When Bernie Sanders unveiled his “Stop BEZOS Act” the, Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act, the ranks of liberal wonk twitter could not resist taking the bait. Bernie’s policy aimed to require large employers to give employees who would otherwise rely on government programs such as SNAP or Medicaid raises. Paid for by enforcing a 100% tax on the company to recuperate the costs of all benefits received. Almost as soon as Bernie unveiled his policy initiative, think tanks, websites like Vox and Bloomberg, and commentators left and right, took aim at the plan. However, in the end, Bernie’s policy turned out to be shrewd politics and gives a hint of how a President Bernie Sanders might govern.
Critiques were wide ranging and varied in their degree of doomsaying. A former economic advisor to Joe Biden said it would hurt more than it helps by “vilifying benefit recipients” and forcing them out of the job market. Esteemed bastions of economic justice such as CNBC, Business Insider, and Investor.com all parroted this job killer line and alluded to potential other economic “problems” like raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for such a program. (The Horror!) Amazon itself released a statement calling the data that justified the entire bill, “inaccurate and misleading.”
Whatever the merits of the policy itself and the economic consequences therein, Bernie Sanders knew this bill would never even get out of committee in the Republican controlled Senate, let alone make it to the House, on to the president’s desk, and signed into law. It was never intended to make it to law. It was a move to bring corporate greed into the center of the political dialogue and inject a discussion on economic inequality into the news cycle. And it worked flawlessly. After the bill was released the media, twittersphere, and the whole thrust of American political discourse was aimed at Amazon and the contradiction of massive profits and their mistreatment of workers, it achieved one of Bernie’s long standing policy goals, and showed the power of the bully pulpit in the process.
Bernie Sanders isn’t a wonk, he’s a policy driven politician, sure, but he’s always been a broad strokes campaigner who relies on the moral clarity of his overall message. The Stop BEZOS Act was no different. It was a direct political shot at multinational conglomerates like Amazon and Walmart, who quite literally rake in billions of dollars from American taxpayers by allowing millions of workers to remain below the poverty line and eligible for federal and state assistance. Stories of overworked Amazon warehouse employees are ubiquitous. As are the hardships of underpaid Walmart workers. That state of poverty is artificial though, these companies are seeing record profits while their workers languish. Calling attention to that fact and highlighting it for all to see is a very important step on the road to solving that problem. Public consciousness is incredibly important and Bernie Sanders entire political project is one of building political consciousness.
Building a Popular Movement Will Scare People Like Bezos Into Change
For an entire day (at least part of one, quite an accomplishment with President Trump shitposting all day), the political discussion in the United States focused on the insane profits of companies like Amazon and Walmart, and how poorly they treat workers. Good policy or not, the legislation put the discussion exactly where Bernie Sanders wanted it. The moral contradiction of capitalism was on display, and before it became a longer protracted battle that could very well spiral into a larger labor movement given the climate, Jeff Bezos caved.
Just weeks after Bernie pushed the Stop BEZOS Act, Amazon announced it would raise wages to $15 an hour for all employees. Jeff Bezos even took to twitter and thanked Bernie Sanders, saying he was “very excited” about the change and “hoped others would join in.” So far there hasn’t been a significant change in wages, and Bezos himself certainly hasn’t taken to the streets advocating for “others to join in.” Still, workers at Amazon received a raise, even if the situation more broadly did not improve, Bernie Sanders used this entire incident to show the possibilities for change when someone in a genuine position of power uses their megaphone to do just that.
It seems fair to say a president Bernie Sanders would wage very similar fights once in office. It’s easy to imagine Bernie Sanders continuing the august tradition of the Twitter presidency, but instead using the platform to highlight various injustices. A president bringing attention to the LA Teachers strike, various instances of police brutality, or just a willingness to call out in the inequities of the economic status quo, all could frame the national dialogue in a powerful way. Directly calling out American corporations for labor violations or poor treatment of their workers is a powerful tool. In fact Donald Trump has used it to his benefit more than once. One could imagine Bernie Sanders using this strategy to great effect because that is exactly what Sanders did with his Stop BEZOS legislation.
When backed by a broad movement this sort of strategy could be hugely effective. And such a movement is already in its early stages. Largely because most of the policy positions Bernie Sanders champions are incredibly broadly popular with the American public. It’s easy to get tired of presidential shit posting when it’s about the fake news, or how global warming is fake because it’s cold in Minnesota. But a president bringing the fight for economic equality, calling out billionaires and fighting for universal healthcare, college, and other rights, might be more palatable long term. Especially when that same president has engaged the American public and millions of Americans feel a direct stake in the fight the president brings to the discourse however he sees fit. Popular support can be an incredibly productive force and Bernie Sanders has showed he’s not afraid to use the bully pulpit in an attempt to build that support.
If this strategy delivers, it could be the beginning of a lasting movement that transforms American politics in some fundamental way. It’s hard to tell what longterm results it will yield, maybe Americans are just burnt out on politics and would rather ignore the president and the discourse altogether. It could also fundamentally transform America in the best way possible, the roadmap is there and it looks pretty promising.