A socialist in the capitalist heartland
THE RECENT CAMPAIGN OF SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS to become the Democratic Party presidential candidate, although he did not win, was at least as remarkable as the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. How could a socialist be so popular in the heartland of free market capitalism, and in a party which, although it has attracted working class support, is not rooted in the trades union movement?
In this very eloquent and heartfelt account Sanders explains why he felt impelled to stand. It was to raise issues of concern to ordinary Americans not normally discussed by establishment politicians. These are inequality, low wages, lack of healthcare, employment rights, loss of jobs overseas and the need to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure. During the course of his campaign he addressed thousands of workers at rallies throughout the country. He engaged with the trades union movement, speaking to workers seeking union recognition at McDonald's, and the Culinary Workers Union which is organising hotel workers in Las Vegas.
Everywhere he met people who were ‘sick and tired of the existing order’, many of whom often did not bother to vote. In states like Mississippi, a right wing stronghold, he found poor white workers, disenchanted with the existing order, but who voted Republican on the race issue. No previous candidate for the Democratic Party had succeeded in changing this. Sanders’ campaign was based mainly on rallies – he loved them. He could bring people together. 18,000 turned up at a rally in the Bronx, New York, where, due to its crime record, no other presidential candidate had dared to tread. The rally passed off peacefully.
What about socialism? Sanders said that the young people he spoke to were not afraid of the word at all. Older voters who had lived through the Cold War and McCarthyism were more reticent. He persuaded them that socialism was part of mainstream American values, such as fairness, and that he was following in the footsteps of President Roosevelt, the Democratic president who introduced the New Deal in the 1930s. He had no problems with the word ‘revolution’, probably because the US was founded on one, when it claimed its independence in the 18th century.
However Sanders was taking on the whole of the American establishment, including that of the Democratic Party. Sanders was addressing the same economic problems as Trump – but of course minus his racism, xenophobia and misogyny. He highlighted past failings of Democratic presidents in failing to deal with the power of the rich, even allowing tax breaks to continue after the 2008 financial crash. It is tempting to believe that had Sanders won the Democratic candidacy he could have beaten Trump.
So what are the similarities between the US and the UK? Sanders, like Corbyn, uses the term ‘rigged economy’ to show how inequality has spiralled. Although unemployment is officially low, many workers cannot live on the wages they are earning. Sanders shows how raising wages could actually create more jobs. As in the UK, the middle class is being squeezed. In many respects he depicts a country which for the working class is worse by far than the UK. Millions are without healthcare. There are no rights to paid holidays or parental leave for the majority of the working population. What would we have imposed on us by a Trump post-Brexit trade deal? Be very afraid.
Voter ID, now proposed by the Tories, exists in the US. Sanders shows how the issue of electoral fraud has been used to deprive 11% of the population a vote because they do not have any ID. These are disproportionately Latinos, Afro-Americans and Asians, and they are more likely to support the Democratic Party. Sanders did not win the candidacy. That went to the establishment politician. But his campaign illustrated that thousands could engage with politics, when approached on issues that affect them. Unfortunately this time a right wing populist politician capitalised on these issues. But Trump is a representative of the establishment and will not solve the problems facing the American working class or middle class. The American people will come to see this.