Sen. Bernie Sanders says he will remain an independent member of the U.S. Senate even as he works to reform the Democratic Party.
And he says there's no question that the party needs to implement major changes if it hopes to be successful in the future.
During a political career in Vermont that spans more than 40 years, Bernie Sanders has run as an independent candidate.
The only exceptions were two bids for statewide office in the 1970s, when Sanders ran as a candidate of the Liberty Union Party.
When Sanders came to Bear Pond Books in Montpelier on Nov. 22 to promote his new book, Our Revolution, I had a chance to talk to him about his efforts to reform the Democratic Party.
He has been named to a leadership position in the Senate Democratic Caucus — he will serve as "the Director of Outreach" — and part of his job will be to encourage Democrats across the country to embrace the message of economic insecurity that was a prominent part of his presidential campaign.
I asked Sanders if it's a bit ironic that he's working to transform the Democratic Party when he's not a member of it.
“Yes it is, it is a little bit odd,” he said. “I am an independent. I'm proud that Vermonters have elected me — mayor of Burlington, congressman, senator — as an independent, and I remain an independent."
And did Sanders ever imagine that he would be in a position to try to dramatically change the agenda of one of the country's two major political parties?
“Not in a million years.”
Sanders believes that the problems facing the Democratic Party exist at virtually every level of government.
“Because it's not just the loss of the White House — it is the loss of the Senate, it is the loss of the House of Representatives, it is the loss of some two thirds of Statehouses throughout this country,” he says. “And Democrats have got to ask themselves some hard questions: Why is that happening, how do we go forward?"
Sanders says he's taking on this role because of his concerns about many of the policies of President-elect Donald Trump.
“The circumstances facing this country are so dire. Just the objective economic and climate change problems that we have, and the political problems that the Democratic Party is facing, and especially with Trump coming into office, I think it's imperative that all of us work hard to bring about fundamental change in how the Democratic Party functions,” he says.
Garrison Nelson is a political science professor at UVM. He's known Sanders for more than 30 years.
Nelson says it's critical that an outsider like Sanders be the one who tries to reform the Democratic Party.
“The party is basically beholden to its old folks here, and I think Bernie, who has been able to connect with the millennials, has a lot more juice and a lot more relevance than some of the people who are talking about reforming it now,” Nelson says.
And Nelson thinks that Sanders realizes that he needs to be part of major political party if he hopes to affect change in this country.
“Bernie has done the third-party route and he knows it's a loser,” Nelson says. “I mean, the system is rigged against third parties … So this is the right move for him, and the fact that he remains an independent actually enhances his credibility rather than diminishes it."
Matt Dickinson, a political science professor at Middlebury College, says Sanders' strong presidential bid puts him in the position to be a leading critic of President-elect Trump.
“He, for better or worse, now bears the burden of responsibility for voicing the concerns of a significant portion of the Democratic electorate,” Dickinson says. “And of course the stakes are magnified when the opposition party controls not just the House and the Senate, but also the presidency."
And Dickinson thinks Sanders' effort to transform the Democratic Party shows that Sanders can be a pragmatic politician.
“It does no good here to be a purist, but remain on the sidelines and [fight] the good fight for all that is pure and good in politics. Instead, he's decided to get his hands dirty with people that he might not have wanted to work with before, but he's got his eye on the bigger picture here, and it's the maturing of a politician, I think."
Sanders is also strongly backing the candidacy of Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison to be the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee.