The Wall St. Journal editors are worried. Following the Nevada caucus vote they wrote: “The other candidates… all offer some version of Bernie Lite, and none speak up for the private economy.… Republicans shouldn’t be too sanguine… A majority of Americans aren’t socialist, at least not yet, [emphasis added] but the country is closely divided politically…. Mr. Trump might also make the election a referendum on himself—meaning his personal behavior and character—rather than the socialist agenda. That’s an election Bernie Sanders could win….”
But it’s not just the Wall St. Journal editors who are having an epiphany. Here is Terry Sullivan, former campaign manager for Marco Rubio: “The most important thing I learned managing Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential race was that the old political norms were dead. Experts and pundits’ predictions were often no more than guesses based on the way things used to be. [emphasis added]…. Am I the only one who was embarrassed enough at missing the 2016 political movement that elected Donald Trump that I rethought my approach to modern politics?
“Like Mr. Trump, Sen. Bernie Sanders is leading an insurgent campaign, riding a nationwide wave of discontent as many Democrats no longer think the party represents them. He inspires the most radical and disenfranchised members of his party. Yet he still manages to expand his support among more-moderate voters, even though they disagree with some of his extreme positions. It’s exactly his passionate willingness to defend the crazy things he says that draws broad support. If I had a dollar for every voter I’ve heard say, ‘I don’t agree with everything Donald Trump says, but I like that he has the guts to say it,’ I could buy Trump Tower. Mr. Sanders is benefiting from that same sentiment.”
Support no longer confined to white voters
Until recently, Sanders’ support tended to be largely confined to white youth. That seems to be changing as an article in the Washington Post reports. They describe the scene in East Las Vegas Community Center, where Sanders carried all five precincts: “It was jammed with Latinos, African Americans, some white gentrifiers… I spoke to military wives and service workers, retirees and small business owners — normal people with real jobs. These voters went overwhelmingly for Sanders, as did the rest of the state; with 70 percent of the vote in, Sanders’s support stood at 47 percent….There’s no obvious cap on Sanders’s support, no suburban or minority firewall that will keep him from winning the nomination.”
The New York Times also reports “Among self-described moderate or conservative caucusgoers, Mr. Sanders was the top vote-getter, albeit narrowly: He captured 25 percent of such voters, while Mr. Biden won 23 percent… That was in part because many black and Hispanic voters described themselves as moderates, and because Mr. Sanders outpaced the field with Hispanics, taking 53 percent, and was second only to Mr. Biden among African-Americans. Mr. Biden captured 36 percent of black voters, while Mr. Sanders won 27 percent, the entrance polls showed.”
The Washington Post article describes three categories of Sanders supporters: First are the “Realist-Idealists” who “are attracted to his far-left position on some issue they care about — usually climate change or Medicare-for-all…. But they are Democrats before they are Sanders voters. They will “Vote Blue No Matter Who” in November, a point they often spontaneously emphasize.”
“The Revolutionaries, by contrast, resemble the new voters President Trump brought into the GOP. … Often they add that 2016 was the first time they got interested in politics or voted…. These folks insist it’s Bernie or Bust. “Any Blue Won’t Do,” said Charlee Magenot….”
Finally, and maybe most significant, are the “Bandwagoners”. The Post writes: “In East Las Vegas, I spoke to seven Sanders supporters and two undecideds who were considering him. Three out of the nine either said they chose Bernie because he already had so much support — or that they had rejected another candidate for having too little…. Bandwagoners choose Sanders because they think he’s the most electable candidate. After all, his rallies are huge, and his primary margins keep growing.”
As they say, success breeds success.
Sanders victory far from guaranteed
However, Sanders winning the Democratic nomination is very far from guaranteed. So far, the main candidate from the “moderate” (in reality, the conservative) wing of the party is the 2020 Democratic equivalent of Jeb Bush, whom Trump devastatingly branded as being “low energy”. We’re referring to Trump’s equally accurately nicknamed “Sleepy Joe” Biden, the man who can barely walk down the street and chew gum, never mind think and talk, at the same time. Other challengers have similar handicaps. Buttigieg comes off as a Boy Scout and when Klobuchar smiles she looks more like she’s baring her teeth. These might sound like silly irrelevancies, but in US politics image counts for a whole lot.
Starting on “Super Tuesday” (March 3), Sanders will be facing a new challenge: Mike Bloomberg. Bloomberg was eviscerated in his first Democratic Party debate, but there is no guarantee he will fall on his face again the next time round. Even if he does, the question is whether the $450 million and counting that he’s spent on ads, plus the similar amounts he’s spent on buying local politicians – especially black mayors and legislators – will be able to overcome that. We just don’t know at this point.
Although possible, it will be extremely difficult for Sanders to win an outright majority of delegates. If he comes to the convention with a strong plurality but not a majority, what then? If he and Warren combined have a majority, then he would have a strong argument that he should be the nominee. But suppose the right wing candidates have a combined and significant majority? In that case, even if Sanders has more than any other single candidate, the right wing would have a strong argument that one of them should be the nominee. And in any case, if it’s the super delegates that end up as the difference makers, and they install somebody like Bloomberg, absolute pandemonium is likely to result. (If they were smart, they’d go for a compromise: Elizabeth Warren.)
And if Sanders wins the nomination, then what?
As the Wall St. Journal editors – and others – have pointed out, Sanders’ Democratic opponents have gone somewhat easy on him so far. (Buttigieg seems to be preparing to change that.) The reason is that they don’t want to alienate the Sanders army. However, in a general election there are a number of issues that the Republicans would ride. For example, while the majority support Medicare for all, one poll showed that 58% oppose covering undocumented immigrants in this way and 57% said they oppose abolishing private insurance altogether. Trump will also ride issues such as a claim that Sanders wants “open borders”.
And while he’s likely to use such issues against any Democratic candidate, the one issue he will ride uniquely against Sanders is that of “socialism”. Sanders is not genuinely a socialist (See What is socialism?) nor even a social democrat, but he’s been maneuvered into accepting the label of “democratic socialism.” In the 2016 election, though, the more he was forced to explain that label, the more acceptable it became. What’s more, as he showed in his victory speech after the Nevada primary (actually, caucus) vote, he would probably be the single most powerful challenger to debate Trump, assuming that he didn’t pull the punches that he swung in that Nevada speech.
In fact, that speech was kind of the anti-Trump. In 2016, Trump won in large part because he presented an overall vision. Sanders does something similar, although a completely different vision. His opponents argue that combined together, free government health care, cancelling student debt, the Green New Deal and a host of other programs are unaffordable when the bill is added up. They may be right (under capitalism), but it doesn’t matter, no more than it matters that most of what Trump says is false. The point is that Sanders is speaking to the unconscious and semi-conscious feelings of tens of millions and he’s providing an attractive answer.
There are millions of independent middle-of-the-road voters that Sanders is very unlikely to win over. Sanders argues that for every one of these that he turns off, there will be younger and more radical voters who will turn out that haven’t up until now.
One test for that was the 2018 congressional elections. There were over 40 House seats that were held by Republicans but considered winnable by a Democrat. Every single of of the 41 that were “flipped” to the Democrats were won by the conservative Democrats. A few of those “winnable” seats were contested by a Democrat from the Sanders wing. They all lost.
The Democratic leadership uses this to show that Sanders cannot win the presidency, but “it ain’t necessarily so.” Just like there is a difference between the rock star and that star’s opening acts, there is a difference between Sanders and his supporting cast. Voters – especially those who customarily don’t vote – who might not turn out for a Sanders supporter might do so for Sanders himself. They also might not. We simply don’t know at this point. But that bandwagon effect that the Washington Post article explained could grow into a tsunami by November.
In other words, only the small minded and the unashamed outright propagandists are making predictions with any great confidence, except for one thing: Trump’s rein has already broken the possibility of returning to the old days of a friendly competition between the two capitalist parties, one in which the US senators “worked both sides of the aisle.” That’s why Biden and his billionaire alter-ego, Bloomberg, are so hopelessly out of touch.
The Sanders campaign has added to that effect. It has even further exacerbated the strains both between the Democrats and Republicans and within the Democratic Party. It has brought into the political arena a layer of youth that are expecting more. Up until now, it has not succeeded in mobilizing in any mass way the single most important sector of the youth – the black youth. This is the sector that has in the past led the youth in general. That was the case during the Vietnam War, both among the soldiers and the civilian youth. The black youth’s role in the Civil Rights movement inspired many millions of white youth not only in the US but around the world. If this key sector of youth starts to see some hope and becomes fully activated in the upcoming election, that alone will transform the US political scene. (It has already happened through the Black Lives Matter movement, but on a smaller level.)
The situation within the unions must also be considered. In Nevada, for example, the culinary workers leadership attacked Sanders, but the evidence is that much of the membership voted for him anyway. In general, the union leadership has tended towards support for Biden. This will add to the alienation that many members feel towards their leadership. Just like the rest of the Democrats, Sanders has made sure not to criticize the union leadership, but the increased political ferment will in one way or another find its way into the unions.
Return to stability?
It is hard to see how even a temporary restabilization can be accomplished. No matter what the outcome – a mainstream Democratic candidate either through primary successes or through super-delegate support; a Sanders candidacy followed by another four years of Trump and even a Republican sweep of the down-ballot races; or a 2017 President Bernie Sanders – it doesn’t really matter in one sense. The entire political system upon which US capitalist stability has rested for centuries is in the process of receiving a shaking such as it has not received since the US Civil War. (In the case of a crushing defeat for the Democrats as led by Sanders, this would also mean both demoralization for many Sanders supporters and also a real discrediting of those socialists who capitulated to the mood and joined Sanders-mania.)
Working class independence
The key question, though, still remains: How, in what form and through what channels can the US working class start to assert itself as an independent force in US society? That can only happen when it has a political party of its own, a mass working class party. At this time, it’s still very difficult to see how a major split in the Democrats could happen before a working class party started to develop. Even Bernie Sanders, although he always ran as an “independent”, always functioned as part of the Democratic Party, and his main staffers are Democratic Party functionaries. (See President Bernie Sanders?) If Sanders wins it all, as the rest of the party sabotages Sanders’s campaign promises that will only increase the pressure within the Democrats. And although much of that pressure will be channeled into an attempt to strengthen the “left” wing, in this volatile period that cannot succeed entirely. If Trump is reelected, that could have a demoralizing affect for a time, but ultimately the conclusion would have to be reached that the only alternative now is to go out onto the streets. In either case, the far right – including the outright fascists – will either be emboldened or so extremely bitter that they could well turn to violence on a scale that dwarfs what we’ve seen recently. That, in itself, would further destabilize the situation.
Then there are world events, including the inevitable end of the present economic boom (whenever that happens) and other international crises for US capitalism.
In other words, no matter what the outcome of the Sanders campaign, the basis for domestic stability is collapsing and with it the capitalist control over the US working class.