Most people thought he wouldn’t get anywhere close to defeating Hillary, and his campaign was initially launched as an attempt to expose the “rigged electoral system” and bring to the agenda the real issues of the “American people”. The situation has radically changed. With a clear lead in New Hampshire and close enough in the polls for the Iowa caucuses, he’s become a feasible option.
The Bernie fundraising campaign has proven praiseworthy, due not only to the fact that he refuses large donations from big companies or superPACs, but especially to its grassroots character. A broad network of volunteers and young activists has advanced the campaign with passion from its beginnings at the July 29 kickoff, thousands of house meetings organized by individuals–the overwhelming majority unknown to Sanders’ campaign staff, to the record-breaking 2.3 M donors achieved last month.
However, the odds are on Hillary’s side. For example, the mechanism of Superdelegates makes it almost impossible for a candidate deemed undesirable by the Democratic establishment to win the primaries. They hold 20 percent of the vote at the final Democratic Convention, where the nominee is ultimately elected. These votes are cast by current governors, congressmen, and other elected officials–that is, figures of the political elite; it’s no surprise that Hillary holds sway among them. Already over 350 out of 700 Superdelegates have pledged loyalty to Clinton.
Especially if he takes Iowa and New Hampshire and later performs well in South Carolina and Nevada, there is still a tiny chance that Sanders could win the primaries. If this happens, will the US government go up in smoke? Will red flags wave at the White House?
It is much more likely that the Dems will embrace him as a prodigal son, the liberal democratic leader left in the dust decades ago, when the Party was overtaken by the DLC and abandoned all content and appearance of progressiveness. This is absolutely possible because none of Sanders’ proposals are incompatible with capitalism, much less U.S. imperialism. Plus, there’s always the tried-and-true option of blaming the congressional stalemate for being unable to pass progressive bills promised during the campaign.
This doesn’t mean that the political situation hasn’t changed. Sanders’ soaring popularity has many good aspects and implications. First, it means Hillary Clinton is sinking, and that’s a good thing. Unlike Bernie Sanders, she represents the very core of the political establishment, she represents the continuation of the Bush-Clinton dynasty that ruled the country for 16 years. She has only overhauled her program to match the polls’ dictum, recently embracing gun control after years of opposing, pulling a 180 on the TPP after strongly pushing for it; the same thing with Keystone XL, gay marriage, marijuana legislation, and the fight against ISIS. Without question, Hillary Clinton is opportunistic, Wall Street’s best representative (even better than the GOP front-runner), and flush with corporate funding. Her fall in popularity is a measure of the crisis of legitimacy borne by the most traditional figures of US politics.
Remarkably, Sanders has rallied massive support not in spite of, but in part because of his claims of being a “socialist.” Some fans and opportunistic groups among the “radical left” claim that Bernie has single-handedly popularized the term. They should probably search for an explanation somewhere else: since 2008, we’ve been struggling to emerge from the biggest crisis of global capitalism in the last 80 years. In fact, polls show that socialism was becoming a buzzword way before we began to “feel the Bern.”
Bernie Sanders is no socialist, he’s a social-democrat. His program and public speeches show he is not leading a fight against capitalism, but is only willing to take on its most egregious aspects. If anything, he has done more to distort the meaning of socialism .
Some points in his program can open up a debate for democratic rights: single-payer health care, free college education for all, a living wage, women’s and LGBT rights, and more. These are all progressive demands, many of which capture the ideas of recent social movements and popular grievances. However, this platform is divorced from any real fights, militant organizing, or class struggle–the only way it can actually be achieved (more below). Perhaps more importantly, as we pointed out in a previous article , his program includes several reactionary components. He pledges to continue the war against ISIS as long as it is carried out with “Muslim partners” and in the past, he backed Israel’s attacks on Gaza in 2014 .
What are the major problems of Sanders’ campaign?
One of the most perfidious aspects of his campaign is that he promised to expose and challenge the “rigged electoral system,” but he already pledged loyalty to the Democratic Party. His unwillingness to call out and break ties with such a corrupt and anti-democratic organization was demonstrated when the DNC blocked his access to donor data with no justifiable reason.
Although many of his supporters will not vote for Hillary if he loses the primaries, the great majority of his supporters will cast the Democratic slate in the ballot box, probably abhorring the republican candidates. This is why he has been rightly accused of sheepdogging for the Dems. His bid as a democratic candidate is injecting youth, energy and a progressive outlook into an organization that until very recently couldn’t excite anyone, especially after the false hopes and disappointment of Obama.
The same thing can be said of the electoral system he was supposed to expose. With his grassroots campaign against “the billionaire class” he has paradoxically shown that there is room for a candidate like him, the system tolerates him: he is a threat, yes, but a minor one. The reason is that, again, none of his proposals are actually anti-capitalist. This is not to say that everything will stay the same in the extremely unlikely scenario of him entering the oval office. A new FDR-type era may ensue and the outcomes will no doubt affect a sector of US capitalists, but capitalism as a system will remain, alive and kicking, and most big fish will continue reaping profits off of people’s misery. Or, as we’ve learned from Syriza, once in office, he might drop all attempts to confront the corporate elite.
The “benefit” of Sanders pushing the Dems to the left and bringing working-class issues to the fore is overshadowed by the fact that, through his radical posturing, he is bringing legitimacy back to the Democratic Party, the electoral process, and government institutions (congress, White House, etc.). The final message is that workers, students, Blacks and Latinos can rely on electoral politics, the Congress or the government instead of organizing and engaging in class struggle.
Even if Sanders’ campaign raises popular issues and has managed to organize an army of volunteers, it is reasonable to ask what will be left after the elections, or after the primaries, for that matter. Will a radical movement crop up? If so, will it be another movement co-opted by the Democratic Party after filing the sharp edges? Or transform into a militant workers’ and students’ movement?
There are some reasons why it won’t become a radical working-class movement. First, Bernie Sanders does not even mention class struggle. Moreover, not one sentence in his program talks about the “working class.” Nor is there any mention of the union bureaucracy–straitjacket of the labor movement–which has thrived on its incessant capitulation and betrayal of the working class for the last five decades.
The unexpected success of Bernie Sanders’ campaign is a good sign for leftists. It shows that there’s space for the socialist politics he comes short of advancing. The task of the left is not to flirt with Bernie’s politics, much less endorse his bid. It is to engage in a honest debate with his supporters, prove the limits of his politics, criticize his program, and turn the progressive base to a left alternative, rather than lead them to demoralization once Sanders burns out and hits the low ceiling of his program.