Support for self-described socialist Bernie Sanders is based on his policies, such as supporting union campaigns for a $15 minimum wage.
It can be difficult to understand what capitalist elections say about the relation of class forces. This is especially true for the United States where there are no mass workers parties of any type. The two pro-capitalist parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, dominate.
However, the 2016 presidential election campaign so far has been quite different from recent ones, with the emergence of candidates in both parties not favoured by the party establishments.
On the Republican side, billionaire Donald Trump — running as an “outsider” — is in front of other candidates who are, or have been, state governors of states or in Congress.
On the Democratic side, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, running as a “democratic socialist”, has emerged seemingly from nowhere to become a serious challenger to Democratic establishment favourite Hillary Clinton.
Frustration and anger
To understand this, we should look at the backdrop of the real situation facing the 80% of the population who comprise the working and middle classes. (The US media and politicians call better paid workers “middle class”, but I use the term to mean small business owners, the self-employed, family farmers, and the like.)
Wage workers have seen their wages stagnate since 1973. The 2008 financial crash and the Great Recession that followed hit workers hard, especially Blacks and Latinos. Poverty and homelessness have risen.
Many in the middle class have been ruined. Student debt is more than $1 trillion.
These and many other indicators explain the frustration and anger of the bottom 80%. This desperation is being expressed in both the Sanders and Trump campaigns, although in diametrically opposite ways.
The most important conclusion to be drawn from the support Sanders has gained is that a significant section of the working class and youth are moving leftwards.
When he first announced his campaign, Sanders was dismissed as a well-meaning but irrelevant protest candidate. But then his campaign meetings began to attract thousands, and have grown into the largest rallies of any candidate of either party.
Sanders began his campaign as a relative unknown outside of his home state of Vermont and neighbouring states in New England. But as his message of the need to tackle inequality and the dominance of Wall Street over politics has gotten out, his poll numbers have risen. Sanders continues to close the gap nationally with Clinton — who is strongly backed by the Democrat establishment.
Polls a few days before the Democrat's caucus meetings in Iowa on February 1 showed that Sanders, who was once 40 percentage points below Clinton, had closed the gap to just five points. In a surprise result, the outcome was a technical tie.
Clinton won most voters aged 45 and older, while Sanders won among those less than 45. In the 17-to-29 age group, Sanders defeated Clinton by 70 points. Clinton won among voters who make $50,000 a year or more, while Sanders won among those who made less.
A week later, Sanders won a landslide in the New Hampshire primary, beating Clinton by 22 points. Despite establishment female politicians like former Secretary of State Madeline Albright urging women to back Clinton, Sanders won 55% of the votes of women, and 70% of women under 45.
Overall, Sanders' vote among those under 29 was 83%. Clinton won among those over 65, as well as those who make more than $200,000.
These first two contests have been in overwhelmingly white states. It remains to be seen how well Sanders does among African Americans, Latinos and other people of colour in the upcoming primaries.
Attacks on Wall Street
What accounts for the enthusiasm among Sanders' supporters? First of all, his attacks on Wall Street and the bailout of financial institutions after the 2008 crash have proven hugely popular. He has also highlighted the obscene role big money is playing in the elections — and connected this to the growing gap between the rich and the rest of society.
Every other candidate (with the exception of Trump) is financed by the corporations and super-rich individuals directly or through Political Action Committees (PAC), which can raise unlimited amounts. Sanders accepts no funds from corporations or PACs. He has raised substantial amounts from 3.5 million individual donors at an average of $27 per donor.
Sanders' stated policies are also popular. He wants to raise the minimum wage nationally to $15 an hour, a demand that fast food and other low-paid workers have been raising in strikes and demonstrations for more than a year.
One of his major demands is to establish a national health insurance program to cover everyone. He wants to make state colleges tuition free. He calls for addressing climate change by taking on Big Oil and Coal.
Whiff of socialism
These and other pro-working class positions are popular, which explains Sanders' growing support in a section of the working class and youth. Another thing his supporters point to is his “straight talking” reputation — he says what he means and means what he says, in sharp contrast to other candidates.
It is to be noted that Sanders' supporters are not deterred by his assertion that he is a democratic socialist. While his supporters may not know much about socialism, there is a growing understanding that the present capitalist system is failing the majority.
We should be clear that Sanders' “democratic socialism” does not signify a break with capitalism or the capitalist Democratic Party. He does not support expropriating the means of production from the capitalist class to begin a socialist transition to social ownership over the economy. He points to the Scandinavian countries as the model he is aiming for.
Sanders has also made it clear he will not run as an independent if he loses the Democratic nomination. Instead, he will campaign for Clinton.
In reality, Sanders is not a socialist so much as a social democrat. He is for reforming some of the worst aspects of US capitalism. He himself says that what he is proposing is not radical.
Many capitalist countries have national health insurance and state colleges and universities used to be free in the US. Sanders' proposals only sound radical because the politics of the two parties of capitalism have moved the country so far to the right.
The Sanders campaign provides a whiff of socialism, but not socialism.
On the Republican side, the leading candidate is Trump. He is the only Republican candidate who claims he does not take money from corporations. This is possible because, as a billionaire, Trump's campaign is self-funded. Unlike other Republicans, this means Trump cannot be bought by the rest of the super-rich.
The whole Republican field of candidates are racist, targeting African-Americans, Latinos, Arabs and Muslims. Most express this by “dog whistling” — making statements that are not explicitly racist, but get the point across in a coded way.
Trump has out-done them with his open racism. He calls Mexicans who seek to enter the US “rapists and drug dealers.” He says he would deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants.
When Black people have protested at his rallies and his supporters physically attacked them, Trump applauded and urged them on from the podium. He calls for banning all Muslims from entering the US and for keeping a register of all Muslims inside the US.
Despite such extreme positions, Trump is treated as a viable next president. He has legitimatised open racism as acceptable political discourse.
All the Republican candidates are appealing to white workers and middle class people who believe their problems are caused by immigrants, Latinos, Blacks and other minorities. This social base fears that changing demographics will erode their relative privileges. But Trump leads the field in whipping up these sentiments.
In his campaign, Trump does not take up other issues much. His stock answer is that he will “take charge” and find a way to solve the problems, domestically and internationally. He repeatedly refers to his self-proclaimed leadership qualities as the solution to everything. He belittles the other Republican candidates as inferior, weak, stupid and ineffectual.
He promises he will “make America great again” — nationally and internationally. He says the US has become a nation of “losers”, being beaten by nations such as China, Russia and Iran. Trump promises that the rest of the world will fear “A Great America”, which will dominate the globe.
Whiff of fascism
Trump is projecting this image of a political strongman, “the leader” who knows best. It brings to mind the German and Italian phrases for “the leader” — “Der Führer” and “Il Duce”. It is an explicit appeal to those seeking an authoritarian figure to set things right.
Like other such far-right figures, Trump throws some bones to workers. At various times, he has spoken in favour of universal health care and raising taxes on hedge fund managers. He has attacked other Republican candidates for taking huge contributions from corporations. There is at least a bit of old-style “National Socialism” in his rhetoric.
This has led some commentators to label Trump a fascist. However, fascism is historically more than just ultra-reactionary sentiments. It describes a mass movement organised to physically smash the organised working class and any other barriers to total domination by an authoritarian capitalist state.
However, such a course is not on the agenda in the US. The organised working class is the weakest it has been in decades. It is nowhere near challenging capitalist rule and the ruling class has no need of a fascist movement to crush the working class.
Trump has not sought to organise his followers into an organised mass movement that could form an incipient fascist formation.
There is the whiff of fascism around Trump, but not fascism itself.