US Primaries: What is the Sanders phenomenon?

By Silvia Santos *

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As in the rest of the world, new winds are blowing in the political arena of the United States. Faced with a social crisis that advances relentlessly, with its attendant unemployment, low wages and no prospect of improvement on the horizon, the discredit and rejection of the traditional parties has a new expression. The 74-year old veteran socialist Bernie Sanders accumulates victories in primary elections in the Democratic Party, competing head-to-head with Hillary Clinton toward the presidential election of November this year.

Picking up the demands of the movement “Occupy Wall Street,” Sanders promises to tax the rich, raise the minimum wage to $ 15 an hour, ensure free universities and public health, and other democratic issues such as the fight against racism, support of the LGBT community and against US military interventions. In all, a very progressive movement essentially of youth has formed, which no longer fears the word “socialism,” which is becoming popular and is engaging, albeit a minority, of workers.

Its growth also expresses a disappointment with Obama (who years ago awakened the same or greater expectations than Sanders), because after two terms, the social divide that separates the billionaires from a working population and an increasingly impoverished middle class, has deepened.

In the state of New Hampshire, Sanders won 85 percent of the vote of those under 30 and 65 percent of the vote of the workers receiving less than $ 50,000 a year. Meanwhile Hillary Clinton is a favorite among older voters and those with higher incomes.

On one hand we have Sanders threatening Hillary Clinton’s primacy; on the other, among the Republicans, is the growing popularity of billionaire Donald Trump, a racist and xenophobe, who campaigns promising to expel all Muslims from the country, among other gems.

On the side of the working class, most of the unions and the powerful AFL-CIO, traditional allies of Democrats, support Hillary Clinton, although sectors that have struggled— such as nurses, postal and communication workers, as well as thousands of disgruntled workers— support Sanders.

At the same time, the economic and social crisis explains why sectors of people 40 years and older, and of white middle-class workers, are frightened by the presence of a population of blacks, Latinos, Asians, etc., who compete for the few and poorly paid jobs, are actively supporting the magnate Donald Trump.

Who is Bernie Sanders?

Independent until 2015, the current senator for the state of Vermont, Sanders, as a young man, became linked to socialism and has always had progressive ideas, vindicating a “Nordic” style or reformist socialism.

He founded and organized various groupings, pitting Democrats and Republicans. In Vermont, he became the Mayor of Burlington and was re-elected four times; in 1990 he was elected Member of the House of Representatives, a post he held for 16 years before being elected senator in 2006, an occasion at which he was officially supported by the Democratic Party. Former Vermont Democrat Governor Howard Dean said Sanders “was an ally who votes with Democrats 98 percent of the time” (he has even endorsed the Democratic Party support for Israel) and Sanders also had the support of then-Senator Obama. He was reelected to the Senate in 2012 and in 2015 decided to contest the presidential nomination of Hillary Clinton and Obama’s party.

In July 1986, at a conference of socialists and activists in Berkeley, Sanders gave this message: “We discuss whether or not we socialists should be working within the Democratic Party to impose our ideas. But the Democratic Party is not the party of the Socialists, but of their enemies, the bourgeois politicians… It isn’t the party of the workers, of their class, of the socialists, because it defends the class that oppresses the workers… If we have shown that we can win elections against the Democrats, participating in that party, wouldn’t we be postponing indefinitely our own birth as a political force? Wouldn’t it be the worst crime against our own ideas?” (International Courier, October 1986).

Unfortunately, 30 years later, Sanders has changed his mind. Instead of strengthening the struggle for the creation of an independent socialist party, which even being reformist would be an extraordinary step, to the extent that it would challenge the traditional bipartisanship, he decided to reinforce it. The bipartisanship between the two major parties of big business monopolies and big capital of the main imperialist country in the world is a straitjacket that prevents political independence of the working class.

So, citing the Argentine political analyst Marcelo Cantelmi, we could say that “Sanders would be an expression of social anxieties, but this does not means he represents them.” Because he not only pledged his vote to Hillary Clinton if she wins the primary, but because his program will be impossible to implement during this period of crisis of capital, unless the people are mobilized to impose the revolutionary way, which is not in Sanders’ plans.

Hence it is wrong to confuse the progressive movement of millions of youth and bands of workers vindicating socialism (even in a social democratic version) with figures or parties that are occasionally at the forefront.

Sanders is far from being an outsider. He is an experienced politician who knows that traditionally the Democratic Party has tolerated or allowed to run various wings and more or less progressive sectors, while at the same time, the Party’s position also makes it possible to keep within the framework of bipartisanship, in this case with the Democrats, the vote of millions of young people.

Unlike Syriza, born as a new anti-capitalist party independent of the traditional parties, expressing a very tough struggle and dozens of general strikes (with Tsipras subsequently surrendering himself into the hands of the Troika), the Democratic Party is one of two parties of the bourgeoisie of the main imperialist country in the world.

Therefore, our call is for Sanders to return to the path of his 1986 speech and place himself at the head of an actual independent movement of the left, which would be a powerful lever for the advancement of the working class and youth towards producing a change in the heart of the empire. Otherwise, support for the Democratic candidate will end up reinforcing the imperialist bipartisanship.


* The author is a member of CST/PSOL(Brazil) and the International Workers Union-Fourth Internaltional (IWU-FI)

Translated by Daniel; proofread by Cynthia.