BENNINGTON -- Sen. Bernie Sanders held a town hall-style discussion with students at Mount Anthony Union High School on Tuesday in order to honor junior Alexina Federhen, who won the senator's State of the Union essay contest in January.
Sanders fielded questions from students on subjects from universal healthcare, to public education, to global warming, to the most basic ideologies that create divides in Washington, D.C.
Sanders began by inviting Federhen to read her winning essay, entitled "A House Divided." "While I don't agree with all the conclusions she reached," said Sanders, "I think it was a well thought-out, well written essay." Federhen stood next to Sanders at the podium for the remainder of the town meeting.
Sanders asked the students what parts of Federhen's speech they agreed with, and what parts they disagreed with. One, raising his hand and introducing himself, said that he agreed with the primary theme of Federhen's essay, that the two parties in Congress have been unable to work together, to the detriment of the country as a whole.
"Before we talk about Democrats or Republicans, partisanship or bipartisanship, we have to talk about what we think we should be doing," Sanders said to students. Turning to Federhen, he asked, "What's the goal, if you were president. What would you do?"
Federhen mentioned working out the kinks in the Affordable Care Act as one of her top priorities.
"There are estimated to be about 45 million people in this country without health insurance," said Sanders, "the Affordable Care Act, through the exchange, or expanded Medicare, or being put on their parents insurance, will help about 15 million people. But there are still 30 million other people still out there without insurance."
"The United States is the only major country on Earth where healthcare is not considered a right, where the government does not, in one form or another, provide it," Sanders continued. He went on to call the ACA, commonly known as Obamacare, "a modest step forward" towards the ideal of making healthcare a universal right for all Americans, but wasn't the final solution.
Sanders then asked the students how many of them thought that everyone should have equal access to healthcare. Almost the entire group raised their hands. One of the three or four who did not, freshman Marty Kelly, was asked by Sanders why he disagreed. "I think people should pay for their own healthcare," said Kelly, "It's not fair that we have to pay for other people's."
"There is a very deep division [in Washington]," replied Sanders, "That division is based not on personality, but on ideology." Sanders explained that many Republican senators were his close friends, and that their disagreements didn't come from personal animosity, but rather from ideological differences. "What most countries believe, and what I believe, is that it shouldn't be that if I got sick, I have money, so I have the right to a good doctor and care. Lexi here doesn't have money, so she doesn't get that she doesn't get that treatment, so she could get sick and die."
Sanders compared his ideal of universal healthcare with the public education system today. "There are people, and it's a small group, who think we should do away with public education," he said "That parents with the means to educate their children, or have them educated privately, should do so. What do you think of that?"
"It's just another case of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer," said one student, "The rich will be able to send their kids to school, so they'll be able to earn a good wage. The poor kids won't be able to afford school, so they'll end up flipping burgers at McDonald's forever."
"So," said Sanders, "Why should I have to pay for your education?"
"A good question!" shouted Kelly from the front row.
"You want to pay for my education, because someday, I'll be your surgeon," said one student, drawing laugher from the group.
"Well, I hope you're not my surgeon, but I certainly hope you become one if that's what you want to do," laughed Sanders, before challenging the viewpoint that Americans should only look after themselves and their families. "Is it really a good idea that I care only about myself and those immediately around me," asked Sanders, "Or should I worry about the long-term health of my country?"
Sanders pushed the education argument even further, pointing to countries that provide publicly funded higher education, as well as primary and secondary education. "Is it a good thing for our country if we have a lot of bright young people from low income families who can't afford to get an education?" asked Sanders, "What does the country lose? The development of intellect."
When one student asked how, as a country, we could get to the point where higher education was publicly funded, Sanders brought the conversation back to Federhen's essay, and the discussion on why Congress was "A House Divided."
"Is Congress dysfunctional? Yes," said Sanders, "But why is it dysfunctional? If your answer is ‘Ugh, they're all jerks,' you're wrong. That's not a good answer. You have to study up on the important philosophical differences that make [the two parties] different." Once you understand each philosophy, he said, you can choose the one that works for you, and support candidates who share your beliefs.
Sanders and Kelly clashed again on the subject of global warming, for which Kelly demanded evidence. "Ninety-seven to 98 percent of scientists who are writing papers on the subject agree that global warming exists, and that it is caused to some degree by humans, and that, if not addressed, it's only going to get worse," said Sanders. Kelly asked Sanders how the scientists knew.
"How do I know your name is Marty?" asked Sanders, "They did research!"
2014 was the fourth year Sanders ran the essay contest, which featured submissions from more than 400 students from 26 schools across the state. Federhen's essay was published in the congressional record, and she was able, with some of the other finalists, to participate in a roundtable discussion in January.
Federhen ended her essay by saying, "Abraham Lincoln once observed that ‘a house divided cannot stand.' Our House and Senate have splintered into partisan factions of squabbling inactivity. Americans will continue to soldier on, overcoming whatever obstacles impede our advancement. We can only hope that our Congressional leaders will acquire the maturity and wisdom to help, rather than hinder our progress. But for now, we are a nation without unity."
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB