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Sen. Bernie Sanders is embracing his anger. A new book details what he's angry about

Sen. Bernie Sanders walks into NPR Headquarters in Washington D.C.
Elizabeth Gillis
Sen. Bernie Sanders walks into NPR Headquarters in Washington D.C.

Updated February 21, 2023 at 9:42 AM ET

Senator Bernie Sanders is embracing his anger.

He's shown a lot of it during three decades in Congress. In 1992, he attacked both parties for defense spending, claiming they were "hoping and praying that maybe we'll have another war."

During his first presidential run, he spoke sarcastically of people who fear his identification as a socialist. "I don't want to get people nervous falling off their chairs, but Social Security is a socialist program," Sanders told NPR in 2015.

It's no surprise that the Vermont senator spoke harshly of President Donald Trump, vowing: "You're damn right we're going to hold him accountable" at the time.

But he also bristled when social justice activists insisted that Democrats use the phrase "Black Lives Matter."

"It's too easy for 'liberals,' to be saying, well, let's use this phrase. What are we going to do about 51 percent of young African Americans unemployed?" Sanders said.

Sen. Sanders' latest book, 'It's Ok to Be Angry About Capitalism.'
Elizabeth Gillis / NPR
Sen. Sanders' latest book, 'It's Ok to Be Angry About Capitalism.'

The Senator is preoccupied with America's economic divides; and his new book about his recent campaigns and legislation is titled It's Okay to be Angry About Capitalism.

"They say the older you get, the more conservative you become," he writes. "That's not me. The older I get, the angrier I become about the uber-capitalist system."

He says his anger grows in part out of his youth in a struggling family in Brooklyn in the 1940s and 1950s. He dedicates the book, in part, to his older brother Larry, who introduced him to authors ranging from psychoanalysis founder Sigmund Freud to political theorist Karl Marx, who, along with Friedrich Engels, established the far-left ideology known as Marxism.

"We didn't have a lot of books in the house, and my brother brought books into the house and talked with me about politics, talked to me about history, talked to me about psychology," Sanders told NPR.

"And kind of intellectually opened up my eyes to the world that we're living in."

Today Larry Sanders is a Green Party politician in the United Kingdom.

And Bernie Sanders, after two presidential campaigns, now chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. For all his anger and demands for systemic change, the senator told NPR he is working within a divided Congress to make more modest changes that he thinks are possible.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On his anger at some Democrats in Congress

I was bitterly disappointed [at the failure of giant social legislation known as] Build Back Better... What many of us said is... Let's deal with the structural crises facing America. Our child care system is a disaster. Our healthcare system is dysfunctional. Kids can't afford to go to college. Let's deal with the existential threat of climate change. Let's deal with income and wealth inequality. We came within two votes of bringing forth legislation which would have been transformative for the working families.

SI: Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who would be described as more moderate or more conservative, and represent more conservative states–

Corporate Democrats would be the term.

SI: Corporate Democrats?

These are folks who've got a whole lot of money from wealthy people and large corporations and they do their bidding.

SI: I was going to ask if you're still angry at someone like Joe Manchin. It sounds like you are. From his perspective, he's representing a very conservative state that votes for Republicans for president hugely and needs to bring them something that they can believe in. Do you sympathize with his political situation?

In 2016 when I was running for president, I won a landslide victory in West Virginia.

SI: In the Democratic primary.

In the Democratic primary.

SI: But there's a general election.

I understand... In my view, politicians do well when they stand up and fight for working people.

On the power of the working-class vote

SI: You write about the working class: "You can't win elections without the overwhelming support of the working class." It seems that many Republicans now agree with you and openly court the working class and get a lot of working class votes. Why do you think that is?

Well, that is an enormously important political issue. That is the most important political question of our time. [It's] not that working class people agree with Republican views... But what I think has happened over the years, and this is no great secret as a result of a lot of corporate contributions, the Democratic Party has kind of turned its back on the needs of working class people. And then you have a gap there where you have people like Trump coming along and say, "You know what the problem is? It's immigrants, it's gays, it's transgender people." And you get people angry around those issues rather than Democrats saying, I'll tell you what the problem is. The problem is the wealthy are getting richer. Corporations have enormous power. We're going to take them on to create a nation that works for you.

On what Sanders thinks he can accomplish in a divided Congress

What I want to see, a Medicare-for-all system, ain't going to happen. No Republicans support it. Half the Democrats won't support it. But this is what we can do: We can expand primary health care and community health centers to every region of the country...We now have 30 million people accessing community health centers [and can do more]... You walk into a community health center, you get affordable health care, dental care... mental health counseling and low cost prescription drugs. Republicans understand that in red states it is very hard often for people to access a doctor.

On his pragmatism

SI: Even though you say it's okay to be angry about capitalism, there's a place for capitalism in the world as you envision it.

Yes, there is. Yes, there is.

SI: If you made all the rules, there would still be large corporations.

Well, I don't know about that. But look, there's nothing in that book to suggest that it is bad for people to go out and start a business, to come up with innovation. That's great. That's good. What is bad is when a handful of corporations control sector after sector.

The audio version of this interview was produced by Milton Guevara and Nina Kravinsky, and edited by Olivia Hampton. contributed to this story

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Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Jojo Macaluso