Bernie Sanders: his base is to his left

Primary contradictions

Jim Creegan assesses the battle for the Democratic nomination. The left has a real opportunity.

In the most extraordinary electoral season in living memory, the time-tested, vacuous political formulas that bourgeois politicians have employed to lull and distract the electorate are losing traction.

Shortly after the 2016 election, I predicted in these pages that Donald Trump, for all his flouting of niceties and norms, would be forced by institutional constraints to govern in a more conventional way. I now realise that I vastly overestimated his learning capacity. In the intervening four years, Trump has ruled as the consummate narcissist and borderline gangster he has always been. He has trampled underfoot all notions of policy and statecraft, all sacrosanct codes of conduct, conventions and even laws in dispensing personal favours and pursuing short-term personal gain.

And yet, to the shock of many a formerly complacent worshipper of the status quo, Trump is getting away with it - at least for now. Through the ordeal of investigation and impeachment, he has maintained the steadfast loyalty of party leaders, in and out of Congress. His success is due in turn to the devotion of a majority of those who voted for him last time around. Thus, despite his grotesqueries (or maybe because of them), Trump could be carving out the only viable future for his party in the post-2008 twilight of neoliberalism and its cult of the (capitalist) individual.

The party now faces an unfavourable demographic trendline, combined with a new assertiveness by women. The US is projected to have a non-white majority by mid-century. With little to offer overwhelmingly working class black and Hispanic populations, whose voting members will surely continue to support the Democrats by big margins, and female voters repulsed by Trump’s boasting of sexual assault, the Republicans have almost no prospect of enlarging their electoral base. They therefore have little choice but to follow the president in attempting to weld together a solid voting bloc of all those who wish to keep the US a white man’s country. This racist-chauvinist bloc can only continue to win elections by restricting the franchise as much as possible to exclude the young and voters of colour - an effort that has been underway for years. The party can also hope to sell this strategy to the ruling class with the methods they have always employed, and that Trump has taken to new depths: massive tax breaks for corporations and the rich, accompanied by ever-bolder attacks on the federal regime of environmental and business regulation.

The Democrats have responded in two ways. The elected officials and party apparatus are appealing to the laws and political/diplomatic norms that Trump is savaging, and advocate a return to normality. Sanders and his supporters, on the other hand, appear to have latched on to a reality that Trump has grasped: that normality does not command the approbation it once did, and that politics are becoming increasingly polarised. They have put forward slogans and proposals aimed to excite the enthusiasm of growing constituencies, who find themselves on the wrong side of the status quo - some of whom voted for Trump in 2016. The Democratic efforts designed to mobilise indignation over Trump’s contempt for institutional sanctities - the Mueller investigation and the impeachment trial - failed miserably to grip the popular imagination. Most of the campaign rhetoric of ‘moderate’ Democratic presidential contenders has stressed the need to ‘bring people together’ and adopt ‘realistic and pragmatic solutions’ - what one pundit aptly termed Democratic ‘elevator music’.

It is, of course, no surprise that the Republican (and Democratic) right seek to disparage the measures Sanders advocates - Medicare (government health insurance) for all, free education at public universities, a hike in corporate taxes, a tax on financial transactions and a rise in the federal minimum wage - by branding them as ‘socialism’, as they have reflexively done at least since the time of Franklin Roosevelt and the ‘new deal’. But what puzzles many is the fact that Sanders embraces the socialist label, even though the kind of welfare-state measures he champions have been accepted state policy in many western European countries for decades without anyone having noticed a socialist revolution. (As Keynesian economist Paul Krugman pointed out in the headline of a recent column defending the Vermont senator, “Bernie Sanders isn’t a socialist”.) One might reasonably conclude that Sanders is simply remaining faithful, at least in name, to the cause he embraced, when, as a Vermont schoolteacher in the 1970s, he toted an amateurish documentary he had made about Eugene Debs from classroom to classroom.

But it is also possible that his retention of the socialist brand - along with his call for a ‘political revolution’- may involve a certain element of calculation. The ‘progressive’ logo has been adopted by so many Democrats - from Barack Obama to most of Sanders’ rivals - as to make it well-nigh meaningless. Sanders wishes to send the signal that his platform represents a decisive break from the Democratic Party’s recent neoliberal past, and its upholders in the primaries. The words ‘socialist’ and ‘revolution’ are admirably suited to underscore the difference.

Billionaire failure

And, as Sanders borrows catchwords from the past, his rivals borrow ideas from him. The power of his appeal is evident in the fact that most of the centrists have put forward watered-down versions of his proposals. Pete Buttigieg (who has now quit the race) and Joe Biden, for instance, advocate a government-run medical care scheme alongside, rather than in place of, private health insurance (the ‘public option’) - a proposal along Sanders’ lines, but a little less ‘extreme’ and more business-friendly. They too declare themselves in favour of raising corporate taxes - just not by quite as much. It is clearly Sanders who has set the tone for the debate. The change in the wind is unmistakable.

Even Michael Bloomberg said he wants to rescind Trump’s tax cuts for the rich and impose a version of the ‘Tobin tax’ on financial transactions. Bloomberg announced his candidacy in November and did not participate in the early caucuses and primaries. He billed himself as the party’s great centrist hope. He is the ninth richest man in the US, with a net worth of over $60 billion, accumulated as CEO of a mass-media company that invented a software for real-time reporting of financial data and the placing of trades. Bloomberg thrice held office as mayor of New York City, winning the first term as a Republican, and only rejoining the Democratic Party (to which he earlier adhered) in 2018, after 11 years as an independent.

His tenure as mayor was notable for the ‘stop and frisk’ policies under which police targeted five million black and Hispanic youths for harassment (his apologies for which, made just a month before he entered the race, have a decidedly inauthentic ring). He also refused for five years to sign contracts with municipal unions, demanding, and winning, extensive givebacks from the teachers’ union. He led a crackdown on leftwing demonstrators that resulted in mass arrests during the Republican convention in 2004, when he supported George W Bush for president. Until he became a candidate, Bloomberg consistently opposed higher corporate and wealth taxes, rises in the minimum wage and attempts to regulate Wall Street. He has called for reductions in Medicare and social security (government retirement pensions), which he called a “Ponzi scheme”.

Bloomberg, however, sought to offset his plutocratic reputation by becoming a cash cow for many liberal organisations, on which the Democrats lean for support. These groups mostly advocate class-neutral causes, such as gun control, action on climate change and public health. Bloomberg also donates to his favoured candidates for public office throughout the country (which in the past included Republicans - like Lindsey Graham, the dogged Trump-supporting senator from South Carolina, and senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, an anti-abortion fanatic). The New York Times recently ran an exposé under the headline, “In Bloomberg, liberals see a wallet too big to offend”. It details how the recipients of his largesse are often too frightened of losing their funding to say or do anything that might rub him the wrong way.

Bloomberg spent half a billion of his own fortune - he asked for no donations - to blanket the airwaves with adverts presenting him as a competent, technocratic manager; one who knows ‘how to get things done’. But all of his billions and networks of influence could not endow Bloomberg with the charisma he so decidedly lacks, and did not prevent him from stuttering and freezing up on the debate stage in Las Vegas on the eve of the Nevada caucuses, when the other candidates accused him of trying to buy the election, and pummelled him for his record on race relations, multiple accusations of sexual harassment from women who worked for him, and his not-so-distant Republican past.

On Super Tuesday Bloomberg managed to win in American Samoa and secure 44 delegates. A bitter disappointment, not to say humiliation, that saw him almost instantly pulling his campaign.

Panic mounts

Sanders’ tie with Buttigieg in the Iowa caucuses, his narrow victory in the New Hampshire primaries and his strong win in Nevada made him begin to look like the party’s frontrunner. His main rival on the left - Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren - has fallen far behind. Only Joe Biden has gathered enough delegates to the Democratic nominating convention to rival Sanders.

Biden’s wide support among the donor class, his backing, as a senator from Delaware, for the war against Iraq and his opposition to bussing to achieve racial integration in state schools are well known. Less publicised by opponents is Biden’s role as a shill for the credit card industry, which uses Delaware as a tax haven. In 2005, Biden was the main sponsor of a bill that made it immeasurably harder for credit card holders to get out from under their debts by filing for bankruptcy. At the same time as this bill eliminated protections against landlord repossession of seniors’ homes and a debt payment exemption to buy children Christmas presents, it made it easier for the rich to avoid debt payments by putting their money in trust funds, and exempted their second homes from bankruptcy seizure. This bill is considered one of the reasons for the explosion of student and medical debt. And, while Biden was pushing this legislation through, his son, Hunter - the same one Trump has accused of shady dealings in Ukraine - was working for one of the biggest credit firms in Delaware, and afterward received hundreds of thousands in consulting fees from the same company.

The Democratic establishment went into panic mode after Sanders’ Nevada victory. One news show host - Chris Matthews of MSNBC, the Democratic mainstream’s television outlet - worried on air that a president Sanders might have him shot in New York’s Central Park, in the same way as Castro executed the henchmen of Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban strongman he overthrew in 1959; he also compared Sanders’ rise to the fall of France to the Germans in 1940. (Matthews’ outbursts were so over the top that he has since had to resign his position at the network, but one suspects his sentiments were not too far from those of many middle-of the-road pundits.) The centrists are haunted by Trump’s capture of the Republican nomination in 2016, despite all the smug assurances that such an outlier could never prevail, and shudder at the thought that a parallel upset may now be unfolding on the Democratic side.

Unable to mount a full-on attack on Sanders’ proposals, because a majority of Democrats, and even many Republicans, have supported them in poll after poll, the centrists argue that Sanders can never win the general election because he cannot capture the votes of ostensible legions, the middle-of-the-road suburban voters, although numerous opinion polls have shown him beating Trump by a comfortable margin. To these are added dire warnings that his Medicare-for-all proposal would be so expensive as to require drastic middle class tax hikes. Such admonitions conceal a fear that cannot speak its name: that a Sanders candidacy might come between the centrists and the corporate and wealthy-donor troughs from which they feed.

Put to the test

One test of Sanders is how he has responded, and will respond, to the inevitable red baiting that has recently swelled from a trickle to a flood. Republicans and mainstream Democrats alike are dredging up his youthful membership in the left-Shachtmanite Young People’s Socialist League in the early 60s; his endorsement of a Socialist Workers Party presidential candidate in the 80s; his ‘honeymoon’ in Moscow (where he travelled with his current wife after their marriage); his visits to Cuba and Nicaragua in the same decade; his warm words for the Sandinistas and his observation that Castro did Cubans some good by teaching them to read. And they point to his being told in a recent government intelligence briefing that he is the preferred Russian candidate to run against Trump, who supposedly is the Republican candidate the Russians favour.

Will Sanders repudiate the attacks or attempt to distance himself from his past and demonstrate his ‘patriotism’? So far the signals have been mixed.

In a welcome counterpoint to the uncritical Bernie worship now sweeping the Democratic Socialists of America and the American left in general, Daniel Lazare pointed in the last issue of the Weekly Worker to Sanders’ opportunism regarding the campaign to impeach Trump - conducted entirely on the terms of the ‘deep state’, especially its foreign policy and intelligence arms (‘“Socialist” frontrunner causes panic’, February 27). Sanders made no attempt to distance himself from exaggerated allegations of Russian interference in US elections, or the patently spurious narrative about the conflict in Ukraine, which paints Russia as the aggressor. One might understand Sanders’ reluctance to open a new campaign front on an issue the electorate cares little about, but he also failed to avail himself of what Jacques Chirac once called “an excellent opportunity to shut up”. Sanders’ has instead loudly seconded mainstream Democratic efforts to portray Trump as a Russian stooge - accusations of which he now finds himself on the receiving end. He also accused the president from the floor of Congress of undermining the Nato alliance.

But there is another side to the ledger. Sanders proudly recalls his vote against the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and castigates Biden for supporting it. He has, beginning as early as 2016, edged cautiously away from his even-handed approach on Israel/Palestine to put greater emphasis on Palestinian rights. In the middle of the present campaign, he pointedly declined to attend the annual conference of the country’s principal pro-Zionist lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) - in the past a ritual for all ambitious politicians. And, when confronted about his decades-old Cuba remarks at the latest Democratic candidates’ debate, Sanders replied:

… occasionally it might be a good idea to be honest about American foreign policy, and that includes the fact that America has overthrown governments all over the world: in Chile, in Guatemala, in Iran. And, when dictatorships, whether it is the Chinese or the Cubans, do something good, you acknowledge that. But you don’t have to trade love letters with them [as Trump did with Kim Jong-un - JC].

Sanders must have been aware that remarks such as these could cost him many votes in the important election state of Florida, home to many rightwing Cuban refugees. And such pronouncements are still far enough afield of the ‘Washington consensus’ to disqualify Sanders as a reliable ruling class foreign-policy custodian.

But one should be mindful of context. The social democrat of today plays a different role to that of the social democrat of half a century ago. When capitalism was confronted by a non-capitalist great-power rival, the Soviet Union, and a strong union movement, social democrats were often welcomed into the fold in exchange for fealty to the global anti-communist crusade. Talk of extensive reforms was legitimate - and real reforms were sometimes undertaken - to burnish the system’s progressive credentials.

However, with its main adversaries vanquished at home and abroad, capitalism, even in its tarnished post-2008 condition, no longer has any use for ‘socialist’ collaborators. The very words ‘socialism’, ‘class struggle’ and ‘revolution’ - even if devoid of their original meaning - conjure up to the bourgeois mind nightmarish apparitions long thought to have been banished. Strong welfare-state measures are now deemed beyond the pale. The ruling class no longer has any use for token ‘socialists’.

Last-minute moves

Super Tuesday is the biggest single primary day in the country. On March 3, Democrats in 14 states - including Virginia, Massachusetts, Texas and California - voted for a presidential nominee. On the eve of this vote, the Democratic leadership went into a ‘stop Sanders’ frenzy. Buoyed by Biden’s landslide victory in South Carolina the previous Saturday, the party’s major power-brokers decided to put their cards on Obama’s vice-president.

With unparalleled suddenness, two leading centrist candidates, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, dropped out of the race and threw their support behind Biden, appearing at his rallies. Their move was followed by endorsements from a roster of Democratic notables, including a primary candidate who resigned from the contest early on, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, and former Senate majority leader Harry Reid. Although he has made no official endorsement, Obama is rumoured to have been active behind the scenes on Biden’s behalf.

This gambit appears to have borne fruit. Only a few days ago, Biden was being written off as yesterday’s man. But at the time of writing he is being touted as the victor of Super Tuesday. He has been declared the winner in the delegate-rich states of North Carolina, Texas and Massachusetts. Sanders won, though, not only in Colorado, Utah and in his home state of Vermont. He won in California, which has more delegates than all the other Super Tuesday states combined (at the time of writing Biden has 453 delegates and Sanders 382).

While other states will vote in coming months, the party seems headed in the direction of a two-man contest at the July nominating convention in Milwaukee. Such a match-up would tend to favour Biden, especially as Bloomberg has thrown himself - and his billions - behind Biden.

If no single candidate arrives in Milwaukee with a delegate majority - all the lesser candidates not having dropped out - and there is no winner on the first ballot, a second round of voting will take place (candidates receiving less than 15% of the vote in a given state get no delegates; those with over 15% are apportioned delegates according their percentage of the vote).

Party rules allow 771 superdelegates to vote in a second round. Comprising just under 15% of the delegate total, the superdelegates are elected officials, party functionaries and activists chosen by the Democratic apparatus and unpledged to any candidate. They can nearly all be counted upon to support more ‘moderate’ presidential hopefuls. All but nine of 93 superdelegates sampled by The New York Times said they would not vote for Sanders, even if he had a delegate plurality, and would rather risk splitting the party than see him nominated. Moreover, if no candidate is selected in the first round, most pledged delegates become free to vote for their preferences rather than for the candidates they were chosen to represent. Other centrists can therefore combine to support a single candidate. The odds of a Sanders victory seem at this point to be diminishing.

But his defeat could lead to unintended consequences. Sanders, it is true, has pledged in advance to endorse the Democratic candidate in the general election, whoever s/he may be. But he has run on a more explicit class platform, and put together a more highly disciplined and fervent band of campaign shock troops, than any other presidential aspirant in recent memory. As Jim Kavanaugh remarked in Counterpunch, many of them believe in Bernie more than he believes in himself. Among them, there is an anger against the Democratic establishment unknown in previous ‘progressive’ campaigns, such as those of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in 1984 and 1988. There is also an ability to see through lesser-evilism - the well-worn appeal of corporate Democratic candidates to vote for them because their Republican opponent is so much worse.

Many Sanders supporters will be little inclined to follow their leader into the cul-de-sac of party politics as usual. Already in 2016, a vocal group of them walked out of the Democratic convention and threatened to leave the party when Hillary Clinton was nominated. They are likely to be doubly determined not to be cheated of victory this year by last-minute manoeuvres. The celebrity pro-Sanders New York congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (AOC), remarked that, in any other country she and Joe Biden would not be in the same party. The same applies, a fortiori, to Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg. AOC has already set up a political action committee independent of the Democratic apparatus to fund her efforts and the campaigns of other ‘progressives’.

Thus, what most Democrats would regard as a disastrous split may present an opportunity for the formation of the closest thing to a Labour Party that the US has seen in recent history. All too often, Marxists who ritually call for such a party seldom give a thought to how one might actually come about. Might this just be one way? Could a Sanders defeat signal a new beginning? L