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Bernie Sanders on Breaking Big Money’s Grip on Elections

Bernie Sanders is angry about big money’s wholesale purchase of political power.

Part of the Series

Bernie Sanders. (Photo: Moyers & Company)Bernie Sanders. (Photo: Moyers & Company)Bernie Sanders, Vermont’s independent senator, is angry about what he sees as big money’s wholesale purchase of political power. It’s a grave threat, he believes, not only to our electoral process but to democracy itself.

Two weeks ago, Sanders visited a town hall meeting in Richmond, California, to fire up supporters of Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and a slate of progressive city council candidates. They’re running against a ticket backed by the energy giant Chevron, the third largest corporation in the United States. Chevron owns an enormous refinery in Richmond and is spending $3 million to defeat the progressives, who have charged the oil company with damaging the city’s economy and environment.

Chevron’s Richmond money – they’re spending more than $100 per voter – is just a fraction of the billions being spent this year on the most expensive midterm elections in history, money unleashed by Citizens United, McCutcheon and other court decisions that have turned voting into what feels more like an auction than ‘one person, one vote.’ Because the Supreme Court says money is speech and big business can buy all it wants, corporations are trying to drown out the voice of anyone trying to speak out against them, whether in Congress or a state legislature, on a judge’s bench or in city hall.

“Apparently for these guys, owning and controlling our economy is not enough,” Sanders told the rally. “They now want to own and control the government. And we are not going to allow them to do that. Not in Richmond, not anywhere.”


BILL MOYERS: Welcome. This just in from the prophetic Andy Borowitz: With midterm elections a few days away, “a new poll indicates that billionaires are likely to retain control of the United States government…proxy candidates of billionaires are likely to win ninety-eight per cent of next Tuesday’s races, with the remaining two per cent leaning billionaire.”

Now Andy Borowitz is one of our leading humorists and I figured he was joking. But now I’m not so sure. And neither, I’d guess, is United States Senator Bernie Sanders. Because a couple of weeks ago, Bernie Sanders was in Richmond, California, a small city of just over 100,000 in the Bay Area of San Francisco. He was speaking out against the energy giant Chevron and the big money it’s spending to influence the local elections there.

SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS in Richmond, CA: And if Chevron can roll over you, they and their buddies will roll over every community in America. If you can stand up and beat them with all of their money, you’re going to give hope to people all over America that we can control our destinies.

BILL MOYERS: Chevron’s the Fortune 500 company that has a big refinery in Richmond and acts like it owns the place. After that refinery erupted in fire two years ago, the city, led by Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, sued Chevron for what it alleges is a long history of negligence. Chevron’s fighting back, spending an incredible $3 million plus to beat McLaughlin and her allies and replace them with a more pliable city council that will protect the oil company’s interests.

All that cash for one small election – but it’s just part of a spending frenzy of perhaps $4 billion all across the country, making this the most expensive midterms in history; money unleashed by a series of Supreme Court decisions allowing millionaires and billionaires to drown out the voice of anyone who tries to speak against them.

And that’s why Bernie Sanders is with me now. He’s not a Democrat. He’s not a Republican. He’s an independent in his second senate term, after 16 years in the House of Representatives, and eight as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont. Welcome back.

BERNIE SANDERS: Great to be with you.

BILL MOYERS: It’s a long way from Burlington, Vermont, to Richmond, California. And there’s a lot of other places you could’ve been going. Why did you go there?

BERNIE SANDERS: Because it disgusts me and angers me to see a huge, multinational corporation like Chevron try to destroy a local government, which is standing up for the working people and standing up for the environment. The idea that just because they have unlimited sums of money, they can toss aside and defeat people who are trying to do the right thing. It’s not what America is supposed to be about and it upset me very much.

BILL MOYERS: You were very upset. Let me play you another excerpt from the speech.

BERNIE SANDERS: Unlimited sums of money from one of the largest corporation in America who says, ‘How dare you ordinary people, working class people, people of color, young people, how dare you think you have a right to run your city government? Who do you think you are? We’re going to teach you a lesson. We’re going to tell you who owns this community, who controls this community.’ And that’s what this fight is about here in Richmond. And you damn well better win that fight.

BILL MOYERS: So what is the fight?

BERNIE SANDERS: The fight is for the future of democracy in America. What you’re seeing in Richmond is one small part of what’s going on in this country today, Bill. And let me just say this. If people think the situation is bad now, and it is horrendous, the chairman of the Republican Party now, he wants to take it further. He thinks Citizens United did not go far enough. So the Koch brothers and he want to eliminate all campaign finance legislation, all regulations, and have a situation where the billionaires will say to somebody, ‘You want to run for governor of California? Here’s a check of a half a billion dollars. You work for me. No longer independent expenditures, we own you completely.’

BILL MOYERS: I read one account that says Chevron is spending over $150 for every, quote, “likely” voter. What do they get back for their investment?

BERNIE SANDERS: Well, what they’re going to get back, clearly, is a city council which will be less attentive to the environmental needs of that community. They are the largest employer. They have, as you’ve mentioned a moment ago, there was a terrible fire there a couple of years ago. People there are very concerned about the environmental impacts of Chevron, and they will get a much more docile city council if they win.

BILL MOYERS: Chevron would tell you they’re just protecting those interests they have there. And that they will also tell you that they create jobs and pay taxes there for public services.

BERNIE SANDERS: Do they create jobs? Of course they create jobs. But the point is, corporations all over this country create jobs. But they cannot run and dominate our democracy.

BILL MOYERS: I wager that just about everybody watching this show knows what you and I think about this issue. And yet, while you’re speaking and I’m reporting, those folks are out there creating a reality on the ground with their money. And things get worse.

BERNIE SANDERS: Things are getting worse. You know, when you look at this campaign, and you realize the enormously serious issues this country faces, right, we got a collapsing middle class. We have more wealth and income inequality today than we’ve had since the 1920s. We have all of these enormous issues. And what big money can do is put an unbelievable amount of TV and radio ads out there to deflect attention from the real issues facing the American people.

BILL MOYERS: Well, that’s interesting. Because, you know, I’ve seen you quite recently on television. It’s always the same questions and always the same five headlines. What’s the story that the corporate press is not letting you tell?

BERNIE SANDERS: Oh, my God. You see, this is the issue. I mean, I’ve been on a million of these shows. They say, ‘Here’s the story of the day. What do you think about the Secret Service? What do you think about this? What do you think about Ebola?’ All of those issues are important.

But the issues that impact ordinary people, is they’re asking why, despite all of the productivity, people are working longer hours for lower wages. Have we had that discussion, Bill? Have you ever heard anybody talking about it? They’re asking how come we’ve had this unfettered free-trade policies that have resulted in the loss of millions of good-paying jobs and you got both parties still saying, well, that’s pretty good.

And this issue of income and wealth inequality, wow. One percent owning 37 percent of the wealth in America. Bottom 60 percent owning 1.7 percent. One family, the Walton family of Wal-Mart, owning more wealth than the bottom 40 percent. Do you think we should be talking about that issue? You can’t get the discussion going on TV.


BERNIE SANDERS: Because it’s not in the interest of the corporations who own the networks to actually be educating the American people so that are debating the real issues. It’s much better to deflect attention away from those issues and get into the story of the day.

There was some guy who was a football fan who walked halfway across the country. Boy, that’s a really big story. Or, Chris Christie yelled at somebody. History will certainly remember this as one of the important issues of the 21st century.

BILL MOYERS: This, to me, is this fundamental question facing Bernie Sanders. How do you get your message directly to those who need it most? And you know who they are. They’re conservative working people, who don’t realize that their party has been sold all these years to the financial and business interests that are rigging the rules against them. How do you reach those people?

BERNIE SANDERS: Well, believe me, I wish I had the magic answer. You’re asking exactly the right question. There are parts of this country, Bill, where the only information people get is on radio. You got Rush Limbaugh. 95 percent of talk radio is extreme right wing. You got Fox Television, which does an extraordinary job of deflecting attention away from the real issues.

The idea that you have these working-class people who are voting for candidates who refuse to raise the minimum wage, who refuse to provide health care for their kids, who want to send their jobs to China, who want to give tax breaks to corporations, it blows my mind. And that is the issue that we have to figure out.

BILL MOYERS: But is there no way to make a concerted effort to reach out conservative working people, people who share, I think, a populous bias in behalf of government by, and for the people. Wouldn’t you bolster your credentials as someone willing to really shake things up, get beyond this distracting tedium of left and right and horserace mentalities that you’re asked about all the time on the radio. Is there a way to make a campaign out of that?

BERNIE SANDERS: This is something that I’m thinking about hard. When they ask Tea Party people, and I’ve seen some of the polls, do you think we should cut Social Security? You know what they say overwhelmingly? No. Should you cut Medicare? No. Tea Party working-class people will be shocked to know that the people who founded the Tea Party, the Koch brothers, want to eliminate Social Security, Medicare, the concept of minimum wage. In other words, the ideology of the Koch brothers, who put the initial money in to found the Tea Party, is very different from the average, working-class person. And you’re saying how do we reach out to get to work in coalition with those folks is something that we have got to do.

BILL MOYERS: I heard Morning Joe ask you if you’re going to run for president. And you’ve been asked that everywhere. And I don’t want to beat a dead horse. I particularly don’t want to beat a dead dark horse. But if you were to do it, and I’m not going to play games with you about saying, are you, or are you not? If you were to do it, would you run as a Democrat or an Independent?

BERNIE SANDERS: I haven’t resolved that yet. There are advantages and disadvantages of both. There is strong contempt now for both the Democratic and Republican parties. All of the elections that I have won in Vermont have been as an independent.

So, that speaks to running as an independent. The problem is that the deck is really stacked against independents. You would have to spend an enormous amount of time, money, energy just getting on the damn ballot in 50 states in this country. And then, the media would probably marginalize you. And you may not be able to get into some of the debates.

That’s what I’m kind of weighing. But the main issue that I’m trying to figure out, and I’m going around the country talking to people, is there support for a candidacy which is really prepared to take on the billionaire class? Is it, in fact, possible to do what you just said?

It’s easy to talk about, let’s reach out to working-class tea party people. Can you do it? How do you do it? How do you get the resources to do it? How do you build the grassroots organization? This is what I do believe from the bottom of my heart. In this election coming up right now, the estimate is that 60 percent of the people are not going to vote, 60 percent.

BILL MOYERS: Midterm election?

BERNIE SANDERS: Yes. 80 percent of low-income, working people are not going to vote. Bill, what I am absolutely sure of is that we do not change this country unless there is a political revolution, there is a radical change in consciousness where working people are not only voting, they’re participating in the political process, they understand how important politics and government is for the future of this country and for their kids.

BILL MOYERS: So, what’s your strategy? I mean—

BERNIE SANDERS: The strategy—

BILL MOYERS: I know you care about, I know you want to make a difference. But I know the system is against your making a difference.

BERNIE SANDERS: You have to bring people together who may not agree on every issue, but who understand that the middle class is collapsing and we are moving toward an oligarchic form of society, where the billionaires will control the economy and the political life of this country.

So, that means reaching out to people from different walks of life and say, you got to overcome this difference and that difference. So, I think what we have to do, Bill, is lay out an agenda which says we are going to take on the billionaire class. You know what? We’re going to overturn Citizens United. We’re going to move to public funding of elections so these guys don’t buy elections.

BILL MOYERS: Are you going to ask them to join a third party?

BERNIE SANDERS: That’s a question we have—

BILL MOYERS: It’s a difficult question.

BERNIE SANDERS: It’s a difficult question. You know, I have, that’s been my life, as an independent. And that’s one I’m wrestling with, Bill. But given, I, the answer is I just don’t know. But what I do know is you need a strong progressive agenda which says, you know, why is it that in a country like Denmark, everybody has health care as a right?

Why is it that higher education is free? Why is it they have a great childcare system? Why is it that they’re leading the world in terms of environmental protection and fighting global warming? Can we do that in this country? The answer is we can. But you’re not going to do it when 60 percent of the people don’t vote in an off presidential election.

BILL MOYERS: How do you make the Hillary wing of the Democratic Party pay attention to the power of a populist message unless you’re in the debates in 2016, when most of the public is paying attention to political messages?

BERNIE SANDERS: This has been my political experience. When you rally the grassroots of the country or the city or of your state, when people begin to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough. We want to do well by our kids. We want to protect the environment. We believe we should join the rest of the world in terms of having health care for all, single-payer health care for all, et cetera, et cetera.’

When people begin to move, the people on top will follow them. So, whether it’s Hillary or anybody else, what we have got to do is mobilize the American people in a way that we have not seen in recent history around a progressive agenda. Bill, every poll that I have seen, when they ask the American people, what is the most important issue that you’re concerned about? You know what they say? Jobs and the economy.

How come we are not investing heavily in rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure. $1 trillion invested in rebuilding roads, bridges, water systems, rail creates 13 million decent-paying jobs. You know what? The American people want us to do that. They want us to raise the minimum wage. So, you need a very strong agenda. You need a mechanism. And you’ve asked a hard question. Easier to say than to do, to rally people around that agenda. And once you do that, things will take care of itself.

BILL MOYERS: This is what Barack Obama did in 2008. He asked people to take over the Democratic Party, progressives and populists, everyday people that you describe in your speech out in Richmond. He asked those people to come in and, elect me and we’ll do just exactly what Bernie Sanders would do if he were president. Hasn’t happened.

BERNIE SANDERS: I have lot of respect for Barack Obama. But, his biggest mistake is that, after running a brilliant campaign in 2008, where millions of people in fact were galvanized, young people, people of color came out and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to make some real change.’ The day after the election he said, okay, thank you very much. Now I’m going to work inside the Beltway and we’re going to start negotiating with Republicans and all that stuff. The simple truth is, in my view, nothing gets done unless millions and millions of people will demand it. Politics is 365 days a year.

BILL MOYERS: Not just voting?

BERNIE SANDERS: Exactly. And anyone, you can have the best person in the world as president of the United States, that person will accomplish nothing unless millions of people are standing behind him or her. Just an example, Bill, everybody, all the young people in this country are worried about student debt. The fact that hundreds of thousands of young people can’t even afford to go to college.

You have a million people, a million young people marching on Washington saying, there’s a vote coming up. And if you vote the wrong way, we know who you are. We actually are paying attention. You aren’t going to get reelected. We will lower the cost of college substantially and deal with the student debt crisis. It will not happen. It will not happen unless millions of people are activated.

BILL MOYERS: The practical issue is how do you get millions of people mobilized if in fact both parties are on the side of money? You know, you’re making the right argument, I know, and people are responding. But they don’t know what to do. If they do what they did with Barack Obama and come out for the Democratic Party, they stand to get betrayed again. If the independent party, third party is difficult to organize and get on the ballot, what do they do?

They’re frustrated. You know, even your own wife says she gets depressed when she hears you make another speech like you did in Richmond. And people write me and say, ‘I’m depressed watching your show because I don’t know what to do.’

BERNIE SANDERS: Number one, we are, in fact, a very, very difficult moment. But let’s also look back on history. Bill, if you and I were chatting here 30 years ago and we would say, you said to me, you know, ‘I think that the United States, people of our country are going to overcome the deep racism in this country and elect an African American,’ you said that 30 years ago, people would say, ‘Bill, you’re crazy. That’ll never happen.’

Thirty years ago we had two women in the United States Senate. Today we have 20 and that number is certainly going to go up. In terms of gay rights. If you and I were sitting here ten years ago and you were to say to me, ‘Bernie, you know, I think in conservative states in 2014, they’re going to be passing gay marriage.’ Would you have dreamed of that ten years ago? You wouldn’t have. I would not have, okay?

Right now, we’re engaged in a huge fight. It is the economic struggle against the billionaire class who wants it all. They want to kill Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the whole thing. Can we beat them? We can. Now, here’s some good news. I know, in the middle of all the bad news. I’ll never forget this as long as I live. I was elected mayor of Burlington in 1981. I made promises to the people of my city. Two years later, Bill, we doubled, almost doubled voter turnout.

How’s that? And you know why? Because I kept my word and people said, you know what? He is making a difference. He didn’t lie to us. So if you have leadership which delivers, or at least says, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, remember what he said? He said, ‘These are the economic royalists. They hate my guts and I welcome their hatred because I’m on your side.’ That’s the kind of policy and language we need.

BILL MOYERS: I apologize for being tedious but you’re right, you know? We— a lot of changes. Black rights, women’s rights, gay rights. But here in New York, we have a governor who’s been really good on gay rights and he’s a handmaiden of Wall Street. I mean, Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, their constituency is Wall Street. So people who want to come out and do what you want to do, are led by people who say, well, we’ll go only so far because our loyalty remains to money.

BERNIE SANDERS: Yes. The only point, there is a difference between social issues and the economic issues. And I will not deny for one moment that taking on the ruling class of this country and the billionaire class, it’s tough stuff. It is tough stuff. So I don’t have any magical solutions. But what I do know is that if we do not create an economy that works for ordinary people, if we do not end the fact that 95 percent of all new income now goes to the top one percent. We’ve got to end it, and the only way I know to do that is to rally ordinary people around the progressive agenda. So our job is to create a 50 state, grassroots movement around a progressive agenda.

BILL MOYERS: And then would the purpose be, as the tea party’s purpose was to take over the Republican Party, would the purpose be to take over the Democratic Party?

BERNIE SANDERS: That is certainly one of the options. I mean, the options are to—

BILL MOYERS: Because I don’t see how you could do it just as an independent outside, stiff-armed by both parties, ignored by the press.

BERNIE SANDERS: Well, let’s be very clear. Now, the Tea Party has been enormously successful. Enormously successful. They’ve taken kind of a center right party and made it a right wing extremist party. If you had a grassroots movement, if you had the trade union people, if you had the environmental community, the women’s community and ordinary working class people standing up, can you take the Democratic party and make it into a progressive party? I think there’s a chance you can.

BILL MOYERS: But to do that. You have to have some way to respond to neutralize Citizens United. Is there a form of, and I know people’s eyes go dead when I say campaign finance reform, but is there an answer to Citizens United that you think is achievable?

BERNIE SANDERS: Well, people’s eyes should not go dead when you talk about campaign finance reform because if they’re concerned about any issue, they’ve got to be concerned about campaign finance. Give you an example. State of Vermont, we have our candidate for lieutenant governor right now getting public funding running for election. It’s not a huge sum of money, but he’s running a credible campaign. So I think the alternative has got to be to do everything that we can to overturn Citizens United. But move to a public funding of elections. States can do some of that.

BILL MOYERS: There’s a recent poll. More than half of all people in this country do not believe the American dream is real. 59 percent of the people polled in June agreed, quote, the American dream has become impossible for most of us to achieve. And more and more Americans believe, quote, “there’s not much opportunity to get ahead. ” A living wage, retirement security, the opportunity for your children to get ahead are increasingly out of reach. Why aren’t people furious about this?

BERNIE SANDERS: I would say they are furious and Republicans take that anger and channel it against people who are even worse off than working class people. And I think also people don’t see an option, they’ve kind of given up in seeing, yeah, I’m working longer hours for lower wages. Yeah, my kid can’t afford to go to college. Yeah, my aunt does not have any health insurance. What can I do about it?

And also there has not been, because of media, because of weak politics on the part of the Democratic Party, the kind of focus that we need to say, you know where the problem is? These guys are getting richer and richer. You’re getting poorer and poorer. Have you heard that kind of discussion? Have you heard that type of focus? I don’t think so.

BILL MOYERS: What’s wrong, what’s gone wrong with the Democratic Party?

BERNIE SANDERS: In one answer I’d say money. Time after time we see a hesitancy on the part of the Democratic Party to stand up to the billionaire class because you can’t do that when you’re out hustling campaign contributions.

So whether the issues are disastrous trade policy, lowering the cost of prescription drugs, all of these special interests have enormous power and influence to the Democratic Party. Instead of having public meetings with people, you have Democratic candidates running all over the place, trying to raise money to keep up with the Koch brothers. So I would say, you know, money is corrupting, certainly has taken over the Republican Party, has significantly impacted the Democrats.

BILL MOYERS: How do we get money out of politics?

BERNIE SANDERS: Well, first thing is we need a massive grassroots movement to have state after state, and we have, I think, 16 of them already onboard saying, we support a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. I think there’s something like 500 communities around America saying the same thing. Then when we do that, we move to public funding of elections. You want to run? I will not be able to outspend you.

BILL MOYERS: Senator Bernie Sanders, thank you for being with me.

BERNIE SANDERS: Great to be here.

BILL MOYERS: At our website,, there’s a web exclusive interview with Gayle McLaughlin, the mayor of Richmond, California, where Chevron is spending those millions trying to defeat her and other progressive candidates.

And we have a guide to everything you need to know to cast your ballot on Tuesday. And what to do if someone tries to keep you from exercising your right.

That’s all at I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.

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Producer: Gina Kim. Segment Producer: Robert Booth. Editor: Rob Kuhns. Intro Editor: Sikay Tang.

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