Self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders has gathered unprecedented support in the US presidential primaries. Lewis Nielsen looks at how significant a shift Sanders' success represents.
Is Bernie Sanders the American Jeremy Corbyn? Both are grey haired political veterans, until recently unheard of outside the left circles of their respective parties, who have taken mainstream politics by storm with their election campaigns.
Most importantly Sanders, like Corbyn, represents a rejection of the neoliberal consensus.
Until Sanders’ bid, the US election was set to be one of the most uninspiring in recent history. While the Republicans battle it out to choose the most offensive, right wing candidate, it looked as if Hillary Clinton had the Democratic nomination sewn up. However, her lead in some polls has fallen from 56 percentage points in June to 20 in early October.
Sanders’ surprise popularity suggests that the political disillusionment and anger at the impacts of the financial crisis — expressed in Europe in the success of Corbyn, Syriza and Podemos — has now manifested itself in America.
Sanders describes himself as a “democratic socialist” who wants to redistribute the wealth away from Wall Street. In early August 27,500 people came to one of his election rallies in Los Angeles — more than five times any crowd Clinton has attracted.
The first televised debate between Democratic hopefuls in early October was a good indicator of how his campaign has shifted the political conversion leftwards.
When asked what the greatest threat to US national security was, Sanders answered climate change. In response to Sanders, Clinton was pressured into saying that she wants to “save capitalism from itself”.
Sanders has been a welcome antidote to a nasty Republican primary campaign that had threatened to dominate the presidential election. Current Republican frontrunner, billionaire businessman Donald Trump, has descended to such depths of disgusting sexism and racism along with his brand of right wing conservatism that he makes Jeb Bush look like a left winger.
The key themes of Sanders’ campaign correspond to a modest leftward shift among ordinary Americans, who after eight years of failed promises from Obama, have not given up on fighting for change.
Only if we understand the support for Sanders as a reflection of this can we grasp the uneven picture of US politics.
A major factor in Sanders’ support is his focus on inequality. In a clear reference to the Occupy movement, he has promised to redistribute wealth away from the 1% in Wall Street.
He regularly attacks the failures of a system that has allowed big corporations to make huge profits while leaving his “declining middle class” struggling to pay for healthcare, college fees and so on.
This has resonated with the millions of ordinary Americans who felt left behind by the boom years, and are now being made to pay for the crisis.
According to the Washington Times 50 million Americans now live below the poverty line, 13 million more than when Obama came to office.
The groundswell of support for Sanders is also a reflection of other social movments, such as the Chicago teachers’ strike, the growing fast food rights movement and the Black Lives Matter campaign against police violence.
During the Democratic nominee debate there was a marked acknowledgement of the racism within the criminal justice system, and all candidates voiced progressive positions on race.
This was, of course, a result of the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement — and mainly the recent uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore — which Sanders has reflected.
While celebrating the fact that the senator from Vermont has pulled the mainstream political conversations leftwards, it is crucial we see this in the context of the grassroots movements of ordinary Americans playing the greater role.
Some on the US left have their criticisms of Sanders, and rightly so. Shockingly, he has consistently supported Israel against Palestine, even after the massacres last summer.
He is also no opponent of US imperialism — although he voted against the invasion of Iraq, he supported the Authorisation for Military Force resolution in Afghanistan, and repeatedly voted in favour of funding resolutions for both US occupations.
Furthermore, many on the US left have refused to get behind Sanders for the simple reason that he is running as a Democrat. Technically, he is an independent senator who caucuses with Democrats.
We must question how constructive, in the long term, his campaign is for the left if he is pulling vast numbers of new people and ex-Democrats back into the Democratic machine, instead of trying to break the two-party oligarchy in US politics.
In the same way revolutionaries in Britain have argued with the Labour left for years, the debate about creating a new political party to the left of the mainstream is an important one we should not shy away from.
However, Sanders has opened up a space in American political debate which socialists can capitalise on.
While acknowledging the shortcomings of Sanders, the desire of ordinary Americans to find an expression for their rejection of austerity, racism and inequality is something we can take heart from.