The Sanders project
Alan Smithee compares the political shift on both sides of the Atlantic
2014 was a rough year for the Democrats. The Republicans were cleaning up in the mid-terms and Obama was sticking with that always successful strategy of trying to keep everyone happy by kowtowing to the right.
Had you suggested back then that a serious contender in the 2015 presidential primaries would have been an east-coast Jewish social democrat, you would have been laughed out of whatever building you happened to be standing in at the time. And yet here we are in 2015 - creeping towards the centenary of the Russian Revolution, with a regular contributor to the Morning Star as leader of the opposition here in Britain - looking at just that prospect. Bernie Sanders, the crotchety-uncle senator from Vermont, is currently jostling for first place in the Democratic primaries with Hillary Clinton (surely a shoo-in?). Sanders, for clarification, sits in the Senate as an independent, not a Democrat, and remains resolutely outside the party establishment in spite of his willingness to run under its banner.
Nevertheless, polls currently have him neck and neck with Clinton in the all-important Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, even leading her in the run-up to the first debate: 43% to 33% in Iowa, 52% to 30% in New Hampshire.1 True, Hillary’s wall-to-wall support in the bourgeois media has eaten into that lead and drawn them level, but the magnitude of the Sanders surge should be enough to make even the most jaded cynic sit up and take notice.
The key to his success is doubtlessly that, crazy radical that he is, Sanders talks to issues dear to the hearts of the party rank and file. More than that, his raft of proposed measures will likely come as music to the ears of a worldwide audience despairing at the ever more degraded state of American mainstream politics - a pacesetter of so much, when it comes to the western world. He has been, straight off the bat, opposed to the infamous Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the proposed deal to finally get down to the long overdue business of selling off our own grandmothers.2 If the Sanders challenge does little else, it should at least draw fire towards this wretched Faustian pact.
He was also an opponent of the Iraq war, and vociferously opposed to the Patriot Act. Sanders supports the adoption of single-payer healthcare to mitigate the embarrassing lack of social provision in the world’s leading economy and champions the establishment of tuition-free public universities funded by a Robin Hood tax on stock trades and sales. On the small matter of saving the planet, Sanders stands against the oil cartels - out in the lunatic field in terms of scientific consensus.
Now, in truth, while it is safe to say that the senator stands on the right side of the debate, there is likely little in the above to get the pulses of this paper’s readers racing. Sanders is a fairly tepid reformist ‘socialist’, precisely of the type that might warrant a critical dressing-down under different circumstances. Like our own crotchety-uncle, Jeremy Corbyn, Sanders is swept forward atop a wave of popular discontent, well ahead of any coordinated political response. It seems as though both men embody politics seemingly past their sell-by dates which have just ‘happened’ to come back into vogue.
As with most things, it is a bit more complicated than that, but then, even if we factor in the predictability of a resurgent socialism in an age of austerity and inequality, it remains true that neither man appears to have changed his general political positions since the advent of the cheesecloth shirt.
That said, whilst the Sanders/Corbyn comparison clearly has some merit, it is worth remembering that the political development of the Democratic Party falls quite short of its transatlantic counterpart. In spite of the neoliberal triangulation of the Blair years, Labour remains a party firmly rooted in a distinctly working class tradition. Any aspiring leader of the party must inevitably answer to that tradition, whether they do so with the ease of a former trade union official or the slick, backroom skulduggery of an Oxbridge PPE graduate.
By contrast, the Democrats - who might be described as centre-right on a British political spectrum - have a background in classical bourgeois liberalism. Resultantly, the likelihood of a spontaneous rebellion by the party base remains somewhat mitigated by the lack of even a formal commitment to the working class.
The donor-heavy grubbiness which so mired the recent history of the British labour movement remains de rigueur for Democrats. The Clinton campaign alone is expected to raise some $100 million by the end of the year and an eye-watering $2.5 billion by the close of the nomination cycle.3 Next to that, Sanders has so far only raised a piddly $41.2 million - scarcely enough to buy his way into any of the big-league yacht-owners’ clubs.4
From bald figures alone you could easily be forgiven for assuming that Sanders was simply playing the game and doing an Obama - sloganeering to the TV audience before doing deals with big business backstage. In actual fact he has so far shown a frightening disregard for the generosity of concerned billionaires. By the end of August some 80% of his campaign fund was comprised of ‘small’ donations ($200 or less) averaging out at $31.30 apiece.5 As September closed, Sanders broke records by attracting over a million individual donations, as well as outstripping the month-on-month growth of the Obama income from individual contributions in his 2008 campaign.6 By October the average donation had dropped to $24.86 - with more donors with less per capita cash flooding the Vermont senator’s campaign.7
Moreover, Sanders has responded coolly to the super-PAC (political action committee) behemoths that currently lumber around the American political landscape. While super-PACS - ‘independent’ organisations which exist largely to circumnavigate donation caps placed upon political campaigns through the use of indirect financing - have become a fixture of the scene, Sanders himself has publicly rebutted the advances of the Billionaires for Bernie PAC (yes, really), insisting that he will continue raising cash in old-time small contributions.8 Whether this resistance holds remains to be seen, but what is clear, nonetheless, is that the Sanders campaign has pegged its flag to the mast of the so-called 99%, explicitly defining itself in those terms in a manner that has not been seen over that side of the Atlantic for a very long time indeed.
So, when those numbers are really crunched, the Sanders/Corbyn link-up starts to make a little more sense. While the introduction of ‘One member, one vote’ (Omov) was essentially intended to drag Labour towards the Democrats, in a sense it has simply plotted the point at which both parties could meet in the middle. That trickle of small donations indicates how Sanders has essentially gamed the system by capitalising on a political shift in the grassroots.
In Labour politics, where the donor culture of the Democrats is virtually absent, we see that same phenomenon expressed in the surge in Labour membership. The vulnerability (from the perspective of the establishment) of these atomised electoral systems has always been that, should the control mechanisms fail (the absurd sums needed to run in the US, or the direct candidate vetting by the apparatus in the UK), the system plays into the hands of crowd-pleasers. This, after all, was the official reason the Labour Party adopted Omov - to democratise the party and open it to a mass base.
And democratise it they (inadvertently) have. ‘Corbynmania’, far from being a confection of momentarily insane Daily Telegraph readers, was/is the culmination of years of stifled resentment within Labour. The party establishment fumbled in the hand-over between two systems and accidentally triggered an influx of hope. In the case of Sanders, though there has been no fumbling per se, the ratcheting up of campaign funds, year on year, has almost entirely dispelled illusions that the system is the pinnacle of democracy. In both Republican and Democratic camps, the surprise contenders - Sanders and Donald Trump - have made good on their anti-establishment positioning, and both having funded their campaigns through unusual means (Trump is said to be self-financing9).
On that point, Clinton, though she may be regent-in-waiting, is seen by many to embody the hawkish dark heart of the Democrats. Between Fox-watching Republican rednecks, who think the former first lady is little better than an east-coast Bolshevik, and the Democrats’ black, Latino and labour mass base, for whom she represents the corruption of the Washington elite, Clinton is a widely despised figure. Yes, every major national poll puts her ahead, but, like Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper, it remains hard to see what kind of enthusiasm she can muster. Clinton is pure establishment, at a moment when the establishment is deeply out of favour - the definition of a ‘hold your nose and vote’ candidate.
Both Corbyn and Sanders are presented with, and utilising, a golden moment of democratic sentiment within their respective systems. Even without scoring electoral victories, both have highlighted amongst the electorate something that is significantly to the left of the nominal ‘centre ground’. Their popular mandates are unimaginable by conventional thinking and in the case of the Democratic primary it is already apparent that the debate is now being dragged towards this new, more fertile ground.
In fact, for Sanders the stakes might be even higher than that. Socialism, for anyone not paying attention, does not have a particularly good reputation in the States. Though the land of the free is not without its moments, statistics indicating that only 47% of the American electorate are not instantly spooked by the merest thought of a socialist in the White House will not exactly encourage us red-flag wavers.10
So Sanders more or less necessarily comes from outside the party - a figure of his bent has a snowman’s chance in hell of climbing the political ladder within it. To that end, watch the contorted mess that American liberal pundits find themselves in trying to reconcile their support for the senator (if they do indeed support him - in the mainstream such people are few and far between) with their gut aversion to socialism as that bad thing which Russians do. The Young Turks,the largest online news show in the world, is encouragingly supportive of Sanders; yet even they struggle to battle away farcical accusations that the septuagenarian is planning to liquidate the kulaks come 2016.11 And that is to say nothing of the sizeable lunatic fringe on the American right, who practically wallow in their own ignorance. It took less than 24 hours for Trump to spew forth his patented brand of bile on the subject - Sanders is “a socialist-slash-communist”, he belched, to whoops of approval.12
You might refer to this as the ‘inherent problem of socialism’ in America. Simply put, years of propagandistic priming, coupled with weakness and compromise on the left, have poisoned the idea of even the Sanders version of socialism. By comparison, when discussing Corbyn, the ‘inherent problem of socialism’ figures much, much less in the equation. It is broadly accepted in the UK that socialism is a legitimate political creed. British attack arguments thus follow the line of ‘Socialism may seem appealing, but here is what it is really about’. The American debate, by contrast, has hitherto appeared to orbit around the central conceit of ‘This may seem appealing, but this is socialism’. Socialism in the abstract is in and of itself an illegitimate concept: hence the weird images of Tea Party types carrying Obama placards branded (often in drippy-red blood letters for full effect) with the accusation, ‘Socialist!’, as though this is the necessary counterargument in toto.
In this the success of the Sanders campaign may enjoy some lasting cultural impact, even if it ultimately winds up with little by way of concrete success. It would be a victory, albeit a very small one, to simply put socialism back on the American map; to detoxify the brand, as it were, within the global hegemon. Victories of this type - the expansion of the welfare state, the universalisation of healthcare and higher education - would be potentially far more significant than the outcomes of comparable struggles here.
While we are clear that Sanders’ version of ‘socialism’ is rather different from the genuine article, it is hard, considering the dire state of the American left, to begrudge someone in his position selecting the path of least resistance. This is particularly true, should he be able to rid the term ‘socialism’ of its pariah status. Sanders may even be able to pry open the floodgate, beginning with the necessary crack: just enough to wash away years of propagandistic stupidity and get Americans talking about the common interest of working people, as opposed to that of big business.
Even the right understands the threat now posed - why else the sudden vicious turn against a candidate previously dismissed as a joke? Without winning a single vote, Sanders is already pulling Clinton way out of her comfort zone.
3. www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2015/09/30/hillary-clinton-raised-28-million-in-third-quarter-just-edging-out-bernie-sanders; www.huffingtonpost.com/james-heffernan/why-does-hillary-need-25-_b_7056586.html.