“Is Finland crazy? I want somebody to comment on that.”
Bernie Sanders was speaking Wednesday morning in a basement classroom at Johns Hopkins University’s Washington campus. The Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate had been asking the group of 50 or so to think about what sort of country they wanted to live in. During a short Q&A, a Finnish graduate student named Hans spoke up to ask about student loan debt. After some prodding by the senator, Hans revealed that not only did he pay no tuition for his studies but he was actually being paid by the government for living expenses. That sounded like the kind of country Sanders wanted to live in.
“Are people in Finland—a beautiful country—are they crazy about saying, as I understand it, that every young person in Finland should have the opportunity to go to college fully and invest in their young people?” Sanders said to the audience. “Well, raise your hands! And if they’re not crazy, why isn’t it happening in America? What are you doing about it?”
A student asked what young people can do to fix the problems of the country, and Sanders went into a stemwinder.
“If you are concerned about the future of this country, the patriotic thing to do, the thing to do in respect to the founding fathers of this country, those people who fought and died in Okinawa in World War II, and all the wars that we have fought, is to get involved. And I know it’s not a cool thing to get involved. Get involved in politics? Hey, there’s a party down the street. Let’s get drunk. Let’s get high. That’s what being young and alive is about. Well, if you really want to be patriotic and you really want to be a hero, and you really want to show your concern a few miles away from here who have no opportunity whatsoever, you know what? Have some courage. Do what your friends are not doing,” he said.
If a Bernie Sanders campaign event sounds a bit like a lecture from your grandfather, that’s because it kind of is—if your grandfather were an avowed socialist with a funny, sarcastic streak. He touted the social welfare paradises of places like Finland and Denmark, getting laughs from the crowd when joked that free education and health care were the awful consequences of “European socialism.” It was a friendly crowd at Johns Hopkins, with questioners asking about paid maternity leave (he’s for it), foreign policy (he was “one of the leaders of the opposition” to the Iraq war in 2003), and the federal minimum wage (it ought to be $15 an hour, he says). When one older man prefaced his question by saying it was an “honor” to be in his presence, Sanders interrupted him.
“No, no, no. Hold it, hold it, hold it,” Sanders said. “That makes me nervous. It’s not an honor to be in my presence. It’s an honor to be in your presence. I’m just a person like you who happens to be a senator.”
Sanders’s socialism is less intellectual and more populist. “The major issue facing our country,” he said, by way of introduction, “is the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality.”
There’s a moral element, too. “In my view, there is something profoundly wrong when the top one-tenth of one percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom ninety percent. There is something profoundly wrong when ninety-nine percent of all new income generated in this country goes to the top one percent today,” said Sanders. “Are you comfortable with that?"
For Sanders, the gross wealth inequality means the rich have not only corrupted our culture and society but our government and politics as well. We don’t talk about these inequality issues, he said, because “the folks who essentially own the country would prefer us not to discuss” it. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which removed limits on donations to outside political groups and which Sanders calls “one of the worst” in U.S. history, has opened the floodgates for moneyed interests in politics. In fact, Sanders said, he would consider support for overturning Citizens United as a “litmus test” for any Supreme Court nominees he would name as president.
Sanders excoriated the libertarian and Republican-friendly Koch brothers for their plans to spend nearly a billion dollars in the next election cycle on campaigns and advocacy. But left unmentioned was one of his rivals for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, who has and will continue to raise money from Wall Street, Hollywood, and other centers of money and influence. Sanders has been muted in directly criticized Clinton on wealth and inequality issues, instead opting for a more general argument, as he did Wednesday.