Last week, CNN published a report about Bernie Sanders’s time as a member of an independent left-wing political party in Vermont called the Liberty Union Party. “Bernie Sanders in the 1970s urged nationalization of most major industries,” the headline read. Socialists were impressed, but not everyone shared our enthusiasm.
According to CNN, the Liberty Union Party called for “nationalization of the energy industry, public ownership of banks, telephone, electric, and drug companies and of the major means of production such as factories and capital, as well as other proposals such as a 100% income tax on the highest income earners in America.” Sanders ran for governor of Vermont and US Senate on the Liberty Union Party ticket four times between 1972 and 1976, and was briefly the party’s chairman. His dissatisfaction with its inactivity between elections led to his departure in 1977.
This history wasn’t exactly a secret. It made the rounds in 2016, with some using it to smear Bernie as an “out-and-out Stalinist.” The new report has solicited even more red-baiting attacks from the Right. “If there were any doubt that Democrats are the party of socialism,” said the spokesman for the Republican National Committee, “their highest-polling 2020 candidate has called for total government control of our country’s industries.”
But the GOP’s got it twisted. The CNN report doesn’t say anything about the Democratic Party — except by stark contrast. In fact, only a handful of top-ranking Democrats are even willing to come out for Medicare for All and tuition-free college, and the few that do support these enormously popular proposals today were mostly pulled left in Bernie’s wake.
On the contrary, the CNN report reveals Bernie to be a remarkable outlier in a political field crowded with corporate mercenaries. Bernie has been fighting against corporate domination and the exploitation of working people his entire life. We hardly needed more proof, but here it was anyway.
Bernie’s rationale for his suggestion in 1973 that we nationalize energy companies was that it’s “grossly unfair that low income and working people are being forced to contribute more and more profit to the already overflowing coffers of billionaire owners.” He added, “The oil industry, and the entire energy industry, should be owned by the public and used for the public good — not for additional profits for billionaires.”
Though this idea may strike some as radical compared to his current agenda, the politics animating it are unmistakably Bernie’s. And it must be said that Medicare for All, his signature policy proposal, was also considered unthinkable before he popularized it during his 2016 presidential campaign. Medicare for All would nationalize the health insurance industry, replacing private for-profit companies with a single public program — just like what Bernie proposed to do with the oil companies in the seventies.
In 1993, twenty years after his involvement with the Liberty Union Party, Bernie brought his first single-payer bill to Congress. “Our system is not in need of band-aids or patchwork or such concepts as managed competition. We are in need of a new system,” he said as he introduced it. Some called him crazy, but he was on a mission. “The American people believe that healthcare must be a right of all citizens and not just the privilege of the wealthy.”
His message stayed consistent for the next two decades. “Healthcare must be recognized as a right, not a privilege,” he wrote in 2013, in the twilight of his relative obscurity. “The American people understand that our current healthcare system is not working… The only long-term solution to America’s healthcare crisis is a single-payer national healthcare program.”
In just a few short years, after staying the course for half a century, he would break through with this message and become the most popular politician in the United States.
Bernie has long backed ambitious pro-working-class policies even when they were considered fringe, convinced that the public’s appetite for fairness would eventually override its pessimism about what’s politically possible.
In the Democratic Party presidential primary race, that history sets Bernie apart.
When Bernie was in his thirties, he was attempting to build an independent political party whose purpose, he said, was “to create a situation in which the ordinary working people take what rightfully belongs to them.”
When Kamala Harris was in her thirties, she was a prosecutor in the San Francisco District Attorney’s office, advancing a sterling political career by sending people to jail.
When Beto O’Rourke was in his thirties, he was positioning himself as a social liberal while gentrifying low-income Latino neighborhoods in El Paso, calling for “better checks on collective bargaining in the public sector,” and wooing wealthy Republican backers.
When Elizabeth Warren was in her thirties, she was a Republican. She only changed party affiliation when she became concerned that GOP’s inattention to the optimal conditions of market competition would imperil capitalism, an economic system she cherishes.
When Joe Biden was in his thirties, he was fighting against efforts to racially integrate public schools. Not yet a politician, Biden was a staunch opponent of busing, calling it “the single most devastating issue that could occur to Delaware.” On the subject of racism, Biden added, “I don’t feel responsible for my father’s sins — only for my sins.”
In contrast to young Biden, young Bernie was an activist fighting against racial discrimination in education.
Decades later, Biden and Bernie’s polar opposite reactions to such issues were again on display, this time as differing stances on crime policy. In a 1994 Congressional debate, Biden scaremongered about predatory criminals and said the nation needed to “take back our streets by more cops, more prisons.” In that same debate, Bernie spoke out against mass incarceration, called for a less punitive criminal justice system, and beseeched Congress to fight crime by ending mass poverty.
Just as Biden’s early stance on school integration was a reliable indicator of how he’d approach criminal justice issues, Bernie’s early calls to bring industries under public control are a reliable indicator of how he’d behave as president. They suggest he’s not afraid of offending the business community, and that his instinct will be to fight for the working class.
If we’re serious about taking on the formidable power of the ruling elite and building a society based on equality and democracy, we should look at the candidates’ lifelong records and ask, which of them truly shares those priorities.