A few weeks ago Bernie Sanders was being written off by the corporate media. He had a mild heart attack and there was a constant drumbeat about how he was “too old” and how Elizabeth Warren had surged past him among progressive voters. Then Sanders came back to deliver his strongest debate performance to date in Ohio. Following that his campaign received a huge boost with the endorsement of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, three congresswomen of color who have stood up to both Trump and the Democratic establishment. Sanders’ campaign also raised more money than any other Democratic campaign in the third quarter of 2019 and has the most individual donors.
More broadly the race for the Democratic nomination has become a lot more fluid. Joe Biden’s campaign has begun to slowly sink, reflected not just in the polls but in the lack of financial support from ordinary people. As one commentator put it, “his support is a mile wide and an inch deep.” Elizabeth Warren has certainly gained support, including from some who supported Sanders last time. She and Sanders are portrayed as the two leading progressives in the race.
In reality Warren, a self-described “capitalist to her bones” is far more acceptable to the ruling class than Sanders. However, for most of the elite, even her proposals for “accountable capitalism” go way too far. A race in which the two frontrunners are Sanders and Warren is a nightmare for the Democratic establishment and there is increased angst among the “donor class” about whether someone else – Michelle Obama, Michael Bloomberg, even Hillary Clinton! – could enter the race to save the day for the corporate wing of the party.
Sanders Moves Further Left
It is undeniable that Sanders is running a more radical, working class centered campaign this time compared to 2016. This reflects how millions of young people and workers have been radicalized in a period of profound political polarization. Since 2016, we have seen the beginnings of a mass women’s movement sparked by MeToo; mass protests by young people against gun violence and more recently against climate change; and, of course, the most significant strike wave in decades beginning with the teachers’ revolt and now spreading to other sectors, including auto workers. We have also seen wider interest in socialist ideas than ever before with the Democratic Socialists of America growing to 60,000 in the wake of Sanders’ campaign.
In recent speeches, including his campaign relaunch in Queens on October 19, Sanders has spoken about how his presidency would usher in a “government of the working class” and that he would be the “organizer in chief.” He doesn’t just say that he wants to tax the rich; he says “billionaires should not exist.” He has attended workers’ rallies and picket lines around the country and has encouraged his volunteer base to do the same.
Sanders’ platform has also evolved. He continues correctly to focus on Medicare for All and has forcefully and effectively answered the attacks of corporate “moderates” and “centrists” in the Democratic debates, labelling them “Republican talking points.” He continues to demand a $15 federal minimum wage and tuition free public college but he now also calls for raising teacher salaries around the country to a minimum of $60,000 a year and to cancel student debt. His program for racial justice and democratic rights continues to get stronger. He has, for example, called for extending voting rights not just to “ex-felons” but to all prisoners.
Addressing the existential threat posed by climate change, Sanders has followed AOC’s lead in arguing for a bold Green New Deal to begin a rapid transition away from fossil fuels. While correctly arguing for massive public investment in a green retooling of the economy which would create millions of jobs, Bernie and AOC do not clearly point to the necessity of taking the energy industry itself into public ownership but Sanders points in this direction by calling to “end greed in our energy system.” Unless this is done, big oil will use its massive clout to obstruct all other measures that may be taken. Sanders has also called for bringing all utilities into public ownership which is very relevant with the exposure of the criminal role of California’s private PG&E utility and its aged equipment in starting devastating wildfires.
Perhaps most importantly, Sanders has put forward bold proposals to roll back anti-union laws and dramatically strengthen the hand of working people organizing against the corporate elite in their workplaces. This includes guaranteeing the right of public sector workers to organize and bargain collectively, giving federal workers the right to strike, enacting “card check” organizing, banning the permanent replacement of striking workers, and re-legalizing sympathy strikes. Of course, on this and every other demand he puts forward, Sanders stresses that the only way they will be achieved is through a mass movement.
Sanders vs. Warren
As the race has evolved, many have been swayed by the argument that Warren is a younger and potentially more effective representative of progressive demands, like Medicare for All, that she and Sanders both espouse. This “pragmatic” line of argument concludes that Warren is more “electable” while Sanders is simply too “extreme.”
In fact all the evidence points to Sanders being the candidate in the Democratic field who would be the most likely to defeat the reactionary bigot in the White House. In a recent interview, Cenk Uygur from Young Turks asked Sanders why he would have a better chance of defeating Trump than Biden. He replied, “In order to beat Trump you’re going to need a massive voter turnout. That means bringing young people into the political process, working people…poor people…You’ve got to be talking to the issues that ordinary Americans, including many who don’t traditionally vote, want to hear about.”
Sanders is raising a critical issue. The corporate Democrats are unable to inspire people that they will deliver meaningful change when they don’t even make bold promises as these would scare off their corporate donors. Hillary Clinton ran against Trump as a “threat to the Republic” while saying essentially nothing credible about rampant inequality and systemic racism nor convincingly explaining how she would not be simply a tool of Wall Street in office. Biden 2020 risks being a pathetic repeat of Clinton 2016.
In 2008, Barack Obama’s campaign enormously raised the expectations of black people, young people and working people generally after eight years of George Bush and the disastrous war in Iraq. The Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress. Obama took office as the world economy was threatening to go over the cliff but he and the political establishment focused on bailing out the banks to the tune of trillions of dollars while millions lost their jobs and their homes. The Democrats holding full control in Washington did almost nothing to help working people. This helped to lay the basis for the emergence of the Tea Party on the right and ultimately Trump.
Of course, Warren would excite people more than Biden and certainly she makes more concrete progressive proposals than Obama, but a real problem is that she’s not addressing the sections of the population that Sanders is talking about who have been historically alienated from politics. She’s not trying to inspire working people with the idea of building a mass movement for change. Instead she says “I’ve got a plan for that” and offers no credible path for how she will achieve her platform besides her own ability to use the power of reason to persuade the establishment.
Sanders’ emphasis on the role of building a mass movement is not new but he has underlined and elaborated it in this campaign. He explains that as president if he faced obstruction from the establishment he would mobilize working people in their states to bring them under immediate and relentless pressure. Sanders gives Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell as an example, explaining that ordinary people in Kentucky agree with much of the content of his working class platform.
It is also not true that Warren and Sanders have exactly the same platform. Sanders goes further than Warren in pointing towards real solutions on a whole range of questions. Warren imposes means testing, for example, on tuition free college rather than calling for higher education as a universal right. While it sounds fair to say “the well off should pay something,” the history of means tested benefits is that over time the group required to pay will grow and the benefit will be degraded. Saying that health care and education are universal rights points in the direction of a socialist society.
Follow the Money
It is no accident that Sanders’ donations come overwhelmingly from working class people. The biggest group of individual donors to his campaign by occupation are teachers; the most common employers of donors are Walmart, Starbucks and Amazon; and he has more nurses and Uber and Lyft drivers donating to him than any other Democratic candidate.
Sanders of course has refused to accept any money from big business and the superrich. Warren, on the other hand, while refusing this money during the primary took it during her Senate race last year and used $10.4 million left over from that race to launch her presidential campaign. She also indicated at one point that she would accept it again in the general election, though she has since gone back on that. Who pays the piper calls the tune.
A group of big money Democratic Wall Street donors recently stated that if Warren were the nominee they would either support Trump or sit out the general election. On the other hand, the corporate “centrist” Third Way think tank indicated several months ago that Warren could be an acceptable choice.
But while sections of the ruling class could reconcile themselves to a Warren candidacy they are dead set against Sanders. If he were to be the Democratic nominee, sections of the party’s establishment would actively sabotage his campaign. The ruling class collectively would prefer four more years of an unstable Trump to a Sanders presidency. The reason is simple. While Warren could be persuaded to water down proposals or be checked by Congress, a Sanders victory would inspire working people to fight back on a level not seen since the 1970s.
It is very clear that millions are looking for a way to increase the share of wealth going to the majority and radically decrease the share going to the billionaires. What worries the ruling class above all else is an awakened working class that begins to rebuild the labor movement and looks to assert its latent political power. This is exactly why we support Bernie Sanders.
Limitations and Contradictions
As Marxists we also see a number of limitations in Sanders’ politics. He seeks to reform capitalism and remove its worst features. He points to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the historic antecedent for his brand of “democratic socialism.” But Roosevelt was very clear that he was trying to save capitalism from the threat of revolution during the Great Depression, not replace it. Sanders also points to Denmark as a model. Denmark does indeed still have an extensive welfare state with very impressive social benefits for working people. These were the product of the post World War II economic boom, a powerful labor movement and powerful workers parties.
The truth is that the conditions today are very different than they were after the post-war expansion where social gains were made in Denmark and elsewhere. After the sharp crisis of the mid-70s, capitalist governments turned to neo-liberal policies including privatization of areas of the public sector, loosening regulation on the financial sector and international trade deals done at the expense of workers and the environment. The goal was to restore profits for the corporations by clawing back the gains made by working people in the previous historical period. Today we are dealing with an increasingly parasitic system where the banks and the global financial casino dominate. We already see growing conflict, including over trade, between capitalist powers in the Middle East and the Far East which are pushing the world economy to the brink of another major crisis.
Achieving and maintaining gains for working people will be far harder, not to say impossible, in this environment. This is precisely why tweaking capitalism will be insufficient and we need complete system change. Right now what is essential is to mobilize the forces to challenge the capitalist elite’s control of politics and the economy. This requires a fighting labor movement which Sanders supports but also a new political party representing the interests of working people and the poor. Sanders’ committed base of working people and young people is objectively the base for this new party.
When Sanders declared his first run for president in 2015, he asked whether he should stand as an independent or as a Democrat. Obviously the Democratic primary gave him a big platform but it came with serious limitations. In 2016, Sanders’ campaign was undemocratically blocked by the Clinton-dominated Democratic National Committee. This time, Sanders again faces a corporate media blackout and the establishment is prepared to use every dirty trick to block him if it looks like he could win.
Sanders talks about transforming the Democrats into a “workers party” but today – despite a rhetorical shift to the left by many presidential candidates – it remains firmly controlled by corporate interests. For this to change, the party would need to completely renounce corporate money, adopt a platform like Bernie’s and make their elected representatives accountable to democratic structures controlled by the party’s membership. The corporate politicians will split the party before being subjected to this. It would be more viable for the Sanders and AOC to launch a new party than to try to force the establishment to cede to such demands.
Heading Towards 2020
As in 2016, the deck is stacked against Sanders in the Democratic Party despite the fact that he is clearly the best candidate to beat Trump. Four years ago, the establishment bet everything on Clinton, a terrible corporate candidate. To have any chance he will have to go on the offensive not just against Biden but also Warren to clearly bring out the differences between them.
If Sanders and his million volunteers manage to overcome all the obstacles in the primary, he will need a mass membership organization – in effect a party within a party – behind him to push back against the sabotage of the Democratic establishment in the general election.
But if he is blocked in the primary, we can’t accept, as in 2016, that this is the end. At that time, Sanders endorsed Clinton, rather than continuing his race as an independent which we urged him to do. This time Sanders should call a national conference of his supporters to discuss the way forward including whether to keep running. This conference could be the beginning of a new party of working people. On one level, the forces of the “new left” seem completely subsumed into the Democratic Party at the moment. But the rise of Sanders in 2016, followed by AOC and other “democratic socialists” in 2018, points to sharp contradictions which will not be containable for much longer. A failure to beat Trump in 2020 would immediately bring the Democrats into deep crisis. But if they win, the energized base of the party will put the elected officials under intense pressure to deliver on demands like higher taxes on the rich and Medicare for All that the establishment will resist. At this point Sanders campaign is serving to rally the forces which want real change in the interests of working people and know that this will take a fierce struggle against corporate interests. We are fighting for a Sanders victory while discussing the next vital steps including laying the basis for a new party based on the interests of working people.