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Book Review: 'It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism,' Bernie Sanders


Published April 5, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism by Bernie Sanders, edited by John Nichols, Crown, 293 pages. $28. - FILE: SEAN METCALF; RANDOM HOUSE
  • File: Sean Metcalf; Random House
  • It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism by Bernie Sanders, edited by John Nichols, Crown, 293 pages. $28.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is angry. Not quite Bruce Banner angry ("Hulk smash capitalism!"). More like Dee Snider angry ("We're not gonna take it!").

And Sanders wants you to know it's OK if you're angry, too, especially if it's about his archenemy: capitalism. After reading his new book, It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism, edited by John Nichols, a national affairs correspondent with the Nation, you might indeed find yourself getting fired up.

The ideas in Sanders' latest book will be familiar to those who followed his 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns; Vermonters will also recognize them from pretty much every speech he's given since the 1970s. This 293-page book offers a wide range of policy prescriptions to improve health care, education and pension systems, as well as labor laws, local news and democracy itself.

While each of the policies ends up having a multibillion-dollar price tag, Sanders doesn't mince words about who should pay up: billionaires! In fact, he doesn't think billionaires should exist, which may explain the title of Chapter 4: "Billionaires should not exist."

"It's time to end a culture that not only accepts but actually creates the obscene degree of inequality, injustice, and uncontrollable greed that is so damaging to our nation and world," Sanders writes. "We have to start saying: Yes. It is immoral and absurd that our country has more income and wealth inequality today than at any time since the 1920s."

Morality is at the center of Sanders' message for change. He believes Democrats need to confront Republicans more forcefully on the grounds that the status quo is immoral and antithetical to the true freedom guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

To underscore this point, Sanders walks readers through a few history lessons about president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the often-overlooked popular and populist ideas that he promoted toward the end of his life. In his State of the Union speech in 1944, one year before his death, FDR proclaimed: "We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence." This economic justice mantle is one that Sanders has donned for decades.

Along with FDR, Sanders invokes the legacy of another major influence on his political worldview: Eugene Victor Debs, a railroad workers' union leader, Socialist Party organizer and presidential candidate in the early 20th century. Debs is a true hero to Sanders, who made a short documentary about him in his early years in Vermont, in the 1970s. He hoped to ensure high school and college students knew about Debs' legacy in the trade union movement and how his presidential platform influenced FDR and elements of the New Deal.

Sanders sees a kindred spirit in Debs and could be considered his modern-day equivalent. Rightly so. As a candidate, Sanders was able to influence the Democratic Party's 2020 platform, which supported a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour, improvements to Medicare and addressing climate change.

Post-campaign, as chair of the Senate Budget Committee, Sanders had a hand in crafting the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 and the subsequent $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill. Removed from the heat of the campaign and the Democrats' need to woo his millions of supporters, however, Sanders found his influence limited. Despite holding a majority in the Senate, Dems backpedaled on key promises to address climate change, expand health care and more, winnowing down Sanders' original $6 trillion proposal to a mere $3.5 trillion.

Sanders was angry about what was stripped from the bill — he voted for it, but not before trying to amend it five times. All five amendments failed, badly. In all but one of those instances, Sanders was the lone vote in favor.

By abandoning some of the more progressive and populist items that energized people to get to the polls in 2020, Sanders writes, Democrats are giving Republicans — and former president Donald Trump — an opportunity to wield voter anger to their advantage.

In his view, Democrats must bear some of the blame for this shift, he writes:

[T]he Democratic Party, over the years, has helped create the political vacuum that allows these issues to fester. It has done so by turning its back on the American working class ... [t]he coalitions the Democrats pull together these days are slimmer and more vulnerable than they should be. They lack the multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-generational heft that is needed.

Why is that, Mr. Sanders? Simple: Democrats have lost touch with working Americans.

"The fact is that working people in this country are angry," he writes. "There's a reason for this. Tragically, the Democrats have ignored this anger, and ignored the pain and frustration that cause it. Working people want to know why they're falling further and further behind, and why their kids are worse off."

From there, Sanders offers his thoughts on how Democrats can carry the electoral success of 2020 forward into 2024 and beyond. (Spoiler alert: Be more like Bernie.)

It's too early to know whether this book outlines the platform planks of a forthcoming reelection or presidential bid. If nothing else, it's a clear road map of Sanders' plans as chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee. Case in point: Last week, Sanders grilled Starbucks ex-CEO Howard Schultz on that company's alleged union-busting tactics.

It's OK to Be Angry is not all serious and policy focused. Sanders offers readers some of the backstory of his recent viral meme moments, such as wearing a heavy winter coat and a pair of ... mittens ... to Joe Biden's presidential inauguration. (Look for a memoir by the mitten maker, Essex Junction teacher Jen Ellis, in early May.) He also shares some of the lengthy debates that preceded the much-memed incident of an exhausted Sanders slumped on the steps of Capitol Hill, à la "I'm Just a Bill" in "Schoolhouse Rock!"

As a former book editor, I had two complaints about the book: It has no endnotes and no index. In a public policy book that repeatedly cites studies, speeches, media articles, contemporary topics and public figures, these omissions are puzzling.

That said, Sanders' new book will keep the "Bern" going for his supporters — and, who knows, it could inspire others to adopt his policies and run for office. Sanders himself gives no indication of what's next for him politically.

"They say that the older you get, the more conservative you become," Sanders writes. "Well, that's not me. The older I get, the angrier I become about the uber-capitalist system under which we live, and the more I want to see transformational change in our country."

From It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism

"The Inequality Pandemic"

While the establishment in both parties may imagine otherwise, there is nothing radical about taking the side of workers. Franklin Roosevelt did so in the 1930s and '40s. It was highly beneficial for the country. It was also extremely good politics for the Democratic Party. I don't mind being radical, in the truest sense of the word, when it comes to addressing the root causes of our problems. We have to forge a future where workplaces are democratized and every American worker has a job that is safe, rewarding and well-compensated. The billionaire class and the CEOs can complain all they want. As far as I'm concerned, the coming decade must be a time when the power of the elites is overcome, and when the power of the working class is amplified. We need to end the drift toward oligarchy and create a society that works for the many, and not just the few.

As someone who comes from a working-class family, the necessity of economic justice is not new to me. It is my life experience. It's in my DNA. But, in recent years, that struggle has taken on an even greater sense of urgency.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Still Bernin' | Book review: It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism, Bernie Sanders"

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