The real Iowa coup
Thanks to Sanders, a space is opening up for the ideas of Marxism, argues Tom Munday
Hillary Clinton 49.9%; Bernie Sanders 49.6%. At the close of play, voting in the Democratic Iowa caucus pretty much stands as close to a tie as it realistically could do. In fact, so tight was this race that even with 99.4% of precincts declaring their results at the scheduled time, the remaining 0.6% window still presented enough wiggle room that Sanders could have squeaked ahead in the dying seconds of the race. That is, so long as he did not lose too many coin flips - the pleasingly situationist method currently being employed to decide dead heats in the individual precincts.1 In fact, the question of whether the outcome should have been contested will likely shade future proceedings, not least because the usual anomalous irregularities here - including those stemming from a rather fishy understaffing of impartial arbiters in 90 democratic precincts - could potentially have become pivotal to the final result.2 Martin O’Malley, the lacklustre, shirt-sleeve-rolling thumb-pointer in third place, finished with a truly paltry 0.6% - an embarrassment even by his standards. He has now, unsurprisingly, dropped out of the race.
In spite of the vote technically falling in Clinton’s favour, it would take a deeply dishonest pundit (although there are plenty of those about), to call this result anything other than a fair draw. Many on both sides of the divide will have the gut-urge to call it in their own favour, and both have good reason to. A strange conclusion perhaps, if you come to the numbers cold: Clinton’s win of 0.4% is still a win, after all.
That said, the fact that Sanders - one of the oldest, but also the most leftwing individual currently sitting in the US senate - managed to obliterate Clinton’s 61% lead from a year ago goes some way to contextualise that result.3 In ordinary times the young(ish) and proven former governor, O’Malley, might have expected to crush the septuagenarian without so much as blinking; that instead he barely registered speaks volumes about the transformation occurring in American politics.
The Clinton camp will have wanted this win to be decisive. Whilst that dream went out of the window the minute polls started, indicating Sanders was 2%-3% behind (well within the margin of error), the current result likely offers the slim respite of being the ‘best worst result’: ie, whilst it categorically failed to shrug off an unelectable socialist, the Clinton team did at least demonstrate its appetite for a fight.
That will be a disappointment, particularly for those rather naive sections of the left who imagined a full-on goliath toppling, but also for those of us who had hoped for a result that might significantly weaken the Clinton media stranglehold. A few points more - 1%-2% say - would have significantly raised Sanders’ profile (his unsubtle snubbing by mainstream media being a definite Achilles heel) and made for the kind of upset that would have been impossible to keep out of the headlines. That may still come in New Hampshire, where Sanders enjoys a healthy 18-point lead, but victory there, next to his home state of Vermont, hardly gives him the kind of ‘stop the presses’ clout that an Iowa triumph would.4 Instead, and frustratingly, ‘Clinton victory’ is the key phrase that hogs the morning’s headlines, right next to the ‘Cruz beats Trump’ shocker that is really nothing of the sort (given that Ted Cruz led the Republican headline-grabber, Donald Trump, by four points in early January and dropped behind only a fortnight ago).5
In any case, nothing that was said by the more balanced commentators in the Sanders camp has fundamentally changed. The long-term narrative, against all odds, has still been one of their man’s ascendancy, and a slow erosion of Clinton support, even if it is not as dramatic as we may like. There is also no need to claim that Sanders will win the contest overall to argue that he has quite clearly had a dramatic impact on its character - that much is already self-evident.
On multiple crucial issues the Clinton campaign has swung against its natural statist instincts. If nothing else, that will be Sanders’ legacy - and it is indisputably a worthwhile one. For one, Clinton now opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership (the TPP, sister-treaty to our own TTIP) - a trade deal which threatens American jobs (particularly hers as would-be president). On paper the TPP is a bread-and-butter ‘third way’ treaty - which opens up markets to further liberalisation and shores up the US bourgeoisie’s global privileges (stringently enforcing their intellectual property rights, elevating corporations to a level of sovereignty on a par with states - the usual). In other words, a thrilling sequel to president Clinton’s North American Free Trade Agreement - and one that senator Clinton advocated numeroustimes.6 Sanders can at least take some credit for similar miraculous changes of heart.
Those comrades who had previously panicked at the thought that we might sully our movement by cheering on a Democrat were always missing the point (and I would not say we were cheering so much as making a gesture in favour of what follows from mass support for Sanders). The fact that the Vermont senator is now the only Democratic challenger to Clinton left standing and that he claims to be a “socialist” has an enormous significance, otherwise lost on these comrades. Sanders, whether he wins or loses, is just a small chapter of a much longer narrative: that of the long overdue rehabilitation of basic leftwing thought in mainstream American politics.
It was and remains correct to give critical support to Jeremy Corbyn, knowing full well that he is a left reformist, for we appreciate that he creates a space for our arguments to be heard. This is likewise true of Sanders, a man who has forced some elementary collectivist ideas - eg, universal education and healthcare - back into the public forum, and has to some extent obliged his rivals to follow him into such uncharted territory. The real coup in Iowa - that a self-avowed “socialist” could jostle with a former first lady and snatch close to 50% of the vote - demonstrates that a Corbyn-type space for revolutionary arguments has to some extent been opened up for those who dare to occupy it.