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Bernie’s Bro Tells Jacobin: It’s Not About Bernie Bros

Larry Sanders

Larry Sanders told Jacobin how his brother began a transformative movement — and why unlike him, its members aren’t “Bernie Bros.”

Larry Sanders, the older brother of US candidate for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders, speaks to reporters during the Democrats Abroad global convention in Berlin on May 12, 2016. (John Macdougall / AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Cole Stangler

Bernie Sanders’s older brother Larry is an activist, too. Committed to the NHS, he’s actually the current health spokesperson for the Green Party of England and Wales. He’s lived in Britain since the late 1960s, as a social worker with past stints teaching at the University of West London and Oxford University’s department of social administration. But right now, his attentions are again turned back to the United States.

As primary season gets underway, Larry Sanders has been hitting the campaign trail with Bernie’s 2020 Abroad Campaign, with meetings scheduled in London, Paris, Oxford, Edinburgh, and St. Andrews. Jacobin’s Cole Stangler caught up with him in the French capital, where they chatted about the campaign, their political influences growing up in Brooklyn, and why Bernie’s brother doesn’t believe in “Bernie bros.”


CS

So, we’re sitting here a few days after the Iowa Caucus . . .

LS

[Laughs]

CS

. . . which I think, on the one hand, was a very strong performance from Bernie Sanders. On the other hand — I don’t want to say it’s been marred by — but it’s been really shaped by these irregularities and delays. What’s your take coming out of this caucus?

LS

Bernard has been very critical of the Democratic Party, largely because the policies of the mainstream, in his opinion, are inadequate. But there’s another side to that. It is not a topflight organization. It’s not a place of excellence, in any sense.

CS

How does this race feel compared to 2016, where Sanders had this kind of long-shot candidacy that seemed to pick up momentum, as opposed to this time? FiveThirtyEight now rates him as more likely to win than any other candidate.

LS

Twenty-sixteen wasn’t a shock — that’s the wrong word. But it was amazing. He announced his candidacy in an offhand way. He came out of the Senate for a few minutes with a couple of dozen press people and said, “I’m going to be running for president.” And he took a couple of questions and said, “I gotta get back to work.” And the resulting publicity was comparable to the delivery.

And then of course, within a few weeks of his formal announcement, he was getting crowds of ten, fifteen, twenty thousand people. That was the amazement of it all happening, and happening quickly, but still not really thinking there was much chance. Although somebody came to interview me shortly after he announced, and I said, “I’m not sure if he’ll win, but he’ll completely shake up American politics.” So, I was ahead of the game.

This time, of course, everybody knew he was going to be a big player. Although, again, the media were playing it down. . . . This time, from the very beginning, it’s clear that he’s going to have a chance until the end.

CS

I wanted to talk about your upbringing, in Brooklyn, New York. Could you talk about growing up with Bernie? Did your upbringing have an influence, you think, on the way he views the world, but also you? Did that impact your politics?

LS

One’s upbringing is an enormous part of any person’s constitution, character, whatever. But how it works is harder to figure out. We were part of a fairly specific kind of community, a Jewish community, fairly recent immigrants. My father came from Poland, my mother’s parents came over, the whole community was like that, really. I don’t think there were many people who went further back.

My particular block was kind of a social experiment. You had apartment houses on the corner, which were less well-off people like us, and you had nice individual houses down the street for professional-type people. And the experiment might be, how do you bring together different social classes? I think the recent immigrant status and culture meant that we actually didn’t notice so many differences. We were all in it together.

It was a particular group of people in New York City, and it was an extraordinarily left-wing community. The way I understand it, people came with no money, like my father — not knowing a word of the language — thrown into the deep end in a fairly brutal capitalism. The sweatshops were famous. A famous moment in American labor history was when a couple hundred women were trapped in a burning building and died because the doors had been locked to keep them at their machines. So that experience of exploitation, oppression, poverty, all the consequences of the tenements and crummy housing obviously impacted people. There was a lack of any kind of security whatsoever. But the other side of it was, it was a fairly functioning democracy. If you got your act together, you could run in an election, you could win an election, you could have an impact on other elected officials.

I think that’s kind of the secret. The combination of oppression, exploitation, the possibility of political activity being functional, fruitful, led to this kind of flowering. So, you had all the political parties. The Jewish Bund was very important. [Socialist presidential candidate] Eugene Debs, who’s a hero of Bernard’s, got a lot of support from New York City, which was essentially a Jewish vote. And the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were in force, and huge debates of the national component versus the class component, and all that sort of thing.

CS

You are both involved politically today. Did that start at an early age?

LS

Our parents weren’t politically active. They didn’t go to meetings, didn’t read political newspapers, magazines, or anything like that. But it was a resource. I never met a Jewish Republican until I was at law school.

There were a whole set of assumptions that you don’t even know are a political philosophy. Basically, seeing the world from the bottom up: knowing that this is a world in which people take advantage of you unless you fight them. But you can fight them.

So, you have to give credit to the level of democracy, corrupt though it was, in addition to the daily experience of life. It never occurred to us that the government couldn’t do good things. We knew that we ought to have proper health service, Social Security coming in would be a huge relief for my father to avoid dying in poverty, and so on.

The big question I have to ask, after that, is — okay, hundreds of thousands of children grew up in that atmosphere. And they didn’t all turn out to be Bernard. So how you winnow it down, I don’t know. As I said, we were not particularly politically active. So, there is a history, there is a background, there’s an ethos, but there’s also an unexplained element.

And there were things about Bernard. I remember, a kid who I didn’t really know — because we were six years apart, our playgroups, our friendship groups were different — came up to me and said, “I have to tell you, your brother is really marvelous.” This kid had been bullied by somebody else. Bernard knew about it, and he went up to the guy — and Bernard was not a very strong person, but he was athletic, he could handle himself — and said, “You know, this isn’t something you should do,” and the guy said it stopped, this boy. So, you know, that’s a bit unusual.

And the formal thing, which was a great surprise to me, when he was a senior in high school, he ran for president of the school, and there were three candidates. He finished third. But the others had trivial platforms, you know, something to do with school problems. Things like that.

Bernard’s platform was to raise money for Korean orphans. [Laughs] Because the Korean War had ended, there were millions of children without parents. And because the country was so poor, they had to pay to go to school, they weren’t going to go to school. Their lives were going to be very dismal. And the guy who did win adopted the policy. Bernard worked with him. And they raised a lot of money. So that’s unusual.

CS

Bernie Sanders is still an independent senator from Vermont, though he’s running in the Democratic primary. You’re in the Green Party and you also used to be a Labour member before you left in 2001 [over concerns that it had drifted too far to the right under Tony Blair]. Both of you have difficult or complicated relationships with these mainstream center-left parties. Have you any thoughts on your brother’s effort to transform the Democratic Party, just based on your own experiences of the Labour Party in Britain?

LS

There are lots of elements. Bernard in a way has been more consistent.

One element is slightly apolitical, in the sense that our attraction to the underdogs is very powerful. Again, I’m sure it’s cultural. We rooted for the Dodgers. Obviously, because we were in Brooklyn, but also because they always lost. There were one or two guys in the neighborhood who rooted for the Yankees who always won. They were a machine, they replaced their people, they trained them. The Dodgers were all over the place, one month they would be great, the next month they’d lose everything. I mean that’s on a relatively trivial level, but there’s a deep sense of commitment not to the people who run things. [Laughs] I think that plays a role in it. You can have a second think, but the first think is, all these big shots probably aren’t up to much good. I think there’s a little bit of that.

But Bernard’s was a more profound political analysis. His view was very simply that the people who ran the country, both commercially and politically, were a different class with different interests from the bulk of the people. And he didn’t see very much difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. And in Burlington, Vermont, the person he beat to become mayor was a five-term Democrat, but with equal support from the Republicans, so he was 100 percent accurate in that particular context. He’s a skilled analyst so he wouldn’t tar everybody with the same brush — he would see differences and distinctions — but the basic underlying analysis he made was that.

I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or he picked it up on his antenna. But when you look at the statistics on wealth and income, what you had from the war through to the mid-1970s was an increase in incomes and wealth through all elements of the population. It didn’t close gaps, but everyone was getting a piece of the cake. From 1975, that changes, and the proportion of wealth and income going to the very top few percent goes up. . . . That’s the history, the secret of our modern history and failure of the Left is that they didn’t fight back against this very dramatic, very significant shift. So that really explains it for Bernard. There is this predilection.

And along with the predilection is the capacity to stand outside. I think there’s enormous pressure on everybody, and perhaps in our kinds of societies more than most, to fit in. If you want to get ahead, don’t stick out. In any organization, the people who are difficult are not likely to get ahead, even if their analysis or whatever is more correct. And I think that may well be a kind of Jewish attitude: They’re not gonna like us anyway, so why worry? [Laughs]

It’s not completely true, everybody worries about how they’re seen, but I think there’s a higher propensity to be able to stand outside the majority, and Bernard certainly had that, very highly developed. I mean, the kind of pressure and the kind of attacks and vilification he’s had, from day one of his political career, have been enormous. Very few people could have stood up to it. And he stood up to it and he fought back. It wasn’t that he didn’t know how to compromise when he needed to on certain issues. There were things he would never compromise on. But I think his independence comes from that.

CS

That’s a linked question, and maybe we could leave it at that. But is it possible to really transform the Democratic Party in the way he and his supporters would like — it’s not just Bernie Sanders, there’s a whole bloc of people, whether it’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, etc. — is that kind of transformation of the Democratic Party into something we might call a more genuine social-democratic party possible?

LS

I have a different kind of take on it. I don’t believe the Democratic Party exists. If you talk about a party of people committed to certain principles that have an education policy where they talk about the issues and come to consensus, where they have intellectuals who inform them in debate and so on, you won’t find that in the Democratic Party. It focuses on campaigns, it’s part of a way of earning a living for people who work within the political system. But also, for other people, you know, it’s a community kind of thing, and it connects around the political parties because that’s what we’ve got. Like the Rotary Club.

So, is there a party to take over? There isn’t a coherent intellectual political party to take over. There is powerful machinery and so on, there are people who know the names of all their voters. These things are not negligible. If you’re running in an election, you know how powerful these things are. There are channels of donations. And people know how to organize campaigns. So, it’s not nothing. But in an old-fashioned sense of a political party, it doesn’t exist.

I think it is perfectly possible for Bernard to win the election, then to have enormous trouble with getting his policies through Congress, a lot of opposition, including obviously from Democrats. But then that he campaigns on that basis constantly, and that he wins some major battles because some people will begin to see there are advantages to it. But in a sense, he’s really taking advantage of the amorphousness, the lack of a real traditional political party.

CS

I apologize for having to ask this question, but I wanted to get your take on this online phenomenon. Because I see on Twitter, you’re somewhat active.

LS

I’ve gotten in there the last six or eight months.

CS

What do you make of this figure of the “Bernie bro,” coming from someone who is quite literally a Bernie bro?

LS

[Laughs] Well, I hate it. I really think it’s not something that just popped up. I think some clever person in the Clinton camp or somebody who didn’t like Bernard’s type of politics came up with it. The idea is there’s a large group of nasty, vulgar white males who support Bernard and who attack people relentlessly and despicably. I’m sure there are some people that that describes. Is that more than any other candidate? I think probably rather less than any other candidate.

Bernard, from the beginning of his political career, is very loath to criticize people. He’s a very non-attacking politician. His relentless focus is on the policies, this is what’s important. He hardly ever mentions his opponents. He certainly doesn’t call them names. So, there’s no reason for him to be attracting people like that. I think it was just a very clever and unfortunate political move.

CS

In some of the satellite caucus results coming in from Iowa, we’ve seen immigrant workers support Sanders more than any other candidate.

LS

In the polls, he has a higher proportion of women supporting him than men. You have a constant flow of tweets of black women saying, “Hey, actually I’m a Bernie bro!” [Laughs]

CS

One of the reasons you’re here is to talk about the Global Presidential Primary. You’re encouraging Democrats who live abroad to vote in the Global Presidential Primary (March 3 to 10), rather than in the primary or the caucus of their home state?

LS

The Global Primary means that Democrats around the world can vote in a primary which elects delegates to the Democratic Convention. The reason they may want to do that rather than vote in their own state’s primary is that you get more delegates for the number of votes. Your vote is that much more significant.

An example is, I think in the last election, Vermont had [sixteen pledged] delegates — a small state obviously. Democrats Abroad had thirteen. In Vermont, there were [135,000 voters]. In Democrats Abroad, there were around 35,000.

CS

This is also a primary that Bernie Sanders would appear to have a good chance of winning, as he did in 2016. [Last time, he received 69 percent of the vote, compared to 31 percent for Hillary Clinton.]

LS

Yes, I’m hopeful. And part of the publicity is it starts on Super Tuesday, with all the other primaries. Bernard was very pleased with it, last time.

CS

The last question is a good chance for some idle speculation. Where do you see this all going? Are we headed to a brokered convention, where no candidate is going to have a majority?

LS

You probably have to study state by state, which I haven’t done. People who follow these things state by state are saying it’s beginning to look like that, so I think it is possible.

What I really want to say in a kind of conclusion is that this is a really world-historical election. Bernard is, and it’s hard to accept it for your brother, a world-historical figure, in a world that’s very difficult. We have the climate crisis which the governments are not up to dealing with. We can deal with it, the technology is moving beautifully, but the courage and conviction of politicians aren’t there. Obviously, Trump is an outlier of stupidity. [A world] with the rise of the right-wing, the extreme right-wing, with the rise of especially nationalist sentiment, whether it’s a nationalist nation or nationalist religion, and the continuing growth of inequality. Even though it’s been identified more clearly and most mainstream people accept it now, it doesn’t stop it from growing.

Well, we know what happens when you have a very angry, exploited group of people if they identify themselves along national or religious lines. We know the capacity of human beings to turn other people into others that they can do anything to. And in a world that’s going to get more and more fragile, millions of people are in motion because they can’t make a living where they are because of climate change. And there’s a lot of people who like war. Within the American system, the bulk of the Democrats have not turned against the use of force, certainly in the way that Bernard has.

I think it’s a very dangerous point. I think Bernard is one of the few bright lights, and he’s particularly powerful, particularly consistent, and courageous. And he may do it, which would be good for all of us.