People read headlines in Athens on May 7, 2012. Greece faced an uncertain future Monday after an election shake-up by parties opposed to further vital austerity cuts, sending shockwaves through markets on fears of renewed eurozone turmoil.
People read headlines in Athens on May 7, 2012. Greece faced an uncertain future Monday after an election shake-up by parties opposed to further vital austerity cuts, sending shockwaves through markets on fears of renewed eurozone turmoil. Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/GettyImages
John Nichols writes about politics for The Nation magazine as its Washington correspondent.
Bernie Sanders is as focused as any member of Congress could be on the struggles of the state he represents, and more generally on the challenges facing working people across the United States.
But that does not mean that the independent senator from Vermont fails to recognize when things are kicking up around the world — especially when those developments have meaning for the fights he is waging in Washington.
So it should come as little surprise that the news from Europe — of a democratic rejection of failed austerity policies — has caught his imagination.
Sanders knows that austerity is not just a European crisis. It threatens America as well. And he is highlighting what his Senate website recognizes as: "An Austerity Backlash."
The senator is right to be excited that citizens are pushing back.
Sanders says Europe's voters are sending a message that America's voters can and should echo: the time has come to reject austerity measures that have unfairly burdened working families, while redistributing ever more wealth upward to millionaires and billionaires.
France on Sunday elected a new president, Socialist François Hollande, who campaigned on a promise to tax the very wealthy in order to free up funds for investment in job creation, education and social services.
Hollande rejects the attacks on unions and cuts to education and public services that have stalled European economies, promising that he will not casually continue the job-killing austerity policies foisted on Europe by bureaucrats and bankers.
There is, Hollande says, "hope that at last austerity is no longer inevitable."
In Greece, the leader of the Syriza, the radical coalition that as a result of Sunday's election results has leapt from the sidelines of politics to status as the nation's second-largest party, is even more blunt in his rejection of austerity.
"We believe the path of salvation doesn't pass through barbarity of austerity measures," argues Syriza's Alexis Tsipras.
Hollande and Tsipras are different players, with different styles and different policies.
Yet, their dramatic shows of strength in Sunday's voting, along with similarly strong results for critics of austerity running in German state elections and Italian local elections, suggests that voters are fed up with the austerity fantasy that says the best response to tough times is a combination of tax cuts for the rich and pay and benefits for the workers.
What should Americans make of the results?
Sanders knows. The independent senator from Vermont, who has led the fight to preserve education, healthcare and social services funding in the face of proposals by House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan and his fellow proponents of an American austerity agenda, says the message sent by European voters can and should be echoed by American voters.
Yes, of course, the accent will be different, as will specific concerns and proposals. America is different from Germany, Greece and France.
But the threat posed by failed and dysfunctional policies is the same.
"In the United States and around the world, the middle class is in steep decline while the wealthy and large corporations are doing phenomenally well," says Sanders. "The message sent by voters in France and other European countries, which I believe will be echoed here in the United States, is that the wealthy and large corporations are going to have to experience some austerity also and that that burden cannot solely fall on working families."
Sanders is making the connections, recognizing the importance of a democratic push-back against policies that are as cruel as they are economically unsound.
"In the United States, where corporate profits are soaring and the gap between the rich and everybody else is growing wider, we must end corporate tax loopholes and start making the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes," the senator explains. "At the same time, we must protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Austerity, yes, but for millionaires and billionaires, not the working families of this country."
Sander is, of course, correct.
Let's just hope that his message is echoed by other leaders in the United States.
Just as austerity is wrong for Europe, it's wrong for the United States.