News & Politics

Bernie Sanders: 'We Will Not Accept Cuts to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid'

At the annual Nation Institute gala, progressives cheer a principled stand on the so-called fiscal cliff.

According to Sen. Bernie Sanders, it's time for progessives to stop playing defense, and start playing offense. He wants us to start with a strong stand to keep billionaires from controlling our political process, as they are now attempting to do in the so-called fiscal cliff debate. "We will not accept cuts to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid," he said to thundering applause at a New York City gathering on Monday night.

Progressives turned out last night to support the Nation Institute, a nonprofit media center guided by President Andy Breslau to extend the reach of progressive ideas and bolster the independent press. The vibe in the room was one of energy and excitement about a new progressive coalition that seems to be building momentum.The program, MC'd by MSNBC's Chris Hayes, included remarks by Senator Sanders as well as Katrina vanden Heuvel, NAACP president Ben Jealous, and others.

Hayes kicked off the evening with a reference to Spielberg's Lincoln, touching on how debates sparked by the film illustrate the vitality and diversity of the left. He reminded the audience that the Nation magazine was founded by abolitionists like radical congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens (portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln), who combined "moral witness" and "moral prophecy" in a "Sisyphean struggle" against injustice. Victor Navasky, the Nation's former editor and currently professor of journalism at Columbia University, continued the Lincoln theme with his view that many filmgoers were wrong in their assertion that the movie celebrated the president as a great bargainer. Rather, he insisted, it showed a man unafraid to take a "principled stand."

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In one of the evening's many highlights, Ben Jealous was presented with the annual $100,000 Puffin/Nation Prize for creative citizenship. As head of the NAACP, Jealous has been a front-line fighter for justice and equality, and he inspired the crowd with his impassioned calls for activism on causes ranging from marriage equality to voter surpression. (See this exclusive AlterNet interview with Jealous on his view that the Koch brothers have galvanized the progressive community.)

Progressive icon Katrina vanden Heuvel introduced the most anticipated speaker of the night, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. After giving a rousing cheer for all the women who had won seats in the recent election, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, vanden Heuvel welcomed to the stage a man she reminded the audience had spent nothing on TV advertising to win his seat.

Sporting a shock of white hair and the Brooklyn accent of his working-class childhood, the irrepressible Sanders launched right into the political topic of the moment, the "fiscal cliff." He declared that the deficit was a result of the Bush tax cuts, a Wall Street-driven recession, and two unfunded wars initiated by George W. Bush. The principled stand for progressives, he insisted, was to defend Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid from any cuts. Social Security, he emphasized, "has not contributed a nickel to the deficit." Sanders also called for progressives to end red state/blue state reigional divisions and embrace a new 50-state strategy. "There are good people in Mississippi," Sanders reminded the audience, and "we need to stand with them." Sanders also focused on the travesty of income inequality and poverty in the United States, a global embarrassment, and announced his hope that in two years, he will preside over a single-payer healthcare system in Vermont. The primary problems facing the country, he said, were unemployment, infrastructure and climate change -- not the deficit.

Sanders' strong words on the so-called fiscal cliff were especially welcome given the flurry of mixed signals coming out of Washington. Tim Geithner, the bank-centric Treasury Secretary chosen by Obama to lead negotiations, said on Monday that Social Security should be dealt with using a separate process, hinting at the possible creation of a new commission. Noticeably, he left the door open to the idea that cuts would be part of that separate process.

Lynn Parramore is an author and cultural theorist. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.