US: an opening for left ideas this time

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Warren_Medicare_for_All_(36492682584)-Flickr-32619231@N02.jpg

Elizabeth Warren. Pic: Flickr/32619231@N02

Can there be a red in the White House? Although it’s very early days — primary season hasn’t even kicked off — the prospect doesn’t seem so ridiculous now Bernie Sanders has confirmed he will again run for president.

Over a million people had signed up to volunteer with his campaign within the first six days of his announcement.

First things first: could he win the Democratic nomination? The most important aspect of the Sanders campaign in 2016 was that it tapped into a deep bitterness in working class America at the status quo of poverty and inequality.

His railing against the Wall Street elite and support for policies including Medicare, a Green New Deal and tuition-free education showed left wing ideas could tap into this anger. And it provided a welcome challenge to the neoliberal centrist politics of Hillary Clinton.

None of the other current Democrat hopefuls could do anything remotely similar this time around.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, considered to be closest to Sanders politically, was a Republican up until 1995, and her left credentials seem to consist of a very limited pledge to provide the most basic of economic regulation.

The Democrat establishment has no obvious candidate who could tap into the political polarisation and command the popularity that Sanders does. In the first 24 hours of announcing his intention to run, Sanders raised more than $4 million in donations averaging $25 per individual.

This dwarfs the equivalent figures raised by establishment candidates such as Kamala Harris, despite their backing by corporate figures.

Last time around Sanders was unable to beat Clinton to the nomination, with some blaming the dirty tricks of the those at the top of the Democrats, and others saying America would never vote for a self-described democratic socialist. So what is different this time?

The Sanders campaign in 2016 helped break the taboo in US politics about talking about class issues.

For decades, politicians from both parties have gone along with cutting taxes for the rich, privatising services, cutting state funding and deregulating the economy.

Sanders has amplified the anger from ordinary Americans who have been left behind by this, and has proved popular in doing so.

Some polls now put him as the most popular politician in the US, a long way from the unknown senator from Vermont he was in 2016.

While this will come with its own pressures to accommodate and compromise, it has cracked open the narrow binary that has dominated US politics for decades. Almost all the Democrat candidates now at least give lip service to universal childcare and a Green New Deal, something unheard of a few years ago.

The midterms saw limited gains for the Democrats but included the election of left figures such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib to Congress, both of whom are members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

And it is here where the most exciting developments are taking place. The DSA has existed since 1982 and for most of that time has been limited to small circles of a few thousand members.

Indeed, at the time of the June 2016 Democratic convention which selected Clinton, its membership stood at 6,500. In the three years since, it has risen to over 55,000, a staggering development.

Driven by a combination of disgust at Donald Trump and an interest in socialist ideas that the Sanders campaign played a role in popularising, the biggest number of Americans in decades are now being drawn towards socialist politics and organisation.

The median age of the DSA is 33, pointing to a big pull among younger people. At the same time, we have seen serious movements erupt around teacher strikes involving thousands, the fight for $15 an hour and against racism and the far right.

As an article in the radical Jacobin magazine recently put it, this has helped lay the ground for a serious “left to the left of liberalism” for the first time in years. The crucial question is where this movement goes.

The support for Sanders is inspiring and a welcome development, but it requires a strategy that goes beyond marrying this new left with Democrat liberalism in the hope it can take the centre ground. That means building the strikes and struggles of working class America, whatever happens in the primaries.