Meeting and greeting

Democrats divided

There should be no support for Bernie Sanders, argues Jim Creegan

Five contenders appeared onstage in Las Vegas on October 13 for the first of six scheduled Democratic presidential candidates’ debates. The eyes of the 15-million television audience, however, were fixed on only two - Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

The other three candidates - Martin O’Malley, former governor of Maryland; Jim Webb former senator from Virginia; and Lincoln Chafee, former governor of Rhode Island (the last two have since quit the race) - could probably not even be identified by most rank-and-file Democrats. And before the campaign season got underway, the same could be said of the senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, widely dismissed as a fringe candidate. Yet, with his impassioned denunciations of growing income inequality and the capture of government by a handful of billionaires, Sanders had until recently been outpolling Hillary Clinton in the two key early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

In addition, the former secretary of state, who had been dubbed the ‘inevitable’ nominee by much of the media, is dogged by an ongoing FBI investigation into her alleged inclusion of classified documents in her personal emails during her tenure as president Barack Obama’s foreign-policy chief - a violation of ‘national security’ laws. She is also the subject of a continuing Republican-engineered Congressional probe over the killing of the US ambassador to Libya during a 2012 attack by Islamic militants on the American embassy in Benghazi.

The media commentariat were near unanimous in their praise for Clinton’s agility in the debate, concluding that she had come out on top and succeeded in re-establishing her position as the party’s frontrunner. Subsequent polls of Democratic voters seem to confirm their verdict. Clinton’s resulting bounce in popularity no doubt weighed heavily in the decision of vice-president Joe Biden not to enter the race as a back-up candidate of the party establishment, should Clinton’s difficulties have deepened. Clinton also stood up well under an eight-hour grilling before the Benghazi committee of the House of Representatives, which one prominent Republican admitted had been created by the ‘Grand Old Party’ majority for the purpose of discrediting her.

Yet Sanders too turned in a solid performance in the debate. While losing some ground to Clinton in New Hampshire and Iowa, he has by no means been eliminated as a major factor in the contest. Even if his chances of becoming the Democratic standard-bearer in 2016 remain close to zero, Sanders’ presence has gone a long way toward shaping the politics of the campaign.

For example, a subject came up during the debate that has almost never been broached in recent presidential politics: the worthiness of American-style capitalism. Queried by the moderator about his self-characterisation as a socialist, Sanders invoked the strong welfare-state policies of Denmark as an alternative to this country’s capitalisme sauvage. While Clinton then leapt to the defence of the free-enterprise spirit that created the American middle class, even she hastened to add that one purpose of government was “to save capitalism from itself”. Meanwhile, Martin O’Malley has billed himself as a slightly less ‘extreme’ version of his Vermont rival.

Sanders has also forced Clinton to talk a little more out of the left side of her mouth. Over the summer, she unveiled an economic plan that emphasised reducing inequality; a higher minimum wage, employee profit-sharing, paid family leave for childbirth, pre-kindergarten for all children, student debt relief and tougher regulations on big banks are among her proposals. These are in the same vein as measures advocated by Sanders - only more ‘moderate’ by several degrees. She also seeks to burnish her ‘progressive’ credentials by emphasising what she claims is her strong record on women’s rights. She even tried to out-left Sanders in the debate, criticising his less than wholehearted support of gun control legislation - a highly charged issue in the wake of several recent mass shootings. (Sanders represents a rural state, in which restrictions on firearms are unpopular.)


Yet Clinton’s attempts to rebrand herself as a ‘progressive’ are belied by her past. Citizens of what Gore Vidal christened the ‘United States of Amnesia’ may indeed have forgotten Hillary’s stint in the Rose Law Firm, which represents some of the leading corporations in Arkansas, when her husband was governor of that state during the 1980s; or that, representing utility companies on that firm’s behalf, she argued in court against a bill intended to reduce the rates they charged customers on the grounds that such legislation represented a ‘public taking’: ie, infringement of the company’s property rights by the government. Her winning arguments in that case became a template for future corporate attempts to resist government price controls.

The public may also forget that Clinton sat, during the same period, on the board of directors of the Arkansas-based Wal-Mart corporation, the country’s largest employer, infamous for its fanatical resistance to trade unionisation, or that she went out of her way to cultivate Rupert Murdoch during her two terms as senator from New York.

But liberally inclined voters will have a slightly harder time forgetting Hillary’s role during the eight years (1993-2001) in which her husband occupied the White House. She hardly functioned at that time as a dutiful presidential wife, but rather as a central player on Bill’s political team, and cannot avoid responsibility for its actions, much as she may now try to wax feminist by asserting her right to be judged independently of Bill. Then, the Clintons presided over the birth of the Democratic Leadership Council, a grouping within the party formed for the purpose of moving it to the right by getting it to adopt positions less friendly to unions and minorities and more accommodating to big business. The DLC was the pioneer of the ‘third way’ politics, from which Tony Blair later took inspiration.

Nor can she wipe out the memory of the concrete actions of the Clinton administration in furtherance of this rightward course: abolition of welfare payments for poor mothers with children; stiffer prison sentences for a whole range of offences; and the expanded use of the death penalty. On the economic front, the Clinton administration abrogated the depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, which restricted speculative a activity on the part of commercial banks, and pulled out all stops to push through Congress the North American Free Trade Act, facilitating the offshoring of jobs and the ruin of much of Latin American agriculture amid a flood of cheap American imports - a pact that led to increased production of cocaine and rising rates of immigration to the US.

The Clintons left the country a far more rightwing place than the one that existed when Bill came into office. The fact that the couple now enjoy a combined net worth of over $100 million, or that Hillary can now command a speaker’s fee $275,000 per appearance, are surely not unrelated to services performed on behalf of the ruling class. The Clintons’ use of politics for relentless social climbing is not a fact that even the famously forgetful American electorate can easily ignore. It was perhaps with her newly unveiled populist pose in mind that the first word respondents thought of at the mention of her name in a recent free-association poll was ‘liar’.

Even harder to square with any ‘progressive’ image is Hillary’s militarism in foreign policy. She now says her vote as a senator for the 2002 Iraq war powers resolution was a “mistake”, based upon the “faulty” (read: fabricated) information about Saddam Hussein’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’ that had been supplied by Bush (to which Bernie Sanders retorts that the same information did not prevent him from voting against the war). But in the Senate she not only went along with Bush, but loudly trumpeted his WMD accusations. As Obama’s secretary of state, Clinton fully supported the sending of more troops to Afghanistan, as well as the intervention in Libya, and enthusiastically backed the 2014 Israeli massacre in the Gaza Strip. She was said to be even more hawkish on these issues than the Bush-appointed secretary of defence, Robert Gates.

Even in the present campaign, Clinton is posturing to Obama’s right on foreign policy. She says she would ‘do more’ about Russian ‘aggression’ in Ukraine, and would have armed US-friendly Syrian rebels earlier than the president. Clinton supports the Iranian nuclear deal, but says that, as president, she would do everything in her power to repair the American relationship with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, implicitly blaming Obama for the tensions that appeared in the US-Israel alliance as a result of negotiations with the Islamic Republic. She misses no opportunity to proclaim her support for Israel, and to promise that she would arm its military machine with the last word in weapons technology.

Hillary now says she has come to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, universally assailed by unions and the Democratic Party left. Yet, as secretary of state, she was a champion of Obama’s ‘pivot towards Asia’ (read: anti-China policies), even travelling to far-eastern countries to promote the trade deal. This is only the latest example of an opportunism so transparent over the years that growing numbers of voters now see Clinton for what she is: a worshipper of wealth and imperial power, who stands for next to nothing in principle, and is willing to change positions more often than hairdos to achieve her long-cherished life ambition of succeeding her husband to the presidency.

But she will probably get the nomination anyway, due to her gigantic war chest and wide-ranging political connections, and voters will probably choose her in the general election in preference to whichever reactionary zealot the Republicans choose to put up. Hillary Clinton has been quite successful in subsisting on the outer margins of lesser evilism.

Bernie’s challenge

Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, is a politician of a different kind. Ever since he first held political office as mayor of Burlington, Vermont’s largest city, in the early 80s, Sanders has pursued a coherent leftish agenda.

He absorbed from an early age the left-to-liberal values of the Brooklyn Jewish community in which he was born 73 years ago. The distinct inflections of that neighbourhood are still strong in his speech, despite decades in Vermont, where he resettled in the 70s as part of a migration of alienated east-coast urban youth in search of rustic tranquillity. Sanders emphasises that he never was a hippie himself. But, although he may never have belonged to a commune or tended an organic garden, it was among counter-cultural refugees that Sanders first built his political base, gradually expanding it to include the poorer farmers who mainly comprise the older, non-granola and green tea population of the state.

In his pre-Vermont days, Sanders was a member of the youth group of the Socialist Party, and a participant in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements of the 60s. Before he entered electoral politics in his adopted state, he wrote for one of its ‘alternative’ newspapers, and went around to schools peddling a crude documentary he had put together on the life of the man he claims as his hero - Eugene Debs, the pioneer of American socialism. As mayor of Burlington, Sanders invited Noam Chomsky to speak at a municipal gathering, introducing him to the audience with effusive praise. He travelled to Nicaragua as a guest of the Sandinistas at the height of the Reagan-backed contra war in 1985, and made Burlington the sister city of the Nicaraguan town of Puerto Cabezas in solidarity.

As he climbed the political ladder to the House of Representatives in 1991, and then to the Senate in 2007, Sanders always stood for election as an independent, never, until now, as a Democrat, and continues to call himself a socialist. Unlike Hillary Clinton, whose campaign is awash in super-political action committee dollars (half of which, in total donations to both parties, comes, according to the New York Times,from 158 billionaire families), Sanders has no PAC or super-PAC at his disposal. His campaign is sustained by small individual donations averaging $44. Astonishingly, he has been able to raise as much thus far as has Hillary, with all her gilded friends.

The Sanders campaign sounds a single passionate note: opposition to growing inequality in the United States and the destruction of democracy at the hands of a multi-billioned minority. Sanders, who has been flogging this theme throughout his political career, has deteriorating economic conditions and the Occupy movement of 2011 largely to thank for its unexpected current resonance. To packed meeting halls throughout the country, the Vermont senator is calling for a “political revolution” that will require “millions of people in the streets”.

Concretely, he proposes public works to alleviate unemployment, stronger protection for unions, a big rise in the federal minimum wage (now at a pathetic $7.25 per hour), lower university tuitions and universal medical care. He aims to pay for these programmes by cracking down on corporate tax dodging and raising the tax rate to 90% from the current 39.6% on all income above $413,000 a year - a restoration of post-World War II upper-bracket levels. He advocates breaking up banks that are “too big to fail”. In today’s political climate, these measures sound radical indeed.

Sanders scrutinised

All but the most naive know that Sanders stands no real chance of actually winning the Democratic nomination. He would face the opposition of a formidable party machine, which would be abetted by the major media, and whose financial resources would ultimately dwarf his, despite early fundraising success. Moreover, Sanders’ base consists mainly of students and white liberals, similar to those who form his Vermont constituency. Even if he could win the February Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, in which such voters are strong, he would still have to face ‘super Tuesday’ in the following month.

These primaries include several populous southern states, in which big chunks of Democratic voters are black. The Sanders campaign was slow to emphasise the issues of police brutality and mass incarceration that are now riling black communities across the country. In response to pressure from the Black Lives Matter movement, which disrupted several of his early rallies, Sanders has taken a strong stand against police brutality. But this may be too little, too late for most black voters, many of whom have never heard of Sanders, and who are said to favour Clinton.

Neither does Sanders enjoy strong union support. Several of the bigger AFL-CIO national unions have already plumped for Clinton, and more will no doubt follow, given the bureaucracy’s slavish loyalty to the Democratic establishment. Only one national union - the largest health worker association in the country - has endorsed Sanders, in addition to a few New Hampshire local branches of other unions.

Yet, despite the inevitability of its defeat, many lefts and socialists have been swept up in the enthusiasm of the Sanders campaign. They argue that, even if he cannot succeed, Sanders has injected issues of class into the electoral arena in a way not seen in recent times, and pushed the entire debate to the left. They add that his retention of the label ‘socialist’ helps to rehabilitate the term in popular discourse, and tend to view his entering the primaries as a Democrat as a shrewd tactical move, which gives him a platform he would not have had as an independent.

Socialist Alternative, the US affiliate of the Committee for a Workers’ International, is glowing in its coverage of the Sanders campaign, and Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, the country’s only elected socialist official, has appeared on the platform at a Sanders rally. They take as good coin his claim to be a socialist, urging only that he break from the Democrats and run independently. They also express the hope that the momentum Sanders has generated can be harnessed to build an independent left party in the future.

There can be no doubt that the Sanders campaign reflects a growing anger over stagnant wages, soaring profits and a ruling class political monopoly more blatant than at any time since the Gilded Age at the end of the 19th century. So does the growing interest in socialism registered in opinion samplings. It reflects these things, however, on the pond surface of bourgeois politics. What the new-born Sandernistas forget is that the historic function of the Democratic Party has been to exploit real discontents - ultimately only to divert them into support for a capitalist-vetted ‘lesser evil’ contender. And Bernie Sanders has pledged his support in advance to whomever wins the Democratic nomination. Thus, despite his best intentions, he serves as the illusory left face of a party thoroughly committed to profits and empire.

Bernie Sanders is no Jeremy Corbyn. Reformist though he be, Corbyn has made clear his opposition to militarism and Britain’s role as the American empire’s junior partner. Sanders, on the other hand, has throughout his Congressional career caucused with the Democrats, voted with them 98% of the time and remained on the inner margins of the permissible. Among Congressional Democrats, populist rhetoric and criticism of foreign policy mistakes is one thing, but principled opposition to militarism and US foreign intervention are sure to land one on the outside in short order. And, while Sanders has certainly never been one of the most enthusiastic war hawks in Congress, he has consistently voted for military appropriations and supported military projects in his home state.

He did, it is true, vote against the Iraq war, but supported the bombing of Yugoslavia under Clinton, the invasion of Afghanistan under Bush, and the use of drone strikes, saying only that they should be more “selective”. Neither is Sanders one of the most ardent Zionists in Congress. He did not vote for a resolution in support of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. But, when pushed, his pronouncements are hardly distinguishable from the standard US government line: support of a two-state solution, and, while deploring Israeli ‘excesses’, supporting the right of the Zionist state to ‘defend itself’ from terrorist attacks and rockets launched from Gaza.

Sanders is more of a maverick when it comes to home policy, but can buckle when the pressure is on, as he did in 1994, when he voted for Bill Clinton’s Omnibus Crime Bill, which inaugurated the era of mass incarceration. One has the impression that the Vermont senator’s accommodations to imperialism and ‘law and order’ are made more out of opportunism than deep conviction. But is not the desire to be re-elected at any cost one reason why even the rare bourgeois politician who is uninterested in lining his pockets nevertheless plays by the rules of the game?

Furthermore, while Sanders may denounce the subservience of politicians to big money in general, he conspicuously avoids any exposure of the specific corporate ties of his Congressional colleagues, such as those of his present rival, Hillary Clinton, detailed above. This avoidance derives not from the fact that Sanders, as he would have us believe, is too high-minded to engage in ‘negative campaigning’, but from the fact that politicians like Clinton are the ones with whom he must stay on good terms and do business, when all is said and done. Hopes that he will break with the Democrats any time soon are quixotic at best; the notion that his followers will somehow spontaneously exit the Democratic Party is delusional.

Lastly, it is to Sanders’ credit that he refuses, perhaps as a point of personal honour, to trade in the label of socialist for the far more amorphous American appellation, ‘progressive’, even though he has been continually baited for this choice of political tag. But in an upcoming speech he is now planning for the purpose of explaining what he means by the term, he will no doubt confirm what he has been saying all along: that the “democratic socialism” (read: social democracy) he espouses is defined quite differently than it was by the figure from whom he claims inspiration: namely, Eugene V Debs, who said in a famous 1918 speech from the dock:

I believe, … in common with all socialists, that this nation ought to own and control its own industries. I believe, as all socialists do, that all things that are jointly needed and used ought to be jointly owned - that industry, the basis of our social life, instead of being the private property of a few and operated for their enrichment, ought to be the common property of all, democratically administered in the interest of all (A treasury of the world’s great speeches New York 1965, p723).

The ‘socialism’ of Sanders, on the other hand, means something quite different: the strong welfare state provisions and regulations on private capital he believes to be in force in Scandinavian countries, whose economies are still for the most part privately owned: ie, capitalist. Sanders may indeed be injecting the s-word into American politics, but only by redefining it as a state-regulated capitalism that no self-respecting ‘progressive’ Democrat would have any trouble supporting.

Bernie Sanders is clearly a man of certain egalitarian convictions that set him apart from the run-of-the-mill venal and prevaricating American politician. He is not, like Hillary Clinton, merely mouthing a leftish-sounding line with the intention of abandoning it the minute he is elected to office. But it is she, not he, who will probably be elected, and whom Sanders will ultimately support. Seasoned politicians can use sincere individuals, as well as seductive phrases, for their purposes. Because he is loyal to a party that is basically bought and paid for by the capitalist class, he cannot avoid performing a function similar to a demagogue’s disingenuous left rhetoric: channelling the discontent of rebellious and system-weary voters into support for a presidential candidate who is the blood and bone of the existing order.

Revolutionary socialists can extend critical support to reformist candidates, when their campaigns promise to move the working class further along the road to struggle in their own name. But independence from any major capitalist party must be the minimal criterion for such support. For all his heartfelt talk about social justice, Bernie Sanders fails to meet that criterion.