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In debate with Clinton, Sanders makes it clear: He’s a radical

The root of our problems, Bernie Sanders says, is the concentration of wealth and power. Pounding on this fact makes him a revolutionary.

Sen. Bernie Sanders gesturing during Thursday night's debate with Hillary Clinton at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H.
REUTERS/Mike Segar

I’ve heard Bernie Sanders described as one of the most “on-message” candidates in U.S. political history. It’s true. Sanders repeats himself, relies on a relative few facts and phrases — even more than a typical politician — in an attempt to break through a lot of conventional thinking and political speech and get us to confront his message. After watching Thursday night’s debate in New Hampshire, I felt I had a better understanding of Sanders’ message.

Bernie Sanders is a radical.

Note that the word “radical” refers to things that go to the “root.” The symbol in mathematics for “radical” (√) refers to a number’s square root. From this grew the political meaning, which refers to a level of change that gets to the root of a problem.

The root of the problem in America, according to Sanders, is the concentration of wealth in a small segment of the population and of power in a small number of enormous corporations. Sometimes he refers to “millionaires and billionaires on Wall Street.”

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One on level, the fact of this concentration is not really controversial. It’s a fact that can be measured. And it has been measured.

In last night’s debate, Hillary Clinton accused Sanders of being too focused on “one part of our economy and indeed one street in our economy.”  

Perhaps she’s right, in a literal sense. Sanders uses “Wall Street” as a shorthand substitute for concentrated wealth and power. And she isn’t wrong if she means that for Sanders the concentration of wealth and power — including political as well as economic power — in a small number of superrich families (he often brings up the Koch brothers) and corporations (which he refers to with the shorthand term “Wall Street”) is the key fact that must be confronted in order to get a better deal for the vast majority of Americans who are not part of that nexus of economic and political power.

Pounding on this fact makes Sanders a revolutionary. He even uses the word. When Sanders calls for a “political revolution,” as he often does, he refers not to a violent overthrow of the government, but to a peaceful one, accomplished via the ballot box, but one designed to put into effect radical change, perhaps best symbolized by a single-payer health-care system.

Key facts

Sanders is obsessed with a few key facts. The United States is alone among the wealthy industrialized nations in having a significant portion of its population lacking health insurance. We spend more on health care than any other nation. We pay the highest prices for drugs. Yet average citizens in other countries are healthier and live longer. Why? All of this, to Sanders, is about a system that has been rigged for the benefit of the rich and powerful, who not only control the economy but the political system. He said last night:

Let’s talk about why, in the 1990s, Wall Street got deregulated. Did it have anything to do with the fact that Wall Street provided — spent billions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions? Well, some people might think, yeah, that had some influence.

Let’s ask why it is that we pay, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs, and your medicine can be doubled tomorrow, and there’s nothing that the government can do to stop it. You think it has anything to do with the huge amounts of campaign contributions.

And lobbying from the fossil fuel industry? Let’s talk about climate change. Do you think there’s a reason why not one Republican has the guts to recognize that climate change is real, and that we need to transform our energy system? Do you think it has anything to do with the Koch brothers and ExxonMobil pouring huge amounts of money into the political system?

That is what goes on in America. I am not — I like…there is a reason. You know, there is a reason why these people are putting huge amounts of money into our political system. And in my view, it is undermining American democracy and it is allowing Congress to represent wealthy campaign contributors and not the working families of this country.

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The last time I wrote about a Clinton-Sanders debate, the piece was headlined “Bernie Sanders thinks Wall Street owns the Clintons.” He certainly does emphasize the money that Hillary Clinton has received for speeches made to Wall Street firms. He also emphasizes the holes blown in the U.S. campaign-finance regulatory system by the Citizens United ruling, which inevitably leads him to mention that he is the only candidate who refuses to benefit from those loopholes by accepting help from super PACs. This is a thinly veiled attack on Clinton, who benefits from super PACs that get money from “Wall Street.”

But it goes way beyond Clinton. Sanders thinks “Wall Street” owns the government and virtually owns the country and uses its ownership to defend and even increase the concentration of wealth at the top.

Sums it up

I heard Tad Devine, a senior adviser to the Sanders campaign, after the debate sum it up in remarkably few words, thus: “A rigged economy held in place by a corrupt campaign system. That’s our theme.”

With that in mind, here is Sanders’ opening statement from last night, verbatim. It’s short. It’s on-message:

Millions of Americans are giving up on the political process. And they’re giving up on the political process because they understand the economy is rigged.

They are working longer hours for low wages. They’re worried about the future of their kids, and yet almost all new income and wealth is going to the top 1 percent. Not what America is supposed to be about. Not the fairness that we grew up believing that America was about. And then sustaining that rigged economy is a corrupt campaign finance system undermining American democracy, where billionaire, Wall Street, corporate America can contribute unlimited sums of money into super PACs and into candidates.

Our job, together, is to end a rigged economy, create an economy that works for all, and absolutely overturn Citizens United. One person, one vote. That’s what American democracy is about.

Clinton, over the course of the debate, expressed umbrage that Sanders’ version of reality casts her as a bought-and-paid-for tool of a corrupt system. In her most memorable line of the evening, she referred to “the very artful smear that you and your campaign have been carrying out” against her.

She defended, passionately and convincingly, her right to call herself a “progressive.” And, when she fills in that phrase with “a progressive who can get things done,” she commits not exactly an artful smear against Sanders, but a strong suggestion that he will be unable to “get things done.”

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Still more subtle, but not all that subtle, is a suggestion of why Sanders won’t be able to get done the things he is promising: Because there are powers in the country that won’t allow those things to happen.

She sympathizes, she says, with many of Sanders’ goals, but they are “just not achievable.”

She’s probably right. But why are they “just not achievable”?

Here’s the Washington Post annotated transcript of the debate.