Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders fielded questions Tuesday on an “Ask Me Anything” thread on the social networking and news platform Reddit. Starting at 4 p.m., the two-term senator addressed subjects ranging from the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal to transgender service in the armed forces to nuclear energy, giving candid and succinct responses in the online forum. Sanders, who has been largely dismissed by the mainstream media as a long shot for the Democratic nomination behind former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has enjoyed a swell of grassroots support since he declared his candidacy at the end of April.
Yet the self-described democratic socialist has a long way to go to secure the Democratic nomination. After all, Clinton made headlines Tuesday just for giving the press a chance to ask her questions for the first time after a 28-day drought on the campaign trail. In contrast, Sanders’ decision to initiate an AMA on Reddit with its open season format attracted little coverage. If Sanders wants to give Clinton a serious run for her money, he will have to reach out to more than the young, online-savvy Reddit community.
Reading through Sanders’ responses — and the flurry of commentary that necessarily follows each post from the Vermont senator — is refreshing. Rather than trade in platitudes and vague political speech, he calls it as he sees it. One Reddit user remarked after Saunders worked through a question about his push for GMO labeling, “gotta give ya props for answering. Most politicians wouldn’t have touched this question, especially in a Reddit AMA.”
More politicians should take the opportunity to engage in an uncontrolled, uncensored and honest way with their constituents. Or, we could borrow the solution that one Canadian user suggested: “Please clone Bernie sanders and send one of him up here to Canada.”
Here are some takeaways worth knowing from Sanders’ AMA on Reddit...
1. Sanders is, at heart, a democratic populist
He cares about who our government is representing in practice, not just in principle. Many of his complaints about the status quo — and many of the reforms he would seek if elected to the White House — involve making Congress responsive to the general electorate again instead of to multi-billion corporations and the super wealthy.
When a Reddit user asked about electoral reform and pushed him to embrace substantial structural changes to the two-party system, Sanders refused to be swayed from what he saw to be the biggest drain on U.S. democracy today:
“The major issue in terms of our electoral system is truly campaign finance reform. Right now, we are at a moment in history where the Koch brothers and other billionaires are in the process of buying politicians and elections.”
This means that he opposes the aggressive gerrymandering of legislative districts and the underhanded voting reforms that have threatened to keep hundreds of thousands from the polls. In turn, Sanders said he would push for a constitutional amendment to repeal the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, for public disclosure laws that highlight where campaign financing comes from, and eventually for publicly financed elections.
2. He doesn’t want us to go to war in the Middle East
Sanders admitted on Reddit that he wasn’t a pacifist, writing that he did think there could be such thing as a just war. But he was quick to note that he hadn’t supported any of the wars that the U.S. had embroiled herself in over the past few decades, including Vietnam, the First Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq.
When it comes to ISIS and the longstanding Syrian civil war, Sanders said that the Middle Eastern countries should be leading the charge in quelling violence in their region, not the U.S. or its allies.
“The United States and other western countries should be supportive of the efforts of those governments, but cannot lead them,” he wrote. “The nightmare, which I believe a number of Republicans want to see, is perpetual warfare in the quagmire of the Middle East.”
3. Sanders takes climate change very, very seriously
No beating around the bush when it comes to climate science here:
“I believe that climate change is perhaps the most significant planetary crisis that we face and we have got to be extremely bold in transforming our energy system away from fossil fuels and towards energy efficiency and sustainability.”
One Reddit user pushed the Vermont senator on his energy policy and why he opposed developing small-scale nuclear reactors in the push to move away from traditional fossil fuels. Saunders held his ground without deflecting: he said that he supported using all sorts of alternative energy resources but that he couldn’t stand by increasing our dependence on nuclear power without a surefire way to store and dispose of the nuclear waste that we already have.
4. Sanders tells it like it is on the middle class
Rebuilding America’s middle class is the political message of the hour, particularly in Democratic circles. As Clinton tries to position herself as the candidate that best supports struggling families by flying commercial and calling for greater regulation on Wall Street, her opponent is supporting economic policies that would help them most. Rather than simply bemoan how American jobs are disappearing overseas or to automation, Sanders is clear that our trade agreements and trade policy has to a large extent put us in this position.
“One of the reasons that the middle class of this country is disappearing is because we have lost some 60,000 factories since 2001 and millions of good-paying manufacturing jobs,” he wrote. “We need trade agreements that protect and benefit working families, not just the CEOs of large corporations.”
Sanders is fully against the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that the Obama administration has been touting. Clinton, on the other hand, has waffled on the issue, offering up answers like: “I want to judge the final agreement. I have been for trade agreements; I have been against trade agreements.”
Instead, Sanders thinks that the government should do its part in putting the American working class back into full-time, dignified employment rather than simply cutting taxes and then crossing our fingers that the private sector decides to create jobs.
“Our infrastructure is crumbling and we can create millions of decent-paying jobs rebuilding our roads, bridges, rail system, airports, levees, dams, etc.” he told Reddit. “Further, we have enormous shortages in terms of highly qualified pre-school educators and teachers. We need more doctors, nurses, dentists and medical personnel if we are going to provide high-quality care to all of our people.”
But where does Sanders the socialist come down on the proposal to guarantee everyone a basic minimum income? He seems behind it in principle, although the Vermont senator is the first to admit that Congress is not the friendliest place for a “leftist” initiative like that. After all, the Republican majority in the House still wants to cut back on food stamps and nutrition programs for poor mothers. Instead of trumpeting his wholehearted support for universal basic income, Sanders stressed the social goods that he wants to see provided for all Americans: health care, education, and housing.
5. He gets the weed issue
Where the U.S. currently gets weed all wrong, from Sanders’ point of view, isn’t that we haven’t legalized its recreational use; it’s that we have turned our criminal justice apparatus into a drug enforcement mechanism that over-polices certain communities and neglects more serious problems.
“When I was mayor of Burlington, in a city with a large population, I can tell you very few people were arrested for smoking marijuana,” he noted. “Our police had more important things to do.”
And one would expect a longtime Vermont resident to be fully behind legalizing marijuana. But when asked about Colorado’s push to do just that on the AMA, Sanders took a more measured stance.
“I'm going to watch very closely to see the pluses and minuses of what they have done,” he said.
6. He didn’t shy away from tough questions
On a Reddit AMA, anyone can ask anything. There are no clusters of campaign staff on hand to deflect pointed questions or to corral the conversation back onto safe ground. Saunders’ thread was no exception.
Yet time and time again, he didn’t shy away from the critical questions or fob his audience off with diplomatic campaign rhetoric. One Reddit user asked him if he supported transgender individuals serving openly in the military. (Long and short of it, yes.)
Another cited all the times that he had voted to cut funding for NASA and asked him if he thought space exploration and research was a worthy goal. (Sanders explained, “one is put in a position of having to make very very difficult choices about whether you vote to provide food for hungry kids or health care for people who have none and other programs.”)
And a third took the Independent senator to task for spearheading legislation that would mandate GMO labeling, even though the scientific community has largely concluded that these foods don’t pose health risks. (“I respectfully disagree,” Sanders rejoined. He then laid out why he was in favor of labeling in order to give consumers the ability to decide.)
Granted, many of the questions that Saunders faced would have sent more centrist politicians running for the hills. His candor is a privilege that he enjoys by virtue of deciding to stake out a less familiar position on the traditional left-right political spectrum.
7. Vermont loves Bernie
Digging into Saunders’ answers on policy and political movements is fun, but reading through the Reddit community’s responses to him is almost more entertaining. The first thing that becomes readily apparent is how much people who live in Vermont adore their senator – a rare state of affairs these days, to be sure.
“I sincerely hope this AMA gets some traction and Sanders moves up from being considered a warm-up round for Hillary to being a serious contender for president,” user pixelfreeze wrote. “America needs to hear what Sanders has to say, and I'm so glad others are starting to listen.”
The top comments praise him for his open mindedness, for his efforts to get out and talk to his constituents, for his “no bullshit” approach to politics. Even those former Vermonters who emigrated return to Reddit to leave their endorsement.
“Despite living in England now, I can verify,” user Sauletekis wrote. “I'm only back at home 2-3 weeks a year and have usually bumped into Bernie every time. He always has time for you (he's heard my grandma out so many times) and he never bullshits. He talks straight. I like him a lot.”
Vermont is on board with Bernie 2016; now just 49 states to go.
Images: Getty Images (7)