Bernie Sanders has never been closer to delivering a “revolution” in American life.
For decades he was an eccentric outlier from Vermont, with quasi-socialist policies reviled by the mainstream. Now, following primary victories in New Hampshire and Nevada, and strong showings in Iowa and South Carolina, he’s a frontrunner in a party he’s often maligned for passivity and corporate capture. If he wins the nomination and somehow unseats Trump in November, he’ll have power to make good on his rhetoric, including strong statements on the role of technology companies in shaping the modern political-social landscape.
In Charleston, South Carolina, recently, the revolution was already well underway. Not far from the airport, at the Charleston Area Convention Center, cars were lined up by the dozen at the entrance. Inside, a man in a T-shirt featuring both the Bernie logo and Baby Yoda was chanting “Feel the Bern” to supporters walking past. Students mixed with vets and two young women pushed babies in strollers, complaining about health care costs. Everyone was upbeat despite the rainy Wednesday morning weather and the more than hourlong wait for the graying Vermont senator to arrive.
“I watched him filibuster live on the internet and I was like, who is this guy?” said Sarah Miller, 39, who first became aware of Sanders in 2009 when he filibustered a renewal vote for the Bush tax cuts. “This guy’s actually calling out these tax cuts for people who don't need them and that the money generated isn’t benefiting society. That’s his whole thing. Ever since that day I've been following him.”
Sanders has long been an independent, though he caucuses with the Democrats (mostly). He’s been nipping at centrist Dems for years. Now, the zeitgeist is catching up and many of his rivals for the nomination also have strong policies on taxes and inequality and have come up with their own versions of his signature Medicare for All policy.
If Sanders continues to ride high through Super Tuesday and beyond he’ll enter the Oval Office staring down a range of tech issues tied to his base agenda. These include how to address antitrust investigations into companies like Google and Facebook, whether the U.S. should adopt a digital dollar in reaction to China’s e-yuan and Facebook’s Libra, whether we need a federal law protecting privacy, and how to regulate cryptocurrencies and the nascent financial system they are creating.
Sanders hasn’t said much about crypto as such, including pressing questions about whether tokens should be treated as securities. But a review of his record and his candidacy to date indicates what his tendencies might be and how he might use the powers of the U.S. government to engage on these issues. In short: He has the appetite to take on some of the dominant tech powers in the U.S. today and isn’t afraid to use every lever available to him
“Our campaign is about people,” said Ramesh Srinivasan, a Sanders campaign surrogate and professor at UCLA who studies the relationship between technology, politics and society. “It's not about technology. It's about technology that serves people's interests.”
In other words, technology has a place subservient to human interests. It is not a force that we, as humans, have to acquiesce to lest we fall hopelessly behind the times.
As such, Sanders wants to break up Big Tech, ratchet up taxes on the new tech elite and reform a system he sees as unfairly favoring the winners in Silicon Valley over workers struggling to deal with its endless innovations. Sanders doesn’t want to means-test policies that nibble around the edges of these issues. He wants to reform the heart of an economy that creates vast swathes of inequities, that’s putting workers out of the jobs and that monetizes people’s data for the benefit of only a lucky few.
This sets him apart from candidates like Joe Biden, who’s much more cautious in his anti-tech statements, and Pete Buttigieg, who personally asked Mark Zuckerberg who he should hire for his campaign. While Sanders’s campaign is technologically advanced, the technology is aimed at more effective grassroots mobilization rather than disinformation and mass manipulative use of social media for micro-targeting.
Libra and the question of cryptocurrencies
While cryptocurrencies have existed for years, a bitcoin (BTC) boom and the launch of Libra pushed the question of what role they might play in the economy to the floor of Congress. Sanders’s stance on Libra is linked to a wider skepticism of Silicon Valley, and the intentions of its tech behemoths. At the core he doesn’t think a private company, or even an association of companies, should manage a currency.
“We don't think it's appropriate for Facebook to engage in this kind of social and economic engineering when it does not understand, on a deep level, economic issues across the world,” Srinivasan told me.
Sanders’s grassroots supporters echo this view. Miller, the Sanders supporter, says the idea of a private company issuing a currency is a dangerous, slippery slope. And given it’s Facebook, “it honestly scares the crap out of me,” she said. She’s uncomfortable with the idea of cryptocurrencies generally.
Srinivasan said Libra is an attempt to take over global markets, cementing the company’s sway over a customer base larger than any single country’s population. Facebook’s drive to dominate the internet and put growth above all else has helped facilitate genocide and enable voter manipulation, he argued.
“It’s likely to create a lot of false positives, problems and challenges that are not understood or even predicted but, more perniciously, it's a way for Facebook to consolidate power and control over financial markets,” Srinivasan said.
Cryptocurrencies were, in part, created to circumvent the high transaction fees and centralized power of institutions like Chase, Visa and others, which arguably penalize the poor and perpetuate an unbanked population. These benefits would seem aligned with Sanders’s positions, given he has written that “banks have been ripping off Americans for too long,” charging “outrageously high interest rates” while “Wall Street banks get rich.”
Srinivasan says the campaign, on principle, “doesn't have any issue with blockchain or virtual currencies,” though he does question why they’ve been so popular with hyper-libertarian privatized interests. But the Sanders campaign thinks there are possibilities for digital currencies to be more agile in supporting peer to peer transactions, and bypassing problematic elements in the financial system.
A federal privacy law for the people
Silicon Valley has profited off the ability to create, analyze and traffic in granular data about internet users, Srinivasan said.
He is adamant the campaign will push towards requiring companies to make greater data disclosures so American citizens know what's collected about them and have power over their own data. He says we should actually be able to move our data from platform to platform. And we should have power to stop data aggregation, where companies create highly detailed profiles about us using multiple public sources without our knowledge.
“It’s about privacy on the individual level but also privacy at scale,” said Srinivasan. “A key part of the campaign is recognizing that violations of privacy disproportionately harm working people, vulnerable people, people of color and marginalized communities.”
Attending the Charleston Sanders event, I met several Bernie supporters who want greater government action to secure personal privacy.
“I’ve quit Facebook,” said Elizabeth, a mother who did not want to give her last name. “I try to stay off social media, because at this point, the way they can target you for ads is just creepy. But even though I’m not on it, I still feel like they can use my friends' data to target me. We have to do something about it.”
It’s unclear what form a Sanders privacy law might take: whether for example, it might copy the California Consumer Privacy Act. The CCPA, signed into law in 2018, empowers California consumers to know when private companies collect, share or sell their data and to stop that sale if necessary. It applies to companies with annual gross revenue of more than $25 million or that possess information on 50,000 or more consumers. Srinivasan did not say whether the Sanders campaign is mulling an exact analog, but said “we will be working on developing a national privacy law,” said Srinivasan.
Sanders would expand privacy protection rules and loop in privacy experts, racial justice activists, immigration activists, and others who can factor in the acute ways privacy violations harm vulnerable communities.
“It may be an independent proposal or a policy, but it is something we will push for in our administration – a digital privacy bill of rights,” said Srinivasan.
Sanders campaign is all about workers
Sanders’s views about privacy lead to a larger question about how we build a digital economy that safeguards humans in the face of automation. AI is upending our traditional models of labor and will need to be regulated, according to Srinivasan.
His Workplace Democracy plan would allow the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to certify a union if it gets the support of the majority of eligible workers, rather than a unanimous vote. It would impose penalties on companies that refuse to participate in collective bargaining. And Sanders wants to eliminate the “right to work for less”, otherwise known as Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act, which stops unions in more 20-plus states from collecting worker dues. Further, the plan would deny federal contracts to companies that “pay poverty wages, outsource jobs overseas, engage in union-busting, deny good benefits, and pay CEOs outrageous compensation packages.''
Sanders has long touted such ideas, which come amid increased activism and labor agitation at tech companies. Workers at Google pushed back against the company’s work with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) on Project Maven, which used AI to optimize image recognition of surveillance footage from drones. Google chose not to renew that contract in 2018. Workers at Whole Foods, which Amazon owns, are demanding Amazon cut all ties with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Palantir, a data analytics firm that boasts robust surveillance capabilities. Microsoft workers are also calling for the company to sever its ties with ICE.
Nascent unionization efforts have been pursued at places such as Google and Kickstarter. Meanwhile, recent polling of workers in Big Tech shows that Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both of whom have been vocal about labor organizing and potential antitrust investigations, are pulling in, along with Andrew Yang, the greatest number of donations, of any democratic candidates. Sanders leads all the other candidates.
When I asked about tech companies receiving contracts from the DoD, like those that Google workers protested, Srinivasan said the campaign considers them “deeply troubling” and that they “don’t think they’re appropriate.”
Meanwhile, Sanders wants tech companies to share their profits more equitably, even among their own staffs. His Corporate Accountability and Democracy proposal would force companies with at least “$100 million in balance sheet total, and all publicly traded companies will be required to provide at least 2 percent of stock to their workers every year until the company is at least 20 percent owned by employees.”
Unions are a key way for workers to provide a collective voice for themselves, said Jeffrey Buchanan, Public Policy Director at Working Partnerships USA, which has helped organize service workers in the tech industry.
“By joining together in a union, workers can use their power in numbers to win the things that matter to them, whether that’s fairer wages, protections against sexual harassment, or a say in ethical questions like whether to work with ICE,” Buchanan said.
“Ultimate systemic change around this issue can only occur through greater equity, power and decision making power for workers,” said Srinivasan.
None of this is to say Sanders or his campaign are technophobes. You don’t build one of the most powerful grassroots movements of a presidential campaign without an appreciation for tech.
BERN, the Sanders campaign app, is encouraging users to have in-depth, face-to-face conversations with people they know. Rather than relying solely on leveraging big data for micro-targeted ad campaigns, Sanders is using grassroots organization to connect his supporters and drive new kinds of voters to the polls.
Using a strategy named “distributed organizing,” a small team of full-time staff was supplemented by thousands of technical volunteers, contributing to open-source code repositories and creating tools that tied together commercial technologies such as Google Sheets with specialist political software,” writes the workers collaborative Common Cause. For the Sanders campaign, it’s all about the working class and everything, from their workplace democracy plan to calls for a federal privacy law and, yes, Libra, are connected. Corporations and their surveillance tech have too much power; workers and the common man have too little.
“I feel like Bernie Sanders is the only candidate in this race right now who is truly for the people,” says Miller, the rally attendee. “He is not doing this for money. He's not doing this to raise his national profile. He's not doing this because he wants better appointments on Senate committees. He's doing this because he truly wants to make life better for Americans.”
His confrontational attitude, disdain for the “elites,” dedication to equitable policies and small-dollar funding point to Sanders applying traditional remedies to the technological issues of the day, including a renewal of the antitrust system and use of a reinvigorated federal government to address economic imbalances.
“Every engine is accumulating wealth for the most powerful in our country,” says Srinivasan. “Three people in our country have equivalent wealth to the bottom 50 percent of the population. Those engines of wealth are being amplified and reinforced and even extended by private, corporate, top-down-driven technologization of our lives. Our campaign, we stand for workers, we stand for economic justice, and we stand for people's privacy and rights in a democracy.”
Before Sanders emerged onstage in Charleston, a lineup of speakers warmed up the crowd, the risers behind them packed with Sanders supporters waving signs. A huge American flag was propped up to the right of the stage. Volunteers herded the stragglers in towards the center, in front of the cameras filming the event. Cheers filled the room as one of Sanders’ South Carolina organizers stepped onstage and began to speak.
“This is a movement,” she said. “This is a movement that will unite us and set us free.”
The crowd roared in approval.