Originally published in the February 2016 issue of Liberation Newspaper
A year ago, it seemed likely that this presidential campaign would be a dreary contest between another Clinton and another Bush.
Instead, the base of both the Democratic and Republican parties have revolted against their establishments, giving momentum to a self-described “democratic socialist” Bernie Sander on one hand and a far-right billionaire bigot Donald Trump on the other.
The Iowa and New Hampshire results have shown that the turmoil in the ruling parties is likely to continue for many months to come.
The country’s elite usually display a high level of unity when they attack poor and working people. But they always permit a certain degree of internal conflict to be expressed publicly, and they utilize the election season especially to allow social discontent to be vented safely and organized around different bourgeois trends.
This year, however, there is the possibility of an “extreme” electoral outcome, as the Wall Street Journal editors recently said with great alarm.
The Democratic base and socialism
By more than 20 percent, Bernie Sanders scored a huge victory over Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire. From the mass rallies, to the unprecedented number of small donations, to the virtual tie in Iowa and then the landslide in New Hampshire, the Sanders campaign has continued to pick up momentum.
That Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist who has lived for decades on the fringes of the Democratic Party, could tie and then crush the Clinton machine is a huge turnaround. Sanders was down by 41 points in the first Iowa poll last year and his campaign was generally considered non-competitive.
Sanders’ program is mostly a reworked version of the New Deal-Great Society liberalism that was vanquished from inside the Democratic Party during the 1980s and 1990s. That liberal program has represented the “soul” of Democratic Party for much of the 20th century, which is why Democratic candidates still appeal to it rhetorically while doing little to advocate for its policies.
Nonetheless, Sanders’ agitation against the rigged economy and his socialist label have brought to the surface important conversations about the capitalist system itself. When the Tea Party falsely called Obama a socialist, this in fact generated curiosity about socialism and helped lift the stigma around it. Sanders’ initial successes have continued this trend.
For one, Sanders is, somewhat inadvertently, mainstreaming the idea of an alternative to capitalism in the most pro-capitalist country in the world. Second, he clearly is revealing there is a mass base for radical ideas.
This speaks to why the Sanders phenomenon is, broadly speaking, a positive indicator for those who desire to replace capitalism with socialism.
None of this cancels out or diminishes Sanders’ pro-imperialist foreign policy, his incorrect definition of socialism, or the illusions he spreads about how change can be won. On Syria, Venezuela, Palestine, North Korea, war spending and many other subjects, Sanders has positioned his progressivism to remain “respectable” in the eyes of the imperialist establishment.
Nor has Sanders moved one bit from his pledge to funnel his campaign supporters behind Clinton—to strengthen the Democratic Party rather than an independent people’s movement—if he loses the nomination. But it would be foolish for socialists to close their eyes to the positive political lessons of Sanders’ performance so far.
The Clintons were the principal forces that defeated liberalism within the Democratic Party. Despite her decades of work moving the Democratic Party towards the right wing, Clinton is now using the rhetoric of the left to try to steal Sanders’ thunder.
Clinton’s tactic, however, is to pander to a sort of cynicism and suggest broad change is unrealistic. She presents herself as the pragmatist fighting for smaller policy changes that will help working people in the short term to lay the basis for more expansive change in some far-off future.
This is a slick deception: Clinton, the Walmart director, Wall Street defender, welfare cutter and war-hawk now trying to rebrand herself as the opposite of those things.
The most clear divide between the candidates’ supporters is not income but age. With the youth vote Sanders gained over 80 percent in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The generational gap has less to do with ideology and more to do with the fact that older Democratic voters have had their expectations lowered by decades of right-wing assault. Younger voters want a Democratic Party that will help working people, fight Wall Street and fight the right, not one that perpetually seeks accommodation with corporate power.
The Party for Socialism and Liberation unites with that desire for change and struggle, but disagrees that the Democratic Party can be the vehicle for that. The Democratic Party has been built specifically to manage the capitalist system and the U.S. Empire. It is led by different interests within the ruling elite. A true political revolution would go far beyond sweeping liberals into Congress, but would sweep aside both major parties, the Democrats included, and bring poor and working people to power.
This is the message of struggle that PSL members, including the presidential campaign of Gloria La Riva and Eugene Puryear, are taking into the streets, schools, workplaces and neighborhoods across the country.