America is turning into an oligarchy — that was the message Bernie Sanders, Vermont’s self-styled socialist U.S. senator, preached to more than 100 progressive activists last Saturday at the annual fall getaway of the S.C. Progressive Network. 

Sanders had been on a week-long romp of the former Confederacy, and during his tour, he hit up the Progressive Network gathering taking place among the live oaks, Spanish moss, and scattered cabins of the historic Penn Center on St. Helena Island.

Sanders said he had never spoken publicly in the South, but it’s been something the New Englander had always intended to do. His tour of Dixie, and particularly the early presidential primary state of South Carolina, has sparked murmurs that the longest-serving independent in Congress might be planning a 2016 run for the White House. Sanders has said he’s 99 percent sure he won’t do that. What he is doing however, is bouncing around the South trying to help progressives counter a conservative narrative he believes has been leading working-class Americans to vote against their own economic self interests.

At the Penn Center gathering, Sanders said a concentration of money and political power in the hands of a few families and financial institutions is moving the country toward an oligarchic form of society.

“Economically, we see Wall Street today, the six largest financial institutions on Wall Street, those nice fellas that we bailed out a few years ago, they have assets of $9 trillion, which is equivalent to two-thirds of the GDP of the United States of America,” he said.

Sanders called that an “unbelievable concentration of ownership” in the hands of half a dozen major financial institutions that he labeled as greedy and reckless. “These are the guys who control to a very significant degree, the economy of the United States of America,” he said.

It might be easy for some to dismiss the senator’s rhetoric as that of a lone crank in a safe district in Northeastern hippy country, but Sanders was recently appointed to a 29-member bipartisan budget conference committee of U.S. representatives and senators tasked with hashing out a long-term debt deal to avoid another government shutdown. Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan is co-leading the effort.

As a voice on the panel, Sanders said he would fight to keep cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid from happening. And he blamed the wealthy conservative Koch brothers for much of the Republican budget agenda and the effort to cripple or repeal President Obama’s signature healthcare reform law.

“For these right-wing extremists, for these nice-looking guys like Paul Ryan and the others, this is just the tip of the iceberg,” Sanders said about opposition to Obamacare. He said the believed if the Koch brothers had their way they’d repeal “virtually every major piece of legislation passed in the last 80 years.” 

So Sanders will offer a counterpoint in the budget debate, and he test drove that message to the South Carolina crowd.

“People understand that when the wealthiest people are doing phenomenally well, the way to balance the budget is not on the backs of the children and the elderly and the sick and the poor,” he said. “The way to balance the budget is to ask those people on top who are doing phenomenally well to start paying their fair share of taxes. And the American people also understand the absurdity of folks talking about cutting Social Security and other programs at the same time as one out of four corporations in America has not paid one nickel in federal income taxes.”