Many of the targets of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ fiery viral speeches lie squarely in Silicon Valley, from the billionaires he wants taxed to the tech giants he wants to break up.
Sanders will be in Silicon Valley March 4 for the only Northern California appearance scheduled to talk about his new book, "It's OK to be Angry About Capitalism," hosted by Kepler’s Literary Foundation at San Jose’s California Theatre. The event, which is nearly sold out, promises a lively discussion about topics ranging from the senator's calls for health care reform to the future of work.
In their book, Sanders and co-author John Nichols, a Wisconsin-based journalist and national affairs correspondent at The Nation, explore the senator's influence over the last few tumultuous years in American politics and how "ubercapitalism" – the basically unfettered ways that money, especially spending by U.S. oligarchs, drives political decision-making – is widening wealth gap and dissatisfaction many Americans feel toward their political and economic circumstances.
They then lay out a vision for how the country's politics could be reshaped to better support the working class by taxing the rich and offering guaranteed economic rights to all individuals in areas like health care, work and education.
This publication chatted with Nichols to hear more about the book he co-authored with Sanders and what messages it contains for readers in Silicon Valley. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Kate Bradshaw: Could you just start by telling me a little bit about your role in working with Sanders on this book? How were you involved and what was that process like?
John Nichols: Well, I've known Senator Sanders for decades and written about him a lot over the years. I wrote the afterword to his autobiography; a couple of editions of it. And then he wrote an introduction to one of my books. So we've written things together before or at least had these literary connections over the years. In the summer of 2021, we were talking, and he said he was trying to put together a book that might talk more deeply about policy issues. And he asked if I would like to help do it. I thought about it a little bit and then said, “Yeah, let's, let's give this a go.”
We both contributed to all the different parts of the book. It's a book about his campaigns and also about his policies. What we tried to do was to explore some policy issues that maybe haven't been dug into as deeply. One of the things that I was particularly interested in was making sure that we wrote a lot about media policy. Also, I've written some articles over the years on technological change, robotification, the new era of work in America, and so particularly in some of those areas where we're talking about work life and the future of work, I encouraged us to go deep in those areas.
Kate Bradshaw: So the overall thesis of the book is in its title, but it's also deeper than that. Can you summarize some of the calls to action that we're left with by the end of the book?
John Nichols: At the core, the book is trying to open up a discussion in America that goes to a deeper place. Too frequently, our discussions about politics and about the economy are de-linked, and so we don't think of economic issues as being those that should be close to or at the center of our politics. Often, there's a sensibility in the United States that economics sort of happens to us, right? Like, we don't know why the stock market went up or went down. What we wanted to argue is that there are a lot of decisions made about our economy by powerful people in politics and in business that affect all of our lives, but that we don't have as much say in it as we should.
What we tried to do was to renew some of the thinking that Franklin Roosevelt developed with his Economic Bill of Rights back in 1944. What Roosevelt said was that Americans certainly have political rights, and those are vital to have: freedom of speech, press, the right to assemble. There should also be economic rights. Those rights include the right to good work that is well-paid and creative, a right to education, a right to health care, to have at least some guarantee of access to housing and transportation, things of this nature.
If there's a call to action, it is for people to be more engaged in these debates and more willing to make demands of our politics. One of the core demands is that we tax the rich, that we make sure that billionaires and multinational corporations pay their fair share. Another aspect of it is that when these resources come from a fairer tax system – a fairer system in general – that those resources should be allocated in ways that create universal guarantees for people: a guarantee of health care, not as a privilege but as a right; a guarantee of access to education, not as a privilege, but as right. That's really the core call to action: for people to seize their democratic – small "d" democratic – power and demand a fairer and more just society.
Kate Bradshaw: Part of the book too, though, talks about just how big the obstacles are. Sen. Sanders talks about his own struggles with both parties, pushing to support the working class and being defeated by people whose votes are bought by these corporate interests and overwhelming powers. How does he go about finding hope?
John Nichols: I think at the heart of finding hope is having a discussion, going to the heart of the issues that people are facing. We use a lot of polling data. We look at what people are saying about their losses; their sense of economic security; their sense of frustration; their sense, or concern, that if they get sick, they might end up with medical bills that would bankrupt; and the deep frustration (of) young people who have skills but find college to be unaffordable, or if it is accessible, to end up to be something that lands them with huge amounts of debt.
What we are saying is that it doesn't have to be that way. The models exist for a fairer and more equitable society. There is the argument that America has, in many cases, historically overcome tremendous challenges. You find your hope in our own history and in contemporary activism, like the rise of new young leaders like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Ilhan Omar and others who've been elected to Congress. We also find hope looking around the world.
Finland frequently tops global measures of educational attainment and educational accomplishment. So we set up a meeting with (the minister of education in Finland) and said, “Hey, what are you doing? How does this work? Are there things that could be transferable to the United States?” We fully understand that the United States is a very big country and Finland is a very small country. But what we point out is that countries have overcome overwhelming challenges and found solutions. And so while we might not take the whole Finnish model for education, because obviously there are distinctions, the bottom line is you can create an education system that really does teach young people to be citizens (and) to engage politically. When you look at models from around the world, you realize we do have a lot of power. As overwhelming as that (corporate power or billionaire power) is, we have more power in democracy. We have the ability to make demands, and we should be making much bigger demands.
Our politics has to be different and better. We argue the money power needs to be restricted so it's not so influential, and people power needs to be expanded – the engagement at the local, state and national levels needs to increase.
Kate Bradshaw: I'm curious about how that message resonates in a place like Silicon Valley, where there's massive wealth inequality. For instance, this upcoming event looks like it was downsized to a smaller venue. I was curious about how this book or this message is being received elsewhere, and why it seems like it may not be as well-received here in Silicon Valley.
John Nichols: I think it'll be well-received. My sense is that the (event planners) really liked a particular venue, and they had a little challenge getting it. Much of the book deals with the future of work, and the influence of the digital revolution, the AI revolution, (and) technological changes that are taking place that are really going to alter our lives – not just how we work, but how we organize our day-to-day activities. And one of the things that we argue in the book is that these discussions should be democratized. They should be opened up so that all people can have at least some say in the future.
One of the things we argue is that democratizing the debates, opening them up and putting more of an emphasis on assuring that new technologies actually serve the great mass of people, that they make lives easier, and not just make investors richer – I think discussion has a built resonance in a place like Silicon Valley. I think there are people who work in tech industries that understand the need for this democratization. I don't necessarily think that there's any part of America, anywhere in the world, where discussion about how to democratize debates about capitalism doesn't have resonance.
Kate Bradshaw: In this particular area's voting history, (in the 2020 primaries) there were plenty of super-wealthy precincts that picked Michael Bloomberg (a billionaire) over Bernie. And one of this book's messages is that there shouldn't be billionaires. What's Sen. Sanders' message for these voters? And what would you say to them?
John Nichols: What we set out to do was write a book that talks about empowering the working class, and creating a more fair and equitable society. I think people of many backgrounds feel that is necessary and know that is good for the United States. Will there be people who resist? Of course.
Silicon Valley has a very rich political history, and it has sent some of the most creative thinkers to Congress, going back to the 1960s. Now, the district sends Ro Khanna to Congress. Khanna was co-chair of Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign and has taken many of the issues that Bernie Sanders has raised and put them at the center of his political activism and his political service.
There's plenty of space in Silicon Valley for a discussion about how to make our politics better, and, frankly, how to make our economy better. And at the center of that discussion, there is space for a real examination of how capitalism is working in the United States. That discussion will take people in a lot of different directions. One of the things we talked about in the book is what we refer to as ubercapitalism – that's capitalism out of control, where there's very little regulation, very little guidance and frankly, very, very wealthy people do whatever they want. What we argue is that's not healthy. It's not healthy for our society, it's not healthy for our economy, or for our politics. That's where the book is coming from.
When you look around the world, at Scandinavian countries and many European countries, they have wealthy people and they also have a social welfare state – a system that does have guarantees for health care, fair pay and some protection against the worst impacts of life in a bad economy. They have a lot of democratizing influences on their economic life. I think that you can get to that in the United States. You can get to that in any country. But at the heart of it is to have an honest discussion about how to organize not just your politics, but also your economy.
Kate Bradshaw: What else should people know about the book? Why should they read it?
John Nichols: The book is really in many ways summed up by its title. In America, we have for too long had a very narrow discussion about modern economic life. A lot of people really feel that they don't have control over their work life and, in a broader sense, over their lives in general. And what we're saying is that frustration is real. It's legitimate. And we can all start to look at where that's rooted. In many, many cases that comes from an out-of-control economic system, an out-of-control capitalist system that simply doesn't allow working-class people to have a real say in regards to their future and to have a fair, just place in our economic plan.
Our polling shows that huge numbers of people think that the United States is headed in the wrong direction, and a huge number of people are frustrated and angry. What you want to do is get beyond a politics that plays on that frustration and anger simply to win for one side or another, and goes to a deeper discussion, one that says to folks, “Your anger and your frustration is legitimate, you have been left out of a lot of debates. You have been denied a lot of what people in other countries have, and so it is appropriate to be angry. And let's talk about what to do with that. Let's talk about what are the demands that you can make on our politics, on our politicians, on our economics, on our economy.”
I think once that happens, people feel they have a much greater opportunity to participate fully in the political life of this country and to make real demands on those who are in elected office. In many ways, it's really an argument for a higher level of engagement in our politics, a higher level of demand for working-class people for what they can and should get from society.
Sen. Bernie Sanders and co-author John Nichols are scheduled to discuss their new book, "It's OK to be Angry About Capitalism" Saturday, March 4, from 7-8 p.m. at an event hosted by the Kepler's Literary Foundation at the California Theatre in San José. Masks required. More information about the event at keplers.org. The book is published by Penguin Random House.