Q&A with Bernie Sanders: 'Time for profound changes' for Democratic Party'

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"Our Revolution," by Bernie Sanders. Detail from the book cover. Sanders appears at the Free Library at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 28, 2016.

In the fullness of time, future historians may well declare Sen. Bernie Sanders the biggest winner of the 2016 election, arguing that even though he lost the battle for the Democratic nomination, he won the war of ideas.

As the smoke clears, Sanders emerges with an approval rating 10 points above those of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and with full-on rock-star status with millennials, who soon will be the largest group of voters. He appears poised to remake the Democratic Party in his own image as an unapologetic populist who champions the vanishing middle class.

Much of this would have been unthinkable a year and a half ago, when the wild-haired 75-year-old democratic socialist from Vermont declared his candidacy and was met with derision by the political commentariat. Sanders refused corporate donors and super PAC dark money and instead campaigned tirelessly on a shoestring budget made up largely of bundled $27 donations. Relentlessly railing against evils of ever-escalating income inequality, he went on to do far better than many expected. All of which is told in granular detail and vintage Brooklandic patois in Our Revolution, Sanders' 450-page recap of his candidacy and the political revolution that almost was. In the midst of a whirlwind book tour - which stops at the Free Library for a sold-out appearance on Monday night - Sanders spoke with us last week, concerning his postmortem on the 2016 election and his vision for the way forward.

What is your takeaway from the election? "I told you so"?

The Democrats don't control the Senate; they don't control the House. They don't control some three-quarters of the governors' chairs in the country, and they lost some 900 legislative seats in statehouses in the last year. It's time, I think, to take a very hard look at what the Democratic Party now stands for, what they're projecting to the American people, and, in my view, it is time for very, very profound changes to the Democratic Party. We need to make it clear what side the Democratic Party is on. It has got to be on the side of working people. It has got to be on the side of young people. It has got to be prepared to take on a billionaire class, and Wall Street, and insurance companies, and drug companies, and the fossil-fuel industry. It has got to be prepared to have a new vision for where this country - the wealthiest country in the history of the world - can go. That is what the Democratic Party is going to stand for, and when it does that, I think working people - who have deserted the Democratic Party in droves, whether it's whites, blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans, or whatnot - are going to come back and know that this is their party, where they can feel comfortable and represents their dreams.

What are your thoughts of the role the FBI and the Russian government played, if any, in the election of Donald Trump?

I think what [FBI Director James] Comey and the FBI did was 100 percent inappropriate, and I think it had an impact. How big an impact? Well, again, nobody knows the answer. It could certainly have had an impact on Clinton's campaign.

Given that Trump's margin of victory in the key swing states that won him the Electoral College was razor-thin, what message, if any, do you have for the "Bernie or Bust" voters who refused on principle to vote for Clinton?

I have no idea how many "Bernie or Bust" voters there were, but I do know we brought millions of people into the political process, and I suspect the overwhelming majority of them voted for Secretary Clinton. I think the real issue is to ask why almost half of all the American people aren't voting. A lot of young people aren't voting, which is historically the case. A lot of working-class people and a lot of low-income people are not voting. Why? Why are other countries getting voter turnouts of 65, 70 percent, and we get [almost 58] percent? Ideally, if we had a 60 percent voter turnout, Hillary Clinton would have won by a landslide, and the question is: Why was that not the case?

True or false: Given that Trump will likely be afforded the opportunity to load the Supreme Court with conservative justices in the mold of Scalia, Alito, and Thomas, an agenda like yours has no hope of gaining traction at the federal level for at least a generation, if ever.

False. I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, let alone 20 years from now. What I believe is that at the end of the day, the American people are sick and tired of income and wealth inequality, sick and tired of a broken health-care system, want to have us deal with climate change, want young people to be able to go to public colleges and universities tuition-free. That's what the American people want. That's not what the plutocrats want, but our job is to mobilize the American people so the government starts representing them and not just the one percent.

What blame, if any, are you willing to shoulder for your own defeat?

When I began the campaign, we were considered to be a fringe candidacy, not getting much media coverage. Nobody took me seriously. By the time we ended, we won [more than 13 million] votes, 22 states, and, in every instance, the significant majority of young people in this country. So, you can always look back in hindsight and say, "Well, we made this mistake. We should have done that, we should have done that," but, at the end of the day, I think most people would agree with me and say that given where we came from, as an unknown senator from my tiny state, with no money and no political organization, taking on the entire Democratic establishment and the most powerful political organization in the country, which is the Clinton organization, we did pretty well.