Nicholas Toyne, August 16, 2015
It is by now a cliché to refer to presidential candidate Bernie Sanders as a socialist. The progressive Senator from Vermont has not shied away from that label, styling himself as a democratic socialist, and advocating for a sweeping platform of political and economic reforms reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Sanders’s campaign has been received with enthusiasm and curiosity by the progressive youth of America, more so than Hillary Clinton’s has. This is not terribly surprising when one considers the Democratic Party’s practice of alienating the progressive left from its mainstream ranks. But therein lies the latent purpose of Sanders’s campaign: rally the support of alienated progressive youth, and when the primaries are over and Clinton inevitably clinches the Democratic nomination for president, endorse her and shepherd his followers into her camp.
This is not mere speculation. Clinton has consistently polled ahead of Sanders, and as of June 30th, her campaign has out-raised Sanders by a 3-to-1 margin. Clinton’s nomination as the Democratic candidate for president is an eventuality, and we cannot ignore this fact. Sanders has garnered widespread popularity on social media, but in the context of our current political reality his campaign amounts to little more than a sideshow, a progressive curiosity following on the coattails of a larger bourgeois movement.
Sanders’s platform recalls some similarities to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. His campaign website features topics on such issues as wealth inequality, racial injustice, removing big money from politics, and addressing climate change. These proposals have resonated with Sanders’s progressive base, drawing thousands to rallies and events sponsored by his campaign. In addition, his candor and no-nonsense approach to politics has endeared him to a generation of disenchanted voters disenchanted with the corrupt political system devised by the capitalist class. He is arguably the most progressive candidate to organize a presidential run in recent history, and the first to unapologetically describe himself as a socialist.
The Democrats have carved their niche by masquerading as the party of the people, tailoring their platform to appeal to the working class while simultaneously patronizing the business interests of the capitalist class.
But Sanders claim to the socialist label is an empty one. In terms of his economic policy, he is a progressive, concerned with reforming the American political economy without addressing the persistent cancer of capitalism. He essentializes wages as the root of the struggle of the working class, and his calls for raising the minimum wage and strengthening union power reveal is ignorance of the need for class independence. Also worrisome is Sanders’s hawkish foreign policy record, punctuated by his support for military intervention in Somalia in 1993, Serbia in 1999, and Afghanistan in 2001. He also regularly voted in favor of military appropriations bills, allowing the continuation of the Iraq War, which Sanders professed to oppose.
Immigration is probably the loosest plank in Sanders’s progressive platform. He has opposed congressional attempts at immigration reform, maintaining that opening the border would hurt employment and depress wages, which has been proven by economists to be false. Kira Lerner writes that:
Studies have shown that immigrants actually create jobs for American workers. Researchers recently found that each new immigrant has produced about 1.2 new jobs in the U.S., most of which have gone to native-born workers. And according to the Atlantic, an influx in immigration can cause non-tradable professions — jobs like hospitality and construction that cannot be outsourced — to see a wage increase because the demand for goods and services grows with the expanding population.
But Sanders remains unconvinced of this fact, insisting that “There is a reason why Wall Street and all of corporate America likes immigration reform….What I think they are interested in is seeing a process by which we can bring low-wage labor of all levels into this country to depress wages for Americans, and I strongly disagree with that.” Thus Sanders is playing an old line from the political right which scapegoats immigrants for the problems created by capitalism.
Sanders forfeited his socialist street cred by throwing his lot in with the Democratic Party. The Democrats have carved their niche by masquerading as the party of the people, tailoring their platform to appeal to the working class while simultaneously patronizing the business interests of the capitalist class. The Democrats, like the Republicans, are a party of neoliberals (laissez-faire economic liberalism—effectively corporate rule). Their interests lie with the bourgeoisie, and have gradually been exposed as such by independent political operatives and third party groups. The Bernie Sanders campaign will serve to correct that, by energizing and mobilizing a dedicated, passionate cohort of young progressives and political leftists and sheepdogging them into the Clinton camp once she wins the primary and Sanders endorses her.
By running as a Democratic candidate, Sanders betrayed his creed. Moreover, he has violated the first principle of socialism: class independence. The working class cannot trust the bourgeoisie to aid in a revolution of the political economy any more than African-Americans can count on the police to protect and serve them. Howie Hawkins writes that “the business classes sold out the workers in the democratic revolutions of 1848 that swept across Europe and parts of Latin America,” as they will now. Karl Marx drew on the lessons from these failed revolutions and expressed them in his 1850 address to the Central Committee of the Communist League:
Even where there is no prospect whatsoever of them being elected, the workers must put up their own candidates in order to preserve their independence, to count their forces and to bring before the public their own revolutionary attitude and party standpoint. In this connection, they must not allow themselves to be seduced by such arguments as, for example, that by so doing they are splitting the Democratic Party [of Germany] and making it possible for the reactionaries to win. The ultimate intention of all such phrases is to dupe the proletariat. The advance which the proletarian party is bound to make by such independent action is infinitely more important than the disadvantages that might be incurred by the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.
Hawkins correctly states that Sanders the Democratic presidential candidate is not Sanders the socialist who will single-handedly revolutionize the political economy of capital. Hawkins expresses hope that after Sanders inevitable primary loss and his endorsement of Hillary Clinton, disenchanted Sanders supporters will flock to the Green Party, but this is highly unlikely.
Sanders’s candidacy will do nothing to alter the political economy of capitalism, nor will it address or blunt the neoliberal agenda. Just as Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal saved capitalism from itself during the Great Depression, and Bismarck’s welfare state tempered the revolutionary sentiments of the German socialists, Sanders will only temper the American people’s dissatisfaction with capitalism, offering in its place a kinder, gentler capitalism that will only reinforce the subordination of the workers to capital. Sanders is the tonic by which the bitter pill of Clinton’s neoliberalism becomes more palatable for progressives