Skip to main content
Brookings Now

Sen. Bernie Sanders: We have a government of, by, and for billionaires

Fred Dews

Reflecting on Abraham Lincoln’s stirring close to his Gettysburg Address, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said to a Brookings audience today that “we are moving rapidly away from our democratic heritage into an oligarchic form of society where today we are experiencing a government of the billionaires, by the billionaires, and for the billionaires.”

The remarks came during an event hosted by the Center for Effective Public Management at Brookings during which Senator Sanders, ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, spoke about his vision for growth and rebuilding the American middle class. “Today in my view,” he continued, “the most serious problem we face as a nation is the grotesque and growing level of wealth and income inequality. This is a profound moral issue, it is an economic issue, and it is a political issue.”

Watch his entire address as well as the Q&A session moderated by Senior Fellow E.J. Dionne, Jr., the W. Averell Harriman Chair.

Sen. Sanders described many of the challenges that the middle class face, including lower wages, increased poverty, high unemployment (11.3 percent real unemployment, he said, when you include people working part time who want to work full time), high child poverty, and continued high rates of uninsured (despite the Affordable Care Act). From Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party, Sen. Sanders acknowledged “a lot of angry people out there” who “have every right to be angry.”

He called particular attention to the growing wealth gap in America, and how this plays out in politics. “As a result of disastrous Supreme Court decision, the 5-4 decision on Citizens United,” he said:

billionaire families are now able to spend hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase the candidates of their choice. The billionaire class now owns the economy, and they are working day and night to make certain that they own the United States government.


It appears that one family, the extreme right wing Koch brothers, are prepared to spend more money than either Democratic party or the Republican party in the coming elections. In other words, one family, a family which is worth about $100 billion, may well have a stronger political presence than either of our major parties.

Author


I know that people are not comfortable when I say this. But I want you to take a hard look at what’s going on, take a deep breath, and you tell me whether or not we are looking at a democracy or whether or not we are looking at an oligarchy when you have one family that has more political power than the Democratic Party, than the Republican Party, which can spend unlimited sums of money  not only on campaigns, but on think tanks and media, I worry very, very much about the future of democracy in this country.

Because of this, Sen. Sanders argued, “it is absolutely imperative that we pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and in fact why we must move forward toward public funding of elections.”

Senator Sanders called attention to his 12-step Agenda for America, and highlighted some of the key points, including an infrastructure-focused jobs program; raising the federal minimum wage; moving away from fossil fuels because climate change is real and human-induced; ensure trade policies incentivize companies to invest in America; break up the ever-consolidating financial sector; expand free education; and pursue real tax reform.

He concluded his remarks by asserting that “the struggle that we’re in now is:

not just about protecting Social Security, or Medicare, or Medicaid, or making college affordable for our kids, or raising the minimum wage, it is something deeper than that. It is about whether we can put together a vibrant grass-roots movement all over this country which says to the billionaire class, ‘sorry, government in this country is going to work for all of us, and not just the top 1 percent.’

When asked during the Q&A session whether he was going to run for president in 2016, Sen. Sanders replied:

It’s no great secret. I am giving thought to running for president of the United States. At a time when the middle class is disappearing, when we have grotesque levels of income and wealth inequality, when climate change threatens not only this country but the entire planet, when you have a handful of billionaires in the process of buying the United States government and our political system, I think it is imperative that we have candidates who stand up for the working families of this country who are prepared to take on the big money interests. …


On the other hand I also understand political realities. And that is, when you take on the billionaire class it aint easy and if I do something … I want to do it well and it’s important not just for my ego that I do it well but it’s important for millions of people who share the same set of beliefs that I hold. So to do it well we would have to put together the strongest grassroots movement in the modern history of this country where millions of people are saying, ‘enough is enough …


There is a lot of sentiment that enough is enough, that we need fundamental changes, that the establishment—whether it is the economic establishment, the political establishment, or the media establishment—is failing the American people. But the gut feeling, the decision that I’m going to have to reach is whether there is that willingness to stand up and fight back. If not, I don’t want to run a futile campaign. If I run I want to run to win, to run to win we need millions of people actively involved.

Get more information about the event here.

Get daily updates from Brookings