‘Feel the Bern!’- The Bernie Sanders movement in United States

    Balu S.

The United State of America has been incorrectly referred to as the oldest democracy in the world. The truth is universal adult franchise did not exist in the country until late 1960s, when massive civil rights movement forced the federal government to enact laws enforcing voting rights for every citizen. The state of democracy in USA can be termed as a ‘plutocracy’, which is a form of oligarchy controlled by a small minority of wealthiest citizens.  The most tangible evidence for this is the wealth of the members of US Congress. Out of the total 538 members in US Congress, 268 are millionaires.

Since the late 1850s, the political competition in the country has mainly revolved around the Democrats and the Republicans. Both parties have had quite converging views on the role of USA as an imperialistic bully in world affairs. It was under the Democratic president Lyndon B. Johnson that America intensified it’s the occupation of Vietnam while it was under the Republican George W. Bush that they initiated the so called on “War on Terror” which is responsible for the present socio economic chaos in the Middle East.  The divergence, although very limited, has been in domestic affairs. The Democratic Party has taken progressive positions with respect to various social questions. It was under Democratic governments that social security laws, civil rights, decriminalization of gay marriage and several other progressive legislations were enacted. This is in contrast to the Republican Party which has always had conservative views on various social questions.  But it should not be noted that in most instances when Democratic Party has initiated progressive legislations, it has been due to decades of pressure generated by various social movements. Rarely has the party initiated any progressive policy prescription on its own.

The phenomenon called Bernie Sanders:
Amidst all this, strikingly, according to a recent poll54 % Americans believe that A Political Revolution Should Happen in America to Redistribute Wealth from the Billionaire class[1]. This is largely due to the massive campaign against economic inequality by the presidential contender of Democratic Party, Bernie sanders. When Sanders began his presidential campaign a year back, support for him was an insignificant 3%. Today after 31 contests in the race for democratic presidential candidate against Hilary Clinton, Sanders has won 14- something which no political pundit predicted a year back.

Bernie Sanders has been a US Senator for 9 years. Before that he was the member of US House of Representatives for nearly 16 years. Throughout his career, he has labelled himself as an independent although he has caucused with Democratic Party in both the houses.   All through his career, he has been an outspoken critique of income inequality, corporate influence in politics and climate change deniers. He is probably the only American politician to have a humane view of Palestine and has also opposed most American military interventions. Although he considers himself to be a socialist, his policy prescriptions which are largely influenced by Scandinavian countries, are social democratic in nature. But in the specific political context of the USA where neoliberal hegemony prevails, where trade unions are busted, where Communists have been witch hunted, to be even a social democrat is a radical step.

Brief History of the Left in US politics:
It is not the case that the Left did not exist in American politics before Sanders. There have been different phases in the past when American politics witnessed strong presence of the Left. By the end of the 19th century, American Midwest and west witnessed the growth of a political organisation called the Progressive party which strongly advocated nationalisation of railways and banks. The party even won some governorships before being subsumed into the Democratic Party. In the second decade of the twentieth century, America witnessed a Socialist candidate running for the presidency for the first time. His name was Eugene V Deb and he represented the Socialist Party. Contesting four times, twice from jail, Deb polled a respectable vote share of 6% in his fourth attempt. It should be remembered that these elections happened before the beginning of the cold war and socialism had not yet become a dirty word in the American political parlour.  With the Great Depression that followed in the next decade, labour movement became widespread and militant in urban areas. The Communist Party also became strong in certain pockets like Chicago. At the same time, the economic discontent created by the great depression was translated into popular support for Democratic Party by their then leader F.D. Roosevelt through Keynesian measures adopted through his new deal polices. With the massive repression of leftwing activists in the McCarthy era, the first phase of leftwing politics in USA came to an end.

The second phase began in 1960s when the ‘new left’ emerged in American politics. Questions around culture, sexuality, Vietnam War and race became important in the political discourse. Radical outfits like Black Panthers who addressed the question of race from a Marxist outlook were important constituents of the American Left in this period. Like the 1930s, the popular support created by these movements was again channelized into the Democratic Party culminating in the candidature of George McGovern as the presidential candidature of the Democratic Party in 1972. McGovern ran a campaign from a strong anti-Vietnam war platform.  But the election results were hugely unfavourable for him. He lost all the states except Massachusetts to the incumbent president Richard Nixon resulting in the second biggest electoral victory [2] with respect to the number of states won. It also prevented the leftward movement of the Democratic Party. Many members of the present Democratic leadership have been continuously citing George Mcgovern’s massive electoral defeat as a possible result if a radical candidate like Bernie Sanders contests from the Democratic Party. But then again historical conditions in 1972 are different from the present times. The American public was largely in favour of Nixon’s handling of the economy. Even in the foreign policy sphere, the administration had remarkable success when they exploited the Sino-Soviet rivalry and began formalized relations with China.  Unlike the present times, there was absence of anger against the system.

With the economic crisis of 2007, precipitated by the mortgage crisis, began the third phase.  Occupy Wall street movement was a critical event of this phase.  Senators like Elizabeth Warren of Democratic Party who strongly vouched for regulation of Wall Street and the re-instalment of Glass Steagal[3] act became national figures in this period. With the rise of Bernie Sanders, this phase does not see any end in sight soon.

What explains the rise of Bernie Sanders?
As Bernie Sanders himself pointed out in a recent interview[4], he himself did not see the possibility of his message being so widely acceptable four years back. While the economic crisis provided an entry point for the Left, the absence of complete recovery from the crisis has added to the frustration among working class, middle class and students in the USA to turn the polity into a leftward direction. The real unemployment rate in USA as of February last year is 9.7%[5].Despite increased productivity, the average wage of workers have remained stagnant for the last four decades[6]. Not only is income inequality high, the gap between rich and poor has increased after 2007.According to a report, the top ten percent took more than 50% of the total national income, the highest since 1917 when the data in these matters began to be recorded[7].  These are objective economic features for the Left to make a meaningful intervention. The presidential run of Bernie Sanders is the most visible manifestation of this intervention.

Occupy Wall Street Movement had also raised these issues. But the movement never really tried to build an organisation to channelize these grievances in a systematic manner. Critics have pointed that it was fuzzy and a bit anarchic in nature. The very fact that Sanders is trying to channelize the anger and frustration through institutionalised mechanisms towards a logical end makes him far more attractive for general public. Apart from this, the public image of Sanders which is that of a straight forward honest politician who has consistently upheld progressive politics, have also played an important role in his success.

Some interesting insights offered by the support base of Sanders:
Sanders performs the best among the younger voters of all the ethnicities. In most of the states where the voting has happened, Sanders has led over Clinton among the age group18-29[8] . Exception is some states of the Deep South like Mississippi. Apart from the fact that younger voters are more liberal than the rest of the population, the issue of free college education espoused by Sanders has touched a chord with younger voters. In most of the counties situated around universities, Sanders has polled significantly more votes than Clinton.

Sanders has also done significantly well with individuals who label themselves as very liberal or liberal. With the moderates, his performance has been ordinary.  There are two other variables which are associated with a good performance by Sanders. Sanders has done exceedingly well in states where Democratic Party conducts caucuses.  In caucuses, unlike primaries where registered democratic supporters come and vote, supporters of both the candidates assemble and debate the merits of each candidates before voting. The supporters of Sanders who are definitely more motivated have used this opportunity to mobilise neutral voters for Sanders. Out of the 12 caucuses which have happened, Sanders has won 10. Sanders has also done well in primaries which are not limited to registered democratic supporters. In an open primary, independent voters who have a far more favourable rating of Sanders than Hillary have voted significantly in his favour.

Among social classes, white working class has rallied behind Sanders. Interestingly, the other candidate who has managed to get significant support from white working class is Donald Trump, the ‘outsider’ businessman who is currently the leading candidate for Republican Nomination for Presidential election. While Donald trump has made a niche for himself by attacking Mexicans and immigrants, another aspect which has been overlooked by many in his speeches is his attack of trade deals which according him have resulted in job losses for Americans. Even Sanders has attacked these deals, especially in industrial belts like Ohio and Michigan. Commentators have claimed that Sanders upset victory in Michigan is largely due to his concentrated attack of Trans Pacific Partnership deal.  But the very fact that the white working class is divided largely between Trump and Sanders is an observation which has to be analysed to be in depth. We witness a situation in which individuals belonging to the same social class are behaving in markedly divergent ways. Wilhelm Reich[9] while writing about mass psychology of fascism made very interesting observations on why significant sections of working class were attracted towards fascism .While it is unsure whether Trump should be branded as a fascist, there are definitely fascistic tendencies in his speeches. His attack of the minorities, remarks which are frequently misogynist and sexist, his demagoguery etc reflects traits which are fascistic in nature. Reich points out how patriarchy in combination with authoritarian family structure and repressed sexuality, results in masses across social classes supporting authoritarian father like figures which they see in fascist demagogues. It is precisely around values associated with family and patriarchy that we witness strong divisions among American white working class. For example, consider the issue of abortion. For decades, the Republican right wing in America has used this as a political tool to deny women right over their body, reaffirming patriarchal familial values in that process. According to a survey conducted in 2012[10]50 percent of working class whites support abortion rights in all or most cases, while 45 percent oppose abortion in all or most cases. Therefore, it is possible that the dividing lines between working class supporters of Trump and Sanders are the values which they advocate on different social issues. Unfortunately, there are not many surveys which have not looked into these minute aspects. But this phenomenon is an important lesson for leftwing activists. In the battle against fascism, the fight in the economic front is one of the many fronts. Concomitant cultural battles are simultaneously required.

One social group which Sanders has miserably failed to carry with him is the African American voters. In most southern states of USA where there is concentrated strength of African Americans, Hilary Clinton has scored huge victories over Sanders. In states like Mississippi, where African American constitutes nearly 80% of Democratic primary voters, Clinton managed to get 83% of total votes. African Americans are an important constituent of the Democratic base and it has proven to be the Achilles heel for Sanders. It is a fact that both the Clintons have cultivated a following among African Americans .Bill Clinton himself was the governor of Arkansas, a southern state which had a strong African American population before becoming the President of the USA. Sanders point these as reasons for his failure to garner support from African Americans. While these are valid reasons, the Sanders campaign has never tried to specifically address the issue of racism. In most of his speeches, Sanders has highlighted the issue of racism connected with his larger economic message.  He has also highlighted massive unemployment among African Americans and the large-scale incarceration of African Americans in his numerous speeches. But he has rarely tried to address the issue of racism in isolation from his larger economic message.

More problematic is his position on gun control, where he has flip-flopped and has only recently agreed for firearms manufacturers to be held liable in civil suits after mass shootings [11]. This is in contrast to President Obama and Hillary Clinton who advocate strict gun control laws. These flip-flops have been a major reason for his weak support among the African American community, as highlighted by Black Lives Matter activists disrupting his rallies.[12]

For the huge majority of African Americans, racist discrimination is the most lived form of discrimination which they face and is not limited to any strata or section of African Americans. It is far more personal for them and for many; it exists in isolation from everything else. Sanders should have tried to address the issue of racism in a far more serious manner.  At least while specifically addressing African Americans, he could have prioritised the issue of racial discrimination over other matters. His failure in capturing African American votes despite a radical economic agenda is also an eye-opener for the Left.

What does the future hold for Sanders?
When Sanders started his campaign, many critics from the Left considered it to be a futile exercise since for most of them; the Democratic Party is too compromised to make any radical changes. This is true. Only a miniscule section of the establishment Democrats have rallied behind Sanders. More than 90% of them have openly declared their support for Clinton.  At the same time, it is doubtful whether an independent run by Sanders would have given him such momentum and coverage. To the American dining tables, he has bought issues for discussion which were considered a taboo until recently by the political class. In retrospect, it can be concluded that his decision to run on the platform of Democratic Party was tactically the correct one.

With the contests in 30 states over, the odds of Sanders winning the nomination is extremely low. The delegate lead of Clinton over Sanders is nearly 250. This is excluding the super delegates who are massively behind Clinton. Sanders has two options in front of him. One is to initiate a Tea Party like formation[13] of the leftwing progressive variety and attempt to transform the Democratic Party from inside. The other is to cut chord with the Democratic Party and initiate independent movements. In the present political scenario, where the political establishments of both Republican and Democratic Party are fast loosing legitimacy in front of a polity which is getting polarised like nothing before, this is a possibility.

The author is a Ph.D. scholar in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. 

[1] http://americablog.com/2016/02/most-voters-are-ready-for-a-political-revolution-per-new-poll.html
[2] The biggest presidential victory was F.D. Roosevelt’s victory in 1936.
[3] The term Glass Steagall Act usually refers to four provisions of the U.S. Banking Act of 1933 that limited commercial bank securities, activities, and affiliations within commercial banks and securities firms. It was repealed by Bill Clinton in 1999 and is considered to be an important cause of the financial crisis of 2007.
[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggFitmOTSok 
[5] http://www.gallup.com/opinion/chairman/181469/big-lie-unemployment.aspx
[6] http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2015/09/02/3697832/epi-wages-productivity/
[7] http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2013/09/11/2602151/record-income-inequality/
[8] http://edition.cnn.com/election/primaries/states/ia/
[9] Reich,Wlhelm,1980. “Mass Psychology of Fascism”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
[10] http://bigthink.com/praxis/what-do-white-working-class-voters-believe
[11] http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/bernie-sanders-reverses-position-gun-control-bill-article-1.2513093
[12] http://edition.cnn.com/2015/07/26/politics/bernie-sanders-black-lives-matter/

p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 10.0px 0.0px; text-align: justify; font: 12.0px ‘Times New Roman’; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000}
p.p2 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 10.0px 0.0px; text-align: justify; font: 12.0px ‘Times New Roman’; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000; min-height: 15.0px}
span.s1 {font-kerning: none}
span.s2 {text-decoration: underline ; font-kerning: none; color: #0433ff; -webkit-text-stroke: 0px #0433ff}
span.s3 {font: 8.0px ‘Times New Roman’; font-kerning: none}
span.s4 {text-decoration: underline ; font-kerning: none}

[13] It is a conservative faction of the Republican Party with many members in Senate and House of Representatives.