In the Democratic Presidential Primary Debate held last Sunday, sitting Senator Bernie Sanders stole the show with two intriguing admissions that spoke volumes about his politics and his electoral appeal. In the coverage of the debate that I have looked over, I was surprised to see that no one seems to have highlighted those two rather illuminating moments of the night.
In the (largely unexpected) competition for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders’ momentum has been shocking for many. Hillary Clinton, a national figure who entered the race without any apparent challenger, has lost ground to him as he surged from locally celebrated Senator to contender vying for Iowa, New Hampshire, and possibly the nomination. Much of that support has come from voters, particularly younger ones, interested in challenging the existing political process and pushing policy proposals from as many candidates as possible towards more economic redistribution and equality.
Sanders’ answer to a question about climate change was one of the few he delivered on Sunday that didn’t stay within the confines of economics or immediately pivot to them, but it still detailed why he’s been so attractive to that type of voter. Here’s the exchange that caught my ears:
HOLT: “Senator Sanders, Americans love their SUVs, which spiked in sales last year as gas prices plummeted. How do you convince Americans that the problem of climate change is so urgent that they need to change their behavior?”
SANDERS: “I think we already are. Younger generation understands it instinctively. I was home in Burlington, Vermont, on Christmas Eve, the temperature was 65 degrees. People in Vermont know what’s going on. People who did ice fishing, where their ice is no longer there on the lake understand what’s going on.”
His answer from there moved into his well-worn tracks of denouncing the broken political process and the economic pressures that keep it dysfunctional. Still, before moving into that he articulated a certainty that people already realize these problems exist.
I think this speaks to his broader political philosophy, which he and others sometimes misname as socialism. It falls short of a systemic transformation of the means of production into communal resources (you know… the definition of socialism), but it shares with that a belief in a common denominator of sensibleness. That’s the raw material needed to inspire people to believe that something actually like socialism is possible, so it’s not wildly unrelated to be fair.
Before anyone gets too excited about what Sanders’ politics might make tangible though, there’s the other revealing thing he said when discussing foreign policy in the Middle East:
“And one point I want to make here that is not made very often, you have incredibly wealthy countries in that region, countries like Saudi Arabia, countries like Qatar. Qatar happens to be the largest — wealthiest country per capita in the world. They have got to start putting in some skin in the game [of counter-terrorism] and not just ask the United States to do it.”
The best statistics aren’t with Bernie Sanders on pretty much any part of this economic picture of Qatar and Saudi Arabia or even more generally the Persian Gulf region. In a very literal, numerical sense, these aren’t countries wealthier than the US asking for us to fight their battles for them.
The most reliable cross-country data on per capita wealth date back more than a decade and a half, and they paint a wildly different picture, which is difficult to dismiss as having radically reversed. What they show is that Qatar’s per capita net worth is about ninety percent of the US’s based on exchange rates and a little over seventy percent based when factoring in local purchasing power differences.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, and Bahrain – all with comparable economies to Qatar – fair similarly in comparison to the US. Saudi Arabia comes out markedly worse, coming out to barely over ten percent of the US’s per capita net worth based on exchange rates, which only grows to just over fifteen percent when accounting for greater Saudi purchasing power.
It’s easy for these discussions to become very abstract discussions of sales and productivity and various percents, removed from the lived realities of international economic inequality. In terms of infant mortality within the region, only Qatar and the UAE have both reduced their rates to equal that of the US, but that’s a development that’s happened only in the past five years. Bahrain and Kuwait still have infant mortality rates that lag several decades behind the gradually decreasing US rate, while Saudi Arabia still has a rate more than double that of the US’s current one.
It’s a similar story for the infants who survived too, with only Qatar’s life expectancy at birth rivaling the US’s in the past couple of decades. Still, the average person born in the US has gained about a year of anticipated life every five years, to the average Qatari’s year gained every decade. In other words, while the gap of how many children live is closing, the gap in terms of how long they live for is widening.
To exhaust the ways of interpreting Sanders’ comments, a country could have significantly lower standards of living than another in general, but have resources concentrated in a minority of the population that’s effectively rather wealthy. That wouldn’t fit what he’s describing, in terms of there being more resources for a typical Qatari than someone in the US, but it at least would explain why someone might draw the wrong conclusions he’s reached.
That said, while there are certainly some very wealthy people from those countries, this isn’t the case, as far as the statistics suggest. Information about the distribution of wealth within many Gulf countries is extremely difficult to find, but what little is internationally known shows them to have a Gini Coefficient equivalent to the US’s or very modestly lower. That means that while there are extremely wealthy elites within these countries that may be wealthier than the average US resident, the same is true and probably more statistically common within the US. The Qatar that Sanders described as overshadowing the US in economic power doesn’t even exist as a part of the country, let alone the whole.
Migrant workers in Qatar, from here.
There’s also the unsupported assertion that these (not actually) wealthy countries are asking us to get involved in anti-Daesh organizing, specifically with a ground occupation of parts of Syria and Iraq. Sanders’ approach towards the region misrepresents not just the existing relationship between these countries and our own, but misinterprets what leaders and average people in those countries want to have as a relationship with us.
In a nutshell, the unequal distribution of resources and as a result power which Sanders has centered his politics around criticizing doesn’t just exist within the United States but in some sense between us and many other parts of the world. His faith in people’s knowledge and intentions extends greatly, but it gets much patchier outside of US borders. There’s more nationalism in his politics than an actual socialist’s would have. It may make room for movement towards something like socialism domestically, but his take on international issues suggests that the revolution Sanders mentions is designed not to rewrite the global economic dominance of the United States.