Can Bernie Sanders do more than pave the way for Clinton? By Andy Yorke
THE 2016 US Presidential election was expected to be boring, from predictable start to status quo finish. It was supposed to be Jeb Bush against Hillary Clinton: both insiders from Republican and Democrat political dynasties, both with strong ties to big business and the foreign policy establishment, both candidates for a safe handover of power.
As one Republican-leaning Wall Street lawyer told Politico website’s Ben White, “If it turns out to be Jeb versus Hillary, we would love that, and either outcome would be fine”.
Then “Socialist” candidate Bernie Sanders and billionaire racist demagogue Donald Trump crashed the party, and turned the election campaign into a real struggle.
Both are opposed by their party establishments, but have raced ahead in the early primaries, the state by state contests where registered Democrat and Republican party members choose their party’s candidate for November. This has allowed the pent-up social tensions arising from the 2008 economic crash to burst out into the open, with potentially radical consequences for US politics.
The racist maverick Trump is way ahead of his main rivals in delegates, and looks likely to sweep the “Super Tuesday” primary contests on 1 March. The Republican establishment are backing the safe nonentity Marco Rubio, and have attacked Trump for his longstanding “liberal” policies on abortion. Either way the Republicans are pitching to the right, hoping to whip up reaction to gain the Presidency. They already have the biggest majority in Congress since 1931.
Bernie Sanders has also become a phenomenon, for different reasons. With his surprise tie in the Iowa primary and a 22 per cent win in New Hampshire, he’s gone from being the underdog to being the candidate that Clinton has to beat to win.
His call for a “political revolution”, to change a “rigged economic system” run by the “billionaire class” at the expense of the working majority has sparked an outpouring of support, with mass rallies and a flood of donations. While 77 per cent of Clinton’s funding comes from big donors, the average Sanders donation is $27.
Sanders’ support is particularly strong among younger voters, winning 84 per cent of 18 to 29 year old voters in Iowa and 87 per cent in New Hampshire, a higher proportion than Obama. He leads over Clinton by 58 to 38 percent nationally among younger voters.
“Students for Bernie” groups are springing up on campus, and more than 100,000 volunteers have joined his campaign. It is the activism of this youthful base that has given Sanders the only possible way to break apart Clinton’s long-cultivated base among minority voters. The third, Nevada primary saw him nearly overcome Clinton’s lead by making inroads into the Latino youth vote.
However Sanders has a mountain to climb, and it is unlikely he can defeat Clinton. He faces two major obstacles.
Clinton and the black bourgeoisie
The first is Clinton’s base of support among Black voters, where she leads over Sanders by as much as 60 per cent. As a result, Clinton swept the 27 February South Carolina primary, with 73.5 per cent to Sanders’ 26. She looks likely to do the same on “Super Tuesday”, where she has a double-digit lead in six Southern states.
The Clinton dynasty’s near-monopoly on the African-American establishment dates back to Hillary’s husband Bill Clinton’s 1993 to 2000 Presidency. Bill Clinton’s is sickeningly referred to as “America’s first Black President” for his assiduous courting of the Black vote. This saw him cultivating powerful Black community and religious leaders, politicians and business elites for support in the conservative South.
With Sanders threatening Hillary’s campaign, her allies in the Black wing of the Democratic establishment are lining up to attack him. They have questioned his anti-racist credentials, with South Carolina Congressman Todd Rutherford saying that Sanders "only really started talking about issues concerning African Americans in the last 40 days”.
Sanders actually has a reasonably decent record on race. Starting out as a civil rights activist in the 1960s, he campaigned against the welfare cuts and law and order bills passed during Bill Clinton’s Presidency (which Hillary supported), which in the words of anti-racist activists have created a “New Jim Crow” of systematic poverty, police violence and the incarceration of Black men.
But Sanders did not make much of a name for himself in the struggle against police murders since Ferguson in 2014, and in August 2015 Black Lives Matter protestors (who also protested at Clinton’s events) scuppered his Seattle rally.
So far Sanders hasn’t been able to reverse this, despite several prominent Black activists and academics publicly attacking Clinton’s record on race and her campaign’s smears against Sanders. As a Vermont Senator largely unknown to Black voters in the South, Sanders is paying the price for his focus on poverty and economic inequality.
Obama’s win in Iowa in 2008, like Sanders’, turned Obama from being a marginal candidate to a contender. But it was Obama’s overwhelming victory in the South Carolina primary, wresting the Black vote from Clinton, that turned it into a real race, and ultimately helped Obama to win the Presidency.
Most Democrat “super-delegates”, the politicians and party elite who control 15 percent of the nomination vote at the summer’s Democratic Convention, turned to the moderate Obama in 2008. But Clinton today has 90 primary delegates and 453 super-delegate endorsements. Sanders has 65 and 20, and with his attacks on Wall Street has practically no chance of getting any support from the Democratic establishment.
Sanders and Socialism
Even so, Sanders is “radical” only in the context of current US politics and the neoliberal, triangulating Democrat consensus since Bill Clinton. This consensus is the bottom line for the corporate and banking donors and leaders that control the Democratic Party. Unlike European Social Democracy or the British Labour party, the trade unions are only junior partners in the Democrat machine.
Still, Sanders’ policies reflect the immediate and burning needs of US workers: free university education, a $15 per hour minimum wage and universal healthcare, paid for taxing the rich and the speculators. If enacted, they would mean a significant reversal of a decades-long trend of falling living standards
Sanders condemns America’s rampant inequality and goes on to name the enemy, the “billionaire class” that has “rigged the economy”. It is these attacks on US capitalism and its domestic and international sources of profit, each threatening to undermine its legitimacy despite Sanders’ ultimate loyalty to the capitalist system, that have earned him the opposition of the US ruling class.
Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist, but his model is the liberal Democratic Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and (especially) Franklin D. Roosevelt. They were both forced to deliver limited welfare reforms, Roosevelt by the mass unionisation drives and strikes of the 1930s and Johnson by the increasingly militant 1960s civil rights movement. These movements in turn were then blunted and fragmented, as they became incorporated into the Democrat party machine.
But where is Bernie’s movement? Sanders himself has said that the Democratic Party must unite to beat the Republicans in November. But that means four more years of Clinton austerity-lite, or at the outside a Sanders Presidency hemmed in by a hostile Congress, be it Democrat or Republican.
US workers, youth, women and minorities need to break the Democratic deadlock and build a new, working class party, one that can create a real debate about the meaning of “Socialism” in today’s USA and go on to struggle for it. Sanders’ campaign has revealed the potential for such a party to grow in today’s conditions. But it has not yet pointed any way towards the formation of one. That remains the burning task of US socialists