In 2004-05, I was lucky enough to have been the Editor-in-Chief of the Vermont Cynic, the student newspaper at the University of Vermont. In that time I interviewed many politicians looking to court the college vote. Bernie Sanders was memorable in that he told me—straight up—he didn’t care for my questions about socialism, third-party candidates and the popular Vermont Progressive Party. His main—ultimately failing—goal was to make sure George W. Bush didn’t see a second term in the White House.
Vermont Cynic: How important is this year’s election, and why should college students to be active participants?
Bernie Sanders: This election is the most important election in American history, or at least modern American history. It is especially important for young people and my campaign is trying to get as many people involved in the political process as is possible.
If young people are not involved the issues that they are concerned about they are not going to be heard. If we continue to have voter turnout among young people around 15-20 percent, with 80 percent not voting, then the issues like financial aid for college, the environment, women’s rights and the potential draft are just not going to be dealt with as strongly as they should be.
What will be Senator Kerry’s most valuable asset be as president?
That he is not George W. Bush. This campaign, despite what Republican operatives are telling us, is about making an assessment of what has happened in the last four years.
If people think that this country is doing well economically, if people are satisfied with our foreign policy in Iraq, if they are satisfied with the most disastrous environmental policy in modern history, if they are satisfied with a president who wants to take away a women’s right to choose, and if they think that the type of financial aid that is going into colleges is adequate then they should vote for George W. Bush.
This is a campaign about the last four years and who the president of the United States is. My view of Bush is that he is the most extreme right-wing president that we have seen in the modern history of this country. What he is doing is terrible for the environment, terrible for women’s rights, terrible for college students in terms of financial aid. The next four years will be even worse. So my main interest in this campaign, to be very frank, is to see that George Bush is not reelected.
On all of those issues is Kerry better? Do I have disagreements with Senator Kerry?
I sure do, but they pale in comparison to my concern with another four year with President Bush. I think that people should understand, and not be manipulated by Washington Republican operatives, that the real issue of this campaign is whether or not the guy who is president has done a good job. If you think so then vote for him, if not then it is time for a change. While people may have disagreements with John Kerry there is no question that on all of these issues: Iraq, financial aid, healthcare, woman’s rights, the environment, Kerry is far superior to Bush.
What are the proper steps that should be taken with Iraq that are in the best interest for the American people, the American soldiers and the Iraqi people?
The bottom line is that I am one of those people, who not only voted against the war, but who led the opposition to giving the president the authority to go to war. I have been very strongly against the war because I thought that it was in fact counter-productive to the war on terrorism which is something that we must fight.
Terrorism is a very, very serious problem, but I think putting $200 billion into Iraq has deflected attention away from al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and has not been a good thing for us in terms of the war on terrorism. It has alienated people throughout the entire world. You cannot fight a war on terrorism if so many people throughout the world are looking negatively at the United States.
America is now held in lower esteem, not only in the Muslim world, but also all over the world. That is clearly not good for us and not good for the war on terrorism. One of the things that we need far more international support than we currently have. Terrorism is an international problem its not just an American problem as we saw recently in Russia, Spain and as we saw in a number of other countries. America should not have to go at it alone.
We have to internationalize our policy. We have to pay a lot more attention to the needs of people in the Muslim world and in the developing world to make sure that they understand we are on their side and not their enemies. Otherwise, you will have people like Osama bin Laden recruiting terrorists under an anti-American banner.
The right-wing extremism is not only in the White House, people like your opponent, Greg Parke, have claimed that it is people like you who are responsible for 9/11. How do you reconcile this great disparity between both sides?
I think that it’s unfortunate that people like my opponent would use the tragedy of 9/11 in such a pathetic way. To say that any American is responsible for 9/11 is a pathetic statement and I don’t think that anyone would take it seriously. This is what the extreme right wing in America would like people to believe.
Those of us who voted against the war, or those of US who have had concern of the functioning of the CIA and the other intelligence agencies are so called, quoted-unquote, responsible for 9/11 is too absurd of a remark to actually respond to. Mr. Parke is actually an extreme right-winger and is part of an extreme right wing movement that I think is very dangerous for this country.
It seems that both political sides—the right and the left—are moving apart in many ways. Is there anyway to reconcile that politically?
I think that the issue is that people just have to simply focus on the issues that are important to them. It’s not an issue of left or right. If you think that the economy is doing well, if young people feel confident that the jobs that will be available to them when they graduate school will be good jobs then maybe they want to vote for Mr. Bush. But if they are concerned that President Bush is actually the first president to lose jobs, that real wages are going down, that the jobs that are going to be open to young people, everything being equal, will pay lower wages then they should think twice.
If they are feeling good that Bush has what is generally regarded as the worst environmental record, the League of Conservation Voters gave him an F, if people who are in college feel good about that, that they don’t mind that they have a guy who’s an F environmentally. If Bush is reelected women are going to lose their right to choose, Roe vs. Wade will be overturned, women will not be able to control their own bodies.
I think that that is unfortunate and wrong, most people do. But that is what Bush wants to do. Don’t worry about left and right and all that other terminology. Worry about the issues and if think that president Bush has done a good job then you should vote for him. I think that he has done a terrible job for middle class working families, for young people, for the environment, for women’s rights and I think that he should be defeated in November.
Not only do students vote in low numbers but the does general public as well. I spoke with hip hop artist Talib Kweli the other night when he came to UVM and he said that he would not vote because he believes that his vote would not do anything. This seems to be a sentiment among many Americans, around half the voting population, how do we engage these people in the political process?
I probably do more of that than anyone else in Vermont. By the time this campaign is over I will have had over 50 meeting to register voters. We will be speaking to thousands of people in Vermont, bringing them out and trying to engage them in the political process.
If anyone tells you that they don’t want to vote and that their vote does not matter, you tell them that that is a stupid assertion. That’s what happens in a democracy, everyone has one vote. That’s called democracy. If people don’t vote then people who have the money and the power will vote, and will help money to influence what goes on to the detriment of everyday people. I think that anyone who says that voting doesn’t matter is really quite stupid.
What changes are needed to make college more affordable? The average student now graduates with nearly $20,000 in student loans.
That is a disgrace. For the first time in modern history lower income students are applying in lower number than before because they don’t want to get out of college $30,000-$40,000 in debt. That is what happens when you are lower income. Clearly the answer is, instead of giving tax breaks to million and billionaires what congress and the president has to do, which he has not, is substantially increase financial aid. In fact, what we can and should do is to make sure that everyone in America who wants to go to college should be able to do so without coming out in debt.
The current system is a disaster, the cost of education is soaring, and more and more people are finding it harder and harder to afford it and more and more people are coming out deeper and deeper in debt. That is not right.