Some 40 years ago in Washington, D.C., I agreed to host a series of TV interviews with presidential candidates. Questioning the first few proved problematic. Their responses to questions seemed to come from tape cassettes implanted in their skulls. They’d heard the questions before, and we’d heard their answers.
How to make their performances more revealing? The possibilities of someone tipping over a candidate’s chair, or unexpectedly throwing them a baseball, were attractive but rejected by the producer.
The ultimate solution was found in a question I have put to presidential candidates then, and throughout the years since, often in Iowa living rooms. “Senator, let’s make two assumptions. One, those of us here think you are ‘right on the issues.’ And two, you are elected president. Now tell us, why will coal mine owners have less ability to maintain coal miners’ unsafe working conditions than they do now?” (One could substitute the military-industrial complex’s control of defense budgets, or oil company subsidies.)
Some candidates would stare blankly. Some would become angry. Apparently, few if any had ever thought about the problem, and none offered a solution.
When I put the question to Senator Barack Obama in 2007, he replied, “Well, Nick, I’ve been a community organizer.” I’d visited with Saul Alinsky and read his books. Both Obama and I were familiar with Heather Booth’s Midwest Academy in Chicago, where I’d learned community organizing. I too quickly leapt to the conclusion that Obama got it. He would become our national community organizer-in-chief! I was mistaken.
Senator Sanders not only gets it, he makes it explicit. He rejects chants of “Bernie, Bernie” by saying, “this is not about ‘me,’ it’s about ‘we.’” “This campaign is about creating a movement of millions of Americans fighting to transform our country with demands that government represent all of us,” he’s said.
Of course, like most Americans, I like his specific proposals — increased minimum wage, health care for all, higher taxes on the wealthy, avoiding unnecessary wars, tuition-free college, jobs improving infrastructure, and many more.
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But far more important than the specifics is his belief that government should serve all the people, the socio-economic bottom as well as the top 1 percent. That a government of the major donors, by the lobbyists, for the wealthy is not what the founders had in mind. That when candidates of either the Democratic or Republican parties’ establishments talk of proposals, the results look a lot more like capitulation in the cause of campaign contributions than compromise on behalf of the American people.
Of course, I’m impressed with the more conventional things said about Sen. Sanders. His authenticity. His enormous, enthusiastic crowds, and millions of supporters. That he not only talks against Wall Street and PAC funding, he walks the walk by refusing their money — while raising enough from small donors. He’s had experience as a mayor, congressman and senator, one who understands the federal government’s working and impact. Up against Republican candidates, he’s as easily (or more) electable as the others. He has the best “unfavorable” numbers.
But most important to me? His lifelong advocacy that governments exist for the 99 percent. His ability to answer my 40-year-old question; his knowledge of what’s required before a government can serve the people. A campaign that’s already begun building that citizen organization.
Are you in the 1 percent? There are establishment candidates for you. If not, whether Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or Green, it serves your interest and mine if Sen. Sanders’ vision and voice comes booming out of Iowa’s precinct caucuses, loud and clear across America throughout 2016. It’s up to you.
• Nicholas Johnson of Iowa City has held presidential appointments during the administrations of three U.S. presidents, and been involved in presidential elections since 1952. He maintains nicholasjohnson.org and FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.com. Comments email@example.com