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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Bernie Sanders Found Socialism at the University of Chicago

The senator from Vermont and presidential candidate is taking on Hillary Clinton with leftist policies he picked up in Hyde Park.

Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., at a news conference on April 30.  Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

It looks like Hillary Clinton won’t be alone on stage at the Democratic debates later this year. Last Thursday, Bernie Sanders, the 73-year-old U.S. Senator from Vermont, announced he’s running for the Democratic nomination for president. Sanders, a Brooklyn native and University of Chicago alum, embraces the label “Democratic Socialist” and is already pulling support from not only far-left activists, but also progressives of the sort who yearn for Elizabeth Warren to run. It’s not hard to see why, but one thing I did find interesting was Sanders’s socialist roots, which date back to his days at the U. of C.

When he arrived at the University of Chicago in 1961, he was a product of his “solidly lower-middle-class” upbringing in a poor Jewish family stuffed in a three-and-one-half room apartment in Flatbush. His father, Eli, was an immigrant from Poland who arrived in the U.S. in 1917, penniless, and without an education or the ability to speak English. None of his relatives who stayed behind survived the Holocaust. He sold paint to scrape together a living to support his wife, Dorothy, the daughter of Polish immigrants, and their two sons, Larry and Bernie. The alarmingly tight finances made a lifelong impression on Bernie, who told a reporter for the New York Times that his father reminded him of Willy Loman of Death of a Salesman.

He graduated from Brooklyn’s P.S. 197 and James Madison High School* where he was captain of his high school track team. He enrolled at Brooklyn College, but then transferred to the U. of C., where he financed his education with a mix of part-time jobs, grants, and loans.        

While his parents voted for Democrats, they were not, Sanders has said, involved in politics. His mother died young, at 46, during Bernie’s year at Brooklyn College, and, brokenhearted—his mother’s unfulfilled dream was that the family would move out of the apartment to a house—he headed to Hyde Park.

It was there that he has traced his attraction to lefty politics. “When I went to the University of Chicago, I began to understand the futility of liberalism,” he told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times in 1991. On campus, he joined the Young People’s Socialist League, he became active in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), he was an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and he organized and led a sit-in protest in 1962 against university-owned, racially segregated campus housing. He has admitted to being a middling student at U. of C., reading Marx and Freud on his own while investing lightly in preparing for classes and taking tests. He took an overnight bus to D.C.—his first time there—to participate in the 1963 March on Washington, and witnessed, via loudspeakers on the Mall, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. 

After graduating in 1964 with a B.A. in political science, he spent six months on a kibbutz in Israel. His going to Israel had nothing to do with religion, much less Zionism. He identifies, he says, “culturally” as a Jew. The political philosophy he honed in Hyde Park held fast. He learned, he later said, “that you could have a community in which the people themselves actually owned the community.”

He and his college girlfriend, who became his first wife, bought 85 acres of woodlands in Middlesex, Vermont for $2,500. By 1968 they lived there full-time in a shack without indoor plumbing or electricity. They had a son, Levi, and later divorced. 

As a boy, Bernie and his older brother, also a politician, slept in the living room. The brothers remained close and in tune politically, but Larry, who became a social worker, left the U.S. for the U.K. in 1969 and is running this week as a Green Party candidate for Parliament. A recent on-line poll puts his share of the vote at 5.1 percent against incumbent conservative Nicola Claire Blackwood.

But back to Bernie: Where Obama had “community organizer” on his resume, Sanders, in the late ’60s, a member of the anti-capitalist Liberty Union Party and Vietnam War protester, had “freelance writer, carpenter, and youth counselor.” He applied for conscientious objector status to get out of the Vietnam draft. “By the time his C.O. application was rejected,” wrote the Burlington Free Press’s Sam Hemingway, “Sanders was 26 and too old to be drafted.”

Once he decided on elective politics, he persisted, despite running unsuccessfully a total of five times for governor and U.S. senator. His first race for the U.S. Senate was in 1971, when he ran as a member of the Liberty Union Party. He collected two percent of the vote; a year later, he ran for governor, netting just one percent.

His luck changed when he turned his sights several rungs down the political ladder, becoming mayor of Burlington, Vermont’s largest city, from 1981 to 1989. He won the first race by 10 votes after his opponent, the five-term incumbent Democrat, decided it wasn’t necessary to campaign against such a far-out opponent. A local politician remarked that Sanders was “the puppy that caught the car.” It was around this time, in 1988, that Sanders married Jane O’Meara, a former president of Burlington College who brought similar political leanings and three children to the marriage.

He has never run from the socialist label: One of his heroes, memorialized by a portrait hanging in his office, is Eugene V. Debs, the founder of the Social Democratic Party of America who ran five times on the socialist ticket for president in the early 20th century. Sanders’ followers are called Sanderistas; he once visited Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega in Managua; and the city he led was dubbed “the People’s Republic of Burlington.”

He moved up to become Vermont’s sole congressman from 1991 to 2007. At that time, he told an AP reporter that “to me, socialism doesn’t mean state ownership of everything, by any means. It means creating a nation, and a world in which all human beings have a decent standard of living.”

He seems to have grown on people. Labels have become less important, as demonstrated when he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2007. His Republican opponent, a software company founder who spent $7 million of his own money on negative ads—Sanders prides himself on never having run a negative ad in any of his campaigns—drove a $158,000 Bentley. Voters preferred Sanders in his old, dented Saturn, and he won by more than 30 points.

These days, his signature issues no longer seem as far out in left field. He wants a progressive tax system based on ability to pay. He wants to redistribute wealth from billionaires into the pockets of working men and women. He wants to end childhood poverty and other social ills by forcing the richest Americans to pay much higher taxes. He wants to break up the six largest U.S. banks and halt federal tax dodges by U.S. corporations that shelter their money abroad. He wants to overturn the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and stop the Koch Brothers and their oceans of money from pouring into Republican campaigns. He wants to stay out of foreign wars—he, unlike Hillary, voted against the war in Iraq. He wants to kill trade deals, such as the Trans-Pacific, and fast track negotiation authority. He wants to replace Obamacare with a universal single-payer system. He wants to hit the pharmaceutical companies hard—their huge profits, he argues, wrung out of charging much more for drugs in the U.S. than in Canada and other countries. He wants open borders, government regulation of media ownership, strict regulation and cuts in greenhouse gases, two years of tuition-free public college and university education, and $1 trillion to repair and rebuild roads and bridges. He also wants to raise the minimum wage, which he calls a “starvation wage,” to $15 an hour.

He is a big admirer of Pope Francis, pointing to his teachings on economic justice. He sees the social welfare policies of Scandinavian countries—guaranteed health care and child care, extended and paid maternity leave, free higher education—as models for the U.S. When questioned yesterday by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos about his admiration for most things Scandinavian, he responded, “What’s wrong with that?…And in those countries, by and large, government works for ordinary people and the middle class, rather than, as is the case right now in our country, for the billionaire class.”

He insisted at his announcement press conference—a simple, unscripted affair on a patch of grass outside the Capitol—“We’re in this race to win.” He told reporters that he will run for president as a Democrat (he has always caucused with the Democrats). He’ll even register as a Democrat, a step he has resisted until now. He’ll do so, he explains, because that’s the only realistic way to get on the ballot in all 50 states and vanquish the once-again seemingly “inevitable” Hillary Clinton.

While pundits, almost to a man and woman, insist that he doesn’t have a chance of beating Hillary, he issued the warning, “Don’t underestimate me.”

On the fundraising front, he’s doing better than expected, having raised $1.5 million in the 24 hours after his announcement, most of them small donors giving an average of $43.54 each. He has outpaced Republican opponents Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz, all fellow senators. 

Since announcing, he has put the problems facing America in stark terms: “This country today in my view has more serious crises than at any time since the Great Depression. Real wages have shrunk, while 99 percent of all new income generated in this country is going to the top 1 percent.”

If elected, he would be, at age 75, the oldest person ever elected president. He’ll have one vote for sure; during the mayoral runoff he came to Chicago to endorse Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.

* The school also gave us, to take just a few names currently in the news, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who was a cheerleader) and Chuck Schumer (class president and valedictorian). 
Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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