Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2488

A Red in the White House? How Bernie Sanders is shaking up US politics

This article is over 8 years, 4 months old
Is politics in the United States about to get the shake-up it has needed for generations? With the campaign bandwagon of left wing Democrat Bernie Sanders gaining ground, it’s the question for millions of Americans. Charlie Kimber assesses his chances—and his politics
Issue 2488
Bernie Sanders with supporters in Phoenix, Arizona
Bernie Sanders with supporters in Phoenix, Arizona (Pic: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Bernie Sanders is running to be the Democratic Party candidate for US president. He calls himself a socialist, he confidently puts out radical policies—and in some polls he’s ahead of the establishment choice Hillary Clinton.

Styling himself as the candidate of the “99 percent against the 1 percent”, Sanders stands for change.

He backs a $15 an hour minimum wage, more regulation of the banks and restrictions on their size.

Sanders wants urgent action on climate change and a move away from fossil fuels.

He is for free tuition for students at publicly-owned universities and colleges, and reducing the number of people in prison.

Over 400,000 people across the US have come to hear him speak at rallies and cheered his call for “political revolution”.

Web searches for “socialism” soar after he appears on TV debates.

He electrified audiences at a recent debate when he blasted Clinton for taking £400,000 worth of speaking fees from Goldman Sachs, the multinational bank.

For many people, Sanders offers hope of a move away from the manipulated and stage-managed political process that serves only the elite.

Refugio Villagrana, a Sanders supporter from California, told Socialist Worker, “I’m for Bernie because he speaks the truth. He stands against wars, for more help to seniors, for free college tuitions, and for a revised medical insurance plan. I also admire that he refuses to take donations from big business and the rich.

“I am of Hispanic descent and his record proves he speaks from the heart. Republican candidate Donald Trump’s speeches have made many people on the other side support Sanders.

“The one thing that I do wonder is how he is going to manage to do all that he says in four years. I’m sure he’s gonna face opposition from the big banks he plans on breaking up and Wall Street.”

It was so exciting, something new and different. It was uncontrolled, not crazy and filthy like Trump and not corporate like Hillary Clinton.

US elections are saturated with the money and the power of the rich.

The billionaire Koch brothers have pledged to put over £600 million towards electing a Republican president and Congress. Last August they called together five Republican presidential candidates and told them to compete for funding.

Republican strategist Mark McKinnon told the New York Times newspaper, “For that kind of money you could buy a president. Oh right. That’s the point.”

Clinton hopes to amass anything up to £2 billion for her campaign, mainly from company executives and millionaires. Current president Barack Obama spent £800 million in his 2012 campaign.

In contrast Sanders’ campaign is based on the few millions contributed by around one million people, each typically giving £20.

Next Monday in the state of Iowa the Democrats will begin the process of choosing their candidate. A poll last week showed Clinton and Sanders neck and neck.

A poll last week in New Hampshire, which votes on 9 February to choose a Democratic candidate, put Sanders 27 percent ahead of Clinton.

Susan Grant, a student from Fairfax, Virginia, told Socialist Worker, “Bernie came to my university a few months ago. There were 1,500 people there in the volleyball stadium.

“All sorts were there—the political ones and the non-political, African-American and Asian and white. It was so exciting, something new and different. It was uncontrolled, not crazy and filthy like Trump and not corporate like Hillary Clinton.

“Now I’m working for Bernie to win. I do house meetings and lots of social media. I’m never going back to doing nothing.

“I respect people who say we can’t do it through the Democrats, but you have to respect me when I say how you gonna win otherwise? And Bernie will be better than Hillary Clinton, or Trump for god’s sake.

“Hillary Clinton is just running to win, Bernie is running to change things for the better.”

The Democratic Party remains one of the main parties of US capitalism (see below). But there’s no doubt that Sanders has inspired large numbers of people, and made discussion of socialist ideas easier.

Campaigns are connecting

The support for Sanders reflects a deep bitterness in US society. In many ways this is of far greater long term significance than the Sanders campaign itself.

US workers’ wages have, on average, fallen by 6.5 percent since 2007.

There is rampant inequality. The 20 richest people in the US now own more wealth than the bottom half of the American population combined—some 152 million people.

The wealthiest 400 own about as much as the nation’s entire African-American population—plus more than a third of the Latino population—combined.

The Black Lives Matter movement is another expression of anger in US society

The Black Lives Matter movement is another expression of anger in US society (Pic: Tony Webster/Flickr)

Sanders is just one expression of a pent-up anger emerging. In 2011 there were strikes and occupations in Wisconsin against the state governor’s assault on public sector unions. Soon after the Occupy movement in the US joined a wave of global protests against the elites.

Thousands of people have taken part in angry demonstrations as part of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. This followed the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.

The fast food workers’ campaign for “$15 and a union” has seen a serious push to organise workers previously thought unorganisable.

A high-profile strike by Chicago teachers in 2012 defeated major planks of the mayor’s “reform” programme for schools.

Last September Fiat Chrysler workers threw out a wage deal—the first rejection of an auto pay offer recommended by union leaders for over 30 years.

Two unofficial “sickout” strikes—by teachers calling in sick—recently closed nearly all schools in Detroit.

These events are not isolated episodes. There are crossovers, for example, between the fast food campaign and the Black Lives Matter movement.

There is not yet a sustained fightback. Unions organise only 11 percent of the US workforce. But there are glimmers of hope, and there will be more struggles to come whatever happens to Sanders.

Both for and against war

The campaign for Bernie Sanders can look similar to the surge in support for Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn in Britain.

There are echoes in Sanders’ supporters’ hatred of austerity and the lack of choice in establishment politics. But there are differences.

Sanders doesn’t oppose all imperialist war. He has said, “As President and Commander?in?Chief, I will defend this nation, its people, and America’s vital strategic interests, but we must seek diplomatic solutions before resorting to military action.”

Sanders opposed the war in Iraq in 2003, but he has backed other brutal US interventions. He voted for the resolution that was used to launch the invasion of Afghanistan.


He has called for the drone wars, which have proved so deadly against civilians and deliver execution without trial, to continue. This has shocked many of his supporters.

Sanders also voted to support Israel’s bombing and invasion of Gaza in 2014.

During his long political career Sanders has frequently suggested that immigrants lower workers’ wages and that only the rich support fewer immigration laws. He has downplayed this policy during the presidential campaign to stress that he would legalise millions of undocumented workers in the US.

A party of big business

The Democratic Party is often seen as being more on the side of working class people and a better choice than the Republicans.

Yet it has always been one of the main parties of US capitalism and takes most of its cash from big business.

It is not the same as the British Labour Party. For all its failings the Labour Party retains links to the union leaders.

But the Democratic Party doesn’t have the same links.

And in office, Democrats and Republicans have presided over wars, cuts and attacks.

Democrat president Harry Truman ordered the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War. Later he led the US into the Cold War and the Korean War.

Democrat president John F Kennedy tried to invade Cuba, invaded the Dominican Republic and started the Vietnam War.

Bill Clinton tore into welfare programmes, laid the basis for the mass incarceration in US prisons and invaded Somalia.

Barack Obama, elected on a wave of hope eight years ago, has continued and extended foreign wars and loyally served the rich.

Ordinary people in the US need a party to the left. But the Democrats have repeatedly absorbed movements that could have developed into a powerful alternative.

The Civil Rights, anti-war and workers’ movements of the 1960s were channelled back into the Democrats.

Jesse Jackson—radical, but within Democrat limits

Jesse Jackson—radical, but within Democrat limits

In 1983-4 black activist Jesse Jackson ran for the Democratic nomination, winning nearly four million primary votes and coming first in five states. His energetic campaign produced the National Rainbow Coalition that some people believed would break from the two-party system.

But Jackson loyally lined up behind the Democrats.

Jackson ran again in 1988. This time he took 11 states and seven million primary votes. He was briefly the frontrunner but eventually came second.

Again he stuck with the Democrats, and then played a key role in boosting support among black Americans for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. He cemented the two-party hold, rather than breaking it.

In 2004 Howard Dean ran for the Democrat nomination. He said, “What I want to know is what in the world so many Democrats are doing supporting the President’s unilateral intervention in Iraq?”

But as his campaign foundered he moved away from any hint of radicalism. Instead Dennis Kucinich became the standard-bearer for anti-war activists. He didn’t win many votes, but he did help the Democrats secure anti-war votes.

Sanders has repeatedly said he will back whoever the Democratic primaries choose. He is prepared to direct all the enthusiasm, energy and thirst for change into a party that stands for the 1 percent.

This is his greatest failing.

When Ralph Nader stood as an independent for president in 2000 he only got around three million votes. But his campaign questioned whether the US left would forever be tied to a system where rival bosses’ parties alternate in office.

US workers need an alternative to the Democrats.

  • The US presidential election takes place every four years, and the next one is scheduled for 8 November
  • Each of the main parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, choose their candidate through a long process of primaries and caucuses that begins next week and goes on until June. Primaries and caucuses are where the voters in a particular state say who they want to be the candidate. There are different rules for each state. In some states only registered supporters of the party can vote. Iowa involves Democrats gathering at 1,681 individual caucuses

  • Eleven states vote on 1 March, a critical moment for the campaign

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance