Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) plans to hold a live, televised town hall on March 19 devoted to exploring the issue of economic inequality.
The town hall, called “Inequality in America: The Rise of Oligarchy and Collapse of the Middle Class,” will take place before a live audience in the auditorium of the U.S. Capitol. It will be broadcast online with the help of the event’s digital media partners, The Guardian, NowThis, The Young Turks and Act.tv.
The 80-minute panel discussion is an attempt to capitalize on the success of Sanders’ January town hall on “Medicare for all” that drew 1.6 million live viewers.
“The goal is twofold: No. 1 is to have a serious discussion on one of the most important issues facing our country, and that is who owns America, who has the power, why the middle class is declining,” Sanders told HuffPost. “We’re going to talk about extreme poverty in America.
“Then we’re going to be talking about where we go from here. How do we create an economy that works for everybody and not just the 1 percent?”
Sanders has made no secret of his disdain for the superficial habits of mainstream media outlets in general, and television news in particular. He is convinced that the corporate ownership of these operations prevents them from holding accountable the powerful economic forces in the country.
“You tell me how often [the television news] has had serious discussion about the decline of the middle class, the impact of wealth and income inequality, what it means that people like the Koch brothers can spend $400 million on a campaign? Have you ever seen a program about that?” he asked.
But one advantage of Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign is that he now has a social media following large enough to communicate his message directly to a sizable swath of the public.
“What we want to do is to force discussion about issues of importance to the American people that the corporate media, for a dozen different reasons, will not cover,” he said.
Even before the “Medicare for all” town hall, Sanders had dramatically increased his online video presence. Short Facebook videos he has posted explaining health care and tax policies have garnered millions of views. The lengthier digital town hall format allows Sanders to go into greater depth than those short videos.
The program will consist of a four-person panel: Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), filmmaker Michael Moore, and Darrick Hamilton, an economics and urban policy professor at The New School in New York City.
As the panelists discuss what has caused rising economic inequality and how it might be addressed, they will invite guest speakers with specific expertise to join the discussion.
The scheduled guests include Catherine Coleman Flowers, a founder of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise Community Development Corp., an anti-poverty group; Gordon Lafer, a labor policy expert at the University of Oregon; and Cindy Estrada, a vice president of the United Auto Workers labor union.
What do we need to do to join the rest of the world in guaranteeing health care for all people, have a livable minimum wage, build the affordable housing, make sure that every kid in this country is able to go to college regardless of his or her income, and how do we rebuild the infrastructure? Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
Unlike the “Medicare for all” town hall, which was devoted to a single policy solution, the inequality town hall is expected to be more open-ended in its proposals.
Based on the way Sanders diagnoses the problem, however, the answers he intends to examine most closely are likely to come from the progressive toolkit. That presumably includes policies that Sanders himself has championed: free college tuition, expanded Social Security benefits, paid family leave, a higher minimum wage and rules that strengthen labor unions.
“What do we need to do to join the rest of the world in guaranteeing health care for all people, have a livable minimum wage, build the affordable housing, make sure that every kid in this country is able to go to college regardless of his or her income, and how do we rebuild the infrastructure?” he said of the event’s mission.
Sanders elicited criticism from supporters of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign for his message on class and economic inequality that appeared to sidestep inequalities driven by race, gender and other identities or experiences.
Sanders continues to dispute the criticism, noting his vocal opposition to racial bias in policing and his support for criminal justice reform and women’s reproductive rights.
The Vermont senator’s town hall is likely to address economic hardship in communities of color and the particular solutions that might be needed. Hamilton, Coleman Flowers and Estrada each have expertise in the intersection of racial and economic inequities.
“We would not do an event that did not include a serious discussion about the needs of minority communities,” Sanders said.