The Left in 2016: Tough Challenges And Great Opportunities
PART - I       PART - II      PART - IV


OVER to the other side of the Atlantic, where all eyes are fixed on the US presidential race. Our focus, however, will not be on the race as such, but on a related development: the vigorous left-democratic mobilisation around the candidacy of Bernie Sanders,a hitherto unknown figure who is giving the heavyweight Hillary Clinton an unexpectedly tough fight in the contest for Democratic Party (DP) nomination.

The rise of a Maverick

Comrades Surya and Tamarai have sent us this backgrounder:

“Bernie Sanders is currently serving as a United States Senator from the state of Vermont. As a young activist, he was a member of the Young People's Socialist League and the Congress for Racial Equality. He participated in the civil rights movement as a student organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In 1981, he won the position of Mayor of Burlington, Vermont, as an independent, and subsequently won reelection three times, defeating both Democratic and Republican candidates even when they joined hands to defeat him. During his tenure as mayor, Burlington developed “sister city” relationships with Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua in 1984, during the Sandinista Revolution, and Yaroslavl, USSR in 1989, much to the chagrin of the Regan administration. In 1990, he was elected to the US House of Representatives for Vermont, once again running as an independent. However, this marked beginning of his long association with the Democratic Party. In 2006, he was elected to the US Senate as an independent, but with the support of the Democratic Party leadership.

Sanders, who identifies himself as a democratic socialist, said in an interview with the Guardian in November 2006: “Twenty years ago, when people here thought about socialism they were thinking about the Soviet Union ... Now they think about Scandinavia.” In another 2006 Democracy Now interview, he said, “In terms of socialism, I think there is a lot to be learned from Scandinavia and from some of the work, very good work that people have done in Europe. In countries like Finland, Norway, Denmark, poverty has almost been eliminated. All people have health care as a right of citizenship. College education is available to all people, regardless of income, virtually free."

On foreign policy, Sanders voted against the resolutions authorizing the use of force against Iraq in 1991 and opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq. However, he supported the war on Serbia in 1999 and invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. In 2001, Sanders voted for the "Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists" that was the legal justification for military actions since the September 11. On the Palestinian-Israel issue, although, he has supported a political solution but has shied away from taking any firm action. More recently, he opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement.

During the Democratic presidential debate in Florida, Sanders strongly denounced US interventionism across the world. He said that the United States was wrong to try to invade Cuba and to support efforts of overthrowing governments in Chile, Guatemala and Nicaragua. He denounced the Monroe Doctrine, which said that the United States had the right to do anything they wanted to do in Latin America. The US should be working with governments around the world, not getting involved in regime change, he asserted.

The appeal of Bernie Sanders has largely been his campaign against growing income inequality and capitalist greed. He stands for health care which is based on a state run Medicare program. In the era of high college fee, he has promised tuition free education. He has championed the Robin Hood tax and College for All act that would set a levy 0.5% on most stock transactions that would fund education and healthcare. Sanders supports an hourly minimum wage of $15 which is a key demand of organized labor. Despite this pro-worker stand, merely three unions have endorsed him and most unions are supporting the Democratic establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton. Sanders supports raising the income tax and lowering the exemption on estate taxes from $5.4m to $3.5m.

Bernie Sanders is the only presidential candidate who has espoused these progressive issues on the domestic front. No wonder the word socialism has grown in popularity. According a recent survey , 42% of Democrats have a favorable opinion of the ideology. Interestingly, among 18 to 29-year-olds, the favorable view of socialism has grown from 36% (May 2015) to 43% (January 2016). The ruling class is shocked that socialism is no longer a dirty word. This is noteworthy in a country seeped in McCarthy era rhetoric and cold war ideology. Also of importance, while the reactionary wing of the ruling class - the Republican candidates Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio among others - are attempting to attract a section of the working class and middle class with their immigrant bashing and racist ideology, a section of the working class and middle class are moving towards the 'socialist' platform of Bernie Sanders. Still, Sanders' socialism is actually a social democratic capitalist state where “private companies ... thrive and grow”.

Sanders has used the terminology of the Occupy movement targeting the hegemony of the top 1% and growing income inequality. In the Democratic primaries, he has won several northern and mid-western states from Maine to Michigan. However, Hillary Clinton continues to lead and is likely to win the nomination with full support of the Democratic Party establishment.”

What lies behind the sudden rise of Bernie Sanders? One obvious factor is youth support, as a columnist in UK explains.

“First Corbyn, now Sanders: how young voters’ despair is fuelling movements on the left”

In this commentary published in The Guardian (4 February 2016) OwenJones cites data on the voting patterns on Democratic primaries to show how the veteran Sanders was drawing overwhelming support from the young while “It was older Americans who flocked to Clinton’s camp…. The generations appeared separated by a political chasm.

“Here is a phenomenon far from specific to the United States. It is a story of young people facing a present and future defined by economic insecurity, often apparently doomed to a worse lot in life than their parents. They often feel unrepresented, ignored, betrayed or outright attacked by the political elite. They are far more progressive on social issues than their grandparents’ generation. And they are helping to drive movements from Sanders’ to Podemos in Spain, from Syriza to Jeremy Corbyn.… there’s no question that a swath of disenfranchised youth is powering the new movements of the left. Political attitudes have changed. …

While a poll last month found that a derisory 16% of those over the age of 60 think Jeremy Corbyn is doing well, the figure rises to 41% among 18- to 24-year-olds. During the leadership contest that swept Corbyn to power, it’s reported that an influx of relatively young members drove the party’s average age down from 53 to 42.

The generations seem to live on different political planets. … As a self-described socialist, Sanders is an exceptionally rare breed of American politician. But it is notable that, while just 15% of Americans over 65 have a positive view of socialism, that rises to 36% among the 18- to 29-year-olds, just three points fewer than those who opt for capitalism.…

A similar picture could be painted in Britain, of course. Government policies have disproportionately targeted younger people: whether it be the punishing of educational aspiration with the trebling of student fees, the cutting of youth services, the scrapping of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, a minimum wage that discriminates against the young, cuts to youth services or a fall in living standards that older Britons have not had to endure. A young person may find that attending university – which now means accruing a huge pile of debt – does not open doors it once did.”

Other Constituencies of Support

Results of the Iowa Caucus primary are revealing. The candidate calling for a “political revolution against the billionaire class,” was defeated by Hillary Clinton by a mere 0.3%. In households with an income below $30,000 a year, Sanders beat Clinton 57% to 41%, while amongst those making over $100,000 a year, Clinton beat Sanders 55 to 37%. On the other hand, amongst those who said they were participating in caucuses for the first time, Sanders beat Clinton 59% to 37%. Evidently,he has managed to enthuse particularly the youth, the low-income groups and new participants.

The Sanders campaign seems to be drawing enthusiastic support from ex-occupy activists, for many of whom that movement provided the very first experience of direct involvement in politics. In fact it was the People for Bernie Sanders, a group of ex-Occupy activists, who encouraged Sanders to run in this election, supported by the Progressive Democrats of America, which urged him to run as a Democrat.

Why the Sanders Campaign is Important

For a progressive left-leaning Democrat who had steered clear of both establishment parties for the best part of his long , off-beat political career, but had no political programme or organisation of his own, to allow himself to be drawn into the vortex of the DP was a necessary price for making it big to the national political scene. But that does not detract from the fact that Sanders’ entry into the race has served to push the political discourse in the 2016 election towards a less bigoted, more progressive direction.Coming as it does as a kind of political follow-up on the Occupy Movement, that’s no small matter.

Sanders’ positions on issues like Israel and Iraq war are obviously inconsistent with a democratic viewpoint; how about his ‘socialism’? Essentially, it is a contemporary American version of what the Communist Manifesto had labelled as “bourgeois socialism” aimed at “redressing social grievances in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society.”Sanitized of any revolutionary content though, this trend however represents the spontaneous strivings of the American masses for making themselves heard in the corridors of power, for reclaiming democracy from the clutches of big corporations, for influencing policy decisions in favour of the 99%. This is what makes it – the Sanders campaign and its mass impact taken together – immensely progressive as a popular resistance to decades of neoliberal aggression (see box) on people’s lives and democratic rights.

In an era of ascendancy of revolutionary socialism and supposedly impending downfall of the bourgeois order, the authors of Communist Manifesto were fully justified in their sharp criticism and rejection of “conservative or bourgeois socialism”. But in the present period marked by setback/crisis of socialism and domination of neoliberalism, the popularization of even a vaguely defined socialism/social democracy in a country like the US is certainly a welcome development, the inconsistency in theory notwithstanding.

Small but Significant: the Re-election of Kshama Sawant

In yet another indication of the growing appeal of the Left in the US, Indian-born US citizen Kshama Sawantwas re-elected to the Seattle City Council in November last year.Born in Pune, Sawant studied computer sciencein Mumbai and moved to the United States, where she earned a PhD in economics. She became a socialist in 2006 and a US citizen in 2010. It was Sawant’s political activism on issues like the housing crisis and herpolitical message that ensured her re-election, as she pointed outin an exclusive interview with Truthout:

“… young people … were very supportive of my re-election campaign. They are aware that they won’t see the middle-class living standards of their parents. So they understood what my message was all about. Same goes about retirees and people of color. My support came precisely from those constituencies that are most directly affected by the inequalities and injustices produced by the capitalist system. My campaign mobilized over 600 volunteers. And I did run, of course, as an open Socialist Alternative candidate.”

“The US Enters a New Political Era”

– Thomas Piketty

“The Vermont senator is now ahead of Hillary Clinton among Democratic-leaning voters below the age of 50, and it’s only thanks to the older generation that Clinton has managed to stay ahead in the polls. Because he is facing the Clinton machine, as well as the conservatism of mainstream media, Sanders might not win the race. But …[i]n many respects, we are witnessing the end of the politico-ideological cycle opened by the victory of Ronald Reagan at the 1980 elections.”

The famed egalitarian economist goes on to give us the essential political- economic background of the rise of Sanders:

“… Humiliated in Vietnam, 1970s America was further concerned that the losers of the second world war (Germany and Japan in the lead) were catching up at top speed. The US also suffered from the oil crisis, inflation and under-indexation of tax schedules. Surfing the waves of all these frustrations, Reagan was elected in 1980 on a program aiming to restore a mythical capitalism said to have existed in the past.

The culmination of this new program was the tax reform of 1986, which ended half a century of a progressive tax system and lowered the rate applicable to the highest incomes to 28%.

Democrats never truly challenged this choice in the Clinton (1992-2000) and Obama (2008-2016) years, which stabilized the taxation rate at around 40% (two times lower than the average level for the period 1930 to 1980). This triggered an explosion of inequality coupled with incredibly high salaries for those who could get them, as well as a stagnation of revenues for most of America – all of which was accompanied by low growth …

Reagan also decided to freeze the federal minimum wage level, which from 1980 was slowly but surely eroded by inflation (little more than $7 an hour in 2016, against nearly $11 in 1969). Again, this new political-ideological regime was barely mitigated by the Clinton and Obama years.

Sanders’ success today shows that much of America is tired of rising inequality and these so-called political changes, and intends to revive both a progressive agenda and the American tradition of egalitarianism.

Meanwhile, the Republican party sinks into a hyper-nationalist, anti-immigrant and anti-Islam discourse (even though Islam isn’t a great religious force in the country), and a limitless glorification of the fortune amassed by rich white people. The judges appointed under Reagan and Bush have lifted any legal limitation on the influence of private money in politics, which greatly complicates the task of candidates like Sanders.

However, new forms of political mobilization and crowdfunding can prevail and push America into a new political cycle. We are far from gloomy prophecies aboutthe end of history.”

[First published in Le Monde on 14.2.16; these excerpts are from the 16.2.16 Guardian version.]

[To be concluded]

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