Forget the Clintons and the Bushes: there is a new dynasty threatening to disrupt mainstream politics. The only difference is that this one is formed of two bespectacled, socialist-minded, elderly brothers from Brooklyn who have spent their lives championing left-wing ideals. Larry and Bernie Sanders might be 82 and 74 respectively, but the latter’s bid for the Democratic nomination in the U.S. presidential election has energised American politics—harnessing huge support among younger voters.
While Bernie Sanders is now world famous as the self-styled democratic socialist senator from Vermont who is putting Hillary Clinton under pressure in the U.S. primary elections, his older brother, who lives in Britain, has a prominent role in U.K. politics as the far-left Green Party’s health spokesperson. Despite the geographical distance between them, the brothers remain close, sharing their thoughts and political ambitions over long-distance phone calls. Sanders Senior admits to shedding tears when his brother announced he was launching a presidential bid, while Bernie cites his older brother as the person who inspired many of his political ideals.
Larry might have lost his bid for a seat in the U.K. general election last May, but his brother so far shows no signs of admitting defeat. With the polls currently suggesting that Bernie has a better chance than Clinton of defeating the Republican nominee Donald Trump, his supporters are hopeful that a big win in the June 7 California primary could seriously undermine her candidacy. If a number of superdelegates, including distinguished party leaders and elected officials who are free to support any candidate for the presidential nomination, withdrew their support from her, then Bernie could emerge victorious.
It might still be unlikely but one trait these brothers clearly share is a dogged desire and determination to shake things up on both sides of the Atlantic.
Newsweek: Bernie cites you as one of the influences that first got him interested in politics and left-wing ideas. Is that true?
Larry Sanders: I think it is true but he also exaggerates a bit. I was [eight years older] and ahead in reading and education, so he got a chance to find out about political ideas before most kids of his age. I first got involved in formal politics as a student at Brooklyn College in New York, where I served as the president of the Young Democrats Society. But Bernard’s real political life began when he went to study at the University of Chicago.
What campaigns did the young Bernie involve himself in?
He went to Chicago just as the civil rights movement was accelerating there and the University of Chicago was in the middle of a black ghetto. Bernard realised what was happening, whose side he was on and what he wanted to do...He got arrested once but nothing desperately bad happened.
Your parents both died relatively young—your mother in 1959 at the age of 46 and your father later in 1962 aged 57—that must have been forged a strong bond between you as brothers. Do you still manage to speak regularly?
It was a very difficult time. We were far apart then as I was in New York City and he was in Chicago, but we have stayed in good touch throughout our lives. At the moment nothing is regular, but until the campaign started we had a pattern of speaking every two weeks or so on the phone. The telephone remains our main method of communication—Bernard is better than me [with technology] but neither of us is great.
You and Bernie seem to have formed a transatlantic left-wing political dynasty—were you raised with those values?
If it’s a dynasty, it will be a rather short-lived one. Our parents were never very politically active but they were, like almost everyone in our neighborhood, staunch New Dealers so that was an important part of our upbringing. I see Bernard as an heir to Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In what sense do you think that comparison is justified between someone who has been in politics since the 1990s and so far achieved little and one of the greatest US presidents, whose innovative reforms changed the face of American society?
I think their policies are very similar; what Bernard has defined as democratic socialism resembles a lot of the New Deal [the Great Depression economic reform package that FDR introduced]. Roosevelt famously said that that the Democratic Party wins and deserves to win the support of the American people when it is at its most progressive and liberal. I think Bernard is becoming the leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
The perception among Bernie supporters is that the Democratic Party has become increasingly less progressive over a prolonged period. Hillary Clinton is now seen by this group as the embodiment of this abandonment of principle. Is that fair?
Well, it was Bill Clinton who first coined the phrase “New Democrats”, which someone a few years later used in a similar way in British politics. New Democrats are the forebears of Tony Blair’s New Labour—it’s the same idea that you can move your party closer to your opposition and be more successful that way. It’s difficult for Hillary, as she was a very political spouse—most of the big things that Mr Clinton did Mrs Clinton was making her own statements on. I imagine sometimes we might be unjust in thinking she was in favor of something that she didn’t voice an opinion on, but by and large she supported Bill and agreed with him.
How did Bernie break the news to you that he was going to run for the Democratic nomination?
We had talked about it for a year beforehand but he only told me of his final decision the day before he announced, which also happened to be my birthday. I was running for parliament at the time and was on a local BBC radio program that day. The presenter had gone through all the usual issues and the final question was “Is there something people don't know about you that you could mention?” When it came to me, I said “Well, my brother is going to run for president of the U.S.”, then started crying live on air.
Bernie genuinely wasn’t keen on running for the presidency because he has a marvellous job as senator. He loves Vermont and the people of Vermont love him—they elected him in 2012 with 71 percent of the vote—but he believed there needed to be an opposition to what was happening in the U.S.
Why did Bernie decide to run as a Democratic candidate after being the longest-serving independent in U.S. congressional history?
That was a big part of his decision—in many ways he might have prefered to have run as an independent but there are both practical and political difficulties with doing that in the U.S. On the practical side, you have to get yourself on 50 different ballots and each have different rules, some are very stringent, and it's more difficult to raise money that way. From the political perspective, if you run as an Independent then you stand the possibility of giving the election to the Republican candidate— I think it was the political side that tilted the balance in the end.
There is an theory among political commentators that Bernie Sanders supporters have more in common with Donald Trump supporters than they do with Clinton’s, because they are both leading movements that are angry with the establishment. Do you agree with that?
That doesn’t ring quite true to me. I don't see so much anger at the establishment in the sense of towards those who hold the fixed high-status positions—there always is an element of that in U.S. politics. The problem goes deeper than that—the statistics of distribution in wealth and income inequality are clear, and it’s not just from the financial crash of 2008, it goes back to the 1970s and early 1980s. From that point on, the proportion of the wealth and income in the country goes from the bulk of the population to the very richest people. That creates a very real sense of not getting anywhere, of people not accomplishing what they expected to, and that leaves a tremendous amount of anger, the causes of which are not talked about by politicians or the media. So, people are angry but don’t know exactly why and then someone like Bernie Sanders comes along and says you are not alone and provides context.
As for the Trump thing? I don't understand him or his politics but it looks like a possible intensification of the basic level of racism that is prevalent but not quite dominant in American life, and that is a powerful force.
While the Democrats remain divided, Trump has seized the narrative and is winning the support of some of the Republican establishment, while also securing a lead over Hillary in the polls for the first time. Is it not time for your brother to make a dignified exit from the race?
Bernard will do what he said from the beginning he would do which is support the nominee—if it turns out to be Mrs Clinton then he'll support her. I’m not pessimistic for Mrs Clinton yet, this period of polling might not last. But, I don't think Bernard should drop out—in sport you don't stop playing just because you are losing the game, you don’t walk off the field. This is an important time when people are paying attention to politics—someone who is serious about making an impact on the public will use that opportunity just as Bernard is doing.
Do you think there is a valid argument that Bernie has more chance of beating Trump in the presidential election than Clinton? Recent polls suggest that could be true but isn’t it too early to be sure?
It’s fairly simple: in the election Bernard would pick up votes among certain demographics who so far have backed Clinton. He would get the Black vote that he didn't get in the primaries, he would get the Latino vote and the Liberal vote. He already has most of the youth vote and he would get the vast majority of the independent votes. So, Bernard gets much same proportion of people who would vote for Clinton and he gets a large chunk of other people who are unlikely to vote for her, so he is on the face of it the stronger candidate. The argument he is making is that if Trump is a problem, why not nominate someone who would beat Trump very badly?
How do you respond to critics who say that Bernie has effectively staged a hostile takeover of the Democratic Party to push his own socialist agenda?
Bernard’s intention is to change the Democratic Party—he thinks it’s been going in the wrong direction for a long time. The policies that he calls Democratic Socialism are actually very popular. If you look at the polling on specific policies such as universal healthcare, increased Social Security and free public education they all rate highly, with around 60-80 percent of voters in favor. These are not strange, foreign ideas—they are mainstream policies that have not been prioritised within the Democratic Party. Bernard’s goal is to change that.
How aware was Bernie of the need to carefully plan his social media ground war?
He did think about it. He sought the advice of the people who ran Obama’s funding campaigns and discussed the possibility of getting large numbers of small donations. I don't think anyone thought he would do as well as in raising money—so far the total figure is over $200m, with $27 as the average donation. It’s a feat unheard of in American political history.
How proud are you of what your brother has achieved?
I am proud of him for being so successful, but I am more proud of what he stands for. It’s a critical time for the world—there is a long history of inequality of wealth with lots of people feeling hurt by that, weak economies around the industrial world and anti-immigration sentiment rising. There are not many positives in the picture, so the possibility of Bernard standing out and being one of those positives—an honest and decent person with policies which really could make a difference, that makes me incredibly proud.
You’ve been out on the campaign with him a few times—what have been the highlights?
The first thing that comes across is the size of the crowds—I’ve never visited a political meeting resembling any of those in terms of scale. Talking to people, listening to them, seeing that they have such a strong love, that’s probably not quite the right word, but such a warmth and fondness for him, that’s mind blowing. When I was in the U.S. last October, we got in the car and one of his staffers drove us from one end of Iowa to the other. I went back a few weeks ago and there were convoys of big black cars being driven by the Secret Service—it was an entirely different world in a very short period of time.
You stood for the U.K. parliament as a Green Party candidate in 2012 and came fifth. Has your brother’s successful run inspired you to do more? Did you consider running for leader of the Greens when Natalie Bennett announced she was stepping down earlier this month?
I might run for parliament again but there are are no winnable seats near where I live [in Oxford] and I wouldn't go across the country. I did think about [running for the Green Party leadership] when I heard Natalie was stepping down. I am not going do it though. Not that I would have much of a...I might...No, I think I’ve had my political successes.
Larry Sanders will be speaking at the Hay Festival in the Newsweek debate “Is This The Most Unusual American Presidential Election in History?” on Saturday June 5 at 7pm. He will appear alongside Niall Ferguson, Harvard professor and author of Kissinger ; Sarah Churchwell, professor of the Public Understanding of the Humanities and professorial fellow in American Literature, IES School of Advanced Study, University of London; and Jan Halper-Hayes, the worldwide vice president and chairperson of Republicans Overseas U.K.