Yesterday Bernie Sanders was in Berlin for the German translation of his book Our Revolution. Invited by Ullstein publishing house, he gave a talk before a full house of mostly students in the Henry Ford Auditorium of the Freie Universität. And it felt like campaign fever back in 2016 – the crowd was enthusiastic with emphatic clapping punctuating his statements. Following a one-hour speech, Sanders answered questions from the students and Zeit magazine’s editor-in-chief Christoph Amend. Listening to the 75-year-old Vermont Senator and would-be president of US felt refreshingly relevant in these times of political cynicism. We would vote for him!
Mr. Sanders, you write all your speeches yourself. When did you take time for your speech today?
You know why I was late this afternoon? [laughter] I do write most of my own speeches… it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to have someone else write for me. It’s me who’s talking. But I must confess, I’m so busy these days thatI’m getting more help than I used to.
Your new book is called Our Revolution. On page 66 you write: “We need a political revolution.” So how are we going to do it?
Let me describe what I mean by that. In America, we have one of the lowest voter turnouts than any other major country on earth. The last election wasn’t that bad, 59-60 percent of people voted. That means that 40 percent of the people didn’t vote. Breaking that down, you find out, the vast majority, some 60-70 percent, of low income people don’t vote, and a majority of young people don’t vote. So the first thing we have to do is make politics relevant to ordinary people to allow people to understand that decisions being made in Washington or their state capitals very significantly affect their person lives. Most people don’t know that. I suspect that if you did a poll – I don’t know if it’s the same in Germany – but if you polled the US and called up “Mr. Jones” and asked ,“Mr. Jones do you know your United States congressmen?” – I have little doubt that a vast majority of people wouldn’t know the name of their member of congress or their political affiliation. So the first step, is to raise public consciousness.
How do we do that?
For the first time, millions of people are dying at a younger age than their parents. Life expectancy is actually going down.
We do that by making politics relevant to people’s lives. What many people in America feel – and I imagine it’s all across the world – we need to make people aware what is being done against them and what can be done for them. One of the saddest things in America today, is that for the first time, millions of people are dying at a younger age than their parents. Life expectancy is actually going down. If we support healthcare, you’re going to live longer, live longer and healthier than your parents. But in America now, because there is so much hopelessness in certain parts of the community, they are turning to drugs, we have a heroin epidemic in the states, full of opioids. People are turning to alcohol and even suicide. Because people see no hope for their future. Our job is to reach out and connect to those people. To bring those people together. When I became mayor, we reached out to people and people became involved. We started senior councils, youth councils, and people started showing up. Two years later, we doubled voter turnout.
What about the role of social media?
Social media isn’t going to do anything unless you have good ideas behind it.
I know you have twitter, Instagram, and Facebook but you don’t well… you don’t tweet in the middle of the night, right? [laughter]
I confess, unlike the president, I do not tweet. I never tweet personally, the way we do it is we have a staff of young people and they take the things I say…
You’ve mentioned your wife Jane, who is here with us tonight. In the book, I learned that Jane was not that not that excited about you running for president…
Social media isn’t going to do anything unless you have good ideas behind it.
Well, because Jane is very smart – smarter than I am. But there’s something I need to say here. In America, a week before an election, people turn off their TV sets because all they see is nasty attack commercials and negative campaign ads. Jane found this to be true, when you run for office and stand up for beliefs, they don’t attack your ideas, the right doesn’t have a conversation about healthcare, climate change, or education. They do “opposition research” which means when you move to America and you become a citizen and you run for office, there will be people paying big dollars who are searching for everything you’ve ever written, every relationship you’ve been in, everything you’ve ever said, if you walked across a street or ran a red light, that could become a 30 second TV ad. That’s what campaigns largely become. Character assassination.
Your campaign, you ran a really positive message. You didn’t want to run negative ads, but then at a certain point, you realize it’s very difficult.
I can say I’ve never run a negative ad in my life. I’ll tell you why, it is not just because I think it’s wrong. When I ran for the Senate in Vermont in 2006, not surprisingly the guy who ran against me was the wealthiest guy in the state, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, he funded his own campaign. He ran the ugliest ads against us, it was terrible. I couldn’t watch the damn thing. But you know what happened in Vermont? The margin of victory became huge, people in Vermont people said, “We know Bernie Sanders, we may disagree with him, but he is not the person you are saying he is.” Now that can happen in a small state like Vermont, where they know you, but country-wide that’s not the case. It’s a way for your opponent to define your candidate. If you are running for office, and before the opposition even knows you, they will research all kinds of ugly crap and put it on television and you’ll run against that. Jane understood all that. We made the decision knowing full well that was what was going to happen. Here is an example: my wife and I were having breakfast where we live and a veteran maybe from the Vietnam war came over to our table and he said, “Sorry to disturb you. I just want to thank you very much for the work you have done for veterans and for helping me.” My wife started crying.
How did you react?
We have a good relationship with the people in my home state, we do try and help and are often successful. Essentially there are a lot of people in trouble and need help which made it really important for me to run.
I read in your book, your whole family was involved. Is it true that your daughter, the yoga teacher, even got you on the cover of yoga magazines? Because you don’t seem to be a yoga guy. Maybe I’m wrong?
You are right. I should be.
At the start of your campaign, you mention in the book, your first stop was a town called Concord in New Hampshire. You went there with your manager and got completely lost.
Right street, wrong town. This was how our campaign started. When we got to where we were going, there’s a large crowd and we went to give a rally in a town called Portsmith in a big church. First day of the campaign we knew that we had struck a chord with the people as 6000 people came out.
You learned early on in your campaign that you were getting a lot of votes from the youth but Hillary was winning with the older voters. At the time you were 74 years old. How did you manage this?
What I think happened, with young people we struck a nerve in terms of tapping into the beautiful ideals that exist in this generation of the United States and all over the world.
Truth is I don’t have a clue. All of you are familiar with the term ‘millennials’… when the campaign began I honest-to-god didn’t know what that term meant. The answer is, in America, and I’m sure in Germany, you have sophisticated politicians and they tell you: “This is what you should be saying to 25-year-old women living in big cities who are working…” or “This is what you say to a 50-year-old working in a factory…” We didn’t do that. The message I gave to them, is the message I give to you, the message I give to people of all ages. But what I think happened, with young people we struck a nerve in terms of tapping into the beautiful ideals that exist in this generation of the United States and all over the world. It’s a generation far past other generations. Well beyond racism and sexism and homophobia, a generation that really wants to create a new world. We tapped into that and did very well with younger people.
A now a question from the students: You support minimum wage for all Americans, do you also support a UBI, universal basic income?
I do but that’s not where we are. It’s a very correct idea, what it essentially says is that, I believe Finland is moving in that direction… but right now where we are, it’s a step too far for the USA. So what we are doing, I authored the legislation, to raise the minimum wage in the USA from $11.20 dollars per hour which is very low, we have offered legislation that now has 30 co-sponsors to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. And we are also addressing a very important issue of wages in America, I don’t know what it is here, women in general make 79 cents on the dollar compared to men doing the same work. We are trying to push forward the radical idea of equal pay for equal work.
The second question from students is: Do you think a viable and robust third party could emerge in the near future?
Good question. When I became mayor of Burlington I defeated both Democrats and Republicans, I ran as an Independent. That was how I won. In recent years democrats have been supporting me in order to take on the Republicans. There are parts of the country where the third party could work. In Vermont we have the most successful third party in the country. We have a number of people in the legislature that are a part of what we call the Progressive Party. Now actually… well, we are not like you are (Germany), a parliamentary democracy. And if a party starts and they get 5 percent of the vote they can get seats in the parliament… not the case in the USA. It is kind of a winner-takes-all situation. The decision I made, what I am working hard on now is to transform the Democratic Party. Make it different party than it is today, a party made of working people and young people of progressive values rather than a middle of the road party that often doesn’t have the courage to stand up to the big money interests.
The third and last question, do you think America should abandon the electoral college?
Excellent question… it’s hard in a sense to tell you that Hillary Clinton won with over 3 million more votes than Trump. The electoral college is such that you get all the votes in Michigan and Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, wherever it may be… Al Gore lost the presidency in  because of the votes in Florida, so it is hard to say. But a majority is supposed to rule the country… so my answer is yes, but we have a constitution forged in compromise which also says that the House of Representatives is reflective of the population of the state. But each state gets two senators. So we in Vermont think that is a great idea, that we get two representatives like California. But I think that at the end of the day we have to make sure majority runs America.
So the final question, I know you were expecting this, will you run again?
Um… I knew you would ask that and you know what my answer… You see, in America campaigns never end, and people are tired of it. The reason they don’t end is that, number one: the media can cover it. “Sanders says this” instead of actually covering the issues. Number two, people can make a lot of money out of that, in television and advertising, all that stuff. So my honest answer is that I don’t know.
So you have not decided?
The honest answer is that right now we are working night and day trying to defeat Trump’s agenda and rally the American people, rather than worrying about an election three years from now.
I have not decided. The honest answer is that right now we are working night and day trying to defeat Trump’s agenda and rally the American people, rather than worrying about an election three years from now. Let me thank you for your excellent questions and let me conclude on a serious note. I want you all to know that in the United States we have millions and millions of wonderful people working hard every day. And the fight for economic justice, racial justice, environmental justice, social justice and Trump does not reflect the values of most Americans. And we absolutely look forward to working with the great people of Germany, Europe, the UK… Our job is to bring people around the world closer and not create fights that are unnecessary.