Bernie Sanders’ platform of social programs brought a packed arena to its feet in thunderous cheers Friday.
The longest and loudest cheers greeted his promises of universal healthcare, free college tuition and a higher minimum wage, proposals he acknowledged many critics have told him were impossible and couldn’t be accomplished.
To them, he said, the question was, “Why not?”
“The answer is that too many people have been crushed intellectually and emotionally and they’ve given up,” Sanders said. “They say we can’t do it. What this campaign is saying, we can create the nation we want to become.”
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Sanders said that 100 years ago, women didn’t have the right to vote, to go to certain schools or do the jobs they wanted to do. And 40 years ago, the idea of a black man elected president would be “radical” as well.
“If we were in this room 10 years ago, which is no time at all in history, if somebody jumped up and said that gay marriage would be made legal in all 50 states, the guy next to him would have said, ‘What are you smoking?’” Sanders said. “What happened is that the gay community and their straight allies… said in this country, people should have the right to love whomever they want, regardless of gender.”
Now, Sanders said, talking to young people about gay marriage brings shrugs. “What’s the issue?” he said. “That’s a revolutionary change.”
That’s how change comes about, Sanders said. “If millions of students and young people stand up and demand it, it will happen,” he said.
Sanders went after his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, highlighting their differences on trade policies and her acceptance of corporate donations from Wall Street. Sanders also pointed out that he voted against the Iraq War in 2002, calling it “the worst foreign policy disaster in the history of America,” and his opposition to the Defense of Marriage Act, which he said Clinton supported.
“We are doing something fairly radical for American politics: We are telling the truth,” Sanders said. “Truth is not always pleasant.”
Among those unpleasant truths, Sanders said, is what he termed a “corrupt campaign finance system” that allows billionaires to buy elections.
“Democracy is not about the Koch brothers and a handful of billionaires spending $900 million in this campaign cycle. That is more money than either the Democratic or Republican parties is spending,” Sanders told the crowd. “When you have a situation where one family is spending more money than either of the major political parties, that’s not democracy. That is oligarchy, and we’re going to change that.”
The crowd seemed to agree, rising with deafening cheers each time. The Vadalabene Center was filled to the rafters, with more people watching from observation windows on the upper level of the building.
Sanders advocated public funding of elections rather than the donation model, and said as president, any Supreme Court nominee he would consider must be in favor of overturning the Citizens United decision. “I want everybody to be able to run for any office without begging wealthy people for campaign financing,” he said.
However, he also pointed out that the United States has one of the lowest voter turnouts in the world. He advocates universal voter registration: “If you are 18 and a citizen of this country, you are registered to vote, end of discussion,” he said.
Among other issues:
▪ Some of the loudest cheers came for Sanders’ support of universal healthcare. “I believe healthcare is a right of all people,” he said, advocating a “Medicare for all” healthcare system.
▪ Minimum wage increases: Sanders called the current minimum wage “a starvation wage.” Instead, he said the real welfare is going to people like the Walton family, which owns Walmart. He said they pay their employees so little that they end up on Medicaid, food stamps and in subsidized housing. “The major welfare abuser… is not a poor mother, it is the wealthiest family in this country,” Sanders said. “I say to the Waltons, who are worth $60 billion: Get off welfare, pay your workers a living wage.”
The major welfare abuser… is not a poor mother, it is the wealthiest family in this country. I say to the Waltons, who are worth $60 billion: Get off welfare, pay your workers a living wage.
Bernie Sanders, Democratic presidential candidate
Sanders advocates raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, as well as expanding Social Security. “A great nation is not judged by the number of millionaires and billionaires; it is judged by how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable,” he said. “A moral people does not turn its back on those folks who raised us and built this country.”
▪ Free public universities: Students cheered long and loud as Sanders advocated a public education system that begins with elementary and high school, but continues on through university. “In 2016, when talking about public education, we cannot just talk about first through 12th grade; the world has changed,” he said. “In order to compete in the global economy, we need the best-educated workforce in the world. It’s kind of a no-brainer.”
Sanders said while this concept has been dismissed by critics as “radical,” there are many countries that have offered free college for years.
“It’s free because they understand that the future of their countries depends on young people getting the best education they can,” he said.
In 2016, when talking about public education, we cannot just talk about first through 12th grade; the world has changed. In order to compete in the global economy, we need the best-educated workforce in the world. It’s kind of a no-brainer.
Bernie Sanders, Democratic presidential candidate
How to pay for it? Sanders proposes a tax on Wall Street speculation, stating that Wall Street caused the recession and helped the redistribution of wealth flow from the middle class to the top one-tenth of 1 percent, before the federal government bailout. “If we could bail out the crooks on Wall Street, it is now time for Wall Street to help the middle class,” Sanders said.
▪ Incarceration and criminal justice: Sanders said that the United States has more people in jail than any other country on earth, including China, which has four times the U.S. population. “Here is a not so radical idea: How about investing in jobs and education for our young people, not more jails and incarceration,” Sanders said. He said that marijuana is currently listed alongside heroin as a Schedule 1 narcotic. “You can argue the pluses and minuses of marijuana, but it ain’t heroin,” he said.
Instead, Sanders advocated treating substance abuse and addiction as a health care issue, not as a criminal justice issue. “We need to significantly expand our capabilities to treat substance and drug addiction,” he said.
Sanders said police departments need to be demilitarized and should be as diverse as the communities they serve. “Police departments should not look like occupying armies,” he said.
Meanwhile, he said, judges should be given more discretion in dealing with drug offenses, and greater access to education will help people released from jail to find new opportunities so they do not reoffend and end up back in prison.
▪ Racial justice: Sanders advocates a path toward citizenship for undocumented immigrants who he said are “tired of living in the shadows.”
He also addressed the issue of unarmed black people shot by police officers. “The vast majority of police officers are honest, hardworking and have a very, very difficult job,” he said. “But when an officer breaks the law.. that officer must be held accountable.”
Meanwhile, Native Americans deserve help fighting poverty, suicide, substance abuse and a high school dropout rate of 50 percent, Sanders said. “I don’t have to explain to anybody here that the way our country from day one has treated Native Americans is obscene,” he said. “For those people who were here first, we owe them respect and dignity.”
▪ On the environment, Sanders said the U.S. needs to envisage an energy system based on efficiency and sustainable energy sources. “Climate change is real, it is caused by human activity, it is already wreaking havoc and don’t let anybody tell you differently,” Sanders said. “We have got to have the guts to stand up to the fossil fuel industry and tell them their short-term profits are not more important than the future of this planet.”
Sanders faces Clinton on March 15 in the Illinois primary election. On the issue of his electability, Sanders said that “polls don’t really matter,” but that in several recent polls, both he and Clinton can defeat Republican candidate Donald Trump, though he generally wins by a wider margin.
“We will defeat Trump because in America, people understand that bringing our people together is better than Trump’s divisiveness,” Sanders said. “The sense of community… knowing we are not alone, but we are here to help each other.”
Calling Trump “selfish,” Sanders said Americans understand what is taught in nearly every religion: “Love trumps hatred.”
Other speakers included SIUE students and Bruce Franks, a St. Louis business owner and activist who is a candidate in the 78th district for the Missouri state legislature.
“When you rebuild, you start from the bottom, not from the top,” Franks said. “Sen. Sanders knows that the violence in our community should not be the norm… (Sanders) has been making the impossible possible for a long time, so why stop now? We the people are the machine, the people who walk and fight until the end. Don’t ask us why we support Sen. Sanders; ask America why not?”
We the people are the machine, the people who walk and fight until the end. Don’t ask us why we support Sen. Sanders; ask America why not?
Bruce Franks, Missouri candidate
The gym at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville holds 4,700 people, according to fire chief Rick Welle, who said they would hold attendance at that amount. There were reportedly at least another 1,000 people waiting outside, as lines to enter the Vadalabene Center stretched around the building and down the walking trails of SIUE. On his way out, however, Sanders stopped to give a five-minute version of his speech at the doors of the center to those who never made it into the hall.