Opinion – Democratic Primaries 2016

Sanders. A Red in the White House ?

Marco Zerbino “This campaign is going to send a message to the billionaire class. And that is : you can't have it all.” Bernie Sanders decided to launch his campaign for the Democratic nomination in a certainly unusual way. Currently, former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton is by far the leading candidate in the race that will officially begin in February 2016. The US Senator, a liberal who likes to define himself as a “socialist”, will participate in the primaries as an independent, bringing to the table the openly left-wing contents of the electoral program he announced to voters in Burlington on May 26. On that very day, on the banks of Lake Champlain in Burlington, the most important city of “his” Vermont, Sanders talked about the fight against growing inequalities that afflict the country, the redistribution of wealth and more progressive taxation, increasing the minimum wage and putting an end to the wage gap between men and women, free healthcare and education, reforming Wall Street in order to limit the financial sharks' power, the public financing of political parties, clean energy and the fight against climate change.

jeudi 9 juillet 2015

Sanders, the natural candidate for the new US left ?

The list could go on and on. What is clear is that the candidacy of this 75 year old man of humble origins, son of a Polish Jew who emigrated and arrived in the United States at the age of 17, who grew up in a small rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn, will inject a massive dose of radical reformism into the Democratic primaries. Don’t underestimate me is the warning he has sent to US public opnion, and, particularly, to his main adversary in the last few weeks. In the current state of affairs within the Democratic Party, his candidacy is effectively the only one capable of thwarting Clinton’s moderate and centrist profile, especially as several signals indicate a certain radicalisation within US politics and the reopening of a left-wing space in the political landscape in the heart of the world’s most powerful economy after several decades.

The years that followed the financial crisis of 2008 have for a fact been characterized in the United States by a rather tangible political, social, and cultural awakening. This awakening has been especially powerful among the country’s youth with the Occupy Wall Street movement, but also among workers and trade unionists with the emergence of important, and in many aspects pionnering, fights in economic sectors historically allergic to any form of unionization (from the movements of fast-food workers to those of the workers of the retail gaint Walmart). To these struggles, we must add those that, in different areas of the country, have had the workers of the public sector as protagonists, in the wake of those who went on strike in Madison, Wisconsin, in 2011, against the wage cuts and anti-union attacks proposed by the austerity-tooting Republican Governer Scott Walker. Even if it did not prevent Rahm Emanuel, the privatizing bulldozer mayor, from closing several schools, a strike during which Chicago public school teachers were in confrontation with the mayor was a kind of watershed moment in 2012.

We certainly cannot forget the recent protests against racism and police violence that exploded after a succession of chronic episodes in past years. The Black Lives Matter movement has succeded not only by having a resonance in the medias notably thanks to a careful use of social networks, but also by coming out from behind the computer screen and taking to the real world’s streets with tens of thousands of people ; which is remarkable if we consider that police violence, and in particular direct attacks against Black citizens, is nothing new in this country.

The election of Bill De Blasio, a liberal with a certain left-wing rhetoric, as Mayor of New York City, the popularity conquered by a public figure like the Senator from Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren in left-wing and trade-unionist circles after having made herself a poor reputation on Wall Street as a strong supporter of finance regulation, the election of the socialist Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council, or even the interest aroused by Jacobin Magazine, a Marxoid and far-left review, on college campuses are among the main reflections of this new political climate.

Given this situation, the challenge facing Hillary Clinton is to remain the candidate of the establishment without neglecting theses movements that are emergening on her left. A squaring of the circle that was already difficult before the Senator from Vermont’s candidacy, who, given his history and his political positions, seems to be the natural interlocutor of these nascent transformations.

An Uncommon Political Itinerary

During the most significative years of his political career, Sanders was an independent, even if he progressively started to regularly collaborate with the Democrats. After his experience with the Liberty Union Party, a small left-wing party, during the 1970s, he became Mayor of Burlington in 1981 at the head of a social coalitation of youth, workers, small shopkeepers and low-income households ; he imposed himself on the outgoing Democratic mayor with a lead of only 10 votes. During the 1980s, he continued to stand in the way of Democrats and Republicans in this city of Vermont, while attracting a lot of attention for his progressive policies. His tenure as local administator ended in 1989 and the 25 years that followed are marked by his emergence on the national political scene, first as a member of the House of Representatives from 1990 to 2006, then as Senator from Vermont since 2006. Currently, Sanders is one of only two Senators who do not belong either to the Democrats, or the Republicans, and who can thus keep his “independent” label. However, his level of collaboration with the “donkey party” is rather high, and as Howard Dean remarked in 2005, “ultimately, he votes the same way as the Democrats in 98% of cases.”

Sanders is very attached to his image as an “outsider” and a maverick. Speaking of his candidacy, he has affirmed numerous times that he is not interested in the internal dynamics of the Democratic Party, but rather by the more ambitious objective of organizing around his campaign for the nomination a coalition of social forces capable of setting off a “political revolution”. The underpinning idea seems to be the construction of a grass-roots movement that could lead to the creation of a third party, reproducing nationally what has already happened in Vermont with the birth of the Progressive Party.

The political and community realities upon which “Bernie’s self-narrative” seems to have a hold are numerous. Besides left-leaning newspapers like The Nation, the Chicago weekly In These Times, and Jacobin Magazine, we cannot forget the appeal launched by a group of rank-and-file union delegates and activists asking the trade-union world to collectively support (from the leadership of the AFL-CIO to its newest member) Sanders’ candidacy and to distance themselves from Clinton. Other appeals in Sandors’ favor have been launched in the past few weeks by a group of Occupy activists, People for Bernie and Progressive Democrats of America, an active association both inside and outside of the Democratic Party whose goal is to end the centrist hegemony within the party (it is one of the legacies of the campaigns led by Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich during the 2004 primaries).

Skeletons in the Closet

However, Sanders is not unassailable on his left. His past as an enlightened administration capable of limiting the anti-social excesses of the “billionaire class”, as he likes to say, does not erase the fact that he progressively aligned himself on the Democratic line after his entry on the national political scene without losing credit among more radical voters.

His tendancy to vote almost systematically with the “donkey party” has already been mentionned. But this tendancy has been proved true time and time again with a consistency that can only worry us, especially when it concerns the foreign policy of the world’s number one economic power.

His former comrads from the Liberty Union Party had already denonced his Democrat-leaning tendancies. Between 1992 and 1996, Sanders supported Bill Clinton and throughout the 1990s, he distinguished himself by his support for several military interventions : from the former Yugoslavia to the “targeted” bombings in Iraq, via Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Liberia, the Congo, Albania, Sudan and Afghanistan. He voted against the war in Iraq proposed by Bush Junior in 2003, but he originally supported the concentration of troops in the Persian Golf proposed by Bush Senior in the summer of 1990, while he was negociating with the Democratic Party in order to guarantee his election to the House of Representatives. The former effectively decided to not present an official candidate against Sanders in exchange for his promise not to found a third party. Once he was elected to Congress, Sanders continued to support US military actions in the Persian Golf and to negociate simultaneously so as to be admitted as an independent into the caucus of Democratic representatives and senators in Congress ; but the National Democratic Party ultimately refused his request. It is at that very moment that the former Mayor decided to return to his pacifist origins by opposing the first war in Iraq after having initially supported it.

Other questionable elements of Sanders’ political past include his support for sanctions against Iraq during the Clinton era, his vote in favor of the extradition of Afro-American activist Assata Shakur from Cuba – in violation of the treaties in vigor between Washington and Havana –, his refusal to vote against the use of depleted uranium in Iraq and Yugoslavia, his ties with the world of war veterans (notably the most war-mongering ones and by no means the rare anti-imperialist ones), his ambiguous attitude towards military spending, and his reluctance to directly address the questions of race and police violence. To all that, we must add his vision of the conflict opposing Israel and Palestine that is entirely based on Tel-Aviv’s reading of the situation. Last July, the Senator from Vermont supported the bombing of Gaza that made thousands of civil victims among the Palestinians, even if it is true that he condemned the “excesses” (that is to say, the fact that schools and hospitals were targeted). Not bad for a socialist !