The chance of a radical socialist challenge to the US establishment seemed on the cards, but as Sanders seemed set on winning, the machine came into action..
Sadly it looks as if there will not be a red in the White House. But for a while it was a joy to see the Democrat establishment in the US on the run and the American media in panic mode. Bernie Sanders’ brand of democratic socialism for a while topped the polls and swept the early primary states’ elections.
The Democratic party elite spent six months scrambling around for a candidate to defeat Sanders, and eventually made the decision to unite around Joe Biden. And unite they did.
The speed with which leading Democrats —from nominee dropouts like Pete Buttigieg, Michael Bloomberg and Amy Klobuchar to Southern Congressman like Jim Clyburn— aggressively threw their weight behind the former vice president in the run up to the South Carolina and Super Tuesday primaries illustrates not just the strength of the Democrat machine, but also their fear at a Sanders nomination.
In all likelihood then it will be Biden shaping up to face Trump in November, coronavirus disruption permitting. There are more ways than one as to why this is a disaster.
Biden is the ultra establishment candidate who represents a continuation of the kind of politics that saw Hillary Clinton defeated by Trump in 2016.
He is just as representative of the clique running the Democrats—those who are not just signed up to but are authors of the neoliberal status quo that has generated the gross inequality in American society today. Sections of the Democrats and media see this as a good thing, as a sign he can unite all sides of the party.
But beating Trump in November doesn’t depend on winning the support of the Democrat machine, as Clinton was shocked to learn four years ago. The road to victory lies in winning over voters who transferred from Obama to Trump or simply stayed at home and didn’t want to vote for Clinton.
This requires a bold, radical vision and insurgent campaign. Biden’s uninspiring assertions that a Green New Deal is “impossible”, that Medicare for All is a pipe dream and that he stand for “results not revolution” is unlikely to do this and could open the door to four more years of Trump.
And if Biden does win the presidency his record is one which points to government that will side with the elite against working class Americans.
Whether it is his role as an architect of the 1994 crime bill that led to mass incarceration or his aggressive support for the Iraq War and Patriot Act, Biden has consistently supported the interests of big business and corporate America above those of most people.
Therefore perhaps the biggest question is what happens to the support for a different kind of politics that Sanders helped generate. This has pointed to a deep thirst for real change in America. Let’s remember that Medicare for All, a radical Green New Deal and abolishing college tuition fees were considered fringe ideas only four years ago when Sanders ran for the nomination against Clinton.
The 78 year old senator from Vermont has helped popularise such ideas, especially among young people, and in the process has contributed to a shattering of the narrow consensus that has existed at the top of US politics.
This is in part reflected by the popularity of left politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar.
And on the ground we’ve seen a resurgence of socialist ideas and organisation, partly inspired by Sanders’ embracing the title of democratic socialism. To give one example, polls reported a majority of those voting in the Texan Democrat primary had a favourable view of socialism over capitalism. This is reflected in similar polls over recent years, especially among younger people.
Alongside this the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has seen a rising membership. Much of its recent activity has been focused on getting the vote out for Sanders. But it’s also true that many of its chapters are engaged with local strikes as well as anti-racist and climate movements.
So we have a radicalising left alongside a small but significant level of struggle. Where does this go now Sanders will not be the candidate?
Despite being an independent senator who caucused with the Democrats for much of his career, Sanders has always made it clear that he will get behind the eventual nominee even if it means falling loyally behind the Democrat establishment. He did this with Clinton in 2016 and will do so again with Biden now.
President Biden is not the answer for the millions inspired by Sanders’ call for radical change and socialist ideas. Any hope of dragging his presidential campaign to the left should be proven futile not just by Biden’s record and politics but also by the harsh reality that, judging by the current delegate allocations, he is on course to win a decisive victory at the convention and doesn’t need to tack left to win over Sanders supporters.
Time and time again the Democrats have acted as a shock absorber to movements demanding radical change from below. In the 1960s the mass movements for civil rights, women’s rights and gay liberation were corralled behind the presidential campaigns that were attempting to transform the Democrats.
Similarly in the 1980s the hopes pinned on Jesse Jackson’s campaigns ended with backing more right wing candidates in the pressure to stop a Republican win in the White House.
The point here is not to give a history lesson. But the developments on the ground in the last few years – the highest number of strikes since 1986, the rise of socialist ideas and the growth of socialist organisations – represent the most significant shift on the US left in decades.
There exists a real potential to build on these and go beyond the well trodden path of being sucked into the Democrat electoral cycle. But it means prioritising them above electoral prospects.
Interestingly the DSA has a “one foot in, one foot out” approach to the Democrats. In practice this often means running left wing candidates within the party, and has led to a big operation to get the vote out for Sanders in the primaries.
But historically sections of the DSA have always seen the organisation as a step towards building a party to the left of the Democrats. The recent convention voted not to endorse other candidates if Sanders didn’t win the nomination.
In his recent book The Socialist Manifesto Bhaskar Sunkara, founder of Jacobin magazine, has put forward that what is needed in the states is a social democrat party along the lines of the Labour Party here.
The current juncture represents an opportunity to decisively break from the Democrats, a question which has dogged the American left for decades. The calls for a Labour Party are welcome, but we should heed warnings from the Jeremy Corbyn experience here in Britain.
Having a left wing leader of a party with social democrat roots is no guarantee of electoral success and the prospect of Keir Starmer as the future leader shows such gains can be quickly reversed after electoral defeat. The absence of struggle in British society is central to this.
The project then of building a radical left in the US is a crucial one. The last four years have been led to big possibilities to do this. The November election will involve huge pressure on all those who want to see the end of the most racist, bigoted President in modern times to get behind Biden.
The question is whether the developing socialist movement in America can stand its ground against such pressure and point the way to a new opening and a break from the two part system of pro-capitalist parties.
The emerging social movements and small uptick in strike figures may not be have been enough to create a sense of struggle in the States significant enough to propel Sanders to the presidency. But they are the roots which open the important possibility of new socialist organisation. The potential is there.