By Ezra Klein
Bernie Sanders didn’t win the 2020 election. But he may have won its aftermath.
If you look back at Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders’s careers, the $1.9 trillion stimulus package, the American Rescue Plan, looks a lot like the proposals Sanders has fought for forever, without much of the compromise or concerns that you used to see from Senator Joe Biden. That’s not to take anything away from Biden. He’s the president. This is his plan. And it is to his credit that he saw what the country needed, what the politics of the moment would support and where his party had moved, and met it with full force.
But Sanders’s two presidential campaigns are part of the reason that the Democratic Party had moved, and the politics of the moment had changed. And so I’ve wondered what Sanders makes of this moment. Is it a triumph? A disappointment? A beginning?
And I’ve wondered about his take on some of the other questions swirling around the Democratic Party: Are liberals alienating people who agree with them on economics by being too censorious on culture? Is there room to work with populist Republicans who might be open to new economic ideas even as they turn against liberal democracy itself?
You can listen to our whole conversation by following “The Ezra Klein Show” wherever you get your podcasts, or clicking play above. An edited transcript follows:
The 2009 stimulus was 5.6 percent of the G.D.P. in 2008. The Rescue Plan this year is 9.1 percent of last year’s G.D.P. So it’s just much bigger. And the individual policies in it are, in my view, much less compromised. So why are 50 Democrats in 2021 legislating so much more progressively than 59 Democrats did in 2009?
Well, I think that there is a growing understanding that we face unprecedented crises, and we have got to act in an unprecedented way. Members of Congress look around this country, and they see children who don’t have enough food, people facing eviction. People can’t get health care. We have, obviously, the need to crush this terrible pandemic that has taken over 500,000 lives.
And I think the conclusion from the White House and from Congress is, now is the time to do what the American people need us to do. And it turned out to be a $1.9 trillion bill, which, to my mind, was the single most significant piece of legislation for working-class people that has been passed since the 1960s.
Let’s say I’m someone on the left who supported you in 2020. I’m looking at the American Rescue Plan and I see the $15 minimum wage got dropped, paid family leave got dropped. The child tax credit, which is my favorite part of the bill, it’s only temporary. Convince me that I should be excited about this. Why do you think it’s so significant?
I don’t have to convince you. We have already convinced 75 percent of the American people that this is a very good piece of legislation. And I think progressives out there understand that given a fairly conservative Congress, it is hard to do everything that we want to do.
I was bitterly disappointed that we lost the minimum wage in the reconciliation process as a result of a decision from the parliamentarian, which I think was a wrong decision. But we’re not giving up on that. We’re going to come back, and we’re going to do it.
But in this legislation, let us be clear we have gotten for a family of four — a working-class family struggling to put food on the table for their kids — a check of $5,600. Now people who have money may not think that’s a lot of money. But when you are struggling day and night to pay the bills, to worry about eviction, that is going to be a lifesend for millions and millions of people.
We extended unemployment to September with the $300 supplement. We expanded the child tax credit to cut child poverty in America by 50 percent. Now, that’s an issue we have not dealt with for a very long time — the disgrace of the U.S. having one of the highest rates of childhood poverty of any major country on Earth. Well, we did it, and we hope to make it permanent. That is a big deal.
And obviously, we invested heavily in dealing with the pandemic, getting the vaccines out to the people as quickly as possible to save lives. In terms of education, billions of dollars are going to make sure that we open our schools as quickly and as safely as we can. We tripled funding for summer programs so the kids will have the opportunity to make up the academic work that they have lost. Tripled funding for after-school programs so when kids come back next fall, there will be programs the likes of which we have never seen.
So this is not a perfect bill. Congress does not pass perfect bills. But for working-class people, this is the most significant piece of legislation passed since the 1960s. And I’m proud of what we have done.
However, it is clear to me — and I think the American people — that we have more to do. This is an emergency bill that says, in America families should not go hungry. People should not be forced out of their homes.
Now we have to deal with the long-term structural problems facing our country that have long, long been neglected way before the pandemic: rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, address the existential threat of climate change, create many millions of decent-paying jobs, build the millions of units of affordable housing that we need.
In terms of the social issues: fight structural racism, immigration reform, fight against the growing trend of authoritarianism. We’re living in a nation today where 30 percent or 40 percent of the American people have given up on democracy — a worldwide problem. How do we combat that? We got to deal with voter suppression and the effort of Republicans to make it harder and harder for people of color, lower-income people, to vote.
There are a huge number of issues out there. Some of them are existential — they have to be dealt with. And I intend to do everything that I can as chairman of the Budget Committee to make sure that we continue to move forward.
This bill, as you mentioned, passed through budget reconciliation. The things that couldn’t go through budget reconciliation got dropped from it. But a bunch of the different policy measures you just mentioned can’t go through budget reconciliation. You can’t do immigration reform there. You can’t do H. R. 1, the For the People Act, or H.R. 4, the Voting Rights Act.
Well, I’m not so sure.
You’re budget chairman. Tell me why.
I don’t want to bore the American people with the rules of the United States.
Bore me. [LAUGHS]
If you have insomnia, pick up the rule book. You’ll be asleep in about five minutes. It is enormously complicated. It is enormously undemocratic. It is designed to move very, very slowly, which we cannot afford to do, given the crises that we face today.
This is the way I look at it: We have a set of literally unprecedented crises. Ideally, it would be nice that we could work in a bipartisan way with our Republican colleagues — and maybe in some areas, we can. But the major goal is to address these crises. That is what the American people want. And if we can’t do it in a bipartisan way with 60 votes, we’re going to figure out a way that we get it done with 50 votes.
I have never heard a theory under which you could do democracy reform bills like the John Lewis Voting Rights Act or a major immigration reform bill through budget reconciliation. Do you see a way around that? Are you talking about the Democrats changing reconciliation or changing the filibuster?
Well, obviously, I believe that we should do away with the filibuster. I think the filibuster is an impediment to addressing the needs of this country, and especially of working-class people. So I believe that at this moment we should get rid of the filibuster, and I will work as hard as I can to do that.
I’m not going to lay out all of our strategy that we’re working on right now. But what I repeat is that this country faces huge problems. The American people want us to address those problems. And we cannot allow a minority to stop us from going forward.
There’s a lot of coverage, as there always is, about potential friction in the Democratic caucus in the Senate — differences between, say, a Senator Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema and others. Do you find the caucus to be united on strategy more, or less than in the past?
Obviously, you’ve got 50 people. And when you have 50 people, the crazy situation is that any one person could prevent us from moving forward. But I think and hope that there is an understanding that despite our differences — and some of these differences are significant — we have got to work with the president of the United States, who I think is prepared to go forward aggressively in a number of issues. We cannot sabotage the needs of the American people.
So any one person really has enormous power. But I would hope that by definition, when you are a member of a caucus, you fight for what your views are within the caucus. But at the end of the day, nobody is going to get everything they want. I did not get everything that I want in the American Rescue Plan. Others did not get everything they wanted.
But at the end of the day, we have got to go forward together because we need to be united. And I think there is a widespread understanding about the importance of that.
Let’s talk about the dynamics between the parties right now. A few months ago, you were working with Senator Josh Hawley on bigger stimulus checks. That was a very effective project. But then Senator Hawley votes against certifying the election. He raised his fist to the mob from the Capitol. How have your relationships with Republicans changed in the aftermath of Jan. 6?
Well, all in all, I don’t want to get into personalities here. But this is what I would say. And I think it’s a very sad state of affairs.
Obviously, in the last many years, only accelerated by Donald Trump, the Republican Party has moved not only very far to the right, but moved in the direction of authoritarianism. You have a president of the United States saying a month before the election that the only way he could lose that election is if it was stolen from him. After he lost the election, he says, obviously, it was stolen. And you have now a very significant majority of Republicans who believe that the election was stolen.
That is where many Republicans are. You got a lot of Republican senators, members of the House, who are refusing even today to say that Joe Biden won a fair and square election. So you’ve got a whole lot of problems. That’s one of the issues that as a nation, as a Democratic Party, we have got to address.
Do you think a byproduct of how the Republican Party has changed is that it puts less emphasis on economic issues than it used to? I was struck by how much more energized Republicans were the week that the American Rescue Plan passed by the debate over Dr. Seuss’s books than by this $1.9 billion spending bill.
Look, the energy in the Republican Party has nothing to do with tax breaks to the rich. Republicans are not going into the streets, the Trump Republicans, saying: We need more tax breaks for the rich, we need more deregulation, we need to end the Affordable Care Act and throw 30 million people off their health care. That’s not what they’re talking about.
What Trump understood is we are living in a very rapidly changing world. And there are many people — most often older white males, but not exclusively — who feel that they’re losing control of the world that they used to dominate. And somebody like Donald Trump says: “We are going to preserve the old way of life, where older white males dominated American society. We’re not going to let them take that away from us.” That is where their energy is.
One of the gratifying things is the American Rescue Plan had a decent amount of Republican support — 35 percent, 40 percent. But among lower-income Republicans, that number was 63 percent.
So I think that our political goal in the coming months and years is to do everything we can to reach out to young people, reach out to people of color, reach out to all people who believe in economic and social justice, but also reach out aggressively to working-class Republicans and tell them we’re going to make sure that you and your children will have a decent standard of living. We’re going to raise the minimum wage for you. We’re going to make it easier for you to join a union. We’re going to make sure that health care in America is a human right. We’re going to make sure that if we do tax breaks, you’re going to get them and not the billionaire class.
I think we have a real opportunity to pick up support in that area. And if we can do that — if you can get 10 percent of Trump’s support and grow our support by addressing the real issues that our people feel are important — you’re going to put together a coalition that is not going to lose a lot of elections.
The Republican strategy right now, to your exact point, is to go to these people and say, the Democrats want to take away things that are culturally important to you. They want to take away your Dr. Seuss books. They want to take away your guns. They want to make it so your kids can’t go to religious school.
How do you talk to voters who are actually worried about those direct questions — who may agree with Democrats on the economic side, but are worried the Democrats are going to take things they culturally care about?
It’s a good question, and no one that I know has a magical answer to it. I do think that addressing economic issues is helpful. It’s not the 100 percent solution. As you know, you’ve got the QAnon people telling their supporters that Democrats — I’m not sure what the latest particular thing is, killed babies and eat their brains or something. Is that the latest thing that we’re supposed to be doing? I don’t know.
But when people who are in trouble suddenly receive a check for $5,600 for a family of four, when their unemployment is extended, when they get health care that they previously did not have, when they’re better able to raise their child, it’s not going to solve all of these cultural problems by a long shot, but it begins maybe to open the door and say, well, you know what? This is good. Trump didn’t do this for us. And maybe these Democrats are not as bad as we thought that they were.
I think it’s going to take a lot of work. These cultural issues, I don’t know how you bridge the gap. You have people who are fervently anti-choice, and I’m not sure that you are going to win many of them over. But I think what we have got to do is do what I’m afraid the Democrats have not always done in the past. And that is treat people with respect.
I come from one of the most rural states in America, and I lived in a town of 200 people for a couple of years. And I think there is not an appreciation of rural America or the values of rural America, the sense of community that exists in rural America. And somehow or another, the intellectual elite does have, in some cases, a contempt for the people who live in rural America. I think we’ve got to change that attitude and start focusing on the needs of people in rural America, treat them with respect, and understand there are areas there are going to be disagreements, but we can’t treat people with contempt.
Do you think there is truth to the critique that liberals have become too censorious and too willing to use their cultural and corporate and political power to censor or suppress ideas and products that offend them?
Look, you have a former president in Trump, who was a racist, a sexist, a xenophobe, a pathological liar, an authoritarian, somebody who doesn’t believe in the rule of law. This is a bad-news guy. But if you’re asking me, do I feel particularly comfortable that the then-president of the United States could not express his views on Twitter? I don’t feel comfortable about that.
Now, I don’t know what the answer is. Do you want hate speech and conspiracy theories traveling all over this country? No. Do you want the internet to be used for authoritarian purposes and an insurrection, if you like? No, you don’t. So how do you balance that? I don’t know, but it is an issue that we have got to be thinking about. Because yesterday it was Donald Trump who was banned, and tomorrow, it could be somebody else who has a very different point of view.
I don’t like giving that much power to a handful of high-tech people. But the devil is obviously in the details, and it’s something we’re going to have to think long and hard on.
Do you think Joe Biden is having an easier time selling an ambitious progressive agenda than Barack Obama did, at least to these audiences, partly because he’s an older white man, rather than a young Black man?
I don’t know the answer to that. Let’s not forget that Barack Obama, after four years, was re-elected with a pretty good majority. He was a popular president and a very popular figure today. But I think you can’t look at Biden or Obama without looking into the moment in which they are living. I think in the last number of years since Obama, political consciousness in this country has changed.
I think to a significant degree, the progressive movement has been successful in saying to the American people that are in the richest country in the history of the world, you know what? You’re entitled to health care as a right. You’re entitled to a decent-paying job. Your kid is entitled to go to a public college or university tuition-free. That it is absolutely imperative that we have the courage to take on the fossil-fuel industry and save this planet by transforming our energy system away from fossil fuels. That it is a moral issue that we finally deal in a comprehensive way with 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country.
I think Biden is in a position where this country has moved forward at the grass-roots level in a much more progressive way. It is not an accident that today the House of Representatives is far more progressive than it was when I was there in the House.
And then you had a president who was a moderate Democrat throughout his time in the Senate, who had the courage to look at the moment and say, you know what? The future of American democracy is at stake, tens of millions of people are struggling economically. They’re really in pain. Our kids are hurting. Seniors are hurting. I’ve got to act boldly. And Biden deserves credit for that.
But what I hope very much is that understanding of the need to act bold goes beyond the American Rescue Plan and is the path that Biden continues during his administration.
Let’s talk about those generational differences. You’re no spring chicken, but you were the overwhelming choice of young voters in 2020. How are the politics of younger voters different, and why are they different?
I love the younger generation. I really do. And it’s not just because they supported me. People say, how did you get the support of the younger people? We treated them with respect and we talked about the issues to them in the same way we talked about the issues to every other generation that’s out there. I think you’ve got a couple of factors, though.
No. 1, for a variety of reasons, the younger generation today is the most progressive generation in the modern history of this country. This is the generation that is firmly anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobia, anti-xenophobia — a very compassionate generation that believes in economic and social and environmental justice. So you’ve got that.
And then the second thing you’ve got is, this is a generation of young people that is really hurting economically. This is the first generation in the modern history of this country where, everything being equal, they’re going to have a lower standard of living than their parents. And that’s even before the pandemic, which has made a bad situation worse.
This is a generation where, on average, young workers are making less money than their parents. They’re having a much harder time buying a home or paying the rent. This is a generation stuck with a huge amount of student debt. And I was surprised, when we first raised this issue of student debt back in 2016, how it really caught on.
Because people are saying, you know what? What crime did I commit that I have to be $50,000 or $100,000 in debt? I was told over and over again, get an education. I got an education. I went to a state university. I went to a private school. I went to school for four years, and now I’m stuck with a $50,000, $100,000 debt. I went to graduate school. I went to medical school. I got $300,000 in debt. That’s insane.
I think if you look at the young generation from an idealistic point of view, it’s a generation that has expectations and views that are much more progressive than their parents and grandparents. But it is also a generation that wants the government to address the economic pain that they are feeling.
It was a striking moment when President Biden released a video pretty explicitly backing the workers trying to unionize at Amazon’s Alabama warehouse. What could Congress do to help? What do you want to do to help reverse the decline of unionization in the U.S.?
I’m chairman of the Budget Committee, and we just had a hearing which touched on that issue. We had a young woman from a warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., the Amazon plant there, and she was talking about why they need a union. I invited Jeff Bezos to attend the hearing to tell me why a guy who was worth $182 billion thinks he has to spend millions of dollars to fight workers who are trying to form a union to improve their wages and working conditions.
What I have believed for a long time, what Joe Biden believes, is we need to pass legislation to make it easier for workers to join unions. Because if workers are in unions and can negotiate decent contracts, their wages will go up. Their working conditions and their benefits will improve. So we are working hard on that issue, and something I know the House has passed. I want to see it passed here in the Senate as well.
Should Democrats be pushing for something bigger, like sectoral bargaining?
I believe so. I campaigned on that. But I think bottom line is that Democrats got to take a deep breath and to make the determination of whether or not they’re going to become the party of the American working class — a class, by the way, which has suffered really terribly in the last 40 or 50 years, where today, workers are barely in real wages making any more than they did 40 or 50 years ago, despite huge increases in technology and productivity. I think we got to do that.
And I think when we do that — when we have the courage to take on powerful special interests, taking on Wall Street, taking on the drug companies, taking on the health care industry, taking on big campaign contributors who want to maintain the status quo — we are going to be able to transform this country and create an economy and a government that works for all. And I think Democrats are going to have very good political success as well.
The Rescue Plan will be followed up by a big jobs and investment package. What needs to be in that package for it to win your support?
The simple stuff and obvious stuff is, you’ve got an infrastructure which is crumbling and roads and bridges and water systems and wastewater plants. I would add affordable and low-income housing to any discussion of infrastructure. So you’ve got to deal with infrastructure, and when you do that, you can create millions of good-paying jobs.
But obviously, also, you have to deal with the existential threat of climate change. We’ve got to guarantee health care to all people as a right. You got to deal with immigration reform. You’ve got to deal with criminal justice and systemic racism. So those are some of the big, big issues that are out there.
You can listen to the entire conversation by following “The Ezra Klein Show” wherever you get your podcasts, or clicking play below.
An Unusually Optimistic Conversation With Bernie Sanders
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