In challenging the corporatist and status quoist politics of Clinton, Sanders has become an electoral lightning rod for the movements, argues Sean Ledwith
When veteran US Senator Bernie Sanders launched his Presidential nomination bid last May he was widely derided as a crank candidate and totally unelectable.
One national poll in the summer put him on 15% compared to nearly 60% for Hillary Clinton, doyenne of the Democrat Party establishment and most people's choice as a shoe-in for nomination. More strikingly, early last year in New Hampshire, one of the first states to participate in the primary election season, a poll had Sanders trailing Clinton by a desperate 44-to-8% points.
Yet by last week, as the same state prepared for today’s vote in the process, Sanders had gathered an astonishing 58-to-38% poll lead over Clinton.
At the same time the Sanders surge came dramatically into the public eye in the Iowa caucus (the first state to officially kick-start the campaign for the Democrat nomination), where Clinton, the former New York Senator, claimed the very narrowest of statistical victories. In a symbolic act, reflecting the hollowness of American democracy, the two candidates could only be separated in some precincts by the tossing of a coin.
The results for Sanders among young voters were particularly remarkable. He won 84% of the vote among 17-29 year olds, compared to Clinton's 14%. At the same stage of the 2008 campaign, when Obama's 'Hope and Change' hype was approaching its zenith, the future President only gained 43% of this category. Both the above states are untypical of the US in terms of demography, but the impact of the Sanders surge cannot be denied, nor its potential for a significant re-alignment of the left in the country.
Friends in Low Places
The remarkable impact of Sanders’ campaign has set alarm bells ringing among the Democrat establishment that he might actually win the nomination, or at least damage Clinton to the extent that she becomes more vulnerable to a Republican challenge in the general election in November.
The most recent debate between the two saw Clinton clearly rattled by Sanders’ insurgency and his adroit channelling of the anti-corporate mood that has been accumulating in the US since the crash of 2008. He ripped into some of the big donors who are backing her campaign:
'You have companies like Goldman Sachs who just recently paid a settlement fine with the federal government for $5 billion for defrauding investors. Goldman Sachs was one of those companies whose illegal activity helped destroy our economy and ruin the lives of millions of Americans.'
The contrasting nature of the two candidates is reflected by the difference in the source of their respective financial backers. The bulk of Sanders’ donors contributed less than $200 each in 2015, and this year, as his campaign has gained real traction, this has fallen to an average of $27 each. The upper limit on individual donations to the Clinton camp has been set at $2700.
The contrast reflects, on the one hand, a candidate who has galvanised a grassroots movement that taps into popular anger about an oligarchy that has committed daylight robbery since the crash of 2008, and on the other hand, one who represents the determination of that oligarchy to continue to enrich itself regardless.
The organic link between the Clinton camp and the financial elite is most transparently exposed by her paid speeches to executives of the big banks, such as Goldman Sachs and UBS, for which she is paid on average over $200,000; 8 such speeches last raking in $1.8 million. So while Sanders rips into the machinations of the former, Clinton is being wined and dined by them. The zeal with which a second Clinton presidency would pursue Wall Street parasites can easily be estimated.
The corporate elite is courting Clinton, then, as the most credible person to divert mounting resentment about their insatiable greed among US voters. The scale of economic polarisation in the country can scarcely be exaggerated. A study published just before Christmas indicated the 20 richest Americans (including the likes of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerburg), with a combined value of $732 million, are as wealthy as half the rest of the population - that is, 152 million people. The constant drip-feed of statistics such as these, along with the cumulative sense of being ripped off for years by an unaccountable oligarchy, is the fuel that is igniting the Sanders phenomenon.
Despite the Vermont Senator’s electrifying campaign so far, most observers would still not want to back his chances of overturning expectations and actually thwarting Clinton’s supposedly inevitable coronation at the Democrat convention in August.
One of the two main factors currently standing between Sanders and a sensational triumph is the loyalty of black American voters to the Clinton brand. At the end of this month one of the crucial primary contests will take place in South Carolina. Most of the Democrat voters in the state come from its African American community. A recent poll taken among that particular demographic gave Clinton a 74-to-17% lead over Sanders.
The latter has not helped himself in the past, as regards support among black Americans, due to his relative lack of initiative on the issue of police violence against young black males. Clinton, by contrast, has cashed in on the residual support for her husband’s political legacy with stunts such as a recent appearance at the Martin Luther King Day commemoration in Washington. If she is able to shore up this electoral firewall in South Carolina and other southern states over the next few weeks, Sanders may find himself squeezed out.
Rhetoric and reality
Of course, the Clintons’ cynical courting of the black vote is not based on an actual record of benefiting the community. As part of his own bid for the White House in 1992, Bill shamefully played on mainstream media paranoia concerning African Americans and authorised the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, ignoring medical testimony that the black convict was so mentally impaired that he had no notion of what was going to happen to him.
Elsewhere, Clinton’s 1996 Welfare Reform Act tacitly accepted the New Right project that shrinking the federal social security budget was the best way to restore profit margins for the US ruling class. Radical historian Howard Zinn summed up the reality behind the Clintons’ illusory promotion of the status of black Americans, who were overwhelmingly concentrated at the bottom of society, then, as now. Indeed, he noted how the WRA “[did] not come close to what was needed in a nation where one-fourth of the children lived in poverty; where homeless people lived on the streets in every major city; where women could not look for work for lack of child care; where the air, the water were deteriorating dangerously.”
Even if he can sustain his campaign into the summer, the second roadblock that may prove too much for Sanders is Clinton’s likely dominance of the party’s so-called superdelegates. These are establishment figures such as Senators, Governors and senior administrators from the party hierarchy who have a greater say on the final choice of candidate than ordinary delegates to the convention in the late summer. There are over 700 of these individuals potentially up for grabs (15% of the total delegates), but a poll late last year indicated that Clinton could already probably count on the support of around 350. The most recent tally for Sanders amounted to 11.
It is unlikely to be necessary, but in theory we might witness a repeat of the infamous Democrat convention of 1968, in the era of the Vietnam War, when the party hierarchy imposed a pro-war candidate over the heads of grassroots delegates desperate to see an anti-war voice in that year’s election.
Electoral lightning rod
Regardless of the outcome of the contest between the two, the Sanders insurgency is clearly a game changer for the left in US politics. His campaign has become an electoral lightning rod for the escalating series of militant movements in the country in the years since the crash of 2008.
In early 2011 a city hall occupation of the state capital in Wisconsin, in protest against a union busting Governor, became the catalyst for the Occupy movement that not only electrified the US but spread around the world. The following year a teachers’ strike in Chicago witnessed a successful fightback against regressive testing. In 2013 the Fight for $15 campaign mobilised thousands of low pay workers in the fast food industry. Parallel to these upsurges is the Black Lives Matter movement that was pivotal to America’s most serious urban uprising in a generation in Ferguson in 2014.
Sanders himself derives explicit inspiration from the Presidential campaign of legendary American union activist Eugene Debs, in 1912, that earned almost 1 million votes. Debs tapped into the great radical tradition of the American working class that had spawned the Wobblies in his era. Potentially, today’s left-wing challenger could be the catalyst for a similar intersection of social movement trade unionism and electoral politics.
This partly depends on whether Sanders is content, later in the year, to accept a perhaps inevitable role as cheerleader for a victorious Clinton, or whether he takes the much better option of spearheading a long-term attempt to break the stranglehold of the big two establishment parties on the US political system.
Even if his challenge fades over the next few months, Sanders should be thanked by the US left for putting the word ‘socialism’ back into public discourse for the first time in decades. It may just have to be another person or organisation that builds on his audacious reclaiming of the word in the future.
Whatever the fate of the Sanders surge, these ongoing waves of 21st century US activism indicate that whoever is the new occupant of the White House in January 2017, she or he, along with the rest of the country’s financial and political elite, will not have to wait long for radical challenges from below.