Written on 09/03/2020 for The Socialist – Weekly paper of the Socialist Party (CWI England & Wales).
- Sanders faces uphill struggle to win Democratic Party nomination.
- Working class must have an independent political voice.
The turmoil in the US Democratic primary battles reflects all of the tensions in US society. The capitalist class has struggled to find a viable representative, while millions have looked to Bernie Sanders for an alternative to the misery offered by capitalism.
Bernie Sanders, fighting to win the Democratic Party candidacy for the US presidency, has often been compared to Jeremy Corbyn.
Describing himself as a “democratic socialist”, like Corbyn he puts forward a programme – including free healthcare for all, free college tuition and cancellation of all student debt, increased rights for trade unions in the workplace and a $15 an hour minimum wage – which has enthused and mobilised important layers of the working class, and above all young people who have grown up in the age of austerity.
Many in Britain who were disappointed with Labour’s general election vote took hope from the prospect of Sanders making it to the White House. In the wake of ‘Super Tuesday’ (when 14 US states held Democratic ‘primaries’ ie electoral contests), however, the obstacles to him becoming the Democrat’s candidate for President are growing.
Sanders argues that he alone can beat Trump because of his radical programme, but as he falls behind corporate Democrat Joe Biden, questions about how popular his programme really is are inevitably being posed in the minds of many who are enthused by his campaign.
In fact, opinion polls indicate that Sanders would beat Trump in a presidential election. Many of his central policies have overwhelming popular support. Polling shows, for example, that 64% of Americans support free healthcare for all, including four out of ten Republicans, and even a bigger majority opposing social security (pensions and disability benefits) cuts.
The difficulties that Sanders is facing in the primaries are not – any more than Corbyn’s problems were – because he has put forward a programme which would, if implemented, improve the lives of the majority. Jeremy Corbyn and those around him mistakenly made concessions to the pro-capitalist wing of the Labour Party, which resulted in his anti-austerity message being muffled.
Sanders, unfortunately, has also allowed his message to be partially muffled by keeping his campaign within the limits of the Democrats, an unalloyed party of big business.
Sanders has rightly and repeatedly pointed out that the ‘billionaire class’ are desperate to stop him getting to the White House. Unfortunately, he has not drawn all the necessary conclusions from that.
Lessons of 2016
Back in 2016, Sanders’ campaign became a mass movement, harnessing the anger of wide layers of young people and workers. The billionaire class strained every nerve to prevent Sanders winning the Democrat nomination.
The Democratic Party has no real democratic structures through which working-class people can influence its decisions; in some areas it is not even possible to join it!
The result was Hillary Clinton being defeated by Donald Trump. A candidate for Wall Street, she was incapable of mobilising the many working-class people who had grown poorer under successive presidencies – Democrat as well as Republican.
Sanders could have used the momentum from his 2016 campaign to launch a new party of the working class, independent of the Democrats, preparing the ground to run for president on that basis in 2020. Instead he ‘reluctantly’ endorsed Hillary Clinton.
For the 2020 campaign he has repeated his mistake, making clear from the beginning that he will endorse whatever candidate the Democrats select. He has rightly attacked Biden for taking donations from over 40 billionaires, for advocating cuts to social security, for supporting the Iraq war and more.
Yet, he has now said that if Biden has more pledged delegates than him – that is delegates chosen on the basis of the primary results rather than unelected ‘super-delegates’ – he will pull out at the end of primary season. That would be correct if it was to call a conference to begin building a workers’ party, but Sanders has declared he would endorse Biden.
Meanwhile, of course, if Biden is behind Sanders at the end of the primary season it is absolutely clear that the capitalist Democratic establishment will do all it can to prevent Sanders taking the nomination.
Only if he has a clear majority of pledged delegates might they feel they have no choice but to reluctantly accept Sanders being the official candidate, although even this would not prevent them continuing to sabotage his campaign by other means.
The need to start building a new workers’ party independent of the Democrats to mobilise to defend Sanders’ programme from big business sabotage would be more urgent than ever in that situation. Following Super Tuesday however, it looks difficult for Sanders to achieve such a clear majority.
‘Unite’ against Trump
It is true that in that instance the pressure on Sanders to endorse Biden would be huge, because of a deep-felt desire to ensure Trump does not win a second term, no matter what compromises are necessary to achieve that. That was an important factor in mobilising support for Biden on super-Tuesday, with the capitalist media relentlessly driving home their message that only a ‘moderate’, ‘middle of the road’ candidate could defeat Trump.
However, Sanders should not have succumbed to that pressure. The idea that Biden – just as much of a capitalist politician as Clinton but far less competent – is the best candidate to take on Trump is laughable. Biden becoming the candidate would make a second term for Trump likely, with objective developments – such as the possibility of a new economic downturn triggered by the coronavirus – being the only obstacle in Trump’s path.
Biden will be utterly unable to harness the growing class anger in US society. In 2016 a section of the US working class who had voted for Obama switched to Trump, including some who had supported Sanders.
A racist, sexist millionaire, Trump’s populist claims to be standing up for the ‘little people’ are completely false, as has been shown by his anti-working class, pro-big business policies in office. Nonetheless, a section of workers who were desperate to protest against the capitalist establishment, as personified by Clinton, went and voted for Trump. More stayed at home. The 2016 exit polls indicated that 43% of trade union households voted for Trump, the highest Republican result in decades.
Since then there has been an important wave of strikes, starting with the magnificent uprising of teachers in West Virginia in March 2018. This has been followed by other teachers’ strikes, but also strike action by shop workers, nurses, and the longest autoworkers strike in a decade.
Overall, albeit from a low base, strikes in 2019 increased by 257% compared to two years before. But most workers looking for a means to fight back against the bosses’ onslaught will not see Biden as their candidate. Unlike Sanders, despite his attempt to claim to be the ‘union’ candidate, he has no record of supporting workers’ in struggle, and a long record of voting for pro-big business, anti-working-class policies – including for the NAFTA free trade agreement.
As vice-president he wrote the 2005 bankruptcy bill, which increased the draconian punishment of debtors, piling on the misery for millions of working-class people when the world economic crisis erupted two years later.
Far from maximising his support, Sanders insistence on running his campaign inside the cage of the Democrats will have limited enthusiasm for him among some who learnt the lessons of 2016.
As in 2016, there have been large rallies for Sanders. In the Super Tuesday primaries, however, while he overwhelmingly won the youth vote, and was also ahead among Latino voters, he trailed behind among older and African-American voters.
And his overwhelming lead among young people, while politically very important, did not result in victory partly because, as he has recognised, he did not manage to qualitatively increase the youth turnout. Turnouts were up compared to the 2016 primaries, but in no state did young people account for more than 20% of primary voters, and in most they were 15% or less.
One factor in this must be a justified scepticism, based on the experience four years ago, of the prospects of Sanders managing to win the nomination of an undemocratic big business party.
Attitude of socialists
The mass movement that developed around Sanders in 2016, and to some extent again in 2020, is an extremely important development. It reflected the first stirrings of the awakening giant, the US working class.
Millions of people who were touched by the campaign reflected their alienation from the capitalist ruling class. They were looking for an alternative to the political caste or dynasties at the head of the Democratic and Republican parties, something Trump cynically exploited.
It is essential to engage positively with this movement. This does not, however, mean simply being cheerleaders for Sanders. Socialists have to patiently explain what steps are necessary for the movement to achieve its goals, and to criticise mistakes of its leadership.
Central to this is campaigning for a break from the Democrats and the establishment of a clear working-class party, pointing to the possibility for such a party. This was one of the issues in the recent debates in the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI – our socialist international organisation to which the Socialist Party is affiliated), which led to a division in our ranks, including the departure of the CWI’s previous supporters in the US, Socialist Alternative (SA).
In 2013, SA member Kshama Sawant was elected to Seattle City Council, the first openly socialist to be elected there in a century. After her first election Kshama spoke on a platform in New York with Bernie Sanders, and urged him to run as an independent candidate for the US Presidency.
Unfortunately, however, over time SA has tended not to use Kshama’s platform to consistently point to the need to build a new party outside the Democrats, but instead has blurred the lines with ‘progressive’ Democrats.
While the need for steps to lay the basis for a new party are sometimes mentioned, this is not usually explicitly a workers’ party but “a new political party with genuine democratic structures”.
SA no longer argues that Sanders should have run as an independent, something that could have kick-started the development of a workers’ party and avoided being trapped in the pro-capitalist Democrats. Instead it has dropped that position in an attempt to get closer to Sanders’ supporters.
Thus the central focus of its recent public literature is simply on mobilising to get ‘Bernie’s back’ at the Democratic Party Convention in July. Meanwhile, Bernie has made clear that he will not fight at the Convention if Biden is then ahead!
It is likely that, angry at a stitch-up at the top, a section of Bernie’s supporters will draw the conclusion that it is necessary to begin building a new party. Under huge pressure from below it is not excluded that Bernie himself could switch tack and draw that conclusion.
That would be a major step forward, but socialists cannot wait for such developments to put forward what is needed, we have to point towards its necessity now.
The question of breaking from the Democrats is not the only issue we need to raise. Unfortunately, SA consistently suggests that putting Sanders, “a democratic socialist” in the White House is enough to succeed in a US ‘political revolution’. While Sanders does describe himself as a “democratic socialist”, and while his programme contains many good demands, he does not propose a break with the capitalist system. It does not even include the nationalisation of public services that were included in Corbyn’s election manifesto. Instead Sanders’ programme is limited to increased regulation and taxation on corporations and the super-rich.
Limited as these demands are, Sanders programme is still too much for the US capitalist class and its political representatives to accept.
He points to ‘European socialism’ as the way forward, when in reality the gains that were won by the workers’ movement in Europe in the post-World War Two period are no longer acceptable to the capitalist classes of Europe, and have been systematically undermined over decades.
From the NHS in Britain to the French pension system, only mass movements of the working class have been able to defend past gains from complete annihilation by capitalist governments, albeit sometimes headed by social democratic parties.
The capitalist establishment’s attempts to prevent Sanders getting the nomination are as nothing to the sabotage they would attempt to prevent him introducing his policies in power.
Just one individual in the White House, surrounded by a hostile capitalist state machine, Congress, and the Supreme Court, would not be able to act. Only backed by a mass movement, organised in a workers’ party, would it be possible to force the US capitalist class to make some temporary concessions to the working-class majority.
Fundamental change, however, would require breaking with the capitalist system and bringing the 500 major corporations that dominate the US economy into democratic public ownership. This would then enable the enormous industry, science, and technique created by US capitalism to be harnessed to begin to build a democratic socialist society that could meet the needs of all.