Last night, the final two candidates with a serious shot at the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, faced off one-on-one for the first time in this interminably long primary. With Sanders slightly behind in delegates and facing somewhat hostile states in the upcoming contests, it is looking like his path for nomination might soon run into a dead end. This is a damn shame, because, for many reasons, the debate highlighted why we need Sanders now more than ever, and it did so through a study in contrasts.
More than anything else, the performances of the two men on stage demonstrated how vastly different they view America and the world. Biden, that ardent defender of the status quo, voiced the opinion that the crises we currently face — from climate change to the cruelty of the Trump administration to the coronavirus — are all, somehow, aberrations. They seemingly came from nowhere and ruined the good thing we, as a country, had going. The American status quo was just fine before the nasty things came, and all it takes to fix them is to make one-off gestures to restore normalcy. Sure, he says, we can give free healthcare to people who contract Covid-19, but why would we make healthcare a right in general? Once we deal with the crisis at hand, let’s all just calm down and go back to the way things were with maybe a few tweaks. After all, we don’t want to fundamentally change things, do we?
Sanders, in stark contrast, disagreed with Biden’s summation of the problems the country faces. They are not aberrations that remain inexplicable in a country as “perfect” as the United States. Rather, they are the obvious fallout from an often perverse system that functions the way American capitalism does. Climate change happened, is happening, and will continue to happen because fossil fuel companies put their short term profits ahead of the needs of the global population. Corporations like Exxon and Shell knew their product was promoting existentially dangerous conditions for all of humanity, but they kept silent because capitalism runs off the profit motive and plans accordingly. Markets do not care for “externalities” like human wellbeing. As long as enough humans survive to remain consumers, capitalists will chug along making money off products that kill us off slowly (tobacco, fossil fuels, etc.), or else they will keep lifesaving goods (like insulin) behind paywalls and out of reach of the poor and desperate. Moreover, they will use their immense profits to fund political campaigns, lobby politicians, and keep the government working for their interests, to the detriment of the rest of us.
Sanders understands this in a way that Biden does not (or, at least, in a way the latter refuses to acknowledge). Speaking at the debate, the senator emphasized that the reason we have a climate crisis and the reason people are unable to seek out healthcare is precisely the profit motive of capitalist industries. Unlike Biden, who wants to regulate but not fundamentally alter how corporations function, Sanders vowed to change the power structure of the country to favor working people. “Why is it,” he asked, “that we are the only major country on Earth not to guarantee health care to all people as a human right?” He continued;
Why are we the only major country not to have paid medical and family leave? Why do we give tax breaks to billionaires when half a million people are homeless today? And it comes down to something, Jake, we don’t talk about, the power structure in America. Who has the power? And I’ll tell you who has the power. It’s the people who contribute money, the billionaires who contribute money to political campaigns, who control the legislative agenda. Those people have the power. And if you want to make real changes in this country; if you want to create an economy that works for all, not just the few; if you want to guarantee quality health care to all, not make $100 billion in profit for the healthcare industry, you know what you need? You need to take on Wall Street; you need to take on the drug companies and the insurance companies and the fossil fuel industry. You don’t take campaign contributions from them. You take them on and create an economy that works for all.
Sanders understands that, without such an economy, new problems are created and underlying problems become worse. He understands that, even in the best of times, an economy that does not guarantee healthcare for all is one that will see thousands of people die each year because they cannot afford care, which is why he fights for Medicare for All. He understands that an economy that does not guarantee paid sick leave and living wages will result in people going into work sick, which is incredibly dangerous during a pandemic like the one we are currently facing and why he wants all Americans to have such basic protections. He understands that an economy that does not give workers a say at our places of work creates both unequal power dynamics and massive economic and wealth inequality, which is why he wants to give workers democratic oversight over our workplaces.
Biden, in contrast, does not understand or care about such economic realities. True, he wants to ensure everyone with symptoms of Covid-19 can get free testing, but, as Sanders pointed out during the debate, he is fine with other ailments being left uncovered. Moreover, Biden’s full healthcare plan for his hypothetical presidency leaves millions of people completely uncovered, his website lacks any details on permanent paid sick leave policies, and he has demonstrated no interest in giving working people democratic say in the work we do.
At the debate, these differences in economic policy and perspective were clear. Biden remained steadfast in his rejection of Medicare for All and even lied to the country by saying that Sanders has never said how he would pay for it when he, in fact, has. What should have been even more clear, however, is that Biden is fundamentally unable to recognize the problems this country faces because of these differences. He cannot see the moral and practical necessity of guaranteeing healthcare and paid sick leave to all, and his refusal to disavow super pacs suggests he is fine with the disgusting and absurd amount of money wealthy interests pour into politics to get what they want. He cannot understand, does not want to understand, that a country where healthcare is out of reach for working people, where the quality of life is going down while the cost of living goes up, and where ordinary people have less say over their government than a handful of billionaires is a country that promotes the kind of anger and discontent that allows for a fascist wannabe like Trump to get elected into office on the promise of sweeping out corruption and “draining the swamp.” Yes, Trump is a bullshitter, but people believe his bullshit because politicians like Biden have also been bullshitting us for decades by pretending everything is hunky dory when it very much isn’t.
Politicians like Biden don’t understand that the status quo of the Obama years that they desperately want to go back to failed a lot of people. To bring back that status quo is only to bring back the same failure and discontent that lead to “President Trump” in the first place. Trump, thankfully, is a moron, and his corruption is somewhat stymied by his incompetence. But the next Trump to come along might not be so stupid, and unless things change drastically, and for the better, there might be no way to stop them.
That’s why Sanders’ platform is so important; it shows that he, unlike Biden, does understand what the people of this country need and what we deserve. Healthcare is a human right, and we all deserve to be able to seek care when we’re sick rather than trudge to work because we’re desperately living paycheck to paycheck. A Sanders presidency would fight to guarantee healthcare, paid sick leave, and a living wage for all. Biden has only promised that last one, but, considering how often he lied on stage last night alone, how can we trust him to keep his promise? The only way to prevent a fascist from harnessing populist anger to ascend to power is by making sure the needs of the people are satisfied and by shoring up our democracy to give working people, and not just the incredibly wealthy, the chance to feel seen and heard by our government. Biden wants a return to a dangerous economic status quo, but Sanders wants to foster a new and healthier one.
It is not just on the economy that the two men displayed important differences last night, however. When it comes to foreign relations, Biden hinted at a dangerous attitude that has long plagued the United States: the idea that America should be the world’s policeman. When the question of how the US should handle climate change came up, Biden responded with the following; “I would immediately rejoin the Paris Climate Accord, which I helped put together. I would call the 100 nations — over 100 nations, but the 100 major polluters to the United States in the first 100 days to up the ante and make it clear that, in fact, we would — in fact, if they didn’t, there would be a price to pay.” (emphasis mine)
Biden seems to assume that the US would have some sort of right to make other countries follow our rules. This is perhaps unsurprising coming from one of the top supporters of the Iraq War, but it demonstrates an alarming, borderline jingoistic, attitude towards the rest of the world. It suggests that Biden sees the rest of the world as adversaries, not cohabitants, that need to be threatened, rather than reasoned with. Moreover, it’s somewhat laughable that Biden thinks that America would have the moral authority to pursue such an aim when we, not everyone else, were the ones to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord to begin with! Biden’s confrontational style would surely anger the other nations the US shares the planet with, and, if his threats are taken seriously, who knows what the fallout could be? We need a president who is a climate change warrior, but that doesn’t mean we need a war in the name of climate change.
Once again, Sanders demonstrated last night that he understands this while Biden does not. The Vermont senator emphasized the need to cooperate with the world in order to tackle a problem that faces us all. He comes to the issue of climate change with an eye towards fostering healthy relations with other nations, not badgering or threatening them. Here again he rejects a harmful status quo — the US as world cop — and lays out a vision of building peace, not waging war. As he said on the debate stage, “I’m talking about speaking to China, to Russia, to countries all over the world — and in this moment, making the point that instead of spending $1.8 trillion on weapons of destruction designed to kill each other, maybe we should pool our resources and fight our common enemy, which is climate change.”
Maybe this is hopelessly naive. Maybe some countries will need to be pressured to do the right thing in order to prevent climate catastrophe. Yet, even if that is the case, I’d prefer to have as president someone who is not willing to immediately threaten the people of other nations with “paying a price” over a problem that was not caused by them in the first place. Fossil fuel companies should be aggressively curtailed and made to face consequences for the immense harm they’ve done, but sovereign nations and their people do not need to be policed by a country that, in the last few years alone, has undone efforts to deal with the climate crisis. That Joe Biden thinks we have the moral authority to do so speaks to a dangerous attitude that could propel us into any number of conflicts, be they military or economic. As such, Bernie Sanders demonstrated last night that he has a far cooler, more reasonable head to deal with the crisis at hand.
On economic and environmental issues, Bernie Sanders understands things that Joe Biden simply does not. Sanders understands that healthcare is a human right, and that it is unacceptable in the wealthiest country on earth to leave millions uncovered. Biden does not. Sanders understands that paid sick leave is a necessity not just to deal with a pandemic, but to ensure worker wellbeing. Biden does not. Sanders understands that the economy must work for all of us and that the only way to make that the case is by taking on wealthy interests, wresting power back, and returning it to the working class. Biden does not. Finally, Sanders understands that America is one nation among many, that we owe as much to other nations as they owe to us, and that, to tackle the climate crisis, cooperation, not bullying, is needed. Biden, again, does not. The America of the Obama years did not guarantee healthcare, paid sick leave, or a living wage to all (or even most), and its efforts to tackle the climate crisis were…inadequate. In order to build a better country where the wellbeing of everyone is taken into consideration, we need to reject a status quo that left so many people behind. As the debate last night proved for perhaps the final time, Bernie Sanders understands this. Biden does not.