Bernie Sanders: Socialist candidate's success shows people want change

February 5, 2016

Despite having the entire Democratic establishment against him, the self-described democratic socialist candidate in the US Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders, continues to make waves, backed by huge enthusiasm from supporters inspired by his call for a “political revolution” against the corporate elite. Although Sanders fell short in the Democratic Iowa caucuses on February 1, he picked up 84% of the youth vote.

Sanders is running on a platform of reforms in favour of ordinary people, such as promoting free, single payer health care, free education, and raising the minimum wage. But the most radical aspect of his campaign is his declaration of war on Wall Street and its influence on US politics — calling for a “political revolution” against the “billionaire class”.

That a candidate pushing the need to break with this status quo should get a hearing is no great surprise given the worsening conditions for the majority of the US population.

In a February 2 TeleSUR English piece looking at the popularity of populist candidates on both the left and right with anti-austerity rhetoric — Sanders in the Democrat race and Donald Trump for the Republicans, Arun Gupta noted: “Unfettered capitalism is failing the more than 100 million Americans in poverty or on the cusp of it. About 73 percent of Americans have $1,000 or less in savings, indicating how many more are a paycheck away from poverty if a crisis strikes.”

But the established forces in the Democrats, one of two parties of the US corporate elite, backed by the corporate media, are determined to stop the Sanders' “insurrection”.

In a February 2 Jacobin piece entitled “The War on Bernie Sanders”, Matt Karp said: “The Democratic Party elite has launched a virtually unprecedented attack against Bernie Sanders.”

Karp noted: “No presidential candidate in modern history has performed as well as Sanders and received so little support from the Democratic Party leadership…

“The elite freeze-out of Bernie Sanders is without parallel in modern party history.”

Not for nothing is Greens presidential candidate Jill Stein making a pitch to Sanders' supporters not to fall in behind Clinton, should the elite defeat Sanders. On February 3 she said: “However much we cheer the Sanders insurgency, the stakes are too high to entrust our shared rebellion to a corporate party that's thrown us under the bus for decades.”

Sanders has acknowledged the extent of elite opposition to his policies in a speech to supporters after the Iowa caucuses, pointing out that even wining the White House would not be enough: “Let me conclude by saying what no other candidate for president will tell you. And that is that no president — not Bernie Sanders, not anybody else — will be able to bring about the changes that the working families and the middle class of this country, that our children, that the seniors, our seniors, deserve.

“No one president can do it, because the powers that be — Wall Street, with their endless supply of money; corporate America; the large campaign donors — are so powerful that no president can do what has to be done alone.”

Sanders repeated his call for a “political revolution that says when millions of people come together... we will transform this country”.

Below, Danny Katch and Alan Maass look at the meaning of Sanders' strong showing in Iowa. It is abridged from US Socialist Worker.


Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders may have ended up in a tie in the Democratic Iowa caucuses, but the winner of the first primary contest for the Democratic presidential nomination was the socialist from Vermont.

Sanders was dismissed as a well-meaning but irrelevant protest candidate for much of last year, then smeared for being too radical when he surged in opinion polls. But the heir of a political dynasty and anointed choice of the Democratic establishment, who was thought to have Iowa wired for victory a year ago, couldn't beat him.

Sanders' showing in a “heartland” state against overwhelming odds is further evidence of huge discontent with the political status quo in the US — and proof that the myth of America as an essentially right-wing society is just that: a myth.

The results of the Republican caucuses in Iowa show a different face of the discontent with the status quo. Texas Senator and Tea Party favourite Ted Cruz upset the frontrunner in opinion polls, Donald Trump. Florida Senator Marco Rubio nearly pushed Trump into third place. Both Cruz and Trump claim to be right-wing renegades, opposed to the conventional Republican Party establishment.

Cruz's victory is the start of what is certain to be a long, bruising battle for the Republican nomination.

But the Democratic race will be drawn out, too. Sanders will almost certainly win the next primary in New Hampshire in a week's time. He is still a long shot to win the nomination of a party whose leaders are dead-set against him. But his campaign — based on calling attention to widening inequality, growing poverty and social injustice — is changing the shape of Election 2016.

Yesterday was supposed to be the day that Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush took the first steps toward coronation as the next in line for the American throne.

Days after Barack Obama's re-election in 2012, Politico reported that both Clinton and Bush had a cadre of backers who were already discussing 2016.

Two years later, Politico quoted Wall Street executives licking their chops at the prospect of a Bush-Clinton election. “If it turns out to be Jeb versus Hillary, we would love that, and either outcome would be fine,” one Republican-leaning Wall Street lawyer confided.

But the party insiders and Wall Street executives have lost their grip on this election.

On the Republican side, the first- and second-place finishers in Iowa, Cruz and Trump, are loathed by party leaders. Not because the Republican establishment objects to either one's right-wing fanaticism, but because their open bigotry harms the image of the first party of US capital. And, probably more importantly, because both are willing to stab other Republicans in the back if it helps them get ahead.

Rubio did much better than expected in Iowa, nearly pushing Trump into third place. That might be enough to make him the unity candidate for the party's leadership to rally behind. It is a telling symbol of US politics today that the frontrunners for the Republican presidential nomination are two maniacs despised by party leaders.

But the shape of the Democratic contest after Iowa is more surprising in certain respects. In a state where she was supposed to have superior organisation and endless resources, Clinton — the Wall Street favourite and long-presumed nominee — could not stop a formerly little-known Vermont senator and self-described democratic socialist.

When Sanders announced he would seek the presidential nomination in March last year, it was a clear and welcome sign of the discontent with the two-party status quo in general — and the neoliberal Democratic Party in particular — when he got huge crowds at his rallies and recruited hundreds of enthusiastic volunteers.

But pretty much no one — Socialist Worker included — guessed that the wave of discontent could lift him to more than perhaps a single victory in New Hampshire, next to his home state of Vermont.

Now, Sanders' near-victory in Iowa — and the impressive US$20 million that his campaign raised in January, mostly from small donations — gives him a chance to win over the voting blocs in Southern states that dominate primaries on March 1. Clinton has been expecting to use these blocs to lock up the nomination.

When Sanders first announced his plan to run, the infinitely better-funded and connected Clinton almost welcomed him into the race. The assumption was that he would make his fiery speeches about economic inequality and energise the party's liberal voting base, which would ultimately fall in line behind the “inevitable” nominee.

After all, Sanders himself promised that he would support whoever the Democrats nominate for the presidency — opposing any third-party independent challenge.

But the Sanders crowds kept growing. When the Democratic National Committee seemed to unfairly punish Sanders' campaign over a mailing list controversy, it galvanised supporters with a clear example of how party leaders tilt the scales toward their preferred candidate.

In January, with Sanders continuing to rise in the polls nationally, panic set in. There was a wave of attacks on the Vermont socialist from leading Democratic liberals and media commentators.

Sanders was criticised for a range of positions, from healthcare to fighting racism, but the overall message was that his identification with socialism and talk of a “political revolution” made him non-viable in the general election.

These articles were the first salvo of what will be many directed at left-leaning voters — demanding that they be “realistic” and support the strongest possible Democrat to defeat the greater evil of the Republicans.

The most direct application of the logic of “lesser evilism” comes in general elections pitting Democrats against Republicans. But the Democratic establishment wants its voters in the right mindset for the primaries, too — arguing they should vote for the “pragmatic” choice, even though Clinton represents the kind of compromising the party's base is fed up with.

These pleas for “realism” are a remarkable statement about how the political system is rigged to preserve the status quo.

“In real life,” claimed Bloomberg's Jonathan Bernstein in a typical article, “all politicians in the US political system are going to come up short of their promises — not because they're corrupt, but because the system is designed to favour the status quo. Incremental change is all that is possible.”

This conventional wisdom is exactly why Sanders has generated so much excitement — his campaign represents hope for the opposite.

Over the coming weeks and months, some Sanders supporters may be persuaded to give in to “real life” and back Clinton. But many others will be bolstered in their conviction that a system designed to favour a rotten and unequal status quo truly does need the “political revolution” Sanders is calling for.

Sanders' victory has demonstrated a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo — and an openness to radical talk of socialism and revolution, even when they are used to describe far-from-revolutionary political positions that more closely resemble the Democratic Party's liberal past. And that is not to mention issues like foreign policy, where Sanders is often indistinguishable from mainstream Democrats and even a few moderate Republicans.

Still, Sanders' showing in Iowa blasts open the lie that the US is a fundamentally conservative country — as will happen again if Sanders wins, as expected, in New Hampshire on February 9.

Even with a big win in New Hampshire, Sanders is still the underdog. The primary schedule is frontloaded with Southern states where Sanders will be starting from well behind — even further than he was in Iowa.

Then there is the stark fact that one in seven votes at the Democrats' convention to nominate a presidential candidate go to “superdelegates” — unelected party insiders most of whom are already pledging support for Clinton.

Sanders will come under even more frenzied attacks from the party establishment, with plenty of well-known progressive voices enlisted for the cause. There will be a rise in slander and outright lies — but mostly an intensification of the lesser evil argument.

But the more they attack Sanders and rely on their insider advantages to give Clinton an edge, the more party leaders will show that there is nothing democratic about the Democratic Party.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi could not have made that clearer when she declared that there is “no use having a conversation about something that's not going to happen”. She was referring to Sanders' popular proposal for single-payer healthcare, a far superior system to the disastrous Obama healthcare law.

But Pelosi and Co are making it clear that the “party of the people” will not fight for a real transformation of the US health care system.

“God bless all the people who have gotten enthusiastic,” Pelosi condescendingly smirked about Sanders supporters. “The fact is that Bernie Sanders is enlarging the universe of people who are paying attention to the election, and we hope that he will bring them to the polls in November to support the Democratic nominee.”

Pelosi expects Sanders to demonstrate loyalty to a party whose leaders and ideological mouthpieces are shouting for all to hear that they would not support Sanders' policies if he became the Democrats' presidential nominee.

And Sanders has made it clear from the start of his campaign that if he does lose the nomination, that is just what he will do — support the Democratic nominee, rather than turning his campaign into an independent run or supporting a left-wing candidate like the Green Party's Jill Stein.

In the most unpredictable presidential election in at least a generation, there are undoubtedly more twists to come. But for now, the biggest news of the night — bigger than Cruz's “upset” — was that a democratic socialist candidate fought the previously presumptive Democratic nominee to a draw.

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