What is Barry Sanders famous for

Candidate Sanders

The independent Senator from Vermont has no chance against Hillary Clinton, but his ideas are enlivening political discussion in the US

by Bhashar Sunkara

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Bernie Sanders is a typical US leftist. Like many socialists, the Vermont senator got into big politics in a roundabout way: through his involvement in rather insignificant organizations on the fringes of political life. Today he is one of the presidential candidates for the Democratic Party - of which he is not a member.

Sanders was born in Brooklyn in 1941 to Jewish immigrants from Poland. During his college years he joined the youth organization of the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL). In the 1960s, the party split into several splinter groups. Sanders was now mainly involved in social movements such as the Congress for Racial Equality (Core) or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He then ran for the tiny Liberty Union Party for a seat in the Senate and for Vermont state governor.

In the late 1970s, he withdrew from politics for a while to work on educational projects. 1979 Folkways Records released a record for which Sanders had recorded the speeches of Eugene V. Debs (1855 to 1926). Debs had run for president of the United States five times for the Socialist Party of America. The recording recalled Debs' confessions such as, “I'm not a capitalist soldier. I am a proletarian revolutionary. I am against every war, with one exception; I fight for this war with heart and soul and this is the global war for the social revolution. ”But since the US was just about to face the neoliberal revolution of Ronald Reagan, which was supposed to put all welfare state achievements under fire, the appeals went unheeded.

After all, Sanders was elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont's largest city, in 1981. The Vermont Vanguard Press celebrated the "People's Republic of Burlington" with a special issue, and Sanders hung a portrait of the old revolutionary Debs above his new desk.

After three terms as mayor, Sanders went into federal politics. In 1990 he moved into the House of Representatives, and in 2006 he was elected Senator from Vermont. To date, Sanders is the only socialist to ever sit in the US Congress - the portrait of Debs now hangs in his office on Capitol Hill.

Strictly speaking, Sanders is an independent MP. However, he usually votes with the democratic group. His socialist vision is more reminiscent of the ideas of former Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme than those of his probolshevik mentor Debs. Sanders repeatedly contrasts inequality in US society with the Scandinavian welfare state and emphasizes that neither child poverty nor the lack of affordable health care are natural facts.

For him, the word “socialism” stands above all for the long tradition of the left, progressive camp in the USA, which rarely appears in official discourse. In 2005, then-Chairman of the US Democrats, Howard Dean, described Sanders ’voting behavior as follows:“ Basically, he's a leftist Democrat. The bottom line is that Bernie Sanders agrees with the Democrats 98 percent of the time. "

So Sanders is not a revolutionary and nowhere near as radical as Jeremy Corbyn of the British Labor Party.1 Its aim is a redistribution and not state ownership of the means of production or an expansion of state control. But with his plea for the welfare state and his sharp criticism of the super-rich, he differs significantly from his business-friendly rival Hillary Clinton.

Compared to Clinton, whose campaign appearances are perfectly staged, Sanders looks relaxed. While everything Clinton says is scrutinized beforehand, Sanders puts it off the cuff. And when he was a young socialist and civil rights activist in 1964, she supported the ultra-conservative Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. But the main difference lies in their language and the style in which they present their political content. While Clinton once reminded her audience that she “represented Wall Street” as a New York Senator, Sanders speaks of a “political revolution”. By this he means less a socialist overthrow than the effort to get more people to participate in democracy and politics.

That a socialist could become so popular so quickly in the United States of the 21st century has surprised many observers. In contrast to Europe, politicians with radical left roots are a rarity in the USA. To the left of the center there were mostly only social liberal, but hardly any socialist forces. A mass-based workers' party that could have gained political influence and established a welfare state has never established itself.

And yet there were some welfare state achievements in the course of the 20th century - fought for by trade unionists, civil rights activists and citizens' groups that were close to the Democratic Party but were repeatedly marginalized. With the gulf between these groups and Democratic politics widening, it is no wonder that Bernie Sanders is earning more and more attention.

Hillary Clinton is ideologically influenced by the New Democrats, who gathered in the late 1980s under the umbrella of the now-defunct Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and were a response to the triumph of conservatism in the Reagan era. After high taxes and government spending were no longer enforceable and the labor movement steadily declined in importance, the democrats also committed themselves to the lean state and business-friendly politics - while they fobbed off the citizens on the fringes of society with a few symbolic crumbs.

The Clintons played a prominent role in transforming the Democratic Party in the 1990s. It was Bill Clinton, not Ronald Reagan, who first balanced the budget and proclaimed "the end of welfare as we know it." As First Lady, with the support of the DLC, Hillary pushed, among other things, the social welfare reform passed in 1996, which had a dramatic impact on the poorest US citizens.

Despite the change announced in 2008, Barack Obama's presidency, if one disregards half of his health care reform, largely resulted in a continuation of the DLC program. Obama's willingness to compromise on the US economy has in some cases deeply disappointed the party base.

After the 2008 financial crisis, the Clinton Line came under increasing fire. The Occupy movement, the Chicago teachers 'union strike, the fast-food workers' labor struggles, the protests against police violence and the opposition to income inequality are the first signs that the American left is coming to life. Sanders tries to bundle these left forces: "I am running to forge a coalition that will win and give politics a new shape."2

At the start of the primaries in early February, Sanders proved that he can keep up with Clinton at the ballot box. This is shown by his results at the caucus in Iowa, where he was only 0.3 percentage points behind the big favorite, and at the Primeries in New Hampshire. Sanders is also doing better than many expected when it comes to campaign finance. In October 2015 alone, he raised $ 41.5 million from 681,000 donors. Given these successes, Hillary Clinton felt compelled to reconsider her position. In October 2015, for example, she suddenly declared that she was rejecting the Trans-Pacific Free Trade Agreement (TPP), which she had previously supported.

Despite his successes, Sanders faces almost insurmountable obstacles. In many states, he's lagging way behind in polls because voters ultimately think Clinton has better chances - even if some polls nationwide see Sanders ahead of his Republican competitors. In addition, hardly any of the “super delegates” - these are prominent party leaders who make up around a fifth of the delegates at the Democratic Electoral Convention and are not committed to any candidate - commit to Sanders. Even the most progressive figures in the Democratic Party - Elizabeth Warren, Jesse Jackson and Bill de Blasio - have not spoken out in public for him.

Sanders can also count on limited support from the unions, which says a lot about the state of the American labor movement. In November, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), with 2 million members, spoke out in favor of Clinton despite opposition from many local associations, following the guidelines of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Clinton now knows trade unions with a total of 9.5 million members, around two thirds of the steadily declining number of unionists.3

But there are exceptions: Both the National Nurses United and the American Postal Workers Union have backed Sanders. And in December, the largest media union in the United States, Communications Workers of America, announced its support for Sanders. Together, these three unions represent just under 1.1 million employees. But the big players in the labor movement do not want to deny the front runner their allegiance. The same goes for the influential black pastor networks, state Democratic MPs, and other civil society organizations who don't know Sanders well enough and don't want to support an outsider.

So Clinton has little to worry about. Nationwide, she is by far the best-known and most popular figure of the Democrats, and she can inspire the most confidence among Democratic voters, who are unsettled by the early successes and inflated rhetoric of Donald Trump in the primary campaign. The moderate Democrats have often asserted themselves by presenting themselves as the lesser evil.

In his election campaign, Sanders does not seek to change the Democratic Party from within, as Eugene McCarthy did in 1968 or George McGovern in 1972. The US left is also not strong enough to build a rainbow coalition like it was in the 1980s during Jesse Jackson's candidacy. But it enables millions of citizens who have turned away from mainstream politics to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo. And that's exactly where Sanders speaks from the heart of the voters. He believes that the government can help the common people and that by building social movements, reforms can be realized that put limits on capital.

Despite its growing popularity, Sanders has only a few thousand campaign workers, a ridiculously small number in a country of 330 million people. But perhaps it will be enough to bring a few socialist ideas into the public debate and to give the right arguments to those who blame the “billionaire class,” as Sanders calls them, for their predicament. The Democratic Party has succeeded several times in simply co-opting the rebellion from the left. The fact that Sanders is running as a Democratic candidate in the primaries under these circumstances may seem questionable to some. But he has nothing to lose and a lot to gain - including new supporters for the much vilified socialism.

1 See Alex Nuns, “With a Beard and Principle. The new Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn brings the British to the brink of hysteria ”, Le Monde diplomatique, October 2015.

2 John Nichols, "Bernie Sanders is thinking about running for president," The Nation, New York, March 18, 2014.

3 Brian Mahoney and Marianne Levine, "SEIU endorses Clinton": www.politico.com, November 17, 2015.

Translated from the English by Robin Cackett

Bhaskar Sunkara is the founder and publisher of the online magazine Jacobin.

Le Monde diplomatique, 02/11/2016, by Bhashar Sunkara