In normal times, this American period of racial reckoning, illness, and unemployment would be a prime moment for Bernie Sanders to gather his supporters for a series of rallies — the kind that energized his base during the Democratic presidential primary.
Instead, given the coronavirus pandemic, Sanders is doing a series of state-based virtual town hall meetings with union leaders and the progressive down-ballot candidates whose campaigns he has supported.
On Thursday evening, he will hold a Pennsylvania town hall, streamed on his website. The events are unaffiliated with Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign but are meant to motivate progressives to vote against President Donald Trump by talking about issues and local candidates they support.
Sanders will be joined Thursday by Lt. Gov. John Fetterman; Nikil Saval, who beat Philadelphia State Sen. Larry Farnese in the June primary; and several union leaders and heads of grassroots groups.
Sanders talked to The Inquirer about the presidential campaign in Pennsylvania and motivating his supporters. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and space.
What’s the goal of these virtual town halls?
"To bring ordinary people together as panelists to talk about what is going on for working-class people in their states — about the job loss that exists, about the people who are having trouble feeding their families — about families that have lost their health insurance, people who are being evicted. And in Pennsylvania, like so many other states, these are enormously important issues. In Pennsylvania alone, over two million people since the pandemic have seen incomes go down. We’ve got about 350,000 households struggling to pay rent and their mortgages.
“So we’ve got a real economic crisis for working class of this country.”
Are they also about motivating people to vote in November?
"They’re tied in together.
“You have a president in Trump who is a pathological liar, and no matter what your political views — conservative, moderate, progressive — we cannot allow a pathological liar to remain as president. We cannot have a president who is anti-science in terms of the coronavirus pandemic, in terms of climate change.
"No matter what your political views are, you cannot have a president who is undermining American democracy, who doesn’t believe in the rule of law. So in this unprecedented moment in American history, we have got to come together to defeat Trump.”
On progressive candidates winning primaries this year
“I’m very proud in the last several months, many of the strongest progressives in the House of Representatives, who were challenged by well-funded establishment opponents, won reelection by landslides. What we are seeing from coast to coast, in Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, people representing the working class of this country standing up and winning important election victories.”
What would you say to supporters of yours in Pennsylvania who just aren’t excited enough about Biden?
"Look, it is no great secret that Joe Biden’s positions on a number of issues are very different than mine. On the other hand, what I would say is that Donald Trump is the most dangerous president in the history of the United States of America, and he must be defeated with big numbers, and Pennsylvania is obviously a key battleground.
“What I would say to progressives out there is that the day after Biden wins, we are going to rally the American people — working-class people — all across this country; Black and white and Latino and Native American, and we are going to demand that a Biden administration, a Democratic House, and a Democratic Senate stand with the working class of this country."
How do you create a winning coalition in Pennsylvania that brings in both moderate Democrats in the Southwest and Northeast, and then more progressive voters in Philadelphia?
“Look, obviously in Pennsylvania and every state in this country, you have folks of all different political views. But I think there is a widespread agreement, whether in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, that the working class of this country right now is in very serious economic condition. They’re hurting terribly, and that what we need in terms of health care, in terms of decent paying jobs, in terms of education — we need policies that represent the struggling working class of this country, and not more tax breaks.”
For some Trump supporters, Biden is seen as a Trojan horse for socialism. A lot of voters even say they think progressives like you are “calling the shots.” Are you worried about how that affects the race?
“Well, look, I think our job is to make it clear that when you have a president like Trump, who is right now in court trying to throw 32 million people off of health care, when you have a president who has given a trillion dollars in tax breaks to the top 1% and large corporations, a president undermining Social Security and Medicare by eliminating the payroll tax, this is not a president who stands with working families. He is a president who lies to working families, and I would hope that working-class people who support Trump take a hard look at that.”