When the loudmouths at Fox News used to warn about the threat of America being taken over by socialists, they probably weren’t thinking about people in Iowa and New Hampshire. But with Bernie Sanders’ decisive victory in the New Hampshire primary on February 8, to go with his tie with Hillary Clinton in Iowa, the most support so far in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination has gone to a self-described socialist.
No, it’s not the same as the imminent working-class seizure of the means of production, but Sanders’ unlikely surge doesn’t show any signs of slowing. Sanders was always expected to do well in New Hampshire, next door to his home state of Vermont, but he trounced the former Secretary of State and one-time prohibitive frontrunner by more than 20 percentage points. As in Iowa, Sanders dominated among voters under 30, winning a lopsided 82 per cent of the vote, according to exit polls. He had the edge among women, too, young and old — who Clinton supporters had alternately attempted to guilt and to shame into joining Team Hillary.
Sanders’ success is clearly based on widespread anger about economic inequality and insecurity — the urgently felt issues that always gets short shrift among mainstream political leaders. Even as the official unemployment rate dropped below five percent in January, wages have remained so low that more than half of US households have less than $1,000 in their combined savings and checking accounts — and a quarter have less than $100. Six months ago, few observers thought that Sanders would be in the position he is today... His campaign has become the latest explosive expression of class anger in America — another face of a radicalization that includes Occupy Wall Street, the protests of low-wage workers for a $15-an-hour minimum wage and the Black Lives Matter movement, to name a few examples.
In the face of the Bernie’s surge, Clinton supporters are coming off as entitled and out of touch — from the pundits who sigh that Sanders voters don’t seem to understand that our political system isn’t meant to actually get anything done; to the strange “feminist” appeals from rich and powerful women to young debt-ridden ones to help Hillary move into the White House. Presidential elections in the US aren’t about platforms or personalities so much as they are about paths. Campaigns carefully weave their candidate’s biographies and political beliefs into a symbolic narrative about the country we want to live in. In 2008, Barack Obama thrilled millions with his story of an intelligent outsider whose unique perspective could bring white and black people together to acknowledge and finally overcome the country’s long history of racism.
It's easy to smirk at how wrong almost every part of that sentence now seems, but a lot of the people doing the smirking, at least those old enough to remember, are lying to themselves if they claim they didn’t feel it at least a little bit. This year, Bernie Sanders is inspiring voters with another narrative. He’s the last honest politician, the guy everybody laughed at as they got rich on Wall Street gambling, while he kept to his principles — even socialism! — until the day of financial reckoning came, and everyone realised he was right all along.
Bernie’s story doesn't completely hold up — Progressive Punch ranks him as having only the 18th most progressive record in a Senate that he’s supposedly leading a revolution against. Sanders may champion single-payer health care against the mess that Obamacare made of an already messed-up system, but Senator Sanders did the “realistic” thing in 2010 and voted for the Affordable Care Act. Still, the narrative is grounded in enough reality to work.
The odds are still against Sanders winning the Democratic nomination for president. That’s not because, as the mainstream media lectures, his message of universal health care and free college tuition is somehow against the values of a majority of Democratic primary voters, but because he is starting from way behind in many states —and even if he manages to pull even with Hillary Clinton, he has to face the gauntlet of the Democratic Party establishment and the corporate media. Then there is the issue of “superdelegates” to the Democratic National Convention that will officially pick the nominee. Some 712 out of the 4,763 delegates aren’t selected in primary contests, but get their seats based on being an officeholder or party insider. So far, 359 superdelegates have already pledged to vote for Clinton, versus 14 for Sanders. In other words, Sanders will have to do much better than win a majority of primary voters — he has to overcome the head start that Clinton has by virtue of being the nearly unanimous choice of the party establishment.
If Sanders can hold up under the pressure of the coming months and continue winning the same level of support from primary voters and caucus-goers in other states, then things will get interesting.
His continued success will further alarm the likes of Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein. Clinton has been courting support from Wall Street for many years, despite her occasional bouts of watered-down populist rhetoric. (Unfortunately, given Sanders” thoroughly mainstream positions on foreign policy, including support for the “war on terror”, the military-industrial complex won’t have as much reason to be alarmed.) But the impact of a continued and widening groundswell of popular support for Sanders could go further and shake things up in many liberal organizations, such as NARAL Pro-
Choice America and the Human Rights Campaign, which reflexively endorsed Clinton.
Can Sanders actually win enough votes in the primaries to win the Democratic presidential nomination? He still has to be considered a big underdog. But it can’t be entirely ruled out so far in advance, and with so many unpredictable factors — including the potential for the Clinton campaign to self-destruct. But Sanders supporters need to ask themselves another question: if Bernie Sanders could manage to win the Democratic Party presidential nomination, can he win the Democratic Party to support anything he stands for?
As SocialistWorker.org wrote in an editorial: “Sanders’ insistence on talking about health care is a breath of fresh air in the post-ACA political climate. But it is, in fact, unrealistic to propose a single-payer health care system as a candidate of a party that is just as much in the pockets of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries as the Republicans. Were Sanders ever to find himself in a position of trying to achieve single-payer, his own party would stab him in the back.
“Sanders says he wants to bring a ‘political revolution’ to Washington, but what does that really mean? When he defines it, he usually means that the groundswell of support to get him elected would also usher in a Democratic majority in the Senate and House, which could enact his progressive policies and get money out of politics. “Sanders' ‘revolution’ depends on the party supporting his platform — while its leadership makes clear every day that it doesn’t.
“The betrayals would begin long before the next president and Congress are sworn in. In 1972, liberal George McGovern won the presidential nomination over the opposition of party leaders — and the Democratic establishment sat on its hands to make sure McGovern lost the general election against Richard Nixon.”
But recognising the difficulties in overcoming them shouldn’t take away from recognising the impact his campaign has already had and will continue to have in the coming months.
• Abridged from socialistworker.org