These are remarks, as delivered by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Democrat, at the Story County Democrats' Soup Supper, February 21, 2015.
Thank you very, very much for inviting me to be with you tonight. This is an extraordinary turn out, and I think the folks that got the awards and all of you are doing something which is enormously patriotic. You are expressing belief in our democratic system. You are prepared to get involved in the political process. You are prepared to talk about the major issues facing our country. And I just thank you very much for your patriotism in doing all of that.
I want to begin by saying this: if you talk to the media and you talk to a lot of folks out there, they talk about the gridlock in Washington and the personality defects of all the members of the Congress, and what’s going on? Why can’t anything be done? So, I want to tell you as clearly as I can what I see the major problems facing our country to be, and what I think we need to do to solve them.
And the very first issue that comes to my mind when I see problems in America is the real fear that the foundations of American democracy that men and women have fought for throughout the history of this country is currently being undermined by this disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision. Now, in Iowa you have an extraordinary event called the caucus system and tens of thousands of people, Democrats, Republicans, they come out and they argue about issues. And they show up, and they vote for the candidate of their choice. In my state of Vermont we don’t do it that way. But we have, actually in a couple of weeks, we have what we call town meetings. Where small towns, larger towns, people come up in their town meetings and people argue about how much they’re going to spend for the schools, for the roads, who they’re going to elect. It’s called grassroots democracy in both cases. And, what Citizens United is doing is undermining all of that. And it gave a green light, by a five-to-four vote, to the billionaires and to the large corporations to say that you can spend as much as you want. You can buy elections. That it’s not enough that you own most of the economy, you can now own the United States government with unlimited spending. And that is an absolute disaster for America and for our political process. We have got to overturn, through a constitutional amendment, Citizens United. We need public funding of elections.
Now, we have heard a lot, and I suspect that every person in this room has heard of the Koch brothers, has heard of the hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars, this family, the second wealthiest family in America, who themselves are worth about $100 billion. You have heard how much they spend, but what you have not heard - cause the media has not really talked about it - who are these guys? A month or so ago they announced that they intend to spend some $900 million in the coming elections cycle. That’s what they said. My guess is they will end up spending a lot more. But to put that into context, what you should know is Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in the last election spent a little over a billion dollars, and you’re looking at one family that is prepared to spend almost as much as either the Democratic or Republican candidate. Read the Washington Post few months ago, they now talk about the Koch Brothers having a political data file of tens of millions of names, which now exceeds what the Republican Party has. So, what you have to ask yourselves, and all Americans have to deal with, is this country tragically moving toward an oligarchic form of society, where a handful of billionaires control not only the economy but the political life of this country.
And unless we deal with money in politics, unless we create a scenario where young people want to run for office, regardless of their political views, they are excited about getting involved in the process, not having to hustle money from billionaires. Unless we turn that around, I worry about the political and democratic future of America. So, top issue for me, no matter what your other issues may be, education, health care, the economy, unless we address money in politics, this country will remain in very difficult straits.
Now, I want to talk a little bit about the Koch brothers. Now, my own view, and I think most of your people would agree, bad idea for any billionaire regardless of his or her political views. You know some people say well you know there are progressive billionaires and what’s the difference? I don’t want any billionaires to be buying elections, regardless of the views. But I want to talk about a little bit about the Koch brothers because many of you don’t know exactly what these guys actually stand for. Who are they? People who, in a few years, may be the most powerful political force in America, stronger than the Democratic Party, stronger than the Republican Party. This is what we know. We know that in 1980, David Koch, one of the brothers, ran for Vice President of the United States on the Libertarian Party. And, the Libertarian Party, of which he funded, had a set of principles, planks in their platform. To the best of my knowledge, their views have not changed, and I want you to understand what we are up against, because the views in that platform have increasingly become the views of the Republican Party. I want to read you just a few of them to know what the struggle is that we are involved in.
First issue, “We urge the repeal of federal campaign finance laws and the immediate abolition of the despotic Federal Election Commission.” End of quote. You know what that means in English and where the leadership of the Republican Party is today? They think that Citizens United did not go far enough. They want to abolish all campaign finance law so that the Koch brothers could sit in front of an audience like this and say to you, you want to run for governor of California? Here’s a check for $500 million dollars. There’s your speech writer. There’s your campaign manager. You work for me. They can directly fund candidates rather than doing independent expenditures. Think about that -- Candidates on the direct payroll of the second wealthiest family in America.
Other plank, “We favor the abolition of Medicare and Medicaid programs.” Not cuts, the elimination of those programs. Have they succeeded so far? No. But look where the Republicans are. Look at the Ryan budget last year - ends Medicare as we know it, moves it to a voucher program. It says to the elderly in this country, here is a check for $7,000, $8,000, and yes, I’m sorry that you’re poor, I’m sorry that you have cancer. Here’s your check for $7,000. Go out and get private health insurance. You think for a moment how long private insurance on $7,000 will last in the hospital -- Two days, maybe less. That is the Republican plan for Medicare. Medicaid, if you’re poor and you need healthcare, drastic cuts in that program.
“We favor the repeal of the fraudulent, virtually bankrupt and increasingly oppressive Social Security system.” Have they succeeded in doing that? No. Have they given up that vision that George W. Bush brought forth? No. Right now, when I go back to Washington tomorrow, we’re going to have to deal with the fact that the Republicans want to make significant cuts in Social Security. And, when you see somebody on television talk about, “well we need entitlement reform in America.” Understand exactly what they are talking about: they are talking about cutting Social Security and Medicare. That’s what they mean. And, in my view, given the fact that poverty among seniors is rising, given the fact that for millions of seniors Social Security is all or almost all of their income, given the fact that in Iowa and Vermont and throughout America seniors are making the choice about whether they get the medicine they need, whether they heat their homes, whether they get the food they need. Not only should we not be talking about cutting Social Securit,y we should be talking about expanding Social Security.
How do you do that? Well, I’ll tell you how you do that. Right now, the cap on taxable Social Security is a $118,000. We’ve got a multi-millionaire paying the same amount of money into the system as somebody making $118,000. Lift the cap, start at $250,000, we can extend Social Security for decades and expand Social Security as well, and that is in my view exactly what we should be doing.
Now, the Koch brothers also, this is the last point that I’ll make about them. They say they want, to um, we oppose, listen to this, listen to this and understand what’s going on in the Republican Party. These are the major supporters of the Republican Party today, “We oppose all government welfare, relief projects, and aid to the poor programs. All these government programs are privacy invading, paternalistic, demeaning, and inefficient. The proper source of help for such persons is the voluntary efforts of private groups and individuals.” What does that mean in English? What it means is goodbye food stamps. Goodbye Pell grants. Goodbye Head Start. Goodbye aid for child care. Goodbye to the Environmental Protection Agency. Goodbye every single program passed in this country since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president, which was designed to help the elderly, the children, the sick, and the poor. That is their agenda, and I am not exaggerating. Now, I am not going to tell you that every Republican subscribes to all of these tenants. That is not true. But these are the people who are funding the Republican Party. These are the people who are close to being a more powerful political entity than either of the two major parties. This is what we are fighting against. I’ve got four kids. I’ve got seven grandchildren, and you and I and our kids cannot afford to lose this struggle.
Now, I want to say a few words above and beyond my concerns about a democracy, which is in trouble. A democracy, which, in the last election, 63% of the American people didn’t vote. Eighty-percent of young people didn’t vote. And, if anyone here in this room thinks we’re going to deal with the problems facing the working class or middle income people in this country when tens of millions of people don’t participate in the political process, you are kidding yourself. And that’s why I really want to applaud all of you who are so heavily involved in the political process. Because at the end of the day, the way we win is by increasing voter turnout, by raising public consciousness, by making sure that people are not voting against their own best interest. And that is what you do every single day. So, thank you.
Now, let me talk about the economy, and, why there is a lot of anger and frustration among the American people. And in a nutshell this is what’s going on: What is going on is that the great middle class of this country, once the envy of the entire world, is in fact disappearing. And that has been going on for the last 40 years. Today, median family income, that family right in the middle of the American economy, today earns $5,000 less than it did in 1999. Now, all over this country, you all know we have an increase in productivity. We have an increase in technology. And yet median family income - that has gone down.
Today, that median male worker, that man in the middle of the economy, in inflation accounted for wages, makes $783 less last year than he did 41 years ago. You got a global economy. You got technology. You got an increase in productivity. And that guy right in the middle of the American economy is making close to $800 less than he did 41 years ago. That typical woman worker right in the middle of the economy is making $1,300 less than she did eight years ago. What we have seen is an increase in poverty in America. We have more people living in poverty than at almost any time in American history. We are seeing - in my state - people not working one job, but working two jobs, working three jobs. We’re seeing most of the new jobs being created are low wage, part-time jobs.
But while the middle class is in decline, while we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major nation on earth, there is another reality that is going on in America. And that is that the people on top and the largest corporations have never had it so good. And what we are looking at right now is America having the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country on earth. And it is worse in our country today than at any time since 1929, before the Great Depression. In terms of distribution of wealth, what we have after we work our entire lives, you have the top one-tenth of one percent owning more wealth than the bottom 90%. Do you think that’s what America is supposed to be about? One-tenth of one percent owning more wealth than the bottom 90%? You have one family, the Walton family that owns Walmart, owning more wealth than the bottom 40% of American people. You have today, in terms of income, the top one percent earning more income than the bottom 50%. And, listen to this: since the Wall Street crash, 99% of all new income generated in America went to the top one percent. In other words, you have an economic situation today where it is very clear the situation is stacked against working people. They are working longer hours for low wages.
I’ll tell you a story that some of you already know. When I was a young person, a long time ago to be sure, but when I was young you know what the expectation in America was? The expectation was that one person in a household, often the man in those days, could work 40 hours a week and earn enough living to take care of the whole family. How many families do you know where one person is earning enough money to pay the bills for the whole family? Very few. So, you’ve got husbands that are working long hours. You’ve got wives working long hours. You have kids working. I was up at the University the other day. You have kids who are working part time, working part time in order to pay for school so they can’t even focus on their earnings. So, we’re looking at massive income and wealth inequality, which has a moral component, an economic component, and a political component. The moral component is, how do we feel in this nation, once seen around the world as the nation of opportunity, when so few have so much and so many have so little? How do we feel in recent years seeing a proliferation of millionaires and billionaires at the same time as we have the highest rate of child poverty of any major country on earth? You’ve got millions of kids going to school who are literally hungry, and you’ve got others sleeping out on the streets. How do we feel about that from a moral perspective?
From an economic perspective, here’s the problem: my Republican colleagues tell us that the job creators are the CEOs of large corporations. And let me respectfully disagree. You know who the job creators are? The job creators in this country are the working men and women who spend the money buying goods and buying services which create the jobs. It is economics 101 to know that no matter how smart a business person may be, he or she can’t sell a product if people don’t have the money to buy that product. And if we want to create good paying jobs then our economic program is to make sure that the vast majority of the people, the working families and the middle class of this country, have the income they need to live with dignity to take care of their families, to spend money so that we can create the jobs that we need. Now, from an economic point of view what we’re looking at is from 1985 to 2013 the share of the nation’s wealth going to the middle class has gone down from 36% to less than 23%. If the middle class had simply maintained the same share of our nation’s wealth as it had 30 years ago, it would have over $10 trillion more in cumulative wealth than it does today. Meanwhile, at the same time, the share of the nation’s wealth going to the top one-tenth of one percent has gone up from 10% in 1985 to 22% in 2013. So, what the economy has been about is the Robin Hood principle in reverse. We have taken from the poor and working families and we’ve given to the rich. And that is wrong, and that is bad economics.
And then, as I mentioned a moment ago, it is not only an issue of morality, or an issue of economics, it is an issue of democracy and politics. Because what the billionaire class is doing with their money is now in the process of buying elections. So, this issue of income and wealth inequality is a huge and profound issue that must be dealt with.
Let me touch on some of the other issues that we are also seeing and then I want to talk to you about what I think we can do to improve the situation. It’s easy enough to describe the problems. It is harder to talk about the solutions.
Today, in this country - and I was just at the University of Iowa yesterday, and Drake University, as well - talking with a lot of young people. And what the young people here say is exactly what they say in the state of Vermont and all over this country. Now, just think about this. We live in a highly competitive global economy where most of the good jobs, not all, but most of the good jobs require a higher education of one form or another. And you know what we are saying to the young people of this country? We are saying that if you are low income or moderate income you better think twice about whether or not you are going to go to college. And I have talked to young people, and I think many of you have talked to young people, and they said, you know what, it’s an unstable economy. It’s a volatile economy. I don’t know if I want to go to college and leave school $50 thousand in debt, and I’m not going to go to college. And then other people do go to college and they come out deeply in debt. A few months ago I talked to a woman in Burlington, Vermont. Her crime was that she wanted to be a primary care physician, something we desperately need. And, in fact, she went to college. She went to medical school. And that’s exactly what she’s doing now, working with low income people in a community health center in Burlington. She came out of school $300,000 in debt.
Talked to dentists, and we desperately need dentists - $250,000 in debt. I got lawyers in my own office in Washington - $100,000 in debt. Meanwhile, around the rest of the world, in Germany, Scandinavia, and other countries, you know what they’re saying? They’re saying to their young people, we want you to get an education. We need you to get an education if we’re going to be competitive. Therefore, in those countries they have free college education. And I think it’s time we learned something from it. President Obama came up with what I thought was a good idea: two years free of community college. But I think we’ve got to go further. Some of you may remember, you may remember, again, and it’s important especially for the young people to understand this: forty or 50 years ago in this country, some of the great public universities, not only of America but of the world - University of California, City University of New York - do you know what tuition was 40 or 50 years ago? Who knows? It was zero! So, how does it happen that with all of the new technology and all of the global economy, and all of the productivity, we go from zero tuition at our great public universities to unaffordability in our great public universities?
So I think what we say to the young people, we say to them when they are in the fourth grade and the fifth grade: “If you study hard, and if you are serious, and if you’re a good student, regardless of the income of your family, you are going to get all of the education that you need.” That’s what I think we say to them. Well some people will say that’s a radical idea, how are we going to afford it? Let me give you an example. And I am the ranking member on the budget committee. Right now, we’ll talk about this in a moment, our Republican colleagues think that we are not spending enough money on the military. They want us to spend a lot more. And some of them think, and I have to say this, that we have not been at war in the Middle East long enough, that we should bring our troops back on the ground in the Middle East. Now, the Republicans want to spend a whole lot of money, the president also wants to spend more money, not as much as the Republicans. The president is proposing a $36 billion increase in military spending, and a $36 billion increase in non-military spending for really important programs. Republicans want to spend more on the military and they want to cut programs for working families. But even if you look at the president’s proposal, if you do just this thing, and I would go a lot further, he wants to spend $36 billion more for the military. You cut that in half. You take $18 billion, you say to the state of Iowa and the state of Vermont and states all over this country, if you match that $18 billion, and we’re going to put that money into public colleges and universities. You know what you could do? You could do away with all tuition in every public college and university in America, and I think that makes a lot more sense to me than spending more money on the military.
Now, when you go out and you ask the American people what is the issue upper-most on their mind, every single poll says the same thing. They say jobs and the economy. Now, why is that? Because when you see in the papers that official unemployment is 5.8% - I trust that you all understand that that is different from real unemployment? - Alright - real unemployment government figures include those people who have given up looking for work and those people who are working part time when they want to work full time. If you add those numbers together, what the government statistics tell you is that real unemployment in America is over 11%. Youth unemployment, which we never talk about, is 18%. African-American youth unemployment close to 30%. So, what do we need to do? We need to create millions of decent paying jobs. That’s what we need to do. And, I remember your former Senator Tom Harkin, very good friend of mine, talked about what the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps under Roosevelt, did for his own dad. I don’t know if you ever heard Tom talk about that story. Alright. And that is what we have to do today. Now, how do you do that? What we do is rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. In my state and in your state we have roads and bridges disintegrating. We have a rail system and airports way behind other countries around the world. We need work on levees and dams. We need an enormous amount of work to be done to make our country more efficient, more productive, and safer. I’ve recently introduced legislation that for over a five year period would put a trillion dollars into rebuilding our infrastructure, and you know what that would do? That would create 13 million decent paying jobs, and that in my view is exactly what we should be doing.
Now, I know that some of you turn on the wrong channel and get the Fox by mistake. You’ll believe or hear that there’s debate about climate change. There is no debate. I sit on the environmental committee and the energy committee and I can tell you that we’ve heard from scientists throughout our country and the world that say climate change is real. Climate change is caused by carbon emissions and human activity. Climate change is already causing devastating problems, and if we do not get our act together and transform our energy system these problems will only become much more severe, in terms of droughts, and floods, extreme weather disturbances, rising sea levels. In my view we have got to lead the world in transforming our energy system away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy.
And when we talk about the economy it is not just creating jobs. It is making sure those people who are working are earning a decent wage. In Washington now, and Tom Harkin helped lead this effort, there is a bill that would raise the starvation minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour. I think that’s a good start, but we should go further than that. Anybody in America, in my view, who works 40 hours a week should not be living in poverty - period. We need pay equity for women workers. Some of the women here seem to agree with that. It is hard to defend a woman making 78 cents on the dollar compared to a man doing the same work. That’s indefensible. We’ve got to end that.
We have to deal with the scandal of overtime in America. Many people think, incorrectly, that if you’re working 50 hours a week you get 10 hours of time-and-a-half. That is not true for the vast majority of workers. What happened is that we’re operating under very old fair labor standards, which need to be changed. Right now, you could work at McDonald’s, make $25,000 a year, and be quote-unquote supervisor of two other workers. You work 50 hours a week you don’t get any overtime. We have to radically change that. If you work more than 40 hours a week, let’s make sure workers get overtime pay.
Now, there’s another issue. It is not a sexy issue, but it is an enormously important issue. And it’s an issue that as a nation we discuss far too rarely. And that is we have got to make a determination of whether or not the trade policies that have been adopted in this country for the last 30 or 40 years make any sense at all. You are looking at somebody who, when he was in the House, and now in the Senate, has voted against NAFTA, voted against CAFTA, voted against permanent normal trade relations with China, and is damn well going to vote against the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Now, I happen to think trade is a good thing when it is done well, but these trade agreements have been written and pushed by the big multi-national corporations. And what they have basically attempted successfully to do is to say to American workers, your competition is in China. It’s in Vietnam. It’s in Mexico. It’s in low wage countries where people are working for pennies an hour, where they can’t form a union, where there are very few, if any, environmental rules. Free trade does not mean to me that an American worker has to compete against a worker in Vietnam where a minimum wage is 56 cents an hour. What we have got to demand from corporate America is that every night on TV they’re advertising, and they’re telling us buy this product buy that product. What we have got to tell them is that if they want us to buy their products, that time is long overdue for them to start building those products here in the United States of America and not in China.
When we talk about the economy it would be irresponsible not to deal with what goes on in Wall Street. And, I think as most of you know, the terrible, terrible recession, which we are trying desperately to crawl out of, and have made some success over the last six years, was caused by the greed and the recklessness and the illegal behavior on Wall Street. Now, if a kid smokes marijuana, or somebody breaks the windows someplace that kid could end up getting arrested. But it always seems to me rather amazing that the CEOs of Wall Street firms whose recklessness and illegal behavior resulted in millions of people losing their jobs, their homes, and their life savings, that not one of these guys has ended up in jail for their illegal behavior. And the issue there is not whether the banks are too big to fail it’s whether the bankers in some cases are too big to jail. There is an argument whether or not the criminal justice system can in fact deal with people this wealthy and this powerful. Now, right now, the six largest financial institutions in this country have assets equivalent to about 60% of the GDP of the United States of America. That is roughly speaking about $10 trillion. Six financial institutions… they issue half of the mortgages and about two-thirds of the credit cards in this country. I happen to think that if Teddy Roosevelt were alive today what he would say is it’s time to break them up. And that’s what I believe we should do.
Some of you know that the United States of America is the only major country on earth that does not guarantee health care to all its people as a right. We’re the only one. I live 100 miles away from the Canadian border. All of their people have health care as a right. In the UK you have a healthcare system different from Canada’s. Germany’s different than the UK's. Scandinavia’s different than Germany. They’re all different. But all of them have two or three major components. Number one, health care is a right. And they understand that whether you are able to get health care when you’re sick should not be dependent on your income. It’s a right as a human being. Number two, they also understand, without exception, that the role of private health insurance companies is not to provide quality affordable health care. It is to make as much money as they possibly can. And no other major country on earth, they are all different, all these systems are different, some are socialized, some are single payer, but there is no other country on earth that allows private health insurance companies to determine the nature of a health care system. In my very strong opinion, the United States of America should move toward a Medicare for all, single-payer health care system.
When we talk about income and wealth inequality it’s also important to understand that at a time when the wealthiest people and largest corporations are doing phenomenally well, there are huge loopholes in the tax system which make it possible for them to avoid their fair share of taxes. Right now, trillions of dollars of corporate profits go to countries like the Cayman Islands or Bermuda and Luxembourg where these corporations pay nothing in taxes. And the result of that is that we are losing about $100 billion every single year in terms of revenue that should be coming in to our treasury. In addition to that, in terms of individual taxes, you have situations where hedge fund managers pay a lower effective tax rate. Warren Buffet makes this point all the time. He says he pays a lower effective tax rate than his secretary because of a variety of tax loopholes. I believe that if we are going to rebuild our infrastructure, if we’re going to make college affordable for our young people, if we are going to protect the most vulnerable people in this country, large corporations and the wealthiest people have got to understand they are part of America and they are going to have to start paying their fair share of taxes.
Let me conclude by saying this, and why again, and I’m not here just to flatter you, but I believe this from the bottom of my heart: the work that you do and your involvement in the political process is enormously important. And this is why, number one, in terms of campaigns, I’m kind of an old-fashioned type politician like many of you. And I should tell that in my last campaign, where I did well, we spent… You know how much money I spent on thirty second TV ads? Nothing. Not a penny. Didn’t put a nickel into TV. What we did is put our money into grassroots organizing. We ended up with 71% of the vote. So I believe, I believe in that. The second thing I believe, I believe this very sincerely, I happen to have a lot of affection and respect for President Obama. He’s a friend, and he was kind enough... President Obama was kind enough, when he was Senator, and I was running for office in 2006, he came to Vermont, had a huge turnout. And I think history will treat him a lot more kindly than his contemporaries do. Because I think people do not appreciate what he inherited. When he came to office, we were losing, you know Republicans said we are not growing enough jobs. It’s true. But when Bush left office we were losing 800,000 jobs a month or rather grow 250,000 and lose 800,000. Alright, my Republican friends were so very worried about the deficit, when Bush left office we had the largest deficit in the history of America, $1.4 trillion. We’ve reduced that by two-thirds. Not bad. When Bush left office the financial system was on the verge of collapse. Now I would argue that Wall Street is doing too well. But we have made real progress in the last six years under Obama’s leadership. But let me say this, where I disagree with the president. I think history will record, and all of you or many of you played an extraordinary role in this process. When the president won, when Obama won in 2008, he put together an extraordinary campaign. It was one of the great campaigns in American history. He did something which is enormously difficult. He got young people involved. He got working people, he got old people involved. And, by the way, in the middle of all that your small state played the leading role. Congratulations to you. But here is the criticism. The criticism is that after putting together the strong grassroots movement, after he was elected, he kind of forgot about that movement.
And he had the mistaken idea that he could sit down and negotiate with John Boehner and the others. And he couldn’t. So, people ask me how do we go forward and raise the minimum wage? How do we make college affordable? How do we deal with health care? How do we deal with our infrastructure and create jobs? The only way that I know how to do that, that any president can do it, is when millions of people are actively involved in the political process. Can’t be done otherwise. And, I say to the young people who are struggling under the student debt and the high cost of college, if you want to lower the cost of college and student debt you bring a million of your friends to Washington, D.C., and you will succeed very, very quickly. But if 80% of young people do not vote, as was the case this last election, I guarantee you nobody will pay attention to your debt. They’ll worry more about Koch brother funding. And, that’s what we have to do. Any president who is trying to fight for working families against the big money interest needs the active support of millions of people.
Last two points - I always say this and I go on for hours. The good news for us is that on issue after issue there is much more commonality of thought than the pundits tell us. Now, I know, and you all know, this state maybe more so than most, there are strong divisions over women’s issues, right? You have a very strong anti-abortion movement in this state. I am pro-choice. I’ve been pro-choice all my life. There are divisions over gay rights. I’m very proud that my state has led America in terms of gay marriage and civil unions. There are divisions on those issues, but here’s the point. On issues like raising the minimum wage, Republicans, not all of them, but many of them agree with us. On issues about whether you give tax breaks to billionaires and cut Social Security, the vast majority of the Republicans agree with us. On issues about investing in infrastructure and creating jobs, the majority of Republicans agree with us. So what our political task is, is to bring people together. What the Republicans try to do, and they do it successfully, is divide people. Our job is to bring people together, understanding that there are going to be differences of opinion. But bring people together around an agenda that says government should represent the vast middle class and working families of our country and not just the one percent, that’s our job.
Let me conclude - and this time I will conclude. These are tough issues that we are facing today. I think it is fair to say that there has probably never been as serious of problems, if you throw in climate change, more serious than in the modern history America. And there is no ducking that. These problems are very real and they are very difficult. But remember this, and it’s important to remember this, the problems that we have are largely brought about by bad human decisions. Bad decisions. Human beings can make change. It’s not God ordained. People make bad decisions. We can undo those decisions. And, I beg of you, do not ever throw up your hands in despair and give up. That is exactly what our opponents want us to do, and for the sake of our kids and grandchildren we cannot do that.
And I will tell you this, and I want you all to think about this, because sometimes we take change for granted. As Americans we should be extraordinarily proud of very profound changes that have taken place in this country over the last many decades. Changes that we now take for granted. Let me give you an example: if we were sitting in this room thirty years ago, and somebody got up and said you know I think the United States of America is maturing. I think we are overcoming racism, and I think that in the year 2008 we’re going to elect an African-American president, and an almost all white state like Iowa is going to play a role in that, and four years later he’s going to be re-elected with a pretty good vote. You know what people in this room would have said? They’d have said you’re nuts. America is not, maybe someday, but it ain’t gonna happen in our lifetimes. That’s what people would’ve said. And yet it happened. It happened. And, we should be very proud with the degree to which America has overcome racism. We have a long way to go, but we should be proud of what we have accomplished. And you know how we did that? Didn’t happen overnight, didn’t happen just because of some great people like Martin Luther King Jr. It happened because for decades and decades people struggled, went to jail, sometimes died, stood up with incredible bravery and said racism is not what America is about. And, overall, while we still have a long way to go, we have won that victory. That is a big deal, and we should be proud of that.
Give you another example: 25 years ago, you know how many women there were in the United States Senate? One: Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. Now there are 20, and no one has any doubt that in the coming decades more and more Congress people will be women. And probably in 20, 30 years, more than half will be women. When I was mayor of Burlington, Vermont - 1980s - it was a big deal. I helped to appoint the first woman to be a police officer. What a big deal. Now you have women who are generals. You have women who are in combat, women who are CEOs. Not so many years, for the young people, they may not know this, it’s important to know this, 30, 40 years ago, the percentage of women in medical school or law school - very little. You didn’t have things like women plumbers or women truck drivers. Whole parts of the economy were denied to women. Have we ended sexism completely? Absolutely not. Have we made real progress in breaking down barriers for women? Of course we have. We should be proud of that. How did that happen? Think some governor or senator woke up one day and said I think we should do this? It happened because women and their male allies struggled and said we are American citizens - we’re entitled to the same rights as men. And their male allies worked with them and we have largely succeeded. It didn’t happen by accident. It happened by struggle. And I’ll give you another example, and this state played an important role in this.
When I was young, people who had kids with disabilities, who knows what happened those days? Kids were institutionalized. Families were ashamed. Remember that? It was like a bad thing, a terrible thing that a child was born with down-syndrome or some other ailment. As the result of the struggle of a whole lot of people, not least of all your Senator Tom Harkin, who helped pass the ADA, that was a big deal. Today, in schools in Iowa and schools in Vermont you have kids with severe disabilities who are loved and cherished by the other students. I have been to graduations, some of you may have, where the kid with the disability gets up there and gets his or her diploma and gets the loudest applause. Right? I don’t know if you’ve seen that, but what we’ve done is say that children with disabilities should not be hidden away. They are part of the human family. They should be loved and appreciated. No small thing - that happened because of struggle.
And the last and most recent example of this deals with gay rights. Forget 30 or 40 years ago, 10 years ago, if we were sitting in this room and somebody jumped up and said you know, I think that gay marriage would be made legal in some of the most conservative states in America –Whoa! The sheriff would be out there asking what these people were smoking. No one would’ve thought that. But it happened. And you know how it happened? Because of struggle, and when I go around the state of Vermont and I talk at high schools - and I do that a lot - and I talk to some conservative parts and you talk about gay marriage, you know what the kids say? They say duh. What’s the issue? That’s the truth. Now the grandparents may feel differently about it, but for the kids, and Republicans understand it. Five years, six years ago, what did the Republicans run on, right? Homophobia. They don’t talk about it anymore because they understand history has passed them by. They understand that if you’re talking about that, the young generation and millions of Americans are going to turn away from that.
So what’s the point of all this? The point is that change, positive change, can happen and has happened. The point is that the United States of America today is a much less discriminatory society than it used to be, and you helped make that happen. And you should be proud of those accomplishments. They are no small things. But, and here’s the but, in terms of economics we have not made progress. In fact, in terms of economics we are moving in the wrong direction -- middle class shrinking, rich getting richer. And this fight for economic justice, to simply say that in America all working people are entitled to decent jobs, decent income, our kids are entitled to education. All of our people are entitled to health care as a right, that struggle has not yet been won. But I believe, just as we have made real progress in fighting racism, sexism, and homophobia, we can win that struggle if we stand together, if we don’t let our opponents divide us, if we get actively involved in the political process. So, my message to you, which you already know, is stand up. Fight back, and let’s create an America and government that works for all and not just the top one percent. Thank you all very much.