Mass enthusiasm and interest in the Bernie Sanders campaign has swept the entire planet. The political pendulum, which had swung so far to the right, is beginning to swing dramatically in the opposite direction, reflecting the deep-seated discontent that has been slowly but surely percolating beneath the surface.
Mass enthusiasm and interest in the Bernie Sanders campaign has swept the entire planet. As his viability as an electable candidate gathered momentum, a chain reaction of support was unleashed throughout the country.
In particular, Sanders’ 20-point victory in New Hampshire marked an influx in the rise of sincere illusions and enthusiasm for his candidacy, transforming him from scrappy underdog to potential contender. However, we are only at the beginning of the beginning of a protracted process that will unfold over many electoral cycles. As with all complex and contradictory social phenomena, a sense of proportion is needed when it comes to American politics.
As we predicted many years ago, the political pendulum, which had swung so far to the right, is beginning to swing dramatically in the opposite direction. Years of crisis and instability have inexorably had an effect on consciousness. Sanders’ insurgent candidacy—which wasn’t given an ice cube’s chance in hell just a few months ago—is clear evidence of this. Tens of thousands have turned out at mass rallies to hear his message of “political revolution against the billionaire class.” He has put socialism in the headlines in an unprecedented way, reflecting the deep-seated discontent that has been slowly but surely percolating beneath the surface.
Following in the footsteps of Wisconsin, Occupy, and Black Lives Matter, Sanders has given conscious political expression to the formerly unconscious process of radicalization taking place in US society. A response to decades of crisis, austerity, cuts, attacks, and sellouts by the status quo politicians, Sanders expresses essentially the same fundamental process as the rise of Podemos in Spain and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain. However, similar is not the same, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to understanding or intervening in political processes. The fact that the discontent is being channelled at this stage through the ruling bourgeois party makes things far more complicated.
For decades, the two-party system hung like an albatross on the neck of US workers. Now, with quintessential American energy, the old norms and expectations have been tossed out the window. Trump’s domination on the Republican side and Sanders’ close finish in Iowa and win in New Hampshire set the stage for a showdown on Super Tuesday. Clinton and Trump, each with seven wins that day, feel increasingly confident and have begun to aim their political fire on one another. Although Sanders won convincingly in Vermont, Minnesota, Colorado, and Oklahoma, he narrowly lost the New England state of Massachusetts and has fallen behind Clinton in pledged delegates. Never mind the spectacle of Bill Clinton personally and illegally haranguing and blocking voters at the Massachusetts polls—a win is a win. With many Southern states up for grabs early in the nomination contest, Clinton’s edge among black and Latino voters has given her an early boost. But the nomination contest is not over yet, and Sanders has vowed to soldier on, despite facing a hostile party machine and diminished chance of pulling off the political upset of the century.
Republican Party in crisis
At the same time, without a clear lead in the form of a mass socialist labor party, millions of workers are disoriented and have fallen for the right-populist demagogy of Donald Trump. Mass audiences have welcomed him to cities across the country. His persistent appeal has confused many, but has a clear explanation. Despite his off-the-wall and reactionary sound bites, Trump is not a traditional conservative. He is not an evangelical fundamentalist Christian like Ted Cruz, or a Cuban-American gusano like Marco Rubio. At heart, he is a mediocre trust-fund-baby businessman, reality TV star, and opportunist par excellence. A former Democrat who opted to run as a Republican out of convenience, he was at one time pro-choice and a supporter of socialized health care. Despite his attacks on immigrants and China, he has hired plenty of immigrants, and manufactures clothing in China. And although he initially gave an ambiguous answer when asked whether or not he disavowed the endorsement of Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, he is hardly a fascist.
The secret to his success is his brash, take-no-prisoners confidence, which plays on the fears and frustrations of ordinary Americans who are dissatisfied with both the party in power and the traditional wing of the Republicans. Given the crisis of capitalism and of US capitalism in particular, his promise to “make America great again” is an ahistorical utopia. But to the pragmatic American mind, jobs and security sound pretty good after decades of crisis, austerity, and terrorism. The fact that he is already rich and therefore claims he is “not owned by anyone” is also appealing to those who rightly suspect that Wall Street owns most politicians. And although he lies perpetually through his teeth, when he does tell the truth—for example, about the character of his political rivals or big business’s stranglehold on politics—he is seen as a “straight-talker.”
As we explained in our last editorial, the 2016 election has stressed the limits of the prevailing two-party system to the breaking point. The monotonous back and forth between carefully vetted candidates that dominated US politics for decades has come to a screeching halt. As evidence of this, take the case of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who aspired to become President Bush III. Heavily funded and favored by the Republican elite, he ran a traditional campaign in a year when tradition was the last thing voters wanted. He ignominiously exited the campaign after a pathetic showing in South Carolina.
Many heavy hitters in the Republican establishment can see the writing on the wall. The choices before them are stark: either embrace Trump or risk a split in the party sooner rather than later. Some elected officials have already announced that they will abandon the party if Trump is nominated. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, the darling of the Tea Party, is already trying to distance himself from Trump while at the same time seeking to rein in the New York property magnate.
Tim Pawlenty, former Governor of Minnesota, offered this stark assessment: “The party is fractured, which isn't unusual for political parties and they almost always come back together. But this could test the outer limits of that tradition. If the Republican Party were an airplane and you're looking out the window, you’d see some pieces of the surface flying off. And you'd be wondering whether the engine or a wing is next.”
Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was even less optimistic, when he explained to CNN that by mid-March, the Republicans will know whether it is time to “throw up our hands in despair and panic.” He continued, “We’ve now backed ourselves into a corner here—and it’s not very pretty. [Super Tuesday] is not the final blow, but we will know in the next two weeks whether this is a done deal or not.”
Conservative patriarch and failed presidential aspirant Newt Gingrich also has a grim view of his party’s prospects, explaining, “Trump is putting together a very unique coalition that’s rattled a lot of people who have made a living out of trying to win within a Republican structure which is now increasingly obsolete...It’s a crossroads for the Republican Party and it’s a crossroads for America.”
Internal tensions have reached such a fever pitch that there is open talk of running a third-party “independent Republican” candidate if Trump wins the nomination. William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, explains that such a ticket “would simply be a one-time, emergency adjustment to the unfortunate circumstance (if it happens) of a Trump nomination . . . [It] would support other Republicans running for Congress and other offices, and would allow voters to correct the temporary mistake (if they make it) of nominating Trump.”
There is even talk of conservative Republicans supporting a candidate on the ballot line of an existing minor party, such as the Libertarian Party or the Constitution Party. Max Boot, a foreign policy advisor for Marco Rubio, declared bluntly that “I would sooner vote for Josef Stalin than I would vote for Donald Trump. There is no way in hell I would ever vote for him. I would far more readily support Hillary Clinton, or Bloomberg if he ran.”
But if the Republican Party splits, who will get the majority? Will the split involve a move to the right of Trump, which may well render such a formation unelectable on a national scale? Will Trump take over the party, a one-man show without a significant base in the party apparatus? Or will he split off himself, whether or not he wins the nomination, and establish a new right-populist formation? These and many other questions will only be answered by events. What is clear is that the Republican Party roller coaster ride has only just begun.
However, as significant as all of this is for the future of American politics, of far more interest for revolutionary Marxists are the processes taking place at the other end of the political spectrum. Although things have not yet reached the levels of tension that exist among the Republicans, there have already been several high-profile resignations from the Democratic National Committee by officials who want to throw their lot in with Sanders.
In 2008, Obama’s inspiring but ultimately empty abstractions of “hope” and “change” were sufficient to rally people to the polls. Back then, accusing a candidate of being a “socialist” was a good way to discredit them. Today, the word “socialism” is seen positively by millions, especially the youth, and even among many who consider themselves Republicans. Eight years ago, the possibility of electing the first black or woman president was foremost on many people’s minds. Today, an elderly Jew, impersonated by Larry David, who calls himself a socialist is giving Hillary Clinton a run for her money. How to explain the fact that millions of Americans now consider themselves socialists?
The Great American Compromise
It has been said that the American people have a genius for compromise, and that the US Constitution is its most sublime legal expression. For decades after its adoption, the Southern slave owners and the nascent Northern industrialists were able to compromise their way out of many “near misses” that threatened to rip apart the young republic. But the time eventually came when there was no more room for compromise. The old set up was torn up in an explosive and transformative revolutionary conflagration.
After the US Civil War, a new era of compromise was initiated, this time between capitalists and workers. It was a tumultuous relationship, with many a hard-fought struggle waged by the working class and its organizations against the bosses. But things eventually reached the semblance of an equilibrium.
Trotsky described this epoch in Their Morals and Ours:
“In order to guarantee the triumph of their interests in big questions, the ruling classes are constrained to make concessions on secondary questions, naturally only so long as these concessions are reconciled in the bookkeeping. During the epoch of capitalistic upsurge especially in the last few decades before the [First] World War these concessions, at least in relation to the top layers of the proletariat, were of a completely genuine nature. Industry at that time expanded almost uninterruptedly. The prosperity of the civilized nations, partially, too, that of the toiling masses increased. Democracy appeared solid. Workers’ organizations grew.
“At the same time reformist tendencies deepened. The relations between the classes softened, at least outwardly. Thus certain elementary moral precepts in social relations were established along with the norms of democracy and the habits of class collaboration. The impression was created of an ever more free, more just, and more humane society. The rising line of progress seemed infinite to 'common sense'.
“Instead, however, war broke out with a train of convulsions, crises, catastrophes, epidemics, and bestiality. The economic life of mankind landed in an impasse. The class antagonisms became sharp and naked. The safety valves of democracy began to explode one after the other.”
World War I was followed by an economic boom—The Roaring Twenties—and illusions in gradualist reformism were again reinforced. The dream was violently shattered by the nightmare of the Great Depression. After the chaos of the 1930s and World War II, capitalism was again stabilized temporarily, this time aided by the betrayals of Stalinism, and yet another epoch of compromise opened up. US capitalism was in an enviable position, accounting for 50% of world GDP. On this basis, a new epoch of relative social peace—at least for some layers of the population—was made possible through the postwar economic boom, which allowed unprecedented crumbs to be given to the workers. Long gone were the class struggle labor leaders of the past, replaced now by class collaborationists who saw themselves as “partners” with the bosses, whose job was to mediate the class struggle on behalf of the ruling class.
But compromise requires give-and-take. In exchange for a stable job, modest benefits, and a somewhat comfortable retirement, millions of workers were willing to compromise their dreams and aspirations for a more interesting and exciting existence. Work on the line in an auto plant wasn’t particularly easy or fun, but it provided for a relatively high quality of life, even without a college degree. But by the 1970s and into the 1980s, as the postwar boom sputtered out, this era of compromise, too, ran aground. However, with few militant leaders in place to lead the fight back, American labor entered a long decline, accompanied by a precipitous fall in living standards for all workers.
Fast forward several more decades. Today there is no “give” by the bosses—only “take.” Give-backs, concessions, and shrinking benefits are the norm when it comes to union contracts, while those without a union are sinking even faster. On the basis of bitter personal experience, millions of Americans are coming to understand that this is as good as it gets under capitalism—and they are looking for a way out.
2008: A tipping point
Eight years ago, in the middle of a presidential election, the country entered an unprecedented economic meltdown. It marked a “before and after” in US economic, political, and social history and consciousness. As many as 800,000 jobs were being lost every month. Years of Bush’s “war on terror” had drained the treasury and exhausted the country. Wall Street and the capitalists had not been as discredited in generations. The ruling class needed to pull a rabbit out of a hat. They did so in the form of Barack Obama. Handsome, eloquent, and offering a vision of “hope and change,” millions of people rallied around him and elected the country’s first black president. Despite the heartfelt illusions of millions, we explained that Obama would ultimately be “more of the same,” and that American workers would have to pass through the “School of the Democrats.”
Disappointment rapidly set in. President Obama sent home the vast network of organizers who had gotten the vote out for him. Despite controlling both the House and the Senate for the first two years of his administration, he continued Bush’s economic and military policies. The Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it much easier for workers to join a union, was tossed aside. Obamacare was nothing like the single-payer version supported by most Americans. Even the prison camp at Guantanamo, set up in the aftermath of September 11, remains operational to this day. In 2012, he was unenthusiastically reelected. We explained at the time, however, that “the more things stay the same, the more they change.” Beneath the surface of society, the molecular process of revolution was simmering.
Now, as we near the end of Obama’s final term, the US is a very different country. We have passed through the experience of the Wisconsin uprising, the Occupy movement, federal recognition of same-sex marriage, the lowering of the Confederate flag in South Carolina, the Black Lives Matter movement, and much more. The apparent apolitical apathy of the youth has turned into its opposite. Just as Spain’s anti-politics Indignados movement eventually found a political expression in the meteoric rise of Podemos, young Americans in particular have begun to awaken to politics in a big way.
The world they live in is not the same as their parents’ and grandparents’, and their political attitudes reflect this. They have never known and will never know the relative stability of the postwar world. There is no guaranteed job, mortgage, car loan, or retirement to anchor them to the system. Theirs is a world of crisis, revolution, and change, combined with instant worldwide cultural exchange and communication. They have no firm loyalties to any party or politician and the pillars of bourgeois society have little authority in their eyes. As Marx explained, they live in a world in which “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
In these conditions, millions of Americans—and not only the youth—are tearing up the old political playbook and are ready and open for something dramatic and new. Despite running in the traditional parties of the ruling class, both Trump and Sanders are seen as mavericks taking on the powers that be. It seems contradictory, but is in fact perfectly understandable, given the US context and history, that many voters are torn between Sanders and Trump.
Political system in crisis
The overwhelming institutional weight of the Democratic and Republican Parties makes it extremely difficult for outside parties to develop into a mass force. Without the existence of an already established mass workers’ party, the pressure and polarization in society are being expressed through the two parties of the ruling class. Income and wealth statistics show that the so-called “middle class”—the backbone of the American Dream and postwar stability—has been squeezed nearly out of existence. The buffer between the poorest and the richest is getting thinner every day, blowing apart the old political equilibrium.
For far too long, Americans have been kept on a tight leash when it comes to what is politically and economically “realistic”—despite the potential for so much more being right before our eyes. That leash will snap sooner rather than later, as youth and workers strive and strain to pull free from the artificial constraints of the past.
The period we have entered will be far more similar to the 1850s than the 1950s. The years before the Civil War saw the rise and fall, split and fusion of many political parties as the balance of forces between the classes and of layers within the classes shifted one way and then another. The political strife of that era included the now-forgotten Whig, Liberty, Free Soil, American, Constitutional Union, and Know-Nothing parties. The Democrats split and transformed, and out of the chaos emerged the Republican Party, seemingly out of nowhere. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln, initially a longshot to win his own party’s nomination, was elected president in a four-way vote with just 39.8% of the vote, a mere six years after the party’s formation. In time, a new equilibrium was attained, as the Northern capitalists asserted their economic domination of the country—but not without the disruptive turmoil of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
In times such as these, rapid changes and unexpected transformations are the norm, not the exception. We too must be ready to follow the twists and turns of history as the class balance of forces shifts and seeks a new equilibrium, as the basis for the old one has been upended. However, given the organic crisis of the system, there is no new equilibrium possible on the basis of capitalism. Only the socialist revolution can cut the Gordian knot of capitalist contradictions and liberate humanity from the absurdities of a system in which recurring crises of overproduction, hunger, homelessness, and unemployment affect billions in the midst of unprecedented abundance.
Unfortunately, however, although the working class has the numbers and potential power to transform the situation overnight, the lack of a farsighted leadership means that the confrontation between the classes will again involve a prolonged period of turmoil, accompanied by a wide range of unpredictable political manifestations. As we’ve noted in the past, the capitalists will come to regret not having allowed the formation of a mass labor party in the postwar period. In countries such as Britain and France, the leaders of these parties have historically played a key role in controlling the working class and staving off revolution. Without such a party in place in the US today, all bets are off, and many transmutations are possible, starting with the Sanders phenomenon.
The art of developing perspectives is an integral part of scientific socialism. The purpose of these conditional prognoses is not to provide an absolute, immutable, 100% accurate blueprint for the future—which would be impossible—but to outline the most likely processes and variants. This in turn allows our comrades and sympathizers to anticipate and therefore more efficiently orient to movements and events as they arise. Nearly two years ago, at a time when Bernie Sanders’ candidacy was merely the whisper of a rumor, we explained in our 2014 Perspectives document:
“The decay of capitalism is manifested in a variety of ways. Many people are turning inward and are lashing out in frustration on an individual basis. At present, there is a mood of resigned tension and disaffection. There is a nationwide heroin epidemic in states like Vermont. Nationally, drug overdoses have tripled since 1990, and now account for more deaths than motor vehicle crashes. Mass shootings, bombings, and murders over texting in a movie theater or overly loud music in a car are regularly in the headlines. We live in a society of economic, political, and social decline.
“But this will all eventually turn into its opposite. The workers and youth are just waiting for something to happen, for a lead, for someone to point the way forward. You can feel it in the air, on the bus, in the workplace, and at the check-out counter.
“In the coming period, in the absence of a political outlet, the workers’ aspirations to improve their position will tend to be channelled into economic struggles. We can anticipate a rise in strikes, organizing drives, and militant, class struggle tendencies in the unions. But as economic struggles and strikes are nowhere near enough to stop austerity and falling living standards for the majority, this energy will feed back into the struggle to build a labor party. Alongside these developments, interest in socialism will continue to grow, and there will be an increasingly clear understanding of what socialism really is. International events and the economic cycle will also play a big role in shaping workers’ outlook.
“As we are always at pains to explain, changes in consciousness are not linear. However, history wastes nothing, and the contradictions continue to pile up and will eventually reach a breaking point. Consciousness can and will catch up with a bang.
“The task of Marxist perspectives is not to look into a crystal ball, but to draw out the most general trends. To use a scientific analogy, American society is a nonlinear system ‘tuned to the edge of chaos.’ Any efforts to reestablish equilibrium in the economy can only lead to further instability in politics and society, and vice versa. All of these dynamics feed on and condition each other in ways that are impossible to predict precisely. We can expect many unexpected twists and turns, even though they are deeply rooted in the objective and subjective conditions themselves. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, the instability of the system has unleashed dynamics that are impossible to predict—and even harder for the ruling class to control.
“The longer the pressure builds the more explosive it will be when it finally bursts to the surface. Small, accidental incidents can express a deeper historical necessity and have an effect far out of proportion to their immediate significance. This is why, while developing the broad overview of our perspectives, we must also do our best to keep our finger on the day-to-day pulse of the working class and the youth. The coming period will be fundamentally different from the recent past. In an epoch such as this, there is no room for routinism!
“It is a dialectical contradiction that we must build our forces precisely now, at a time when the movement is at a low ebb. But history shows that once the revolution begins, it is too late to improvise the necessary leadership. Recent examples such as Tunisia and Egypt, or even Wisconsin and Occupy demonstrate this without a shadow of a doubt. Our small forces can develop an excellent analysis, but we cannot yet have a decisive effect on events. If we do not build the leadership the working class requires and deserves, no one else will. This is why, although we understand that there are no magic shortcuts to the building of the revolutionary party, we must have a healthy sense of urgency.
“We live in the most exciting historical epoch humanity has ever witnessed: the epoch of the world socialist revolution. As Trotsky explained in his 1938 classic, Their Morals and Ours, the Marxists have studied and learned from ‘the rhythm of history, that is, the dialectics of the class struggle. They also learned, it seems, and to a certain degree successfully, how to subordinate their subjective plans and programs to this objective rhythm. They learned not to fall into despair over the fact that the laws of history do not depend upon their individual tastes and are not subordinated to their own moral criteria. They learned to subordinate their individual desires to the laws of history . . .
“‘They know how to swim against the stream in the deep conviction that the new historic flood will carry them to the other shore. Not all will reach that shore; many will drown. But to participate in this movement with open eyes and with an intense will—only this can give the highest moral satisfaction to a thinking being!’
“We have been fighting against stream since the WIL was founded in 2002. But in the brief span of time that has elapsed since then, our ideas already no longer seem as radical or “out there” as they once did. The disconnect between the conditions faced by the majority and the potential for humanity to reach ever-new heights has never been more glaring. Our ideas reflect reality, while those of the labor leaders and the bourgeois politicians are increasingly at odds with the situation confronting workers and the youth. There have never been greater possibilities for our organization or for the struggle of the working class for socialism. To make this potential actual, we must train the cadres and build the IMT in the US and internationally.”
The processes described above have accelerated since these lines were written. The tide has most certainly begun to turn. Although the class struggle has not yet been expressed on the trade union front—there was only a slight uptick in strikes and days lost to strikes and lockouts in 2015 as compared to 2014—it is clear that the system is hovering on the “edge of chaos.” A barrage of sharp and sudden changes is yet in store. At the moment, the pent-up frustration is being expressed in a contradictory way through Bernie Sanders’ candidacy as a Democrat. But at a certain stage, in some form or another, this energy can and will feed back into the unions, the broader working class, and the working class’s objective need for class-independent political representation.
The Democratic Party
As we noted in a recent article on the Iowa Caucus, “The Democratic Party is neither democratic nor a party, in the usual sense of the word. It is a massively corrupt capitalist electoral machine with no unified program and no democratic internal organizational structures through which the rank and file can hold its leaders accountable. The vast majority of voters merely ‘self-identify’ as Democrat or Republican, as there is no standard criteria for membership. Although many workers vote for the Democrats and are encouraged to do so by the labor leaders (more often than not as a ‘lesser evil’), the unions are seen merely as another ‘special interest,’ almost akin to lobbyists, and there is no formal or organic connection between them and the party.”
As the world’s oldest active voter-based political party, the Democrats have changed spots many times over the last two centuries: from the party of the Jacksonian small farmers, the Southern slavocracy, and the corrupt Tammany Hall machine, to the backbone of Jim Crow segregation, the New Deal, and alleged “friends of labor.” Originally based on libertarian principles of small government and state’s and slave-owners’ rights, they are now perceived as socially liberal advocates of “big government” spending. Closely fused with Wall Street and the capitalist state, the party is one of the key pillars of bourgeois rule in the US and around the world.
The presidential nomination process, via caucuses and primaries, is intended to give the illusion of inner party democracy. But the institution of unelected superdelegates and other party rules and regulations means that in the final analysis, everything else being equal, it is the party tops and big donors who call the shots. However, in recent weeks, everything else hasn’t been equal, and Hillary Clinton’s carefully scripted campaign seemed on the verge of unraveling. Bernie Sanders was supposed to merely lend a modicum of left cover to her inevitable coronation. But the electorate has taken the idea of democracy seriously, and massively voted for Bernie’s “unrealistic” proposals, instead of Hillary’s uninspiringly pragmatic “politics of the possible”.
Despite the momentum Sanders gained in the first handful contests, Super Tuesday represents a setback, and there are still plenty of other cards the Democratic Party machine can play to stop him—long before the superdelegate “nuclear option” needs be deployed. Let’s also not forget that New Hampshire is a small rural state right next to Sanders’ home state of Vermont, and despite the enthusiasm his win there generated, it provided him with few delegates, which in the Democratic Party are allocated more or less proportionally.
Even if Sanders won more pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention, it is not at all likely that the Democrats would risk an all-out split in the party just months before the general election by giving Clinton the nomination on the basis of the superdelegates. Nothing has been decided this far in advance. Clinton also had a majority of superdelegates going into the 2008 convention, and yet they changed their votes and supported Obama, the majority winner in the primaries and caucuses. The New York Times—the mouthpiece for the more sober, Wall Street wing of the US capitalist class—has called on the superdelegates to follow the lead of the majority. The ruling class may feel differently about Sanders than they did about Obama—above all because of the forces he has begun to stir up—but they have not lost their heads entirely. Although they are worried, it would be an exaggeration to say that they are in an outright panic at this stage.
The Democratic Party machine has successfully neutralized or co-opted many attempts to push it to the left. They have always succeeded. But these are new times, and it will certainly be more complicated this time around. Much will depend on what Sanders decides to do. Nonetheless, without an organized mass opposition prepared to lead the charge against the party apparatus, especially in the unions, even the most explosive eruption will end up only letting off steam if it is not channeled into useful work.
Far from taking Sanders head-on at this stage, the serious bourgeois are treating him with kid gloves. They would far rather make the best of a bad situation and keep Sanders within the “big tent” of the party than have him spin entirely out of their control, running as an independent, with hordes of voters following him out of the Democratic Party. A race between an independent Sanders, the Democrat Clinton, Republican Trump, and possibly an independent Bloomberg, is the kind of political unpredictability the ruling class would very much like to avoid—though they will not be able to avoid it indefinitely. And if, for example, the next economic meltdown occurs between now and November, or a hard-to-control wave of labor strikes develops, they may well need to rely on Sanders’ services to try and keep things within safe channels.
The flip side of the delegates and superdelegates question is that if Hillary appears to win “fair and square,” big pressure will be brought to bear on Sanders and his supporters to back her and the Democrats. It is certainly theoretically possible that Sanders has had a secret plan all along, that he chose to run as a Democrat as part of a long-term strategy to use the party’s infrastructure as a vehicle to get his name and ideas out there, planning all along to break with them if he was not selected as their nominee. However, Sanders is not new to Washington, having served in the House and Senate since 1991. He’s an extremely seasoned and savvy politician who has voted with the Democrats for most of his career. His decision to run as their candidate was carefully considered. So far he is playing by their rules even though the cards are stacked against him.
Major shocks from many possible quarters may yet scuttle Clinton’s campaign and leave Sanders as the de facto candidate. He may do surprisingly well in upcoming contests and wrest the nomination from the DNC after all. While there is growing pressure on Sanders to run as an independent—whether he wins the Democratic nomination or not—only time will tell what course he takes. Although millions of his supporters would be bitterly disappointed, he may yet play the role of a “pied piper” who leads left-leaning voters into the swamp of the Democrats—all in the name of combatting the “greater evil.” He has, after all, stated that he “doesn’t want to end up like Ralph Nader.”
It is best to avoid making categorical statements when it comes to what a politician will or will not do, or what the result of an election may or may not be, as there are too many impossible-to-predict variables in a chaotic system such as this. But the clock is ticking. In the not too distant future, Sanders will have to make a decision that will determine his political legacy and potentially change the course of US history. Will he follow through on his word to support Clinton if she is the nominee? Will he withhold his endorsement and go home quietly? Or will he help lay the foundations for something new and necessary in American politics? Will he call on the unions to break with the Democrats and build an independent socialist labor party? If he does pursue such a course, on what basis could such a party be built?
Eroding base of support
The Republicans have seen record turnouts in primaries and caucuses throughout the candidate selection season. While the party tops are not enamored of Trump, he has energized millions of Republicans and independents in a way that a Jeb Bush simply couldn’t. In the Democrats’ camp, however, interest in the candidate selection process has dropped dramatically. Despite the enthusiasm Sanders has generated, three million fewer Democratic voters participated in Super Tuesday than in 2008. Throughout the South, between 25% and 50% fewer voters came out to the polls. This could perhaps be chalked up to decreased enthusiasm among black voters, now that Obama is not up for election. But Iowa, too, saw a 40% fall in participation by voters under 30 years of age, and despite boosting Clinton over the top, Latino voters in Nevada came out in significantly lower numbers as well.
The takeaway is that turnout in 2008 was the result of enthusiasm in Obama himself, compounded by eight years of GW Bush, in the midst of a terrifying economic meltdown. As the party in power, anyone associated with the Democratic Party label will suffer, no matter how much pressure there is at this stage to stop the Republicans, no matter how excited people are by Sanders’ ideas or the possibility of electing the first female president. These are above all “Sanders” and “Clinton” voters—not necessarily Democratic voters. Many Sanders voters have strongly asserted that they would prefer to stay home or even vote for Trump if Clinton is the candidate. Once the “lesser evil” machine ramps up, they may well change their minds, but the sentiment is clear. These voters would not give a Clinton presidency much of a honeymoon.
Loyalty to the two ruling parties, once grounded on the promise and even guarantee of a certain standard of living, is disintegrating. Millions of Republicans and independents would follow Trump out of the party without hesitation, and he himself has made it clear that he is far more loyal to his own brand than to the Republican Party in the abstract. As he recently explained to MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” “I am watching television—and I am seeing ad, after ad, after ad put in by the establishment, knocking the hell out of me, and it’s really unfair. But if I leave, if I go, regardless of independent, which I may do—I mean, may or may not. But if I go, I will tell you, these millions of people that joined, they’re all coming with me.”
According to Gallup, a record number of Americans—a plurality of 43%—consider themselves “independent” as compared to “Democrat” or “Republican,” a substantial increase from 35% in 2008. Both Sanders and Trump have tapped into this base of discontent, but more voters have abandoned the incumbent Democrats (from 36% to 30%) than the opposition Republicans (from 28% to 26%). According to Jocelyn Kiley of the Pew Research Center, “Younger people tend to be less likely to affiliate with parties than older people. This is as pronounced as it's ever been . . . People give some of the most negative ratings of either party that we’ve seen in the last 20 years.”
Behind the diminishing support for the mainstream parties and candidates is an even more dangerous reality, pregnant with implications for the future: support for capitalism itself is falling precipitously.