SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 196 March 2016

Bernie Sanders’ radical challenge

Bernie Sanders’ victory in New Hampshire is a political earthquake that is rocking the entire US establishment. For the first time, a candidate who calls himself a socialist has won a major US primary, and by the widest margin in New Hampshire history. With a decisive 22 point lead – 60.3% to Hillary Clinton’s 38% – his victory underscores the tumultuous new era of US politics. Combined with the virtual tie in Iowa, Bernie Sanders’ win in New Hampshire sets the stage for a sharper battle for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Sanders is now seen as a serious contender, fuelled by the huge momentum behind his call for "a political revolution against the billionaire class".

The Sanders surge in Iowa, New Hampshire, and in national polls, has fuelled an unprecedented wave of small donations. In January, Sanders raised $20 million, with an average of $27 per donation, compared to Clinton’s $15 million, raised largely from wealthy backers. Immediately after his New Hampshire victory, Sanders received another record-setting $6 million in online donations.

Bernie’s campaign, with massive rallies and record numbers of small donations, has given expression to the deep anger in US society against Wall Street and the corporate domination of politics. Typically, the primary electorate tends to be older and wealthier – factors that favour Clinton. The enthusiasm and big turnout of young people and working people is what powered Bernie’s victory in New Hampshire. Exit polls showed that 83% of Democratic Party voters aged 18-29 voted for Sanders, mirroring the huge support he received from young people in Iowa. Voters under the age of 45 made up 41% of the Democratic Party primary, even higher than the 35% in Iowa.

Sixty-five percent of voters with a family income under $100,000 and 71% of voters with a family income under $30,000 voted for Sanders. Clinton only came out on top among voters with a family income of over $200,000. Bernie Sanders also won 55% of women’s votes – a great response to Madeleine Albright, who said "a special place in hell" exists for women who don’t support Hillary Clinton. And to Gloria Steinem who said young women overwhelmingly voted for Sanders in Iowa because "the boys are with Bernie".

The Clinton campaign has been unnerved by Sanders’ success. This reflects a deeper anxiety in the ruling elite about the unfolding revolt against the establishment of both traditional parties of US capitalism. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein called Sanders’ campaign "a dangerous moment". They fear that it is raising the expectation among millions of people that it is possible to defeat the agenda of big business. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, is seriously weighing a possible independent presidential campaign given the crisis facing the establishments of both parties.

The tone of Clinton’s campaign has become more negative and vitriolic. In the first head-to-head debate following Iowa, she accused Sanders of waging an "artful smear" campaign by highlighting her Wall Street funding. Her surrogates stepped up their characterisation of Sanders’ supporters as "Bernie Bros", aiming to cut across growing support for him among young women. However, many of these attacks have backfired and focused attention on the popular distrust of Clinton’s corporate-backed campaign. Clinton backers, including the New York Times editorial board, have called on the Clinton campaign to reassess its tactics, while offering advice on more effective methods of undermining Sanders’ support.

At the same time, the threat now posed by Sanders will provoke a wider response from the ruling class as a whole, including the major media outlets and the leadership of the Democratic Party. The most serious attacks on Sanders and the movement behind him are yet to come.

Bernie has successfully branded Clinton as a candidate of the corporate establishment, exposing how she took $675,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs. "It’s what they offered", responded Clinton when asked why she took the money. Despite growing calls to make public the text of those speeches, Clinton has refused. Doing so would further expose the depth of her loyalty to Wall Street. According to a Politico interview with a Goldman Sachs executive who witnessed one of the speeches: "It was pretty glowing about us… It’s so far from what she sounds like as a candidate now. It was like a rah-rah speech. She sounded more like a Goldman Sachs managing director". If Clinton does not release the transcripts, this damaging issue is likely to hang over her campaign for the rest of the primary.

While Bernie Sanders has the momentum, Hillary Clinton maintains enormous advantages. She has the backing of the corporate media, a $60 million corporate PAC (political action committee), and the powerful apparatus of the Democratic Party establishment at every level of US government. Over 200 elected Democratic governors, senators, and members of the House of Representatives have endorsed Clinton. Only two members of the House – no senators or governors – endorsed Sanders.

Clinton also has the backing of the large majority of the liberal establishment, including people like Paul Krugman (New York Times columnist) and Gloria Steinem (long-time feminist activist). Scandalously, most of the trade union leaderships, including SEIU, UFCW, AFSCME, and the two main national teachers’ unions, are backing Clinton, a former Walmart board member. In Iowa, Clinton won the union household vote 53% to 43%. Clinton is also a household name. Up to this point, however, the more voters get to know Sanders, the more his support has grown, including among African Americans and Latinos, who Clinton was expecting to form part of her ‘Southern firewall’.

We can expect the Clinton campaign to wage a vicious campaign of fear and smear in the coming weeks. With the power of the corporate media mobilised to shape the debate, this could have an impact, especially among older voters and millions of workers who pay less attention to politics. They will seek to stoke fears that nominating Sanders will help the Republicans win the general election in November. Meanwhile, millions of working-class and young people, who would generally support Bernie’s message, have been turned off politics because the system has completely failed them for years.

If the ‘normal’ institutional advantages fail to block his momentum, more decisive measures will be demanded by big business. Enormous pressure will come to bear on liberal figures like Elizabeth Warren to use their authority to bolster Clinton. If the divisions within the Democratic Party become sharp enough, it cannot be ruled out that even president Barack Obama, despite the tradition of neutrality among sitting presidents, could step in to support Clinton.

Overcoming these barriers will require a mass social upheaval against the establishment on an even bigger scale than has yet been achieved. It will be necessary to activate millions of people who do not normally engage in politics or vote, or who are not yet convinced that Bernie’s campaign can make the needed difference in their lives.

It would be a fundamental mistake if he was to water down his message in an illusory appeal for ‘moderate’ voters. Instead, Bernie Sanders needs to deepen his message of a ‘political revolution’ and offer wider layers of people a real perspective for far-reaching change. It also means recognising that the Democratic Party establishment is not on our side and that we need to build a campaign that relies on the independent, grassroots mobilisation and organisation of working people.

Socialist Alternative has launched #Movement4Bernie to help build a grassroots, movement-based campaign required to defeat the political representatives of big business. We want to help activate as many people as we can and link this to the perspective of building a new party for the 99% and transforming our society. We helped organise the #March4Bernie actions around the country bringing together 3,000 grassroots supporters in Chicago – including Black Lives Matter activists – and 2,000 people in New York, along with actions in many other cities.

Socialist Alternative is also active in ‘Labor for Bernie’ to challenge the conservative union leaders who cover up for Clinton’s corporate agenda with arguments about her ‘electability’. Socialists have long argued that the labour movement has been betrayed by the corporate establishment of the Democratic Party, and that it is both possible and urgently necessary to run independent, genuine workers’ representatives who refuse any corporate campaign contributions.

The Sanders campaign offers a historic opportunity to popularise these arguments among workers, and to build an alternative labour leadership to stand against the cynical policy of covering up for pro-war, Wall Street politicians. One of the appealing features of the Sanders surge has been the huge mobilisations, such as the 20,000-strong rallies in Minnesota in late January.

There are so many issues facing our communities: racism, sexism, low wages, skyrocketing rents, student debt, etc. But the underlying issue is power: the billionaire class has lots and working people don’t have nearly enough. Bernie’s campaign offers an opportunity to change the game. We do not have to accept the idea that we have to support ‘lesser evil’ corporate candidates like Hillary Clinton to defeat the right. The corporate politics of Clinton are, in fact, a disadvantage. Bernie Sanders’ fundraising also shows we can raise the money needed to compete with big business politicians by relying on our independent ability to mobilise our numbers as working people. This would be even more the case if the majority of the labour movement would throw their weight behind Bernie.

In reality, while Bernie Sanders maintains the mistaken idea that the Democratic Party can be transformed, his campaign actually shows that the potential exists to build our own independent political party. Such a party – drawing together socialists, trade unionists, young people, and progressives of all stripes – would provide us with an absolutely necessary tool to mobilise millions against big business. While Bernie is running for the Democratic nomination, many of his supporters understand that the Democratic Party is dominated by the richest 1%. Many are correctly repelled by Bernie Sanders’ plan to back Clinton’s Wall Street funded campaign if he loses the rigged primary process.

There is a very real danger that the movement behind Sanders could be channelled into the Democratic Party. Socialist Alternative is actively mobilising in the opposite direction. We are getting a huge echo among Bernie’s supporters as we point to the potential for running left-wing candidates for all levels of government against both right-wing Republicans and Wall Street Democrats, independent of corporate cash. Out of this movement, we must aim to gather the seeds for a new mass party of, by, and for working people.

We are seeing deep cracks and divisions emerge between the working-class voters and the fundamentally pro-corporate and pro-capitalist character of the Democratic Party. As Michael Bloomberg’s threat to run as an independent shows, if Sanders wins the primaries, the ruling class and the corporate forces which control the Democratic Party would revolt.

They would go all-out to attempt to sabotage Sanders in the general election rather than allow the movement behind him to consolidate its position. The Democratic Party Convention even has a mechanism for blocking a potential Sanders victory through the use of ‘super-delegates’ – nearly 800 Democratic Party officials who make up about 20% of the total delegate vote. This means that, even if Sanders wins a majority in the primaries, the super-delegates could be used undemocratically to overturn that result. However, the party establishment would prefer to avoid blatantly using the super-delegates because it would further expose the undemocratic and corporate nature of the party. At this stage, they still aim to defeat Sanders in the primaries and caucuses.

The decisive fight in the Democratic primaries will unfold in the next period. Fifty-six percent of all primary and caucus delegates are up for grabs in March. To win the election, and more broadly to win the programme motivating Bernie’s supporters, the movement behind Bernie cannot limit itself to the traditional top-down, staff-driven campaign model created for corporate candidates. It will require the bottom-up, self-organisation of the movement. And the stronger our self-organisation today, and the deeper our political independence from the Democratic Party establishment, the more capable we will be to continue the struggle for a political revolution, regardless of the outcome of the primary fight or general election.

The Sanders campaign has already opened a new era in US politics. In the weeks ahead, the potential exists to strike an even more powerful blow against corporate politics, shaking the foundations of the corporate controlled two-party system, and opening up a new wave of political struggle for a far-reaching, socialist change.

Patrick Ayers, Socialist Alternative (CWI in the USA)

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