Letter from US: Sanders campaign helps spark Democrat crisis

The divisions in the Republican Party over Donald Trump's candidacy in Republican primaries have been the subject of much commentary — and it remains to be seen how this will play out. We may not know until the Republican convention.

But the divisions in the Democratic Party due to the Bernie Sanders' candidacy in Democrat primaries are coming more and more to the fore — including in the capitalist press.

A recent front page article in the New York Times reflected this, noting: “Even as his chances of winning the Democratic presidential nomination slip away, Senator Bernie Sanders and his allies are trying to use his popularity to expand his political influence, setting up an ideological struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party in the post-Obama era.

“Aides to Mr. Sanders have been pressing party officials for a significant role in drafting the platform for the Democratic convention in July, aiming to lock in strong planks on issues like a $15 minimum wage, breaking up Wall Street banks and banning natural gas 'fracking'.

“Amid his unexpectedly strong showing in the Democratic primaries, Mr. Sanders has tapped his two-million-person donor list to raise money for liberal congressional candidates in New York, Nevada and Washington State …

“The pressure from Mr. Sanders and his allies is putting the party establishment, which is closely allied with Hillary Clinton, in a delicate position. Democratic leaders are wary of steering the party too far left, but do not want to alienate the Sanders supporters whose votes Mrs. Clinton needs in November, or risk losing the vast new donor base Mr. Sanders has created.”

But winning over Sanders' supporters, attracted to his call for a “political revolution” against the 1%, is easier said than done. One indication is that exit polls of Sanders' supporters in the primaries show that somewhere between 25% and 40% say they will not vote for Clinton in the general election.

Clinton early on positioned herself as the continuation of the Barack Obama presidency. As Sanders votes in the primaries increased, she tacked left, seeming to echo his proposals, but with vague promises.

Generational anger

During the eight years of the Obama administration, the anaemic economic recovery bypassed most workers. This explains the strong showing among white workers for Sanders in the primaries.

It also explains the self-proclaimed “socialist” senator's overwhelming support among young people, including in states Clinton won. Strikingly, this includes young women, a category Clinton counted on winning.

In the years since the Great Recession and the election of Obama, young people have seen their situation get worse. An 18-year-old today has only known this period, which has seen stagnant wages at best, growth of student debt and poor job prospects even for college graduates.

Someone 30-years-old today was 22 in 2008, and has experienced the same conditions in these years of youth. Sanders has also done well among those younger than 45.

It is no wonder that these young people are not enthusiastic about Clinton, or are even opposed to her. After all, she is the candidate of the establishment they reject.

Clinton has done well among African Americans. But even here there is a generational divide. The NYT ran a recent article entitled, “On Crime Bill and the Clintons, Young Blacks Clash With Parents”. The crime bill refers to the law passed in 1994 under Bill Clinton's presidency that greatly accelerated the mass incarceration of Blacks and other people of colour.

At a rally endorsing his wife, Bill Clinton was greeted by Black Lives Matter protesters who denounced the 1994 law and mass incarceration. The ex-president launched a vehement attack on the protesters, defending the law.

The NYT found that the most important issues for young Black activists are police murders of Blacks and mass incarceration. It also found that while some said they were voting for Sanders in the primaries, others said they were not voting at all. They said elections did not matter much and they thought that only direct action can bring about change.

This reflects the position of many Black Lives Matter activists who do not support either Clinton or Sanders.

The article also found that while older Blacks voted by big majorities for Clinton, for those under 25, less than half did.

Another thing worrying the Democratic Party establishment is that in those primaries that allowed independents to vote, they were largely in the Sanders camp.

All these divisions among potential Democratic voters that the Sanders campaign has brought to the surface amount to a crisis for the party. Just as with the Republicans, we don't know how this will play out.


There is a clamour among some Democrats for Sanders to quit the race and endorse Clinton now, for the sake of “unity”. But Sanders has rejected that course so far.

Sanders intends to win as many delegates to the Democratic convention in the upcoming primaries as he can. It is becoming clearer that his likely objective is to seek to pull the Democratic Party back away from Bill Clinton's move to the right in the 1990s, which Obama has continued. Sanders aims to return the Democratic Party to what it was before its wholesale embrace of neoliberalism.

That is, Sanders' objective is not to build a new party, but to change the Democrats through a struggle from within. He has made it clear from the start of his campaign that he will call for a vote for Clinton if she wins the nomination (as was always the most likely outcome).

His justification for this is not that he embraces her politics, but the old “lesser evil” argument. Sanders says he will not be a “spoiler” who helps a Republican win by pulling votes away from the Democrat candidate.

The two-party system has been shaken in this primary election season, but it remains the bulwark of capitalist rule. The hopes of many progressives and even socialists that the Sanders campaign would lead to the formation of a new left party are just that — hopes without evidence.

Sanders' supporters are not organised into a formation they control. His campaign is run completely top-down. There is no capacity to launch a new movement.

Some socialists have even gone so far as to join Sanders' Democratic Party campaign, urging union leaders to endorse him. A few have, but this does not amount to a significant break with the Democrats and is no victory for independent labour political action.

Independent party?

Perhaps the most far-out hope among some socialists is that the Sanders campaign could result in the formation of an independent labour party. In the context of a greatly weakened union movement that has been in the main unable to pose any real fightback against the decades-old capitalist assault on workers, any idea that the labour movement can or even has any desire to break with the Democrats is a pipe dream.

How will Sanders' supporters vote in the general election, assuming Clinton is the nominee? Will some follow Sanders and vote for the lesser evil? Will some not vote at all? Will some vote for an independent candidate, if one emerges and has reasonable backing? A combination of the above? We do not know.

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