A specter is haunting the US presidential election — the specter of socialism. Before he even opened up his mouth to speak, Bernie Sanders’ effect on the first Democratic Party presidential debate was clear. Every candidate used their opening statement to address income inequality, the signature issue of Sanders’ insurgent campaign for president.
Hillary Clinton came into the debate still in the lead in the polls but facing a real challenge from Sanders and with serious questions about whether her campaign was heading into crisis, not just because of Sanders but also from the ongoing email scandal. In the wake of her forceful performance, a collective sigh of relief was heard from just about every establishment media outlet who focused on how “presidential” she looked. Talk of running a back-up establishment candidate, like Vice President Biden, has receded.
Nevertheless, a large part of the 15 million who watched (a record for a Democratic primary debate) saw it differently. Sanders – a self-described democratic socialist – came out of his first nationally televised primetime debate having created heightened interest in his anti-establishment, pro-working class campaign.
The debate marks another step forward in the re-emergence of socialist ideas as a legitimate force in US politics. Google reported that Sanders was the most searched candidate online throughout the debate. Merriam Webster reported a spike in searches for “socialism”. The Sanders’ campaign organized 4,000 viewing parties with more than 100,000 supporters attending around the country, highlighting the grassroots character of his campaign. His campaign also raised $1.3 million in the four hours after the debate.
But the aftermath of the debate also showed that the better Sanders does, the more the establishment will go on the offensive against him. How he responds and creates a clear contrast with Clinton and other establishment candidates is therefore an increasingly important question.
Debate Shifted to the Left
Undoubtedly, Sanders has shifted the primary debate inside the Democrats to the left. Throughout the night, candidates had to respond to Sanders’ positions on student debt and free college tuition, trade deals, inequality, healthcare, social security, and more. The #BlackLivesMatter movement also left its mark on the debate, forcing the candidates to take up institutionalized racism.
Rather than hide from the “socialist” label, Sanders defended it, responding, “[what] democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1 percent in this country own almost…as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.”
Every candidate was asked if they were a capitalist, not typical for a Democratic Party debate. Sanders answered: “Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little, by which Wall Street’s greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No, I don’t. I believe in a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires.”
Hillary Clinton, whose campaign is largely financed by big corporations, carefully defended capitalism saying, “it’s our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism so that it doesn’t run amok and doesn’t cause the kind of inequities we’re seeing in our economic system.” But while Hillary explicitly defended capitalism it’s far less clear how exactly she will “rein in the excesses” given her extremely close ties to Wall Street and the corporate establishment.
There were also clear weaknesses in Sanders’ presentation, for example on foreign policy. He correctly stressed his opposition to the Iraq War, unlike Clinton and the leadership of the Democratic Party who willingly went along with Bush’s lies about “weapons of mass destruction”, but he also reiterated his support of the United States’ disastrous military campaign in Afghanistan (now heading into its 15th year) as well as the bombing of Serbia in the 1990s. He tried to present himself as fit to be “commander in chief” by saying that he would be prepared to lead the US to war.
Of course some of the US’ military adventures have been waged under a humanitarian guise. Many ordinary people, for example, understandably want to see the brutal reactionaries of ISIS defeated. But it is precisely the imperialist intervention in Iraq that created the conditions for ISIS’s emergence and Obama’s bombing campaign has been a complete failure even on its own terms. At every point US military power has been used – whatever the rationale presented to the public – to serve the interests of big business not those of ordinary people. We argue that a pro-working class policy at home should be linked to a truly pro-working class policy abroad.
But these weaknesses do not alter the enormously positive effect the Sanders campaign is having in politicizing and radicalizing hundreds of thousands and, potentially, millions of people.
While numerous online polls showed that an overwhelming majority thought Sanders won the debate, the New York Times, voice of the liberal wing of the ruling elite, reported it as a crushing victory for Clinton. Sanders’ performance, they said, was “sheepish.” They emphasized how Clinton went on the offensive against Sanders, attacking him on gun control and other issues in a “commanding” way. The host of the debate, CNN – whose parent company Time Warner is the seventh largest donor to Clinton’s campaign – certainly did not help Sanders. Not a single question was asked about the minimum wage, poverty, or anti-union legislation. Instead, CNN set up the attacks on Sanders for Clinton: he is not electable, he is weak on gun control, he cannot be trusted to lead the US military, etc.
While the coverage of the New York Times felt as though they had attended a debate in some parallel universe, the point is that they are out to boost Clinton’s campaign at all costs and damage Sanders, the truth be damned. The NYT coverage may be particularly extreme but this is part of a wider trend.
The corporate media largely ignored Sanders over the last months as his campaign surged. But, the debate marks a change and shows the gloves are coming off. If Sanders support continues to grow, the attacks are guaranteed to become even sharper. In this situation, Sanders – whom millions of young people and working class people are looking to for a lead against corporate politics – needs a decisive response. While trivial and personal attacks should of course be avoided, a substantive political criticism about the establishment’s chosen candidate, Hillary Clinton, and her role in the corrupt “casino capitalist process” is absolutely necessary.
At points Clinton sought to soften the contrast with Sanders, making the case that she shared much of his values but was prepared to actually get things done. This plays well to many voters, but needs to be answered by Sanders to clearly warn people who Clinton really represents. She supported Bill Clinton’s repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, adding further fuel to the casino capitalism of the 90s and 2000s; she supported the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act to “end welfare as we know it”; and she supported NAFTA. Many people don’t know that, as Obama’s Secretary of State, Clinton was decisive in helping shepherd support for both the Keystone XL Pipeline and the Trans-Pacific Partnership – two projects she now opposes because of shifting political winds. She actually had the gall to say at the debate that the pharmaceutical and health insurance industries were among her biggest enemies when they have contributed millions of dollars to her various campaigns!
CNN moderator Anderson Cooper questioned Clinton about her flip-flopping on these issues asking if it was done for “political expediency”. This could have been used by Sanders as an opportunity to educate millions about the role played by corporate Democrats, and Clinton in particular – campaigning on the left during elections, but then ruling for Wall Street once in power.
One of the best exchanges of the night for Sanders was over the issue of regulating Wall Street. Clinton, a Wall Street-backed politician to the hilt, laughably tried to appear tough on big banks. “I represented Wall Street, as a senator from New York,” stated Clinton. “I basically said, cut it out. Quit foreclosing on homes. Quit engaging in these speculative behaviors.”
Sanders quickly responded to this nonsense: “Congress does not regulate Wall Street. Wall Street regulates Congress. Going to them and saying please do the right thing is kind of naïve.”
New Party Needed
The Democratic Party is tied by a thousands threads to the billionaire class. If Sanders’ campaign simply helps to bring young people and progressives “back to the fold” the party establishment would not have a huge problem with it. But to the extent it continues to develop and becomes a real threat, the establishment and apparatus of the party will push back, if necessary ferociously. An indication is that more than 150 elected Democratic Party governors and members of Congress have endorsed Clinton, but only two to date have come out in support of Sanders.
The most important thing about the Sanders campaign is the enthusiasm it is building for the idea of a political revolution against the billionaire class and the popularizing of socialism. Sanders has said that if he loses the primaries and Clinton is the Democratic nominee, he would support her against the Republicans. Socialist Alternative has said this would be an enormous mistake and we are confident this will become increasingly clear to large number of Sanders’ supporters as the fight in the primaries sharpens. It is increasingly urgent to take steps through and around this campaign to create a new political force that will serve the interests of the 99% and therefore must be independent of the Democrats.