The war on the American middle class has had its chroniclers in recent years, almost always after some new economic insult was already a fact of life. The crisis of the economy has usually been explored in various books from a postmortem perspective, examining the assault on everyday people with a focus on the Wall Streeters and corporate barons whose relationship with lobbyists and Congress is as much the cause of the problem as it is the substance of the books explaining the problem.
Last year, Senator Bernie Sanders, the Independent senator from Vermont, took on the more challenging task: examining Congress’ role in the United States’ economic woes from the perspective of a congressman, and doing it before one of its most pivotal votes. Sanders stood one December morning on the floor of the United States Senate and began a speech against extension of the Bush-era tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires, and the potential compromise of the integrity of the Social Security Trust Fund.
More than eight hours later, the senator had effectively altered the tone of the debate on the matter. What had been largely an argument of abstractions and ideals became accessible to ordinary wage-earning Americans. Millions of them watched the speech live on C-SPAN; others followed online, coming to the Senate Web site in numbers big enough to crash the servers.
Sanders’ was destined to be a losing effort; the gravitational forces of the White House, a Democratic-majority Senate inclined to accede to White House requests; and a House of Representatives newly stocked with Tea Party Republicans eager to throw their weight around overcame the objections of Sanders and other Democrats in the House and Senate. President Obama signed the extension of $858 billion in Bush-era tax cuts into law one week later, and did so in the face of a $13.8 trillion national debt.
It’s therefore obvious that The Speech, the recently-published transcript of Sanders’ filibuster, has no surprise ending; the only potboiler aspect to the book might have been to wonder how long a 69-year-old man could go on standing and speaking without a break.
But the book (whose author’s proceeds go to charitable nonprofits in Vermont) succeeds in being what we so rarely hear from our elected officials: a clear, reasoned, impassioned, populist argument expressed in a comprehensive way. The indefatigable Sanders manages to cut through the clutter of emotion and identity, appealing to his colleagues with both an argument of fierce practicality and a shoutout to the better angels of their nature.
In the book’s introduction, Sanders recalls the day in almost pedestrian terms:
On Friday, December 10, 2010, I woke up at my usual time, had my usual breakfast of oatmeal and coffee at the Dirksen Senate Building, and then had a typical daily discussion with some of my staff.
At 10:30 a.m. I walked onto the floor of the Senate and began a speech. It turned out to be a very long speech, a modern version of the filibuster. It went on for eight and a half hours—until 7 p.m.
Senator Sanders sets the tone for what’s to come from the beginning:
Mr. President [of the Senate], as I think everyone knows, President Obama and the Republican leadership have reached an agreement on a very significant tax bill. In my view, the agreement they reached is a very bad deal for the American people. I think we can do better.
I am here today to take a strong stand against this bill, and I intend to tell my colleagues and the Nation exactly why I am in opposition to this bill…
What followed in the next eight and a half hours (or 254 pages) is a sometimes repetitive but refreshingly clear-eyed warning of the triumph of corporate greed and the possible closing of the American middle class.
Sanders brought his rhetorical A-game to the floor of the Senate. More than just exercising a chance to spout off hours of opinion, Sanders supports his thesis with outside sources, borrowing from sources from Third World America, Arianna Huffington’s dire but passionate call to arms, to figures on US infrastructure from the American Society of Civil Engineers. And Sanders — the longest-serving Independent member in the history of the Congress — speaks as someone liberated from reflexive salutes to either the Democratic or Republican parties. His status as an Independent thinker is clear in his willingness to go upside the heads of Democrats and Republicans alike.
Targets of opportunity were everywhere in his 10 December speech: the decline in American manufacturing; the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to foreign countries; the concentration of more and more wealth in fewer and fewer individuals; the tens of billions in tax breaks extended to the oil companies already recording record profits (like Exxon Mobil’s $19 billion in 2009); the pending rise of an American plutocracy aided and abetted by the American government. But Sanders always pivots back to an argument against the Bush-era tax cuts, one that it’s easy to get your head around:
Do you know what Warren Buffett is saying? Do you know what Bill Gates is saying? Do you know what Ben Cohen from Ben & Jerry’s is saying? Hey, thanks very much; I don’t need it. It is more important that you invest in our children. It is more important that we protect working families… In other words, we have this absurd situation that not only is this bad public policy, we are actually forcing tax breaks on people who don’t need them and don’t even want them.
We’re hard pressed to think favorably about filibusters. Despite its historically populist potential (popularly distilled by James Stewart in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), the filibuster has an ugly history in the Congress, and a reputation for being a dilatory tactic cynically exploited in ways that held back needed social reform.
The years of the civil rights movement saw filibusters by segregationist senators. Senator Strom Thurmond set the individual record when he filibustered against the Civil Rights Act of 1957, speaking for 24 hours and 18 minutes. In a kind of tag-team event, a bloc of Southern senators collectively filibustered against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for 75 hours; West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd (before his evolution years later to a more liberal legislative mindset) railed against the bill for more than 13 hours.
Sanders borrows from this rhetorical tradition specific to the United States Senate, but he embraces the filibuster in what may be its highest, best use: not for scoring political points or as a soapbox for invective, but as a way to dissect a national problem and take a stand on advancing the national agenda.
In an era of politician sound bites, in a time when we’ve gotten accustomed to the Cliff’s Notes version of everything, a senator from Vermont has gone fully on the record, adding his voice to a growing call for common sense, charity and a reordering of the national priorities away from corporate recklessness and a governmental indifference eviscerating the middle class that’s historically defined the United States.
The Speech is a refreshing example of passion and principle in action — for once, our tax dollars truly, nobly at work.