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Sen. Bernie Sanders On How Democrats Lost White Voters

Win McNamee Getty Images
Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent, says "the average person is working longer hours, lower wages and they do not see any political party standing up and fighting for their rights."

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is one of two independents in the Senate. Now, the self-described socialist says he may run for president.

Sanders is aligned with Senate Democrats, but he's spoken lately of a problem with the Democratic coalition that elected President Obama. He says working class white voters have abandoned Democrats in large numbers. The party, he says, has "not made it clear that they are prepared to stand with the working class people of this country, take on the big money interests."

NPR's Steve Inskeep sat down with Sanders in his office and talked about his plan for the middle class, how he says the Democratic party lost its way, and American action against Islamic State.


Interview Highlights

On what the Democrats should learn from their midterm election defeat

To see where the Democratic Party is, I think, it's important to understand where America is. And where America is, is that today we are seeing the collapse, the continued collapse, of the American middle class. You have working class families who have given up the dream of sending their kids to college. My family never had any money. My father came ... from Poland without a nickel in his pocket. He was able to send two of his kids to college. That dream is now not a reality for a whole lot of folks in this country.

And then people look out and they say, "Gee, the wealthiest people are doing phenomenally well." And where are the Democrats? Do people see the Democratic Party standing up to Wall Street? Any of these guys going to jail? Not really. The average person is working longer hours, lower wages and they do not see any political party standing up and fighting for their rights. What they see is a Republican Party becoming extremely right wing, controlled by folks like the Koch brothers. But they do not see a party representing the working class of this country.

On why he says Democrats are losing white voters


Well, I am focusing on the fact that whether you're white or black or Hispanic or Asian, if you are in the working class, you are struggling to keep your heads above water. You're worried about your kids. What should the Democratic Party be talking about, Steve? What they should be talking about is a massive federal jobs program. There was once a time when our nation's infrastructure — roads, bridges, water systems, rail — were the envy of the world. Today that's no longer the case.

I would say if you go out on the street and you talk to people and say, "Which is the party of the American working class?" People would look to you like you were a little bit crazy, they wouldn't know what you were talking about, and they certainly wouldn't identify the Democrats.

On African-American support for Democrats

Well, here's what you got. What you got is an African-American president, and the African-American community is very very proud that this country has overcome racism and voted for him for president. And that's kind of natural. You've got a situation where the Republican Party has been strongly anti-immigration, and you've got a Hispanic community which is looking to the Democrats for help, but that's not important.

You should not be basing your politics based on your color. What you should be basing your politics on is, 'how is your family doing?' ... In the last election, in state after state, you had an abysmally low vote for the Democrats among white, working class people. And I think the reason for that is that the Democrats have not made it clear that they are prepared to stand with the working class people of this country, take on the big money interests. I think the key issue that we have to focus on, and I know people are uncomfortable about talking about it, is the role of the billionaire class in American society.

On why Americans are uncomfortable talking about the 'billionaire class'

Because they fund organizations like NPR and the media in general. Because they make huge campaign contributions, to politics, to politicians of all stripes.

On the U.S. approach to battling Islamic State in Syria and Iraq

I think the president is ... moving us in the right direction. My own view is that if we're gonna be successful in defeating this brutal organization called ISIS, what needs to happen is that the people in the region, the Muslim nations, are gonna have to take the responsibility of leading that effort. It cannot be the United States of America. In many ways I think that's exactly what ISIS wants. They want this to be a war of the United States versus ISIS, of the west versus the east, of Christianity versus Islam. What has got to happen is countries like Saudi Arabia which, by the way, has the fourth largest defense budget in the world ... they're gonna have to step up to the plate and take the leadership in fighting ISIS.

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