributions to super PACs (political action committees) were not rights protected by freedom of speech. He also stated that the decision suggests that it is a ‘constitutional right’ to ‘buy democracy’, creating for billionaires ‘the best democracy that money can buy’.
Political media was also targeted, with Sanders arguing that 90% of exposure was dominated by 8 conglomerates that ‘restrict serious debate’. Sanders argued that those groups have created an environment in which ‘politics becomes like a reality TV show… it is not a substantive discussion about the issues facing the American people’.
Mackintosh then asked Sanders what he viewed as the biggest issue in American politics. Sanders responded that the issue ‘overriding’ everything else was climate change, stating that fossil fuel companies had criminally ‘lied’ about the impacts of fossil fuels on the environment and funded organisations worldwide that propagated climate denial.
In the Q&A session, Sanders implored attendees to build a ‘multigenerational, multiracial political movement that goes beyond the need for incremental change’ and create a ‘government and a society and a planet that works for the many and not the few’. He ended his address by saying that the current generation of students was ‘the most progressive generation in the modern history of this country’, asking attendees to have the ‘courage to stand together and go beyond race and nationality and sexual orientation’ and use ‘extraordinary potential’ to ‘save the planet’.
The evening ended with Mackintosh granting Sanders honorary Union membership, alongside a membership card.
Image description: a photo of Bernie Sanders on top of a photo of the Union building
Bernie Sanders: Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America – Bernie Sanders, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=87733803
Union building: http://www.barkerevans.com/ – Barker Evans, FAL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17180304