The Bernie Sanders phenomenon – a revolt against the elite
Just as the rise of the Republican, Donald Trump, can be characterised as a revolt against the elite, the rise of Senator Bernie Sanders as a serious contender for the Democratic Party’s nomination for this year’s presidential race can be attributed to the unprecedented inequality prevailing in the US and the revolt of its victims against a political system which is calculated to enrich the fabulously wealthy still further and to impoverish the poor and petty-bourgeois sections of society even more.
Only a few months ago, the Democratic Party establishment, the Wall Street banksters as well as bourgeois political analysts and media pundits, were convinced that it would be a cakewalk for their candidate, the war criminal Hillary Clinton, to clinch her Party’s nomination and win the presidential contest in November. This gentry treated Senator Sanders’ campaign to be his party’s candidate with a mixture of amusement and contempt. As things have turned out, Mr Sanders has proved to be a creditable opponent to Mrs Clinton; the traction of his campaign has sent the backers of Clinton scurrying with panic.
How are we to explain the strength of the campaign of Mr Sanders, who describes himself as a ‘democratic socialist’, in a country where the word ‘socialist’ is nothing short of an abuse, thanks to the demonisation of socialism by US imperialism which has acted as a global counter-revolutionary gendarme for an entire century? The answer to this question lies in the economic reality of the US and the policies pursued by its ruling class over the past four decades.
Sanders tells his enthusiastic audiences that politicians, Republican and Democrat alike, have presided over the defining problem of the era, namely, inequality. This charge is substantiated by Thomas Frank, among others, in his recent book Listen, Liberal: or, Whatever happened to the party of the people? The thrust of his argument is that, despite a tepid recovery from the near-meltdown of the financial edifice of US imperialism (our expression), the financial oligarchy is garnering ever more huge profits, the CEOs commanding remuneration packages larger than ever, while ordinary workers struggle to make a go of it with stagnant wages.
Citing data, he says that, as from the middle of the Great Depression until 1980, ordinary Americans took home 70% of the growth in US income. But between 1997 and recent years, that figure has plummeted to zero. Trade deals, such as the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA), have resulted in export of capital and jobs, with the chiefs of multinational corporations sanctimoniously arguing that US wage rises would damage the economy. Mr Thomas makes the point dramatically by singling out six members of the family that controls Walmart, who have as much wealth as 40% of the US population.
His conclusion is the same message that has resonated with US voters, propelling the rise of Donald Trump and forcing Hillary Clinton into a battle with Bernie Sanders. Starting with Bill Clinton, former US president and husband of Hillary Clinton, the Democrats have shifted their party further to the right to make it appear less anti-business, thereby dropping all pretence of caring about the working class and, instead, concentrating on looking after the interests of US finance capital.
Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, when they were not busy waging predatory wars on behalf of US imperialism in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan, instead of addressing the burning issue of inequality, frittered away their presidencies concentrating on the kind of social issues (e.g., abortion and gay marriage) that generate a lot of highly emotional discussion but require little funding and are much less of a priority for workers struggling to pay for food, rent and their children’s education. Quite correctly, Mr Thomas makes the point that Obama assumed the presidency in 2009 with a promise of ‘hope’, only to end up following in the wake of Republican presidents and Bill Clinton by shedding even the pretence of attending to the concerns and interests of blue collar workers. He also castigates the Clinton presidency with pushing through a draconian law on crime (in addition to NAFTA) that put an increasing number of people behind bars, in particular Afro-Caribbean males (a law which now, belatedly and opportunistically, Mrs Clinton opposes) and instituting welfare reforms in a way that heaped a bigger burden on the poor.
Instead of using the crisis to push through reforms to help the poorer and needy sections of American society, Obama has showered his concern and tender care on the banks and pharmaceutical companies with their myriads of lobbyists who inundate Washington on a perennial basis.
The Clinton campaign is offering no economic vision. By comparison, Senator Sanders calls his vision the ‘moral economy’. To underline his message, he flew across the Atlantic to recite his vision to Pope Francis. The key ingredients of this vision are: a promise to break up Wall Street’s biggest banks; a promise to introduce a UK-style single-payer healthcare system; a promise to abolish student debt; and a promise to impose steep taxes on the rich.
In contrast, Mrs Clinton’s campaign is nebulous, not to say lifeless. She launched her campaign with a slick video in which she declared herself ‘ready’, without bothering to spell out what she was ‘ready’ for. Now she promises “to build on the progress Barack Obama has made”! What progress? we hear you ask. The majority of the electorate turn a deaf ear to whatever she says – they rightly believe she is a congenital liar.
Although it is likely, thanks to the rigged system which guarantees the so-called super delegates a massive say in the choice of presidential nominee, that Mrs Clinton will receive her Party’s nomination, nevertheless unless she comes up with some plausible reason before her Party’s Convention why she should get the job, no one should be surprised if the prize slips away from her.
In many ways, the revolt of the Democratic voters is a mirror image of rage in the Republican camp. The Republican voters no longer trust their Party to support their economic interests, rightly believing that they may have been seduced and abandoned by it. In the words of Jacob Weesberg: voters are ” … recovering from the epidemic of false consciousness that took hold during the Reagan years, when the Republicans managed to persuade working-class voters to support the very policies that were harming them” (‘Republicans face a historic rupture’, Financial Times, 16 April 2016), through coded racial appeals, an emphasis on cultural issues like abortion, and stoking up resentment against liberal elites. Now the working-class Republican voters have begun to wake up to the reality that their Party represents them no more than did the Democrats before the mid-1960s. Hence the rise of Trump.
Likewise, in the camp of the Democrats, the working-class electorate are waking up from their false consciousness. They too feel that they had been seduced into believing that the Democratic Party represents their interests, when in fact it does not, and therefore they feel abandoned. On a whole host of issues they are at odds with their Party: they do not support what passes for free trade and goes in the name of globalisation; they do not favour tax cuts for the wealthy, or bailouts for the banks, or financial deregulation, or the rollback of consumer protection. Their families, just like the families of working-class Republican voters, are the ones who have picked up the human costs of US imperialism’s predatory wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
They are enraged, as are the Republican working-class voters, by the federal government bailing out banks while presiding over millions of ordinary citizens losing their houses and jobs. In both the bourgeois parties representing US imperialism – Republican and Democrat – the revolt of the electorate expresses a broader distress over the consequences of the unprecedented export of capital, the resultant decimation of industry, the export of jobs and de-unionisation.
Ordinary people increasingly have no faith in what their political leaders and parties, the media and the economic authorities have to say. Unless Democrats – and Republicans – tackle inequality (and there’s a fat chance of that!), Americans will face a bleak future, says Mr Thomas: ” They will know to laugh at the old middle-class promise – a retirement, pension, a better life than the previous generation had – because it is propaganda so transparent.”
When Hillary Clinton says that she will be hard on bankers, Bernie Sanders simply has to point to the millions of dollars she has received in donations and speaking engagements from the self-same robber barons for his message to resonate with ordinary people.
In real life, such being the power of US finance capital, neither Bernie Sanders nor Trump offer any solution to the problems facing the American working class. They are, however, raising issues – especially Bernie Sanders – which resonate with the working class and fall on receptive ears. It is up to the real socialists – the Marxist-Leninists – in the US to take advantage of this new opening, this new opportunity, to build a genuinely revolutionary party which in due course will lead the American working class in the overthrow of the US imperialist ruling class, the most bloodthirsty class in human history, and rid the whole of humanity – not just the US proletariat – of the exploitation, oppression and predatory wars that have characterised this bloody monster.