Politics

Democracy is under threat, warns Bernie Sanders

Democracy isn't working, Bernie Sanders argues in an exclusive interview with social commentator and Reith lecturer Darren McGarvey. To save it, we have to deal with inequality and corruption in our society.

Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden in the fight for democracy

Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. Image: Alamy/REUTERS/Mike Blake

In the face of “corrupt” political institutions and rising inequality, ordinary people across the planet are losing faith in democracy, United States senator Bernie Sanders has warned.

“In America, and around the world, there are a lot of people who are giving up on democracy. Because democracy, the current democratic structures, are not providing for them,” Sanders told The Big Issue.

“In America, tens of millions of people can’t afford healthcare; they can’t afford childcare; they can’t afford to send their kids to college and they’re looking around and saying, you know, this government, this style of government, the structure of this government hasn’t done anything for me. It doesn’t work for me.” 

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The rising sense of despair and anger at the current political system has been taken advantage of populist politicians to push their own agendas, he added. Think Trump’s assertion that Washington DC was a swamp needing drained. There was enough truth in it to channel people’s justified anger into his cause. Populist leaders, in turn, further undermine democratic institutions – as was dramatically seen in the Capitol Hill riots of 2021.

“What Trump and his extreme right-wing allies have done is picked up on that,” said former presidential candidate Sanders. “So, I think that, when we talk about the economic needs of working people it’s not just improving their quality of life and creating a more just society. It is also fighting to preserve democracy. Because people are not gonna wanna participate in a system that does not work for them, that they understand is rigged.” 

Bernie Sanders made the comments in an exclusive interview with Orwell Prize-winning Scottish writer and social commentator Darren McGarvey, especially for The Big Issue. Coming ahead of the release of Sanders new book It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism, it was a meeting of socialist minds from across the Atlantic.

Like Sanders, McGarvey has made a name for himself railing against economic inequality. His latest book, The Social Distance Between Us argues that Britain has long been failing those who need our help the most. In their wide-ranging conversation, which is available to read in full in The Big Issue from February 20, Sanders and McGarvey attacked the divide between rich and poor in the US and UK.

Sanders said inequality is greater now than it was in the so-called Gilded Age – the period in late 19th-century US history categorised both by enormous economic growth on the one side and abject poverty on the other.

“People remember the gilded ages where the rich were very rich and children were working in factories. The fact is, we have more income and wealth inequality than we did then,” said Sanders. “We have three people in America owning more wealth than the bottom half of American society. We have to deal with the fact that we are seeing an unprecedented concentration of ownership.”

It won’t be easy to enact real change – the sort that can shore up our democracy, said McGarvey. “Ownership is what capitalism is all about though,” he explained. “It’s from the seemingly inalienable right to acquire anything we want (if we can stump up the cash and someone is willing to sell) that capitalists believe all other human liberty springs. In principle, the right to property seems fairly harmless; in practice, it means a millionaire’s right to own multiple homes and leave them empty trumps the rights of homeless people to roofs over their heads.

“Sanders is spoiling for a showdown with an American oligarchy that would sooner see a capitalist sociopath like Trump back in the White House than a mentally sound socialist of his own variety anywhere near it.”

Bernie Sanders said he remains an active optimist, however. He urged his allies to keep fighting. “It’s not easy, but we got to keep our eyes on the prize,” he added. “Gotta know where we want to go if we’re gonna ever get there.” 

It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism by Bernie Sanders is out on February 21 (Allen Lane, £22)

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