Our Opinons: Venturing into hostile territory?


In a city riven by partisan bickering, obfuscation and obstructionism, it's often hard to hear the voices in the wilderness calling for economic justice for Americans. What makes it even harder to hear those voices of reason is that many of us exist in an echo chamber in which we hear only the voices that reaffirm our own steadfast beliefs.

Not only are many of us not willing to hear voices that challenge us, we are not willing to bring our voices of challenge to people who might disagree with us.

Not so for Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Vermont's progressive voice in Washington, D.C., recently took it upon himself to venture into a territory many of us in New England consider hostile country -- the Deep South.

On a three-day road trip, Sanders held town hall meetings in Columbia, S.C., Birmingham, Ala., and Atlanta. He also visited a high school in Philadelphia, Miss. (look that town up in the history book), a VA medical center in Tuscaloosa, and several community health centers along the way.

Touting his visits as "The Fight for Economic Justice," Sanders implored attendees to forget about red and blue states and instead focus on what is in their own best interests.

"Sanders is convinced that an unapologetically social-democratic political message -- grounded in calls for economic justice and a redistributive state -- can resonate anywhere in the country, even in those Southern states responsible for electing many of the Tea Party representatives in Congress," wrote Cole Stangler, for In These Times.

"In every state in this country, the majority of the people are of the middle and working class who are struggling very hard to keep their heads above water in these tough economic times," Sanders told the Reformer on Friday. "That's true in Mississippi, Vermont, California and Alabama."

If we focus on the economic calamity besetting the country, he said, suddenly our differences fall away, and common-sense solutions can be found.

"I found all over the South very decent people, black and white, who want their kids to have good quality health care and education and a decent job," Sanders said. "What they told me loudly and clearly is they don't want to be ignored any longer."

And while Sanders said because the right-wing messaging machine is particularly effective, many people don't realize they have, in their hearts, a progressive hope for America.

"There are many people who believe progressive taxation is wrong. But in poll after poll, if you ask people if they think the wealthiest people who are doing phenomenally well should pay more, the majority say yes. Whether in Vermont, California or the Deep South, when you tell people that 95 percent of all new income between 2009 and 2012 went to the top 1 percent, they are appalled and understand there is something wrong with that."

Sanders also said that fighting cynicism is one of the toughest jobs of anyone seeking change in the United States.

"If I'm the Koch brothers and I want to cut social programs and do away with the EPA and the minimum wage, I want people to be cynical. I want people to believe that the government can't do anything right and then they won't vote or participate in the political process," he said.

One thing Sanders said he learned during his trip to the South is "There are a lot of good people who want to fight for economic justice in this country."

Sanders hopes to harness that discontent and shine the spotlight not only on progressive candidates for U.S. Congress, but also for city councils and state legislatures.

"We need to give support to strong progressive candidates all over this country and not just in the battleground states," said Sanders. "Even if you can't win tomorrow, we're not going to win unless we start the process."

Sanders has his own political action committee, Progressive Voters of America, which has raised about $300,000 over the last three election cycles for left-leaning Democrats in Congress.

"Whether it's independents, whether it's third-party people or progressive Democrats .. folks who have the courage to stand up to big money interests and represent working families," he told Stangler.

The town halls were organized by trade unions and progressive groups as part of South Forward, a new political action committee hoping to amplify the progressive voices of the South.

"I really strongly disagree with this concept that there's a blue state and red state America," Sanders told Stangler. "And to basically concede significant parts of America, including the South, to the right-wing is to me not only stupid politics, but even worse than that -- you just do not turn your backs on millions and millions of working people."

You've got to give Sanders credit for visiting a part of the country that hasn't voted for the Democratic presidential candidate since 1992. It takes courage for Congress' lone socialist to venture into a part of the country that has often met voices for change with violence, but as Sanders proved, there are audiences down there that are receptive to his message.

Perhaps the rest of us should take up Sanders' mantle and reach out to like-minded people in the rest of the country, let them know they are not alone. We have a lot more in common than the powers that be want us to think, but often we have to reach out to prove it to ourselves and to others.


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