CNN’s KFILE has a new story out today about the early career of Sen. Bernie Sanders, who’s currently hovering near the top of Democratic primary polls while he’s making his second run for president. The premise of the story is that the Sanders of the 1970s was much more radical than the Sanders of today, to which I say: Wow, cool!
Although Sanders has lost just three campaigns (for governor in 1986, the U.S. House in 1988, and, of course, the 2016 Democratic primary) since he first won the mayoralty of Burlington, VT, back in 1981, his early political career was characterized by several longshot runs for statewide office under the banner of the left-wing Liberty Union Party, which he also chaired for some time. In the 1970s, Sanders ran for governor twice and Senate twice with the party’s nomination, but he polled in the single digits in all four races.
With the help of digitized newspapers and Liberty Union files, CNN was able to take a look at his platform during those races. Here’s Sanders calling for ownership of Vermont’s public utilities:
When he launched his first campaign for the Senate in 1971, Sanders said state utilities needed to be run by the state of Vermont on a nonprofit basis and that if revenues exceed expenditures they could be used to fund government programs and lower property taxes. In 1976, Sanders went even further: calling for the state to seize ownership of Vermont’s private electric companies without compensation to investors. He defended his proposals routinely by pointing out that municipally owned utilities, not uncommon throughout the country, often had lower consumer prices.
“I will be campaigning in support of the Liberty Union utility proposal which calls for the public ownership of Vermont’s private electric companies without compensation to the banks and wealthy stockholders who own the vast majority of stock in these companies,” he said in a July 1976 press release. “I will also be calling for public ownership of the telephone company — which is probably the single greatest rip-off company in America.”
This is a good idea! Let me tell you how many people like Con Ed: None. Electric companies suck ass. And it’s not like there isn’t a precedent for this in America—Nebraskans voted in 1930 to take control over the state’s electricity system, and to this day, it’s the only state that generates power solely through publicly-owned systems. It also has the 16th-lowest electricity rate in the country as of 2017.
During these campaigns, Sanders also pushed for the public takeover of other major industries, including banks (yes), corporations (more), and drug companies (HELL yes). “I favor the public ownership of utilities, banks and major industries. In Vermont we have some $2 billion of deposits in our banks,” Sanders told the Burlington Free Press in 1976, according to CNN. “In Vermont, as well as nationally, it is not tolerable to me that the control of capital would remain in the hands of the richest two or three percent of the population to do with it as they like.”
Per CNN, Sanders also once proposed that no one should be allowed to make more than $1 million in a year. “Rockefeller and his friends are not smarter or born smarter,” Sanders said in one 1974 interview. “People have to begin to stand up and fight back—they are not just cogs in the machine.” Music to my ears.
Sanders has, of course, distanced himself quite a bit from these positions. He no longer calls for the takeover of most public industries, which read more like the British Labour Party’s manifesto under Jeremy Corbyn than anything you’re going to hear in the Democratic Party primary debates over the next year and a half. (Even Medicare for All, Sanders’ signature proposal, wouldn’t publicly fund hospitals or directly employ medical professionals, as is the case with the UK’s single-provider National Health Service.)
But to his credit, Sanders’ campaign didn’t exactly back away from his previous views when confronted with them. “The record shows that from the very beginning, Bernie anticipated and worked to combat the rise of a billionaire ruling class and the exploding power of Wall Street and multinational corporations,” campaign spokesman Josh Orton told CNN. “Whether fighting to lower energy prices or expand access to capital for local development, Bernie’s first priority has always been — and will always be — defending the interests of working people across the country.”
What happened to the Liberty Union Party? In 1977, Sanders resigned, citing the party’s “dormancy” between elections. In 2016, the chairman of Liberty Union told VICE that Sanders “never was a socialist,” and the party has since officially branded Sanders as a war criminal. Champagne socialism for my real friends, real pain for my sham socialist friends.