Back during the darkest days of the financial crisis, President Barack Obama summoned the heads of the big Wall Street banks to the White House and told them they had better get their act together. “My administration,” Obama said, “is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.”
Obama’s administration will soon come to an end, a prospect many bank executives anticipate with joy. But the pitchfork-wielding populists haven’t exactly gone away. Instead, many have rallied to the presidential candidacy of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. At a Feb. 7 rally in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Sanders made it clear that unlike Obama, he would channel, rather than deflect, anti-Wall Street anger if elected president. To a throng of 1,500 voters packed into a community college gymnasium, Sanders vowed to crack down on Wall Street bankers. As he spoke, Sanders was continually interrupted by shouts from the audience of “Break ‘em up!” and “They should go to jail!”
Interviews with rally-goers confirm that, nearly seven years after the end of the crisis and the ensuing recession, the desire to punish and reform the big banks has barely diminished. And many attendees were happy to share their own prescription for how the next president should handle Wall Street.
“The main thing is that we need to hold bankers accountable,” said Jenaya Roberts, of Stratham, New Hampshire. “The $5 billion fine [of Goldman Sachs, which Sanders invoked in his speech] is nothing to them. I’d make them stand trial.”
Her husband, Dave Roberts, decked out in New England Patriots gear, agreed, but said the next president would need more political firepower to succeed. “I’d get Elizabeth Warren on my side—that’s the dream ticket we need in the White House. She should get off the sidelines and support Bernie.”
Kevin Durham-Fischer, a computer software engineer from Exeter, New Hampshire, favored a heavier tax regime. “Every financial transaction should be taxed, because it’s just another form of gambling,” he said. “Except for IPOs, there’s no benefit to the economy of people that make money by trading stocks.”
Making Wall Street and corporations “pay their fair share,” as Sanders likes to put it, is a key part of his presidential platform. To pay for his proposal to make public colleges and universities tuition free, Sanders plans to tax Wall Street speculators. To pay for his $1 trillion infrastructure bill, Sanders would make corporations pay taxes on profits stored in off-shore tax havens.
Sanders has also, like Warren, called for reinstating Glass-Steagall, the Depression-era law that separated commercial and investment banking. Clinton has said her plan to prevent another financial sector meltdown, which doesn't include reviving Glass-Steagall, would go further than Sanders's because it targets the “shadow banking” sector.
Mathew Pitman, 34, of Portsmouth, said a combination of higher taxes and smaller banks was the only thing that could bring Wall Street to heel. “Subject them to the same level of taxation as people like me,” he said, “and break up the big banks.”
John Joyal, 59, of Sommersworth, New Hampshire, was pushing an all-of-the-above plan. “Taxes, fines, jail, manacles—I’m for all of it,” he said. “Citizens United needs to be overturned, too.”
Others took their cue from how bankers have been treated abroad. “We should do what they did in Iceland,” said Keiran Brennan, who had driven up from Wellesley, Massachusetts. “Put them in jail.” Added Nora Hussey, also from Wellesley, gesturing toward a giant “Bernie Sanders 2016” posted, “Or just elect him.”
Even if Sanders doesn't win the nomination, he has already altered the national conversation around Wall Street, especially among younger voters. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for capitalism, capitalism is great, but it’s kind of gotten out of control,” said Emily Thatcher, a 21-year-old senior at University of South Florida volunteering for Sanders.
“I do think that Wall Street funding and donating large sums of money or paying people to speak can influence candidates to say certain things or enact certain policies, and I think that’s pretty messed up,” said Kendall Legac, a 21-year-old senior at University of South Florida. Legac said that while she doesn't know exactly how to end that influence, Sanders's plan of “not letting them avoid tax loopholes is definitely appropriate.”
While Sanders’s jabs at Wall Street reliably drew roars, the lust to punish bankers for their misdeeds—real or perceived—did not extend to everyone in the crowd. “I don’t really like the idea of putting people in jail, even bankers,” said Toby Hollertz, 18, an Americorps worker from Manchester, New Hampshire. “Accountability is fine, but that seems like too much.”
It turned out, however, that Hollertz doesn’t number among the Sanders supporters. He was just curious to see what all the fuss is about. “I’m actually a Martin O’Malley guy—national service is my big issue,” he said. Could someone with so moderate a disposition toward bankers ever see himself voting for Sanders? Hollertz had been giving it a lot of thought: “We’ll see.”