United States: As Iowa caucuses approach, Democratic battle lines emerge

Democratic Socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders with his supporters.

Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton’s defeat by Republican Donald Trump in the 2016 United States presidential election may have prompted some international observers to conclude any Democratic Party attempt to retake the White House would have to wait at least four years. However, in the US, one electoral cycle’s conclusion only signals the start of a new election “season”.

As in previous US elections, the 2020 campaign spend will be big: it is projected by Politico to reach US$6 billion over the course of the campaign.

Alongside Trump’s plethora of gaffes, there is intense focus on the Democratic Party’s internal nominations process.

Understanding the context of the past decade of US politics is necessary to comprehending the next steps for the Democrats.

Trump’s election in 2016 was a shock to the global establishment and domestic political commentators. How could an unshackled, racist and sexist candidate, embroiled in seemingly endless controversy — from bragging about sexual assault on women to branding Mexicans as “drug dealers" and "rapists” — win the presidency over Clinton — a “respectable stateswoman” poised to become the first woman US president?

It is easy to describe Trump’s victory as the culmination of a widespread reactionary trend, with right-wing populist forces across the world going from strength to strength amid growing anti-immigrant sentiment.

However, this ignores the very real material conditions behind the emergence of figures like Trump.

Right-wing demagoguery does not appear from a vacuum: Trump, promising to "drain the swamp", was perceived as channelling the legitimate anger of working-class people, discontent with a neoliberal dystopia beating them to a pulp, towards his political movement.

Many establishment media interpreted his cocktail of protectionist and staunchly-nationalist "America First" policies, alongside his electoral triumphs in traditional "Rust Belt" regions of the country, as proof that ordinary voters mistakenly saw a New York-based billionaire as the only option for change.

While Trump did channel some systemic resentment into his campaign, this line affords him too much credit. In fact, Trump's share of the vote was broadly similar for key sectors to previous Republican candidates in the past decade. Rather, it is the historic unpopularity of both major party candidates that had the largest role to play in his election.

Many of the voters Democrats historically have relied upon — women, youth and people of colour — failed to come out to vote for Clinton, allowing Trump to win key swing states despite no significant change to the Republican vote compared with 2012.

As political filmmaker Michael Moore points out, in his home state of Michigan, tens of thousands of voters, without any coordination, voted Democratic down the ticket, yet left the top presidential box blank as a silent protest. Rather than exposing a shift in the political inclinations of the working class, the election instead proved that ordinary people are alienated by uninspiring, run-of-the-mill centrist Democrats.

No outsider

If this analysis did not evaporate Trump's supposed status as an outsider, it quickly became clear that the US ruling class viewed him as a workable enough mechanism for protecting its interests.

As president-elect, he immediately filled his cabinet with the “swamp” he promised to drain: Rex Tillerson (Secretary of State, ex-head of Exxon); Steve Mnuchin (Secretary of the Treasury, formerly of Goldman Sachs) and Jeff Sessions (Attorney-General and a racist-in-general), among others. 

The “man of the people” also pushed through US$1.5 trillion in tax cuts, which saw billionaires pay a lower rate than the average worker last year.

The president to “bring our troops home” extended US complicity in Saudi Arabia’s genocide in Yemen and unilaterally bombed Syria and Iran.

The candidate who guaranteed to “safeguard medicare and social security” attempted to roll-back the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).

Democratic opposition to Trump’s actions underlines the split now firmly cemented in the party and evident in the 2020 primaries.

Since Trump’s election, the Democratic Party leadership has focused entirely on non-issues. Rather than provide any real substance to their criticisms, the Democratic establishment has: scorned Trump for his orange skin; demanded to see his tax returns; carefully documented all of his lies; fanatically read George Orwell’s 1984; and — most pervasively of all — pushed a conspiracy about Russian involvement in Trump's election.

Current impeachment proceedings were initiated only after Trump was suspected of asking Ukrainian authorities to investigate a political rival (and member of the establishment), rather than for his myriad of human rights abuses, such as family separations at the Mexico border.

Most hypocritically, “the most dangerous president in the history of the country” received Democratic support for record levels of military and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spending in the last budget.

This highlights how Trump continues to be enabled by Democrats, for whom platitudes and rhetoric — rather than material policy — is a higher priority.

By pursuing what Australian writer Jeff Sparrow coined “delegated and smug politics” in his book, Trigger Warnings: Political Correctness and the Rise of the Right, the Democrats having been searching for the perfect “Gotcha!” moment to expose Trump, hoping this will lead the “foolish” US working-class to realise their mistake in electing a man who is a threat to US democracy.

Except, it hasn't. First because most working people did not support him in the first place, and secondly because this strategy was bound to fail anyway.

Such tactics are no substitute for the building of a mass movement, and only feed illusions about politics being a game, to be played strategically and with the best political analysis.

Sanders

Enter Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and “the Squad”.

For all of the despair Trump has caused since his campaign and election, he can also be credited for reawakening the US socialist movement.

On the back of Sanders’ unsuccessful tilt for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, “democratic socialism” became the new buzz word.

The Democratic Socialists of America’s (DSA) membership has surged, and many progressive and independent media outlets and organisations, such as Our Revolution and Justice Democrats, have sprung up. Out of this came The Squad, the now-infamous group of bold women of colour, who were elected for the first time to Congress in the 2018 mid-term elections.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib have sought to oppose Trump by putting forward plans for universal healthcare, a Green New Deal and major public housing expansion, rather than resorting to congressional theatrics.

The split first fostered in 2016 among the Democrats has brought matters to the point where at stake is a battle for the party.

In the Democratic primaries, a large field of several dozen candidates has slowly filtered down to four main contenders: Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts), Joe Biden (former vice-president under Barack Obama) and Pete Buttigieg (Mayor of South Bend, Indiana).

Others, such as Andrew Yang, with his promise of a $1000 a month Universal Basic Income, and Beto O’Rourke, with his swearing-and-chair-standing antics, have added to the complexity of the race. However, come November, one of the above four will be on the ballot with Trump.

The frontrunners have laid out their respective platforms. Biden, frequently stumbling in an aloof manner in public events and official debates, is the establishment candidate. He offers nothing new from Obama and Clinton, and relies solely on name recognition from participation in the former’s administration. He has faced questions over his conduct towards women and record of supporting US imperialist interventions.

Buttigieg is also a tool of the big donors. When not participating in exclusive fundraisers in wine-caves, he has been more than happy to make a mess of the few responsibilities he has as a mayor, sacking his city’s first Black police chief in controversial circumstances after allegations of racism in the force emerged.

Warren and Sanders are, on the other hand, seen as the two most progressive party figures in the US Congress.

Warren, a long-time consumer affairs advocate, gained notoriety for her wealth tax proposals and willingness to challenge Wall Street corruption.

While Warren represents a move away from the outright conservatism of several senior Democrats, she and Sanders emerge from “differing … political traditions”, as Zaid Jilani wrote in Jacobin. Sanders comes from a proud US history of socialism and the labour movement, holding consistent, pro-worker, anti-imperialist positions for decades. This is in contrast to Warren, a self-declared “capitalist to [her] bones”, who was a Republican well into her 40s.

Only Sanders is promising to forgive all $1.6 trillion of student debt and advocating a comprehensive implementation of a universal Medicare-for-all framework that includes dental and eye health.

It is no surprise that the corporate class and its media are hostile towards him. Alongside his promises to change a systemically-racist criminal justice system and abolish ICE, Sanders also supports funding for public housing and making the big polluters pay for his Green New Deal.

This hostility from the 1% has propelled Sanders to the top of the latest CNN polls.

As the Iowa caucuses approach — the first of the US primaries — polls show Sanders beating Trump, head-to-head, by the biggest margin for any Democratic candidate.

His campaign slogan “Not me, us” is a powerful differentiator from the rest of the establishment, for whom returning to the Obama-era status quo by simply deposing Trump is enough.

While legitimate critiques of Sanders exist, and he should be pushed to be unwavering in his promises, the fact that US voters even have the choice to vote for a candidate unafraid of talking about class politics and building a mass movement is a powerful indicator of how the US political scene is slowly moving in the right direction.

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