US electoral system became perversion of democracy - Labour leader

With presidential elections around the corner, the race for nomination is growing fierce. The Iowa Caucus saw Hillary Clinton victorious, but only by 0.2% over Bernie Sanders - an almost nonexistent margin. That as Donald Trump, despite his loud claims getting all the attention from the mainstream media ended up second to another candidate with quite extreme views - Ted Cruz. Will the self-declared "Democratic Socialist" be able to overcome Hillary? Is nomination a real chance for Sanders? And, on the other side, will Ted Cruz be able to keep his momentum, even though he's not much liked in his own party? We ask past president of the Communication Workers of America, one of the country’s most powerful unions. Larry Cohen is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Larry Cohen, past President of the Communication Workers of America, one of the country’s most powerful unions, now working in the campaign of the presidential candidate Bernie Sanders - you are his senior advisor - welcome to the show, it’s really great to have you with us, Larry. Now, the Iowa caucus is thought of as a genuine test of where the vote will go. It was a close call this time around in the Democratic corner, with a razor-thin margin determining Hillary Clinton’s victory. But what does it mean? Does it mean that Democrats supporters are literally divided?

Larry Cohen: Yeah, they are divided in a different way, I would say, than Republicans, not with the same kind of personal anger and rhetoric, and even we call it “racism”, but yes, they’re very much divided on how high can you aim about change in our nation, and what we saw in Iowa was really a mathematical tie, without getting into gory details of how this count was done, and Bernie was 40 points down only 5 months ago, so it’s a remarkable, what we would call, surge, and it was quite exciting to have been there 5 times during that period and really to see it firsthand.

SS: Still, there’s been a lot of speculation about that coin toss in Iowa - was it all fair?

LC: No, and actually, as much as I know about American politics, I never knew that was the way that that would be resolved. Essentially, in seven precincts - these are small neighborhoods, there are 1600 of them in Iowa - in seven cases they couldn’t resolve a tie, so they tossed the coin, and Clinton camp won 6 out of 7, and that’s their entire margin of victory.

SS: You were on the ground in Iowa, witnessing, campaigning first-hand - what’s the mood like, what’s the energy like? Do you feel like a lot of people are undecided about their choice of candidates right now?

LC: I think right now that’s mostly resolved - in the last month it got resolved. Going to caucuses is a big commitment, that’s why on the Democratic side there’s been 150,000 people, maybe a little more, that caucused. It takes about 3 hours, it would be hard for people who aren’t from Iowa to visualise it, but you go, you have to sign in, then you’re in a big sort of gymnasium, and you get in the corner of the gymnasium and if your candidate doesn’t have 50%, you  either go home, they don’t count it, or you go to the candidate that does and then they have to hand-count, literally by hand, like in a schoolroom - every person on each side and then they write that number down and they decide, in the room, how to divide up the votes. They might get one delegate, they might get five, they might get ten - how do they divide those up. So, it’s a very strange process even for Iowans.

SS: But what about the mood? What’s the mood like amongst people?

LC: The mood on the Bernie side was unbelievable. So, for example, I was in Davenport, Iowa, with him last Friday night, and in a room, a ballroom, dancing kind of place that normally holds 500 people, 1500 people were in there. A ballroom floor, a balcony, totally packed, people stood up the entire hour he spoke, he was introduced by a young worker, who was also a student, who talked about his own student debt, while he works, not only a student, but also delivering sandwiches, $7 an hour, which will never pay even the interest on the debt, and at the same time, he’s volunteering hours every day for Bernie Sanders - it was amazing introduction, and the mood - that’s just one example. I was in tire-building plants and aluminum-smelting plants, and call centers, postal workers - the energy level, the volunteers… Last Friday night 200 volunteers showed up just in Davenport, they didn’t even have a place to sleep, they didn’t care, they slept on the floor so that they can go out and knock on doors and hang signs on doors about the caucus rules for Monday night.

SS: What are the issues that worry people the most? Like, what are they most concerned about?

LC: Well, there’s divisions on that. On the Bernie side, they’re worried about the economy. As he says, it’s rigged for the billionaires. They worry about how do their kids or they themselves go to college and not have a $100,000 in debt that they can never pay off when they finish. They worry about healthcare, because for millions of Americans healthcare is still an enormous challenge, at least 16 million people have no healthcare, except than in Emergency room, and for millions more, their families are paying $10,000 a year in premiums… So, healthcare, and jobs and higher education and what kind of future their kids will have, the future of social security, meaining retirement security, the future of public education. So lots of concerns about the economy.

SS: New Hampshire primaries are just around the corner. Do you think it’s going to be as close call as Iowa?

LC: I think we have a good margin. We’re not really confident, but we’re going to do very well in New Hampshire. First of all, it’s much more straightforward: you show up, you line briefly, you go in, you vote. It’s minutes, as opposed to average commitment of two hours in Iowa, and in many cases it was 4 or 5 hours in Iowa, or you wouldn’t get counted. So, it’s much more straightforward, and much higher percentage of people will vote. We believe we have a good lead that cuts across all demographics, working people, men, women, people of color, particularly the young - we have enormous advantage...

SS: Do you think you will win?

LC: Yeah, I think we’ll win by significant margin.

SS: Hillary is a frontrunner in national polls, but do you think states will flip if they see Bernie Sanders succeeding?

LC: Yeah, I think that’s already occurring, so we don’t take in this campaign any money from billionaires or corporations, and after the Iowa caucus, the virtual tie there, $3 million was contributed by small donors in one 24-hour period - that’s just one indication of the energy level around this country. The average donation was $25. So, the energy level is incredible, and just myself, people I’ve known for years are calling up: “How do I get involved?”, “I want to endorse Bernie”, and they are from all over the country.

SS: Now, Bernie is calling for political revolution. He calls himself “a Democratic socialist” and he’s nothing like any of the two main party candidates we’ve ever seen before - but we’re used to Americans being put off by radical ideas, especially from the left. How did such a revolutionary candidate grow to be so popular?

LC: Well, so, that political revolution starts with the way in which the political system in the U.S. is so dependent on big money. This election year, which is the President, Vice-President, 33 U.S. Senate, one third of the U.S Senate, and all the House members which is 435 - is projected to cost $7 billion in donations. Well, who is it that gives $7 billion? So, that political system is rigged. There used to be rules, limiting that, the court system here has thrown out the rules and made it very hard to get back to the fair system without a political revolution. So that’s the starting point for why our campaign says “we need a political revolution”. We have to get big money out of politics. Second of all, we have  to get voters in. At 35 states, more than half of the states, have passed legislation in the last few years making it harder and harder for people to vote. They have to register far in advance, they have to have documents to register that many citizens don’t have. We’ve blocked immigrants from being citizens, and therefore 20 million immigrants are not eligible to vote here. That’s never been the case before. So that’s what the political revolution means: get voters in, make it easy to vote, and get big money out.

SS: You’ve called Bernie Sanders “movement building” - will this movement keep growing if Sanders isn’t nominated as a Democratic candidate?

LC: Absolutely. First of all, we will have well over the minimum, a thousand delegates. Because in every state it’s proportional, they are not “winner-take-all”, so you have 50 nominating states - actually more, because you have groups that are not states, like Puerto-Rico, and they’re all proportional. We will get, in my opinion, at least a third if not a majority in everyone of these states, and so we will go to that nominating convention with more than enough delegates to demand real change in the platform of this party, to pass resolutions saying “no more Super PACs”, which is big money funding, to pass resolutions saying “no more trade deals” that don’t favor American people instead of corporations, to say “we support medicare for all”, we want a simple system of medicare for all. I’m confident we can go to that convention, we will have enough delegates to change the Democratic party and how it operates around this country, and to end the domination of the corporations in the Democratic party. It’s not to say there’s no room for their voice, but they’re not going to dominate, and that’s another reason we call it a “political revolution”, and it’s why I’m confident about the future.

SS: Larry, you’ve mentioned trade deals. Now, the TPP is a major topic in a progressive camp. American Unions are especially concerned that the deal will cut hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs. So, if it is so bad for the U.S. economy, why are politicians insisting on it?

LC: Sadly, one of the big reasons is that these trade deals, since NAFTA, when President Clinton authored a North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, every one of these deals, since then, has had what’s called Investor-State Dispute Settlement which is a private tribunal where corporations can sue a government - foreign corporations, including foreign-based corporations suing our government, our corporations suing the others, if their future profits are harmed by any legislation of that government. So, as a result, the TPP is #1 goal of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce this year, of the Business Roundtable which is the largest corporations - and that then is the link the big money pouring into politics. So, Bernie yesterday spoke out bluntly on the day the TPP was signed, saying that it will be “dead on arrival if it is not adopted before I’m president and if it’s sent to the Congress this year, I’ll be leading a charge against it”.

SS: Do you think it will pass? Do you think there’s any chance that it won’t come into force after all, in Congress?

LC: I think it’s difficult, because last year we passed what is called the Fast-Track, it passed only by 3 votes out of 435 in the House of Representatives and by one vote in the U.S. Senate, so what fast-track means is that if the White House sends it to the Congress, the Congress must vote on it within a defined period of time, roughly a hundred days, and so it must get an up or down vote. Normally, the leadership of the party in power, in this case the Republicans can postpone or indefinitely delay a vote, but in this case it has to be voted on. So, the question will be will the President send it. So many Republicans and Democrats are saying “I’m voting No.” If they do send it, I think they have 50% chance, this year, of passage. If it waits till next year, with the new President, I think it’s very much an uphill battle: even Hillary Clinton is now saying, and she’s been a champion for it, she’s now saying she opposes it. We want her to speak out as Bernie did yesterday, and say: “If I’m president, and it’s not adopted, it’s dead on arrival”. She has to do it.

SS:  So, Larry, Hillary Clinton’s position on many major issues actually aligned with those of Bernie Sanders. She said she’d support taxing the rich, she wants to keep an eye on Wall St., even though she’s getting her funding from the Wall St., and she has described herself as a “modern progressive”. It seems Hillary Clinton is trying really hard to position herself as anti-establishment as well. Why? And is she succeeding, what do you think?

LC: First of all, I think it’s good that she moves towards Senator Sanders’ position on issues like the TPP, she was Secretary of State, she called it a “gold standard”, and then in October this year she surprised us all and said there’s likelihood she would not support it if she was president. That’s still not enough to help rally her forces to help defeat it. The Keystone pipeline, which was a big issue here, a pipeline through the middle of the country to transport the dirtiest fossil fuels from Canada to the Gulf coast. She switched positions and came out against it. So, it’s great that she moves towards our positions, because a lot of politics is about issues. We welcome it. But, you know, issues like “break up the 6 biggest banks that totally dominate our finances” - she has to come out and say “yes”, like Bernie, “if bank is too big to fail, I’m going to break it up in my first 100 days”; higher education - when I grew up and even earlier time, when Bernie grew up, a higher education in many public universities had no tuition. She has not said, like Bernie does: “We need to have free tuition again”. So, she’s moved in that direction and we applaud that and we hope she keeps moving, but I think that people respect the authenticity and the fact that Bernie has, as we say, walked this way, acted this way for his entire life, since he was mayor of Burlington years ago.

SS: So you’ve said on many occasions that Bernie Sanders is really serious about getting big money out of politics. His funding contributions proved he can run a campaign without corporate cash, but - can you run a country without corporate cash and support?

LC: Well, this system which  is, like most, mixed, financial system heavily dependent on private investment or capitalism, obviously you have to some extent create conditions where people will invest: governments will invest and the private sector invests. My own opinion is that Bernie has, like spending $1 trillion on infrastructure, moving to renewable energy, that kind of public investment will actually spur private investment and therefore, the economy, actually can be much stronger than it is today. That is the kind of question that is being debated here, whether Bernie’s challenge to corporate capitalism that for their own survival they have to act differently, they have to be willing to pay taxes and not avoid all  taxes, no more guarantees on foreign investments that they have been demanding. That’s going to be a challenge.

SS: If Bernie is a candidate who is more about the interests of wage-earners and fighting corporate power, as you believe, they why so many American unions support Hillary Clinton and not Bernie?

LC: That’s the question I ask  those leaders every day. It’s a great question. The only thing I can say is that underneath, even those are really their values, they don’t believe that elections can be won with their own values, and what I say, what we say is that we don’t stand up for our own values, like the rights of workers on the job to organise, or healthcare for all, or free public tuition for higher education - who’s going to stand up for these values? And if not now, then when?  But I think if I had to explain it in a sense, it would be fear that you can’t win the overall, general election with those values, so they go to more conservative candidate, Hillary Clinton, believing that she’s a better chance  to win. The polls I’ve seen, that have been published, don’t indicate that at all, but I think that’s the answer to your question.

SS: Battle for the Democratic nomination will be very hard. And even if Sanders doesn’t get it, do you see Clinton being pressured into leaning left if she wants to win?

LC: I think that behaviour, generally, of the the Clintons, and she does identify with President Clinton quite strongly, is to continually triangulate.they run towards where you have to be, right on the edge of where you have to be, not to lose votes on positions; so I would actually say that if she gets the nomination, she’ll moderate almost immediately and that’s what she did in 2008. Let me just say, a lot of her values are hard-felt, but some of their positions, I believe, are more opportunistic based on what you have to do right now to defeat Bernie Sanders.

SS: Let’s talk Republican side for a bit. Now the most talked about candidate for the Republicans is obviously Donald Trump, who is also very anti-establishment. He lost in Iowa, but only by a couple of percent. Do you think he stands a chance of securing the Republican nomination?

LC: I think he does have a chance, but I think that sa you see Republican candidates drop out, two more dropped out overnight - Rand Paul, a libertarian, and Santorum, the former Senator for Pennsylvania - as that field withers, they’re going to tend to collaborate with Rubio and Cruz rather than Trump, and that’s going to create an uphill field for him. So, even if he polls, for example, way ahead in New Hampshire, he’s unlikely to get a majority in New Hampshire, whereas Bernie Sanders is likely to get an actual majority. So I think that will be the factor. As Republican field narrows, they’re all ganging up against Trump and he becomes a minority candidate.

SS: So he’s far off still, but he lost to Ted Cruz, who himself is not a moderate guy. Why are the Republicans so attracted to extremes?

LC: I think, again, in their primary, it’s about who are the primary voters; those who actually registers republican, that’s a minority of voters, as it is for Democrats, and what are the core values of those voters. So that brings out extreme candidates. The more moderate Republicans - there are only a few left, there used to be a moderate party. But the more moderate Republicans can’t even run, and so you have to have backing, in their party, of billionaires to being with, and then you also have to appeal to, what I would consider, very conservative and almost xenophobic, almost hatred, unfortunately, I have to say that, that it’s about hatred, and that’s how you hear statements from Trump that I would consider racist, about Mexicans or about people practicing the Muslim faith.

SS: Cruz may be winning votes now, but he has so little love from his party establishment. Will his lead dwindle without party support as the race goes on?

LC: I think it may. Again, he’s the epitome of irony - so he attacks Trump as being New Yorker, and yet his own wife is a partner in Goldman Sachs, the single biggest symbol of Wall St. greed. He was getting a million dollars a year as a corporate lawyer, but he tries to present himself as a populist now. This kind of hypocrisy in American politics is one of the reasons why you see the only thing they have in common - Trump and Sanders - surge. Sanders, because he’s authentic, Trump, because he’s a billionaire himself, he doesn’t have to raise money from billionaires, and ironically, that gives him a little bit of symbol of independence as well. But, the sort of hatred in the Republican party is really so abhorrent to most of us in this country.

SS: Hillary won the Iowa caucus by around 3 state delegate equivalent. Now, most of the world has no idea what that means, and a lot of Americans have no idea what that means, so there’s coin tosses, caucuses, primaries, electoral college, and a candidate with the most votes doesn’t even necessarily win in the end...What does a democratic voting system has to be so complicated?

LC: I think that Iowa caucus system, particularly with this tie - and you know, we don’t have minutes for that, but this is a mathematical tie, meaning take it to four decimal points, and any mathematician would say “too close to call”, it would be like a race where you and I finished where even the cameras couldn’t tell the difference. So, when we talk about a margin of three state delegates out of several thousand and seven of them… in other words, three is the tally and it turns out 7 were by coin tosses, she won 6 of 7 coin tosses, it’s a tie. And so, that kind of system, when they don’t actually count the people who come in the door - Republicans do, ironically, much more transparent - I think there’s going to be a challenge to that system in Iowa going forward. The Nevada caucus on February 20th is exactly the same, so get ready for the same kind of results there. The other states have primaries. You count each person, they go in and they vote like in a normal election around the world.

SS: The Presidential race in America is just crazy expensive. I mean, a campaign could cost over a billion dollars. Why do you need so much money to become President of the U.S.?

LC: You don’t. This has gotten worse every year, particularly in the last 25 years, we used to have legislation that prevented this - the courts threw out the legislation, saying it violated the free speech - this is ridiculous, but they did it. It came about because the Supreme Court got packed with corporate Republicans, literally, during the Bush years and now until they die off or resign, they have a 5 to 4 majority. They say “money is speech and speech is money”, so they get to pay for these abhorrent advertisements on television that attack candidates, that are not factual, but again, they have free speech rights to pay for them, to produce them and to run them. More than a billion dollars that each major candidate spent, is money spent on these advertisements. Some of it is spent in the field, but in the general election here, the field campaign will only be run in six states. Another perversion of democracy that we have here, called the electoral college, where it’s not based on a national popular vote which I and most small Democrats support, instead it’s based on this electoral college system. We have a long way to go here to create 21st century Democracy. That’s why I signed up for Bernie and that’s why I also help lead the group called the Democracy Initiative to get big money out and get voters in.

SS: Larry, thank you so much for this insight. Good luck with everything. We were talking to Larry Cohen, a labor leader, past president of one of the most influential labor movements in the U.S., discussing latest developments on the American campaign trail. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.