US primaries heat up on left and right

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(411)

Can a democratic socialist turn the White House red? Will the Republicans really go for a multi-billionaire who describes Mexicans as “rapists”? The US presidential primaries have thrown up a variety of surprising questions that say a lot about the state of both the left and right in the US.

A year ago many political pundits were predicting a presidential election fought between Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton — a continuation of a battle between two of the US ruling class’s most powerful families. Bush, who, like Clinton, once had the lion’s share of his party’s leadership behind him, has finally put everyone out of their misery by calling an end to his insipid campaign, thus closing the door on a political dynasty that deserves a painful death.

What’s left of the Republican field is now playing catch up with Donald Trump, who may well have the momentum to become the GOP candidate in the presidential election in November.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders, the socialist senator from Vermont, has shaken up US politics in a way that draws comparisons with Jeremy Corbyn’s election here. 25 percentage points behind Clinton in national polls in September, Sanders has now closed the gap to 3 or 4 points, with Fox News releasing a poll in mid-February that had him ahead for the first time.

Socialist Review went to press just before Super Tuesday, when 12 states hold their primaries. However, if the first three primaries — Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada — are anything to go by, it will be panic time for the Clinton camp. Sanders is winning over voters that were supposed to be in the bag for Clinton. In Nevada, where Hillary had a 35 point lead in December, Sanders lost by 5 points but secured a majority of the Latino vote. In New Hampshire, Sanders took 80 percent of votes of the under-30s, while the only constituencies that Clinton won were over-65s and those earning more than $100,000 a year.

The Sanders generation — and they are mostly young — is proving to be relatively untroubled by the right wing scare stories that label him “socialist” as an insult. Many of the under-30s who so heavily support him were born after the Berlin Wall came down, and are not scarred by the impacts of McCarthyism and the Cold War. They are attracted to Sanders’ calls for a confrontation with the corporate elite; a lifting of student debt and lowering of tuition fees; a transition to renewable energy to deal with climate change.

His appeal is building on the ground laid by Occupy, the Black Lives Matter movement, the campaign for a $15 an hour living wage and more militant action by groups of workers such as the Chicago teachers. His success reflects a rejection by working class Americans of a Democrat elite unwilling to address the issues of poverty, police racism and inequality.

The Clinton camp have recognised this, hence their ever more desperate attempts to paint Sanders as the bad guy. The bizarre interventions of Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright, alluding to a faux-feminist argument to trash Sanders, underlined this. Albright’s attempt to blackmail women voters along superficial feminist lines — when she claimed, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women” — could have been taken as genuine if it didn’t come from the same former secretary of state who declared that the death of 500,000 Iraqi girls and boys due to US sanctions in the 1990s was a “price worth paying”.

Nevada gave a glimpse of the clout of the Democratic machine that Sanders and his campaign are up against, with the unions and casino bosses doing their utmost to push for a high turnout for Hillary. We should expect to see more red-baiting and desperate attacks from the political establishment as their panic grows. Yet the campaign has so far shattered the American political consensus by relating to a deep anger evident in the working poor and ethnic communities.

Whatever the result on Super Tuesday and in the following primaries, the movement behind Sanders has provided a spark for left wing politics in the US. Millions of Americans who have been attracted to his ideas have helped contribute to the fracturing of the mainstream political establishment.

But key questions remain. Will Sanders challenge a party machine that is so clearly backing Clinton? If Sanders falls into line behind a victorious Clinton, what will be the response of the vast numbers of people who have begun to question mainstream politics and the system behind it? His campaign continues to throw up more questions than answers for the working class left behind in America.