Bernie Sanders has shown radical ideas can find a serious audience in the US. Peter Jones looks at what he stands for and where his campaign for president is headed
Bernie Sanders has shaken the Democratic Party establishment, railing against the hold of Wall Street and big money on US politics. He has drawn enthusiastic crowds of thousands of people at meetings across the country, far larger than those of Hillary Clinton.
Sanders has put the idea of socialism back on the map, proudly identifying himself as a “democratic socialist” and calling for a “political revolution” to take on the power of Wall St and the “ruling class”. He has tied this to demands for free healthcare, free university (college) education, action on climate change, and something approaching a liveable minimum wage ($15 an hour).
Against the odds, Sanders has won remarkable success in his campaign to win the Democratic Party’s nomination. A surprising win in Michigan has kept hopes alive that he can still win.
He is a long way behind Clinton: at the time of printing he had won 9 states to Clinton’s 13, and has less than half as many delegates. But for now he is still in the race, and may get a boost as the campaign focuses on more of the northern states, where he has performed better.
In conditions where the US economy has barely recovered from the global financial crisis of 2008, many Republican and Democratic voters are looking to candidates who seem to stand for an alternative to neoliberal orthodoxy.
Unlike Clinton, he voted against the Wall Street bailout, and he’s worked hard to expose her links with the wealthy elite. When matched up in polls against Trump’s brand of authoritarian protectionism, Sanders continues to outperform Clinton.
When asked what he means by socialism, Sanders points to the example of countries like Denmark. Most of his program was fought for and won in advanced capitalist economies outside the US during the post-war boom of the 1950s to the 1970s, even if it has been wound back to greater and lesser degrees.
It’s a vision of social democratic reform, not socialist revolution. Genuine socialism means workers to taking control of society themselves, setting up new forms of democracy, and seizing the wealth of the ruling class to put it under popular control.
As Sanders himself points out, no US president could implement measures close to what he is proposing on their own. US companies do not want to make major investments through taxes in the health and education of their workers when they still have plenty of unemployed people to choose from and their profit rates are low.
Winning these demands would take a sustained, mass movement of strikes and protests to win a struggle against not only the power of Wall St and the capitalist class generally, but Congress, the states, the Supreme Court and unelected state officials.
The key question confronting Sanders, his supporters and the US left generally is how to translate the momentum his campaign has generated into something of more lasting significance.
The danger is that when he drops out of the race with Clinton he will endorse her. He’s completely ruled out running as an independent.
If his supporters are not won to the importance of struggles beyond elections, Sanders is likely to lead them into the dead end of campaigning for Clinton and the Democratic party machine.
Sanders’ supporters showed their willingness to mobilise in Chicago, where a mass rally of thousands shut down a planned Trump rally at a university. Thousands of victorious protestors filled the university auditorium and chanted “We stopped Trump” and “Bernie”. But while Sanders’ said “What caused the protests at Trump’s rally is a candidate that has promoted hatred and division against Latinos, Muslims, women and people with disabilities,” he was careful to say his campaign didn’t organise the protests.
Sanders’ campaign has helped to popularise support for progressive reforms. But they won’t be achieved by an election.
Deepening and broadening the struggles is the key to social change—and to showing people that they could run society themselves. The Black Lives Matter movement and the struggle for a higher minimum wage are radicalising an important but small minority.
If Sanders doesn’t use his platform to bolster those struggles, or if his supporters fall into backing Clinton, his campaign inside the Democrats could help reinforce, rather than upend, the dominance of two equally capitalist major parties in US politics.
Compared to the Australian or British Labo(u)r parties the Democrats have much stronger, direct links with business, and much weaker links to workers through the unions. The party takes most of its money from big business and has always loyally served US capitalism.
Barack Obama has been no exception. He won the presidency in 2008 by promising “hope” and describing his campaign as a movement to take on Washington and the powers that be. That changed to widespread disillusionment as he continued US militarism abroad, bailed out Wall Street and agreed to massive budget cuts.
The Democratic party is at once looser and more tightly controlled than, for example, the ALP.
In most states anyone who votes Democrat can vote in a primary, and they can volunteer to help with a campaign. But there is no membership structure through which they might hold officeholders accountable, or which might be a home for an activist left wing.
People who are elected as Democrats are more or less free to vote however they like on any given issue, and securing funding for re-election as an individual is a very significant consideration.
Democratic presidents can’t expect Democrats in Congress and the Senate to support them out of party discipline. So even if the Republicans lost their majorities and Sanders won the presidency his scope for implementing reforms “from above” would be very narrow.
The presidential primary system itself is also rigged against challengers from the left. Unelected “super delegates”, picked by the party establishment control 15 per cent of the vote.
While the party’s legitimacy would take a hit if Clinton fell behind on the popular vote but won through super delegates, given the political distance between Sanders and the party machine, they’d probably think the price was worth it.
Unfortunately Clinton looks like she will win the popular vote in any case. The big problem for Sanders’ campaign is the pledged delegates he has already lost, especially in the south, where Clinton has won the majority of the black vote. Sanders’ win in Michigan shows that this isn’t because non-white voters refuse to vote for a white male, as Clinton’s campaign has insinuated (Michigan, a northern state, has a relatively large black population).
The more likely reason is that Sanders and his campaigners are mainly based in the north, while the Clintons have built up networks of support and patronage in the south. Their support from the Democratic Party establishment also gives them backing from the layer of middle class blacks who have built careers in the party.
As Sanders himself says eloquently, the electoral process is stacked in favour of candidates who people with power and money think will support their interests.
Sanders hasn’t always been a Democrat. He was part of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements in the 1960s and ran in various electoral campaigns against Democrats in Vermont in the 1970s and 1980s. But as the left retreated he shifted closer to them, and was elected to Congress with their backing in 1990.
This went along with adopting a number of positions supporting US imperialism. In response to his decision to back Bill Clinton’s 1999 Kosovo War, activists occupied Sanders’ office. He had them arrested. Sanders voted for a resolution giving Bush Jnr. carte blanche to invade any country he decided was connected to the September 11 attacks.
While he rightly opposed invading Iraq in 2003, he supported the deadly sanctions that led up to it. He supports US bombing in Syria and wants closer US co-operation with Iran and by extension Russia and Assad. Compounding this is the way he has framed this position as a way of getting Muslims to do the fighting against ISIS, dog whistling to the idea that all Muslims bear some responsibility for their crimes.
Sanders has been a consistent supporter of Israel’s wars, voting in the Senate to support their most recent bombing campaign against Gaza. In his campaign speeches he often links American nationalism with anti-Chinese sentiment, tying opposition to free trade and Chinese military and economic competition with opposition to US job losses.
Nevertheless, throughout his campaign Sanders has opposed Trump’s attacks on Muslims and Mexicans and Obama’s deportations of immigrants. On the Black Lives Matter movement he has been slow to come on board, sympathising with police for having “a very, very difficult job”. As mayor of Burlington, Vermont he relied heavily on the support of the police union, and has described the police as a “socialist institution”.
But more recently, he has taken up the issue, saying in one campaign ad focused on police killings, “I want to see an America where when young black men walk down the street they will not be harassed by police officers, they will not be killed, they will not be shot.”
Sanders’ politics are part of his orientation on winning elections. Too often he starts and finishes with the narrowly “economic” issues he thinks will win the most votes.
As an expression of opposition to the rich and Wall St, his campaign is a very positive development. But the real test will be whether his campaign is able to build the strength of the movements to win the changes his supporters want.
As Howard Zinn said, “what matters most is not who is sitting in the White House, but whose sitting in, and who is marching outside the White House, pushing for change.”