The mainstream media has already written off Bernie Sanders and crowned Joe Biden as the Democratic candidate to challenge Donald Trump (despite the primaries being far from over). But that hasn’t silenced the Vermont senator.
Sanders has long seen himself as more than just a conventional politician and acts as the voice for a movement. This last week, he laid out a socialist programme for the pandemic.
Sanders began with a recognition of the severity of the crisis, saying that “the crisis we face from coronavirus is on the scale of a major war, and we must act accordingly. Nobody knows how many fatalities we may see, but they could equal or surpass the U.S. casualties we saw in World War II.” American casualties in that war exceeded 400,000.
Unlike Trump, Sanders started with idea of community, of this being a shared problem. “Now is the time for solidarity,” he says, using a word rarely uttered by American politicians but familiar to the labour movement. “We must fight with love and compassion for those most vulnerable to the effects of this pandemic.”
Sanders laid out what he means by the most vulnerable, the people for whom we must show compassion. These include, in his view, “those in nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities, those confined in immigration detention centers, those who are currently incarcerated, and all people regardless of immigration status.”
These are fighting words in a country that criminalises immigration and that practices mass incarceration (with more people in jail than in China). Among Sanders’ opponents on the right, there is little sympathy for immigrants or prisoners.
He was clear in his condemnation of the Trump administration. “Unfortunately, in this time of international crisis,” he said, “the current administration is largely incompetent, and its incompetence and recklessness has threatened the lives of many people.”
And then he laid out his programme, a socialist programme, for the coronavirus pandemic.
He demanded that a national state of emergency be declared and that a group of experts be convened to direct a response to the crisis that is “comprehensive, compassionate, and based first and foremost on science and fact.”
Sanders was also demanding that the government be completely transparent and called for “daily information – clear, science-based information – from credible scientific voices.”
If it sounds like he’s making a lot of use of the word “science”, there’s a reason for that. In the US, especially in the Republican party, there is considerable resistance to taking a scientific approach to anything.
Sanders has long fought for universal health care, but even now, before such a system can be set up, he demanded that the “government must be clear that in the midst of this emergency, that everyone in our country – regardless of income or where they live – must be able to get all of the health care they need without cost.” In other words, the same core principles of Medicare for All could be applied right now, in the midst of the pandemic crisis.
He listed some very specific proposals, including a guarantee that a vaccine or treatment, when it becomes available, must be delivered free of charge to all. He called for emergency funding for paid family and medical leave. He demanded an expansion of community health centres across the country. And in a country whose President is fond of boasting how it leads the world in everything, Sanders dared to speak the unvarnished truth: “There are other countries around the world who are doing better than we are,” he said. “We should be learning from them.”
And when speaking about the pharmaceutical industry, Sanders said something no other politician in America dares to utter. Those companies, he said, “must be told in no uncertain terms that the medicines that they manufacture for this crisis will be sold at cost. This is not the time for profiteering or price gouging.”
I could go on about his plan to address those suffering from the “global economic meltdown,” as he calls it. But I think in looking at what Sanders says about the coronavirus pandemic, we are hearing the voice of an authentic democratic socialist, who draws not only upon the practical experience of other countries, but also from the moral foundations of the labour movement. It is a programme based on the ideals of solidarity, compassion and love – words which Sanders is not afraid to use.
In the age of global pandemics, this is what socialism sounds like.
• Eric Lee is the convenor of “London for Bernie”, writing here in a personal capacity