At a talk given at the Newcastle Resistance Centre in the mid-1980s, visiting US activist Peter Camejo mentioned that a socialist, Bernie Sanders, had just been re-elected Mayor of the largest city in the state of Vermont.
Camejo described his meeting with Sanders in the Burlington City Hall. Banners were stacked in the corner and posters in solidarity with the Third World and women's, black and labour struggles decorated the walls.
“It was just like being in an activist centre like this,” he quipped.
Camejo went on to explain how Sanders prioritised affordable housing and keeping Burlington's waterfront open to the public rather than just destined for office blocks and expensive apartments. As a way of expressing opposition to his country's foreign policy, Sanders established sister city relations with towns in countries such as Nicaragua, which was facing US hostility at that time.
Camejo recounted how to avert an ugly confrontation between workers at a Burlington defence industry plant and peace activists protesting against the armaments industry, Sanders organised for the police to go down to the factory gates and serve coffee. Instead of confrontation, the peace protesters and the workers started to talk to each other over coffee. Peace and dialogue won the day.
At the end of his two mayoral terms, Sanders ran as a socialist for Congress and served for 16 years before moving on to the Senate. He was last re-elected in 2012 with 71% of the vote. The announcement of his candidacy for the US presidency met with little attention.
I think about my close family in the US when I consider why Sanders has had such a spectacular rise in support. My US relatives are retired professionals. Actually they have not fully retired: one drives a school bus and the other works in a nursing home to receive the health insurance that comes with a formal job. They lost a large chunk of their retirement savings in the global financial crisis (GFC).
I suspect that millions of US citizens, just like my family, live with the fear and insecurity of being just one major illness away from bankruptcy and homelessness. Given this insecurity and the threat to jobs posed by neoliberal globalisation, US working people are looking for solutions.
Some are attracted to candidates like Donald Trump who scapegoats immigrants and refugees. In contrast, Sanders sees corporate America as being responsible for, and benefiting from, the GFC and supports affordable healthcare, free education, a minimum wage and income equality.
Sanders has also created space for grassroots socialists — such as Seattle City Councillor Kshama Sawant who was recently re-elected after helping win a $15 minimum wage.
The progressive governments in Latin America, the emergence of Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and the elevation of Jeremy Corbyn to leader of the British Labour Party demonstrate the appeal of socialist policies.
The Australian Labor Party has not caught on to the political shift represented by Sanders and Corbyn. Labor leader-in-waiting Anthony Albanese even red-baited his Green opponent in the seat of Grayndler for being a “socialist”. An ALP break with neoliberalism would show a difference between Labor leader Bill Shorten and Liberal PM Malcolm Turnbull.
Sanders shows the potential of the progressive vote and demonstrates that people need to be energised and inspired to want to exercise it.
[Steve O'Brien is a member of Socialist Alliance. This article was first published in the Newcastle Herald.]