Ideas & Debates
American Politics After Sanders
Sanders’ surrender before the reality of Clinton’s victory has brought an end to one of the most contested primary seasons in recent American History. How have the major political and economic players been impacted, and what should we expect next?
June 21, 2016
Image: Rolling Stone
Sanders’ Political Revolution has been squashed, though the cost paid by the Democratic establishment is bearable only in a context of the disintegration of the Republicans. It is a sign of the stagnation and decadence of both major American parties that the election has come down to two figures who, in a more balanced bourgeois judicial system, would likely be under indictment or in jail for fraud (Trump) or "endangering national security" (Hillary).
The bright hope of well-marketed change has faded before the economic reality of neoliberal rule. No room for false hopes, the products on offer in this election now match exactly what they’ll do.
A crisis of legitimacy which would spark a new party in a parliamentary system has been contained within the snug casket of two-party politics. Yet both the political and economic crisis remain.
Trump remains a wildcard, now at the head of a reluctant party apparatus. The same Democratic party pundits who were confident Sanders never had a chance are just as confident that his supporters will come around to Clinton. Sanders himself will work to make that happen, but even if he can win many of his supporters to Clinton the tensions which drove mass support for his candidacy will continue to build.
The leak of DNC documents by "Guccifer 2" has merely confirmed what everyone already knew: Hillary Clinton was the only possible candidate in the eyes of the DNC leadership. Interestingly it also revealed a targeted strategy of using media contacts and allies to launch proxy attacks, in the case of the document oriented towards Republican opponents, but it is easy to see how this played out in the primaries. Savvy media executives and career-oriented journalists know that a Clinton White House will reward those who have been loyal.
A crisis of legitimacy which would spark a new party in a parliamentary system has been contained within the snug casket of two-party politics.
Unsurprisingly then, it was the media which proclaimed the death of the "political revolution" according to anonymous tips from super-delegates. A defeat sealed by the lack of a major upset in California. Sanders has refused to concede though he has clearly communicated in private meetings with Obama and Clinton that he will not play an upset role. Rather he will follow the path of Jesse Jackson’s previous rainbow coalition in rallying his followers till the end to fight over symbolic concessions in the party platform.
Having secured victory in both delegates and the popular vote (albeit with many irregularities), the establishment has found itself able to bring a condescending grace to its coverage of Sanders. The editorial board of the New York Times gave the Sanders campaign its own special obituary in which it welcomed him as "a forceful and credible voice against the demagogy of a supposed billionaire. He is a politician focused firmly on the needs of everyday Americans who can now count among his achievements an honorable campaign that prodded Democrats to attention."
In a live address, Sanders publicly reaffirmed his acceptance of the political reality of defeat: “The major political task that we face in the next five months is to make certain that Donald Trump is defeated and defeated badly... I personally intend to begin my role in that process in a very short period of time." He went further than he has before and proclaimed, "I also look forward to working with Secretary Clinton to transform the Democratic Party so that it becomes a party of working people and young people."
Sanders’ endgame is simple: a left push in the platform, some rule changes for future elections, and an attempt to bring his supporters into democratic party politics to campaign on local and statewide levels. To re-energize a democratic party that, for all its Executive success, has failed to recover initiative at the congressional and senate level.
Sanders will find himself bargaining for a left posture by the party and Hillary which will almost immediately be abandoned in favor of chasing alienated Republican voters and funding.
It is unlikely that he will achieve his aim of the most progressive democratic party platform ever—his most radical proposals are after all far less progressive than what was considered mainstream in the Democratic Party of the 60’s and early 70’s. Nor would even a radical platform have the slightest impact on policies.The Democratic Party marched to elections for decades promising to repeal Taft-Hartley and implement a slew of progressive measures it hadn’t the least intention of fighting for.
As for re-energizing the base, while he will do his best, it’s likely to be counterbalanced by the hard turn to the right which Clinton will play now that the polls are closed. Sanders will find himself bargaining for a left posture by the party and Hillary which will almost immediately be abandoned in favor of chasing alienated Republican voters and funding. Some will follow him to November, but he will be diminished more and more the further Clinton drags to the right. Many of his followers will reject the bitter medicine he offers.
The Republican establishment was crushed at the polls. As it turns out the social basis for the traditional, fiscally and socially conservative outlook of a section of the American Bourgeoisie doesn’t go far. Given the choice of a candidate who would make explicit the racial biases which were carefully left implicit, and who could reach into populist discontent with trade policies and the establishment, Republican voters overwhelming chose to reject the Republican Party.
Forced to support Trump to defeat Hillary and to maintain their own political support among the Republican base, Republican leaders recoil again and again from the latest embarrassing antics of the Trump campaign. While the party is a bastion of racism and islamophobia, it doesn’t do to openly endorse bigotry. Trump’s railing against Mexicans or calls for a ban on Muslims crosses the line.
Beyond policy differences, what most strains the relationship however, is the failure of Trump to advance as a national candidate. Clinton has maintained a lead of 3 to 12 points in every poll in June. What seemed like a close race in polls a month ago no longer does. More and more Republican politicians are worried that Trump will be a liability in their districts or states as they face the general elections. If the election emerges as a referendum on Trump, they don’t want to be part of a losing team.
While the party is a bastion of racism and islamophobia, it doesn’t do to openly endorse bigotry.
It isn’t that great a leap of imagination to see that many of the Republican elites who have withheld their support for Trump so far, such as the Bushes, would prefer a Clinton White House to a Trump one. If Trump’s poll numbers continue to slide the number of Republican elites who are ready to declare 2016 a lost cause is likely to grow. Better to prepare for a 2020 election against a still unpopular Clinton.
Major figures and financiers of the right have already backed away. Billionaire Charles Koch has decided rather than backing the republican nominee to focus on a broader campaign for libertarian values, launching ads aimed towards directing economic distress towards "rigged" government regulation.
However, Trump is still far from dead. He may well position himself more “left” on economic and trade issues in an to attempt to broaden his appeal. Especially if the Republican Party is not forthcoming in its support, he will be even less bound to stick to the lines of Republican orthodoxy.
It is unlikely that Trump would be able to win a general election on such a basis, but the possibility can’t be dismissed given that Clinton herself remains unpopular. Regardless of whether he wins, if he were to deepen his populism and meld together bigotry with a more left economic stance, it could provide a real base of support among a section of the white working class and petty bourgeoisie, encouraging a more intense white masculine backlash in the years to come.
The American Bourgeoisie
As much as media figures and pundits have been appalled at Trump, the major concern is his heterodox foreign policy and not any changes he would bring to the domestic field. The CEO of Pfizer for example reported that he can not "at this moment distinguish between the policies that Donald Trump may support or those that Hillary Clinton may support.” Attention to congress and the senate was more important for the CEO.
The Head of the CME Group, the biggest financial derivatives marketplace declared, "I think either way, what’s important is the United States keep its status as the financial services leader. I think both of those two individuals understand that." However, he had kinder words for Clinton on foreign policy.
Consumer-oriented corporations have been more cautious and skeptical in their approach towards Trump. Wells Fargo, UPS, Motorola, JPMorgan Chase, Ford and Walgreens, which all funded the 2012 Republican convention, have reported that they will not finance this one. This reflects a concern for public image rather than a substantial rejection or fear of Trump’s likely policies in office.
Open racism is bad for business. A Wells Fargo that invests in sponsoring a panel with a leading activist of Black Lives Matters doesn’t want its PR tainted by an unpredictable Trump at the head of a white backlash. Corporations which proudly appoint "Chief Diversity Officers" prefer their racism veiled within the labyrinth of structural, economic and police power. It’s not a topic for polite conversation. You certainly don’t want to be perceived as racist by those you’re trying to get to sign on to subprime mortgages.
The only support Trump has garnered in silicon valley has been from Peter Thiel, a billionaire himself now shunned by much of the tech industry for his role in crushing Gawker. The CEO of Intel considered a fundraiser, but then backed down. As a whole, while the tech bourgeoisie is less enthusiastic about Hillary than they were about Obama, they are clearly supporting Hillary.
Corporations which proudly appoint "Chief Diversity Officers" prefer their racism veiled within the labyrinth of structural, economic and police power.
In contrast, Finance Capital, ever willing to hedge its bets, has been much more open to backing Trump. A major fundraiser is scheduled with a ticket price of 50k bringing together dozens of leading heads of hedge funds and capital management groups. However it’s an area where Clinton has already built a deep history of service, it would be difficult to overtake Hillary on her home turf.
All of this adds up to one of the more substantial political transformations of recent American politics: the Democrats have become the first choice of American capital. No longer limited to heading off social discontent or desires for change, the utter collapse of Republican leadership has made the Democrats the standard bearers of responsible capitalist management. The party even reflects the somewhat diverse face which corporate and financial elites wish to project to the world in their modern marketing and advertisements.
After the Campaign
The Sanders insurgency and the specter of a genuine attempt at reformism has likely been warded off for at least eight years. What Sanders has promised so far, an attempt to push people into local or state office, is no danger. While Trump’s foreign policy is a potential threat to decades of carefully laid plans for US hegemony, there is hardly anything upsetting about a billionaire running for political office. Looking at the surface of American politics, it appears that the Clinton Democrats have found a successful formula for stable political hegemony.
Yet an electoral challenge like Sanders’ represents an exceptional situation. The United States is a country where, precisely because of the highly restricted field of electoral debate, class struggle and social tensions have tended to express themselves through explosive conflicts by social movements and workers struggles. With the channels of formal political action closed off a return and expansion of these more traditional forms of American protest is likely.
The legitimacy of the political and media superstructure is at an all-time low. In the eyes of the youth the major news networks, the newspapers, the political pundits and party institutions all stand discredited for their bias in the Sanders campaign. The isolating lie of a conservative America is over, replaced by the reality of entrenched conservatism at the heart of the media, political and economic institutions.
A generation came to Sanders because he channeled their revolt against the social conditions of modern capitalism. Their abysmal reality cannot be changed chipping away inside a rigged party apparatus. In the months and years to come, they will be compelled to go far beyond the path which the Sanders campaign is laying out for them.