Fri | Sep 22, 2017

Who is Bernie Sanders and why are voters so excited about him?

Published:Wednesday | April 27, 2016 | 4:00 AMMatthew Kopka
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You'd never know it if you follow the corporate media, but for months, a white-haired Jewish socialist has been attracting bigger crowds than Donald Trump - far bigger than Hillary Clinton - to political rallies across the United States.

The most prominent left-leaning presidential candidate in decades,Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has won a fervent following, especially among young and independent voters, becoming one of the great underdog stories in US history.

Until his 15-point loss in New York last week, Sanders had won seven of the last eight primary elections, paring Clinton's lead to 194 delegates, while the media continued to characterise Clinton's lead as insurmountable and remained obsessed with Donald Trump.

Sanders continues to lead or tie Clinton in nationwide polling, a fact that the major media barely acknowledge. He ties or bests Clinton in head-to-head polls and beats projected Republican winners, beginning with Trump.

Still, the New York loss narrowed Sanders' odds of winning the Democratic nomination.Who is the left-wing candidate? What remains of his chances? Will he leave an impact on American politics?

Sanders and the

Current Conjuncture

For decades, Sanders relished a role as America's only socialist senator, establishing himself as a voice against military adventurism and - interestingly - a champion of military veterans, who suffer scandalous rates of mental illness, joblessness, and homelessness. He pushed for a single-payer system of health care.

Clinton's campaign has worked to present Sanders as a less pragmatic variant of Clinton. But Sanders' socialism, though mild, contrasts sharply with Clinton's downright hawkish Democratic politics, which has brought backing from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the neoconservatives who brought the country the ill-begotten Iraq war.

To understand why Americans are receptive to Sanders requires awareness of how they're hurting and of the forces that gave rise to their current struggles. This involves the rollback of the historic gains of the poor and middle classes in the recent ideological climate of neo-liberalism.

Under this sophisticated wave of corporate-influenced reaction the share of wealth owned by the richest one per cent of Americans has nearly doubled, going from 22 per cent in the mid-1970s to 40 per cent. Living standards of the poor and middle class have declined steadily, those of the very poor now reaching catastrophic levels, according to recent work by Nobel Prize economist Angus Deaton.

The first onslaught was led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. But neo-liberalism found readier champions in Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. The neo-liberal period has involved 'free' trade agreements led by the corporate powers, war against unions, steep cuts in corporate taxes (from 33 per cent to nine per cent since 1952) and a related collapse of infrastructure and decline of schools, with millions of jobs 'offshored' by those corporations.

Awareness of these currents has largely remained beyond most voters' ken, but given a national platform, many - desperate for explanation of their plight and its reasons - are obtaining it from Bernie Sanders.

Neo-liberalism and

US Politics

Because Bill Clinton rose to power amid a surge of Republican antipathy to the poor and immigrants - and was seen as a bulwark against such hatred - his role in their economic decline is little understood by Americans. But Hillary Clinton's candidacy has cast light on Clinton's actions.

Clinton entered the scene during a period of decline in Democratic Party funding, but realised he could gain Wall Street's backing by moving the party rightward. He formed the Democratic Leadership Committee (DLC), which took strong root in the US Senate. Considering the influence the DLC has had on US politics, it's crazy that so few Democrats know about it.

The market fundamentalism both parties embraced, which the DLC pushed, became hegemonic. It involved a rejection of tried-and-true (Keynesian) remedies for economic hard times and the inevitable polarisation of wealth that comes with unfettered markets - abandonment of new programmes for the poor or deficit spending. It left little alternative where voters' pocketbooks, jobs, or economic well-being were concerned. Among Clinton's signal 'achievements', of course, was abandonment of welfare, which was replaced with Ö nothing.

The US, meanwhile, continued to play policeman to the world, to be a kind of military welfare state of which no one has been more supportive than Hillary Clinton.The number of US military bases has continued to grow and now stands at 800. This meant a swelling of power by military corporations as Pentagon budgets went unchallenged, while efforts on behalf of the poor were submitted to withering scrutiny (viz Obama's modest expansion of health care, "historic cornerstone" of his presidency, gained only after furious struggle).

But amid an onslaught of hostility and Republican supremacism, Democrats played the identitarian game from the other side, leaving poor whites in the cold, all pretence of class solidarity abandoned.

Today, the long rightward drift of the Democratic Party is barely noted. But tolerance for people of colour aside, Hillary Clinton is less liberal than Richard Nixon, who presided over an expansion of welfare and creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Amid economic ignorance and Republican ferocity, politicians who don't express outright hostility to black or gay people have been gratefully embraced by open-minded voters. (This may be the reason both Obama and Hillary Clinton decided, recently, to back gay marriage.) Identity politics is all, broadly, that's 'left' of the Democratic Party.

The demographics - a shrinking white majority - suggest that the Democratic establishment can continue to thrive on shallow identitarian politics for years to come. Whether the country can is another question.

Obama's Presidency

Among Obama's first acts as a senator was swearing fealty to the DLC (a reason the Clintons were enraged by his upstart 2008 challenge to Hillary). Obama's presidential runs broke all records for Wall Street funding, as Clinton has noted. Obama, like Clinton, has broken no new ground in helping the poor, while liberals remained silent about his actions - including his administration's use of drone bombing, which has weakened the US Constitution. In the racialised terrain of American politics, liberals have not known how or whether to criticise Obama.

The outlines of this narrative have remained far from mainstream discourse, in part because Democrats, like Republicans, saw no need for voters to understand them. But they brought permanent economic crisis for the poor and middle class.

Amid this landscape, Hillary Clinton doesn't pretend to offer ambitious remedies, and her backers, now separated by decades from the traditional liberal agenda, satisfy themselves with hopes of keeping Republicans out of their bedrooms.

What Sanders Stands For

It's against this backdrop that Sanders's rise and promise must be examined. Sanders gives voice to what has befallen the poor and middle classes, speaking to them in ways no one has in decades. A person who grew up poor and remembers his parents' fights over money, he rails against income inequality, at how the poor are denied the most meagre safety-net protections, while a military budget riddled with corruption is sacrosanct.

When Clinton paints Sanders as wildly idealistic, Sanders points out that health care and free education are taken for granted in other developed countries. He supports a living wage that would ensure the working poor can pay rent, feed themselves and construct affordable housing. Sanders has a strong record on alternative agriculture and rural development and is a proponent of action on climate change. He has been brave, as a Jew challenging the hawkish Clinton, in criticising Israel's military policy towards the Palestinians.

Clinton - a gifted debater - casts universal health care and education as starry-eyed. She continues to soft-peddle her own favourable stances towards school and Social Security privatisation, to back a raised retirement age that would be disastrous for older Americans, fracking, big agriculture, and GMOs, still painting herself as liberal.

Sanders criticises the money the Clintons have received from speeches to corporations like Goldman-Sachs - greatest part of a fortune that totals $150 million. The transcripts of those speeches, which Clinton won't release, would undermine assertions that she was critical of their actions during the 2008 bailout. Curiously, Sanders has not criticised Clinton's illegal use of private servers to conduct her State Department correspondence - subject of an FBI investigation - or the favourable terms for arms sales various countries received in exchange for donations to the Clinton Foundation, issues the Republicans will turn against her in a general election.

Important, Sanders' criticism of the Clintons has opened the door to reassessment of the Clinton era. This is particularly true of the Clintons' dubious record as civil rights champions. With renewed attention to Clinton's return to Arkansas to preside over the 1992 electrocution of a retarded black man; his repudiation of rap singer Sistah Souljah; his abandonment of welfare; the 1994 Crime Bill which expanded the death penalty and established the notoriously primitive '3 strikes' rule; remarks about Obama ("A few years ago this guy would have been carrying our bags") ideas of the Clintons as civil rights champions are being dismantled.

It hasn't hurt that Sanders' civil rights record is impressive. In 1964, while Sanders was organising and being dragged from a Chicago anti-segregation sit-in, Clinton was working for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, an Arizona senator who opposed the Civil Rights Act.

Clinton and a Changing Black Electorate

The unfortunate truth is that Obama has not lifted the living standards of the poor. By some accounts, half of the black middle class fell into poverty during the recent recession. The average black household has six per cent of the wealth of the average white family.

The media and Democratic Party treat the black vote as a unitary phenomenon, a slack and patronising assumption. Amid the media blackout, Sanders received few black votes in early southern state primaries, but has run with increasing strength among black voters in northern states. Members of the Black Lives Matter movement have swung support to Sanders as has

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer who once condemned Sanders for failing to back reparations. Younger black voters find Sanders more appealing than their elders do. Many of these fissures are mirrored in the white electorate.

Where Matters Stand

New York left Sanders with a diminished road map to success. Upcoming primaries take place in states - including Connecticut, and Maryland - where better-off conservative Democrats, especially white women who are Clinton's staunchest backers - predominate.

Clinton is likely to win. Sanders was never going to gain respectful attention from the corporate media, but his popularity and his immense campaign rallies nag at the Clinton campaign. Clinton is viewed favourably by less than 50 per cent of voters.

And a large and newly energised portion of the electorate - which might legitimately be called left - may be in formation. Economist Thomas Piketty says Sanders is ushering in a new political era. Sanders is fashioning a popular language for what three decades of voters - with no help from the media - have barely had words to express.

When hope for change resides in a single person, political 'movements' may be limited. Obama created an amazing database of grass-roots followers during his first campaign and never used it, an early signal where his presidency was headed. Sanders is developing his own list and has drawn more people to his rallies than Obama did. They are filling his coffers with tiny contributions, sometimes donating many times. A raft of promising young candidatesincluding Tim Canova in Florida and Lucy Flores in Nevada - suggest something bigger than Sanders is brewing outside the realm of an increasingly outworn and complacent US liberalism.

Sanders' unassuming style, in an age of unbridled narcissism ("Hillary!"), suggests that the work is about more than him.

Will Sanders, who ran as an independent in Vermont, start a new party? Could he run against Clinton and Trump? Would he support Clinton in the general campaign? With what intensity? These questions await answers. Sanders may make mistakes, but if the answers are sincere, the genie does not have to be pushed back into the bottle any time soon.

-Matthew Kopka is a senior writer and has been writing for The Gleaner since 2003.