The Defeat of the Sanders Campaign
27 May 2020
The claim about history repeating itself is often thrown around loosely but in the case of Bernie Sanders’ second bid to to be the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate it is very appropriate. Just as in 2016, his campaign galvanised hundreds of thousands of supporters (particularly amongst the young), raised millions of dollars in fund-raising, and scored a string of early victories. However, in the face of opposition from the Democratic leadership and blatant manipulation of the voting process, his campaign fizzled out and went down to defeat as he meekly folded and endorsed the establishment favourite Joe Biden. In many ways the 2020 campaign was more disappointing than that of 2016 when Bernie Sanders came from behind to win forty per cent of the delegates and push Hilary Clinton into the later rounds of the primary cycle.
The failure of Bernie Sanders in 2020 can be attributed to many of the same factors that existed in 2016 such as the institutional hostility of the Democratic Party to anything even mildly pro labour; the opposition of corporate interests to an expansion of public health care; and the strength of clientelism and identity politics. It was also the case that Sanders was no longer the insurgent candidate but was now seen as one of the front runners and more closely aligned with the Democratic leadership. Sanders had clearly calculated that showing a willingness to play by the rules and accept strict boundaries of debate made him more acceptable to power brokers within the party and made it more likely that he would secure the nomination. Of course this turned out to be completely unfounded as the party was just as opposed to his mild reformist programme as it had ever been. It also had the affect of dampening the enthusiasm of his own supporters.
So while conventional commentators claimed that Sanders was in a stronger position this time round his campaign was actually weaker. This could be seen in his early victories which were achieved on a relatively low percentage of the vote. Once other candidates starting dropping out the votes were aligning against him. Sanders was also losing support to Elizabeth Warren - a candidate he had declared to be a fellow progressive but who turned out to be a spoiler whose role was to damage him.
What really sunk his campaign was the crushing defeat he suffered to Biden in the South Carolina primary following the intervention of party power broker and veteran African American political representative Jim Clyburn. Despite Biden’s abysmal record on race issues and civil rights the endorsement from Clyburn delivered overwhelming support from black voters in the primary. Following this boost, and the endorsements of the other leading candidates who had simultaneously ended their campaigns, Biden went on to seal the nomination with wins in a majority of the Super Tuesday States.
There were a few more primaries which were won by Biden and with the onset of the pandemic and the suspension of campaigning the race was effectively over. Bernie Sanders was once again denied the nomination in a clearly orchestrated manoeuvre by the Democratic Party. Despite this he folded his campaign without complaint and made his endorsement of Biden. While Sanders chances of winning the nomination had gone there was no reason not to continue campaigning particularly as his flagship policy of expanding public health provision had been vindicated by the crisis that was now upon the US. That he should end his campaign and endorse a candidate who said he would use the presidential veto to block any health care legislation demonstrates the utter capitulation of Sanders. It also calls into question his belief in the programme of reforms he was advocating. Like many reformists the capture of State power becomes not a means to an end but and end in itself and for Sanders the end is now to get a Democrat into the presidency.
Since the ending of his own campaign Sanders has gone all out to support Biden by taking part in public online discussions in which he lavished fulsome praise on the nominee. He has also set up a “Unity” task force made up of staff from both campaigns to work on a joint election platform. The purpose of this is to burnish the non-existent progressive credentials of Joe Biden and to provide a fig leaf for sections of the left that will be calling for a vote for the Democrats in November. However, this is only window dressing which will be safely forgotten about after the election. This seem to be enough for some on the left who console themselves with the delusion that in raising the prominence of issues such as health care or climate change they have somehow won the ideological argument. What is this worth if the reforms remain in the realm of aspiration?
It was the vagueness over the mechanism for implementing reforms that was a major hole in the Sanders campaign. Even if Sanders did win the nomination and then the presidency how would he bring about the expansion of health care in the face of opposition from Congress, including the majority of Democratic legislators, or the possibility of the Supreme Court declaring it unconstitutional? Despite Sanders claims to be leading a political revolution his vision didn’t extend beyond existing institutions and conventions. The severe limitations of Sanders - and the other Congressional progressives - was shown up by their support for the $2 trillion stimulus package which see the biggest ever transfer of wealth to corporations in the history of the US. The supposed balance in this was a temporary rise in unemployment benefits and a one off payment of $12,000 to workers.
The truth is that Bernie Sanders was pulling his punches throughout the campaign. A key element of this was his promotion, along with all the other candidates, of the proposition that Trump was a uniquely bad President. Therefore the overriding priority was to defeat him in the upcoming election irrespective of who the opposing candidate was or the platform they would be standing on. The acceptance of this schema - with its explicit demand for political unity - made an accommodation with the most conservative elements within this Democratic coalition inevitable. Indeed, Sanders had already announced that he would support whatever candidate emerged from the primaries. Even if he had won the nomination his candidacy would have been severely compromised by the push for unity.
The supposed unique character of the Trump administration is a useful cover for sections of the US left to support the Democratic Party. However, such a proposition really doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny. Despite the crudeness of Trump’s personality in substance there is actually a significant degree of continuity with previous administrations. Indeed, the current crop of Democratic legislators in Congress have voted in favour of many of the Bills put forward by Trump in relation to corporate bailouts and the endless expansion of the military budget.
The Left and the Democratic Party
Organisations on the US left that supported the Sanders campaign produced various ideological/strategic justifications for their position. The most basic of these - which is identified with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and Sanders himself- is that by organising within its structures and under its banner socialists can push the Democratic Party to the left. A variation on this - advanced by Jacobin magazine managing editor Seth Ackerman - is the idea that a new socialist party can emerge from within the Democratic Party. In this scenario the political momentum created by an increasing number of socialist candidates and supporters attached to the Democratic banner leads to a “dirty break” and the
creation of a new party of the left. The problem is that there is little evidence to support either of these perspectives. The many efforts (the Sanders campaign being the most recent) over the years to shift the politics of the Democratic Party to the left have been unsuccessful. Moreover, there have been no splits in the Democratic Party that have resulted in the creation of new left organisations of any significance.
The problem with these perspectives is that they essentially see the Democratic Party as an empty vessel that can be filled up with politics of whatever hue including those of the left. And while it is true that political parties in the US are little more than brands or labels they are not above class interests. Both the Democratic and Republican Parties are connected to powerful corporate interests (primarily through donors) and to sources of State patronage that is the material base for their continued existence. The Democratic Party is not class neutral and it is these class interests that came to the fore in the efforts to defeat the Sanders campaign.
There is a strong material pull on the “left” representatives that were elected under the Democratic banner which tends to change them rather than them changing the party. Also, the longer they operate within the party the more attached they become to its structures and the support it provides to run campaigns and get re-elected. There are strong disincentives to split with the Democratic Party and the left groups that have orientated towards it and then broken away at a later point have been left with just a rump of their supporters.
The result of the various “left” challenges that have emerged within the Democrats, from George McGovern in the 70’s, Jesse Jackson in the 80’s, and now Bernie Sanders has been the strengthening of the status quo. They have been defeated and the majority of their supporters absorbed within the party. Any splits have been limited to small left remnants. The best example was the McGovern campaign which was actually successful in winning in 1972 and had support from the mass civil rights and anti-war movements. It was much stronger than the Sanders campaigns but after its electoral failure it was largely absorbed into the mainstream with many of its activists going on to be leaders of the bourgeois liberal type of politics that emerged in the 80’s and 90’s. The political careers of Bill and Hilary Clinton, who started out as organisers for the McGovern campaign, are prime examples of the trajectory that such movements take. The Sanders movement - which is historically much weaker - is likely go in the same direction. Indeed, we have already seen it with Sanders and also with his younger supporters in Congress who are toning down the rhetoric that saw than elected as upstart candidates.
The most damning indictment of the Sanders campaign is that it failed during a period in history when the necessity for working class organisation and socialist leadership has rarely been greater. While the immediate threats arise from the health and economic consequences of the pandemic the decline of US capitalism and the accompanying deterioration of conditions for workers has been ongoing for decades. The pandemic has only exposed the social and political decay that was already there. As with other major crises, such as the financial crash of 2008, the pandemic will either accelerate the existing trends within capitalism towards greater barbarism or provoke a revolutionary response from the working class and the oppressed that holds out the promise of socialism. The stark choice for humanity of Socialism or Barbarism (identified by the German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg in the early 20th century) is the one that continues to present itself today.
The choice that isn't on offer is a return to an earlier form of capitalism that could accommodate social democratic reforms. Yet this was essentially the proposition being put forward by Sanders (and also by Corbyn in Britain and the new broad left parties across Europe). It is no coincidence that much of their rhetoric harked back to the period following WWII when State intervention in the economy and provision of public services was the orthodoxy across the advanced capitalist States irrespective of what party was in government. This period was the high tide of reformism but it was also a capitalist "golden age" of high rates of growth, increasing productivity and rising profits. It is not by coincidence that the two should coincide.
This is not to discount the agency of the organised working class in winning reforms but generally the success of reformism has been bound up with the health of capitalism. Indeed, this is confirmed by the period following the “golden age”, from the mid 70s onwards, in which capitalism went into crisis and many of those reforms, as well as working class organisations, came under assault. We are still in this period, and despite enormous upheavals caused by the 2008 financial class and the current pandemic, there is no indication that any faction of capital is looking towards the type of solutions offered by Sanders and the Labour party under Corbyn. That their modest proposals should have came under such ferocious attack shows the degree to which the capitalist class is unwilling and unable to concede anything to workers. The fundamental point here - which is the primary reason for the failure of the recent cycle of reformist projects - is that we are not living in an era of reform. A phrase often used to describe such a state is "reformism without reforms" - in which reformist movements and organisations continue to exist, and continue to have the allegiance of a large section of the working class, but can no longer fulfil their historic tasks.
This contradiction will only be broken in the course of struggles in which the hold of the current leadership of the workers movement is challenged. Despite the reformists' wishful thinking the interventionist measures taken by governments in response to the pandemic are not going to morph into a form of social democracy. The benefits of these have overwhelmingly gone to the capitalists and are aimed at stabilising the existing structures of society rather that reforming them. The overriding imperative for the capitalist class, to recover losses and restore profitability, points towards an intensification of the assault against the working class and the surviving remnants of past reforms rather than a new post crisis settlement. We already see this in the efforts to coerce workers back into the workplace despite the continuing prevalence of the virus and high levels of infection and death.
This return to business as usual has been particularly brutal in the US. However, it has also provoked resistance from workers in the form of protests and strikes, many of which have been beyond the control of trade union officialdom. The level of industrial action by US workers has been on the rise for a number of years - albeit from a low level - and that is a trend that is likely to continue in the emerging struggles around workplace safety and over who will bear the costs of the pandemic. This presents an opportunity for socialists to organise within workplaces, build militant currents in trade unions and engage politically with those workers who are leading those struggles. It is here, rather than the structures of the Democratic party, where the potential for new working class organisations and leadership exist. Of course this is not inevitable but it holds out more hope than the predetermined defeat of the Sanders campaign.