Bernie Sanders campaign – an opportunity to build a new party of the 99%
By Tony Saunois (CWI Secretary) who recently visited the US for meetings of Socialist Alternative
The US Presidential election campaign represents a turning point in US society and the struggles of the working class, the middle class, young people and all those exploited by capitalism. US society is gripped by a mass politicisation and rejection of, or mass opposition to, the established political parties and their leadership. 26% of the electorate are registered Republicans and 30% Democrats. Yet the largest group are registered ‘independents’ – 43%, indicating just some of the potential for the support for a new party. The two party system in the US is now disintegrating.
Both the parties of US capitalism, the Republicans and the Democrats, are riven by division and upheaval. The emergence of the right-wing, racist, reactionary populist, Donald Trump, signifies the losing of control of the Republican Party by the ruling class which is currently struggling to re-gain full control of it. At the same time there is a massive struggle under way to win the Democratic Party nomination, as millions have rallied to support Bernie Sanders “Democratic Socialist” challenge to the pro-Wall Street Hilary Clinton.
Whatever the outcome of these unprecedented battles, US society will never be the same again. At root these developments reflect a massive class polarisation which has opened up. It is reflected in the enormous inequality which has opened like a chasm ripping society apart. Between 1947 and 1979 the income of the bottom 20% rose by 122%. Following the application of “Reaganomics”, the richest 1% saw their income increase by a staggering 270% while the rest remained stagnant or declined. If wealth distribution was the same today as in the 1970s the bottom 20% would each be US$11,000 per annum better off!
Amongst young people in particular there is a revolt against the “system” and thirst to listen to socialist ideas as an alternative to the still powerful but decaying US imperialism. The Washington Post carried an article entitled: “Our socialist youth: Why millennials are embracing a bad old term…This week, we’re talking about the rise of socialism” (21st March 2016).
The bold intervention of the CWI sister organisation, ‘Socialist Alternative’, especially the double election victory of Kshama Sawant in the Seattle council elections, has been one factor, amongst others, which has contributed to developments around the Sanders campaign and assisted in putting the issue of socialism on the table for debate in the election. In the same way as in Britain the presence of Socialist Party members in leading positions in some important trade unions prevented the leadership of them supporting anti-Corbyn candidates.
These developments in the US are having and will continue to have, a powerful impact internationally and on the struggles of the working class in many continents – especially in the neo-colonial world. The revolt of the US masses and support for Bernie Sanders’ ’Political Revolution’ is inspiring activists in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe.
Tremendous support for Sanders
Despite the efforts of the capitalist press and media to downplay or ignore the massive support won by Bernie Sanders the decisive fact is the tremendous support he has won. The press and media has given his campaign little coverage and tried to smother it in silence. Or, alternatively, some papers like the Washington Post, have attacked him in sixteen articles carried in the space of 16 hours!
Over five million donations have be made to Bernie Sanders campaign from approximately two million people!. Following what the press dubbed his disappointing results on March 16th when voters in Illinois, Ohio, Missouri and other states went to the polls, over US$4 million was raised by Sanders in three days! Following his landslide wins in Washington, Alaska and Hawaii he raised a further US$4 million in two days!
Yet, far from being “disappointing”, as the media tried to portray the, his results on the primaries on March 16th were an indication of his growing support. The outstanding feature of these elections, was that he did so well in a number of key states. In Illinois, which includes the massive working class city of Chicago he went from being twenty points behind to lose by only a few percentage points! In Chicago he polled 45.5% of the vote despite having the entire rotten Democratic Party machine pitted against him. Clinton won it with 53.6% of the vote. Sanders won 312,572 votes to Clinton’s 368,395.
In Chicago a bitter struggle is taking place against the hated Democratic Mayor, Rahm Emanuel – Obama’s former Chief of Staff – who is carrying out vicious attacks involving the sacking of teachers and closure of pubic schools. The militant teachers’ union, the CTU, has called a strike on April 1st threatening to “shut down the city” which has now been joined by the fast food workers demanding a minimum wage of US$15 an hour.
Emanuel endorsed Clinton in the primary, fuelling support for Sanders who proclaimed at the mass rally in Chicago: “I would like to thank Rahm Emanuel for not endorsing me. I do not want the endorsement of a Mayor who is firing teachers and shutting down schools”. A bold statement in contrast to Jeremy Corbyn in Britain who is endorsing the right-wing Labour candidate for London Mayor, Sadiq Khan who proudly boasts he will be the most “pro-business” Mayor, or Joe Anderson in Liverpool and others who are carrying out cuts and attacks on the working class.
In state after state, mass rallies of thousands – even tens of thousands- have taken place. One of the most recent was in Seattle – attended by 20,000 people – called at two days’ notice! This was also addressed by ‘Socialist Alternative’ member and councillor, Kshama Sawant who called for a new party of the 99%. This was followed by landslide victories for Sanders in Washington State where he won 73% of the vote and Alaska where he won a staggering 82%. These victories have undoubtedly given a tremendous boost to his supporters and renewed momentum in his campaign which will be taken into the crucial states of Wisconsin, New York, California and others in the coming months. At the time of writing Clinton is declining to debate with Bernie in New York!
The Un-Democratic Party and the primaries
Yet the undemocratic nature of the Democratic primaries and Democratic Party means that it is still very unlikely Sanders will win a majority of the elected delegates – although this cannot be entirely excluded if the momentum he has gained in Washington, Alaska, Hawaii and other states continues especially in New York and later in Calafornia.
However the Democratic Party has hundreds of “super delegates” – former and current Senators, Governors, Presidents, party officials and others – who are mainly defenders of the ruling class and whose votes can act as a veto on Clinton’s behalf. In reality it is not a party with individual membership but an electoral machine with no democratic check or accountability. In Arizona there is a major upheaval following Clinton’s victory as it has emerged that tens of thousands of people were prevented from voting due to lack of sufficient polling stations, ballot papers and people being wrongly registered. There is demand here for a re-run of the election to be held in June. The election system is designed to block the type of revolt that is currently taking place.
Yet such is the surge in support for his radical reformist polices and the idea of a “political revolution”, it is not absolutely certain it will be able to do so. Should Sanders manage to win despite the major obstacles which exist, the Democratic capitalist leadership would never accept such an outcome. They would move to sabotage his campaign and an effective split in the party would develop.
Despite the fact that the un-democratic primary system and “super delegates” are likely to prevail and endorse Clinton, the party convention in July is set to be a battleground. This will pose the crucial question of what next for Bernie should Clinton, as is most likely, secure the nomination.
The CWI and its sister organisation in the US, Socialist Alternative, have argued from the beginning that it was a mistake for him not to run as an independent and use the campaign as the basis to build a new party of the 99% and the working class that will fight Wall Street and the ruling class.
However, the struggle has developed for him to secure the Democratic Party nomination. We do not think it is likely this will succeed given the capitalist, undemocratic nature of the party, but while not fully agreeing with his programme, we wish him and his supporters well and wanted him to win a victory and still do. ‘Socialist Alternative’ intervened in this movement, launching the ‘Movement for Bernie’ to try and assist those drawn to this movement reach the conclusion of the need to build a new party and for Bernie to run independently if blocked by the Democratic Party.
While the undemocratic nature of the primaries and the Democratic Party make this unlikely the mass enthusiasm Bernie Sanders continues to enjoy and the mobilisation of millions in support of his campaign however are increasingly posing the question – what should he do if he loses the convention?
For a new party and Bernie to run independently
Urgently, a national assembly of Sanders supporters and those who want to fight to defend all workers’ interests, against racism and build a new political alternative to the capitalist Republicans and Democrats and the ruling class they represent needs to be called by Bernie. This could lay the basis to harness the movement his campaign has unleashed and debate the next step to take the struggle forward.
If blocked at the Democratic convention and by the Democratic Party his struggle should continue and he should stand as an independent or on the Green Party ticket in the November Presidential elections. This is the way to ensure the mass movement that has developed is taken further forward and the next stage of the struggle prepared for. From this the basis could be laid to build a new party from this movement.
At the outset of his campaign Bernie declared that if defeated for the Democratic nomination he would endorse Clinton. This would be wrong and would risk dissipating the mass movement aroused in this struggle. While it is entirely understandable that Bernie and many of his supporters want to defeat the right-wing Republicans and especially a racist populist like Trump or Cruz, endorsing Clinton is not the way to do this. Firstly, it is not certain that Clinton would be able to defeat either of them, such is the mistrust in her. All of the recent opinion polls indicate that the candidate most likely to beat both Trump and Cruz is Bernie Sanders.
The entirely understandable desire to defeat the Republican and thereby a “vote for the least bad” sentiment is like that which developed in Britain when Blair stood for the first time in 1997 with an opportunity to defeat the Tories.
However, Blair, the outright representative of capitalism in the New Labour Party following his election victory, unleashed a series of vicious attacks against the working class and joined Bush in creating the bloodbath of the Iraq war. A Clinton Presidency would have the same characteristics as a Blair in the US today.
The real fear of a big layer that standing independently could “split the anti-Trump vote” could be answered, if there was a real threat of the racist Trump winning by Bernie standing in most states, but not in the tightly fought swing states. This would allow him to fight in the large majority of other states and forge together the forces for a new party.
Standing as an independent and using this campaign to lay the basis for building a new party would ensure that a weapon is forged for the US working people to use in the struggles that will erupt under either a Clinton or Republican administration and future elections to the House of Representatives and Senate two years later.
Recently, in an interview on the ’Young Turks’ alternative media channel, Bernie has been more conditional about endorsing Clinton. He in effect placed conditions on her saying she needed to supporta programme of : – Medicare for all, a single payer health care system, a US$15 hourly minimum wage; rebuilding of crumbling infrastructure, action on climate change, free tuition at colleges and universities, a tax on Wall Street speculation and an ending of all corporate loopholes. He also indicated he would not include Clinton in a Cabinet should he be elected President.
This represented a significant change in Bernie Sanders’ previously categorical arguments about endorsing Clinton and him not running independently. This reflects the dynamic of the campaign and pressure from the new fresh forces supporting him. At the same time he wrongly raised the idea of transforming the capitalist Democratic Party rather than building a new party.
It is extremely unlikely the Democrats or Clinton could accept all of his demands – in effect his entire programme – which would commit them to opposing the neo-liberal policies they have been defending and implementing. Yet even if they did make some verbal commitment to accept some of his programme they could never be trusted to enact it following the election. Clinton and the Democratic Party leaders are staunch defenders of capitalism and its interests.
Whether this less emphatic position of Bernie indicates he could be pressured by events to take the right step and run independently remains to be seen, although at the moment, it seems unlikely.
Republican Party in turmoil
How the battle develops in the Republican Party is a factor that could have an impact on this possibility. While Trump has taken the lead, it is not certain he will win the Republican endorsement. The party establishment is at sea and opposed to him. Some appear to now have thrown their support behind the equally right-wing Cruz. For them Trump is a dangerous maverick. Yet like the movement in support of Sanders he reflects the turmoil in US society and overwhelming feeling amongst the mass of the population that the old established order no longer represents them or defends their interests.
Significantly, Trump is directing his reactionary populist propaganda at winning sections of the white working class who feel abandoned and that nobody is speaking for them. It is not an accident that he has raised, in the past, support for a free health system and, recently, declared he will not touch social security. His reactionary populism is not a defence of classic neo-liberalism which is one reason why the Republican elite is opposed to him.
However, it is not certain Trump or the other candidates will meet the requirement of the “rule 40” introduced in 2012 to stop Ron Paul securing the nomination. To get onto the first ballot each candidate first needs the majority in eight states and to then win the nomination by over 51% of the votes on the first ballot. The rules committee is considering a change to the convention rules – by arbitrary imposition – indicating the undemocratic nature of the Republican Party as well. As one leading Republican commentated this would mean “a political Jihad” at the Republican convention in July. Already Trump and Cruz have said they would not necessarily endorse each other as Republican candidates if selected. This could mean Trump, if he is blocked, running independently on the Libertarian Party ticket meaning two right wing candidates. It is also possible that Trump win the official Republican nomination but an anti-Trump Republican also stands as an independent. Such developments could increase the pressure on Bernie to do the same on the Democrats side and run independently if blocked by the Democratic Party.
This possibility would open the way for an explosive political development which although not the most likely cannot be entirely excluded.
There is political turmoil and social upheaval in the US at this time. Developments within the political parties and infrastructure are not under the control of the ruling class and the outcome of the struggle in either party is not predetermined or settled in advance.
Neither is this process likely to end at either of the party conventions or even following the Presidential elections in November. The forces unleashed in both party campaigns reflect the social and economic crisis facing US capitalism. This will remain whoever wins the election in November. There is a crying need for a new independent party of the working class and all those exploited by capitalism – the 99%. Although not in the purest way, the movement behind Bernie Sanders reflects this. Most of those attending his rallies and supporting him are not members of the Democratic Party and they are fresh to politics. The five million donations from up to two million people to his campaign represent the outlines of a new movement that has yet to be born as a new independent party.
A new workers’ party
As the CWI has pointed out previously the formation of new workers parties’ rarely takes place in a pure form, especially where conscious socialists or Marxists are not at the head of the process. Often elements from or around capitalist parties or institutions can be affected by the class struggle and play a role. In Greece the former workers’ party, PASOK, found a part of its origins in the liberal capitalist Centre Union. In Britain some elements from the Liberal Party and Liberal trade unionists were involved in the eventual formation of the Labour Party. In Brazil forces from capitalist institutions like the Roman Catholic Church were crucial in the formation of the Workers’ Party – the PT.
These are the processes still unfolding in the US around the struggle for the Democratic Party nomination for Presidential candidate. How far this will develop is uncertain. It is likely to continue even after the Presidential election should Sanders or his followers try and establish a permanent organisation “to continue the political revolution”. If established it may could be partly in, and partly out of the Democratic Party. This is already being discussed by some commentators – a left-wing version of the Tea-Party.
This could even exist for a period of time operating in a hybrid fashion – half in and half out of the Democratic Party. The situation could even be very different in different states and endure for a time before the situation becomes clarified – either resulting in a break from the Democrats or possibly disintegrating, if it becomes trapped inside the Democrats, and disappointment or disillusionment setting in amongst its supporters. This is not a certainty but is a possibility inherent in the charged political and social situation which exists. It would require a skilful intervention and orientation by Marxists to participate in such a development and struggle for it to move towards the formation of new party of working people.
These upheavals in the USA have crucial lessons for the international workers movement and are an anticipation of the developments that will rock other countries. They will have a big impact on the international workers’ movement as they are unfolding in the world’s largest imperialist power. The CWI and its sister organisation in the US, Socialist Alternative, is actively involved and participating in these struggles, assisting workers and youth to draw the conclusion that a new independent party of working people is necessary and taking the steps needed to help build it.