By Gabby Thorpe
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Bernie Sanders, the Democrats and the fears of the US establishment

This article is over 4 years, 2 months old
Bernie Sanders has become the frontrunner to be the Democratic party’s presidential candidate. Gabby Thorpe looks at the rise in his popularity—and how the establishment and rich will try to stop real change.
Issue 2694
Bernie Sanders is riding a tide of anger at the state of the US
Bernie Sanders is riding a tide of anger at the state of the US

A self-proclaimed ­socialist is running to be Democratic candidate for US president—and he is beginning to scare the party’s establishment and the billionaires.

When Bernie Sanders announced his campaign in early 2019, over a million people signed up to volunteer in the first 24 hours. And in the same time period, he raised a record breaking £4.7 million in individual donations.

Sanders’ growing popularity is built on his policies of a $15 minimum wage, free education and healthcare, action on climate change, and strict regulation of the banks.

He has quickly become one of the most popular and recognisable politicians in the US. 

Sanders has won big vote shares in the election to become the Democratic party’s candidate. He came first in New Hampshire and Nevada and won the popular vote in the Iowa caucus.

He is expected to do well in the Super Tuesday set of elections on 3 March.

Jennifer Needham, an activist from Nevada, told Socialist Worker, “Bernie actually cares about people.

“He’s the only one who cares that the rich have too much money or that there are families that have to choose between food and healthcare. He’s making people talk about wealth inequality in a real way.”

Sanders’ popularity comes from his ability to tap into the deep anger felt by the US working class against the establishment.

This reflects radicalisation with movements from Black Lives Matter and the Women’s Marches to a rising number of strikers.

General Motors workers in the US win global solidarity for their strike
General Motors workers in the US win global solidarity for their strike
  Read More

There were 25 work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers in 2019. This is the largest number in nearly two decades. Ten of these strikes involved 20,000 or more workers, the largest number since at least 1993.

The people at the top of US society fear what Sanders represents.

Bosses’ magazine Forbes, trying to analyse Sanders’ appeal, said recently, “Younger people face the frightening realisation that they may be the first generation to have a lower standard of living than their parents.

“They are understandably concerned about how they can be self-sufficient, financially independent and live the American Dream, which was promised to them. In light of their situation, it’s not surprising that Bernie Sanders is surging in the polls and the idea of socialism is gaining traction among young people.”

Sanders’ speeches are very different to those from the other Democratic candidates that firmly align themselves with the ruling class.

His rivals include racist, sexist billionaire Michael Bloomberg—a former mayor of New York—and Pete Buttigieg, a former naval intelligence officer who once described himself as a “democratic capitalist”. 

Jennifer said, “Donald Trump says he’s great because the economy is doing better. That’s only true if you’re very wealthy.

“There are still people who are struggling. How can someone like Bloomberg or Buttigieg make that better?

“Sanders is the only person who wants to stand against that.”

Trump said in his recent State of the Union address that the US stock markets are “soaring by 70 percent” and that unemployment was at an all time low.

His assertion that the US economy is the “best it’s ever been” ignores the reality of a stagnation in wage growth.

Sanders hit back, saying, “In the last three years, billionaires saw an $850 billion increase in their wealth.

“For the ordinary American things are not so good.

“Last year real wage increases for the average worker were less than one percent. Half of our people are living pay cheque to pay cheque.”

Sanders’ criticisms of the US establishment have been met with attacks.

He has been accused of sexism by Hillary Clinton and another challenger for the 2020 nomination, Elizabeth Warren.

Others have accused him of antisemitism—despite his Jewish heritage.


One television pundit even went as far as to say Sanders’ win in Nevada was comparable to the Nazi invasion of France in 1940.

But despite efforts by the media and the establishment to bring him down, many now see him as “unstoppable.”

There is a danger that Sanders’ focus on electoral politics as the vehicle for change could mean the energy of movements is sucked into the dead end of the Democrat party.

Roberto, a socialist from California, told Socialist Worker, “I would vote for Bernie if he was the candidate. But my biggest concern is that if he loses, there won’t be anything in his place.

“He says there’s going to be a ‘political revolution’ but whatever happens there’s going to be a whole system against him.

“There’s no one on the streets demanding he’s listened to. I thought that’s what a ‘political revolution’ is meant to be. I left college last year and I can barely afford to live. Bernie has promised $15 an hour and an end to student debt.

“But if he can’t deliver these things then I don’t think there’s going to be a movement. There’s just going to be four years of people saying that he can’t keep his election promises.”

Many of Sanders’ policies are connected with demands raised by anti-racists and the climate change movements.

His plans involve ending the Ice border guards agency and shutting down detention centres.

He also calls for the reinstatement of the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program (Daca) that gives residency rights to the children of undocumented migrants. Sanders is also for a Green New Deal that aims to decarbonise the economy

Sanders backs all of these ­movements. But his “political revolution” doesn’t call for people to get out on to the streets to take on the elite and focuses on channelling people’s hopes for change into the ballot box.

Winning radical change will mean deepening the movements on the streets, workplaces and campuses.


Protesting against attacks on migrants and refugees
Protesting against attacks on migrants and refugees (Pic: Charles Edward Miller on Flickr)

Democrats feed on hopes for change

The Democratic Party has maintained an image of being the party of the working class in the US. Meanwhile the Republicans are painted as a party of big business and conservatism.

This is half right. But in reality, the Democrats have always been a bosses’ party.

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.

Both Republicans and Democrats attract corporate donors such as Coca-Cola, Walmart and Verizonwho donate basically the same amounts to both political parties.

Democrat Barack Obama, who many paint as a hero, continued George Bush’s imperialist wars.

And while he gave hope to black people, his administration saw the rise of Black Lives Matter. A staggering number of black people were killed by police—both in custody and on the street.

Since Trump came into power in 2016 within the Democratic party there has been the election of a number of left wing figures such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar.

Her win saw her soar to the status of a celebrity politician.

But despite how her victory boosted the Democrats’ progressive image, she recognises it as a party of the bosses.

The Democrats are not the same as the British Labour Party

She said that the US “does not have a left wing party” and described the Democrats as a “centre or centre-conservative” party.

Which poses the question, why are left wing figures such as Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez in the Democratic party when even they admit that it is not a left wing force?

The 1960s saw movements against war, for civil rights and gay liberation.

They were struggles that involved millions of working class people and had the power to break the two-party system in the US.

But time and time again the potential of these movements, and of the people leading them, was sucked back into the Democratic party machine.

The Democrats are the graveyard of social movements.

History shows that changing the fundamental nature of the Democrat party is an impossibility.

Despite this Sanders has managed to divide it and exposed the failure of his opponents who are backed by the establishment to offer any real change.

But this will serve as a reminder that the Democratic Party is ultimately only for the rich, and it will take more than one “socialist” candidate to change that.

How does the system work?

  • The next US presidential election is scheduled for 3 November.
  • Each of the main parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, choose their candidate through a long process of primaries and caucuses.
  • Primaries and caucuses are where the voters in a particular state say who they want to be the candidate. 
  • Fifteen states and territories voted on 3 March, a critical moment in the campaign
  • However, even if Sanders wins more delegates than any other individual candidate, he may not have the 50 percent of the total needed to guarantee he will be chosen. And after the first round of voting at the party conference, hundreds of unelected “superdelegates” are allowed to have a vote.

Who else is standing?

There are eight candidates for the Democratic nomination. Among those seen as more likely to be successful are:


The multi- billionaire did not run in early caucuses, instead he waited for Super Tuesday on 3 March, when 15 states and territories vote.

He said last week he’d “bought” many Democrats that control the House of Representatives.


The other candidate seen as “progressive” is sometimes touted as a more “serious” version of Sanders. But she doesn’t pretend to be an enemy of the system. She told one interviewer she was “capitalist to the bone”. Her plans for a more socialised healthcare system were withdrawn a few months ago after criticism from the private health firms.

She was a registered Republican until 1996—when she was 47 years old.


Stresses that he’d be the youngest ever US president, and the first to be openly gay. Says the US faces a choice between “Donald Trump and his nostalgia for the social order of the 1950s and Bernie Sanders and his nostalgia for the revolutionary politics of the 1960s”.


The former vice president under Barack Obama ran for president in 1988 and 2008. He was the choice of the Democratic party establishment and seen as the most likely winner of the nomination when the campaign began. But the has been heavily defeated by Sanders in most states. He was the architect of the “War on Drugs” that led to mass incarceration policies, such as the 1994 crime bill.

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