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Bernie Sanders has morphed into a serious contender

Democratic socialism does not resonate positively in an America still overshadowed by decades of anti-communism, but Sanders is tapping into deeply-rooted popular frustration with inauthentic politicians.

Bob Rigg
19 October 2015
Bernie Sanders speaks at sold out event at Seattle bar.

Bernie Sanders speaks at sold out event at Seattle bar. Demotix/ Rick Barry. All rights reserved.The first Democratic Party presidential debate on CNN on Wednesday 14 October broke the Republican Party’s monopoly, not simply on presidential campaigning, but on discussion related to the 2016 elections for half of all seats in Congress. 

The Republican goals are clearly to win the Presidency, and also to strengthen their majority in both houses of Congress.  In the event that the Democrats should once again secure the presidency, the Republicans at the very least want to be better placed to override a presidential veto.

Has anyone noticed the Grand Old Party (GOP) is no more?

Undercut by a coterie of prodigiously wealthy mega-billionaires with hard-right agendas, and deconstructed by Fox News, the Grand Old Party has been quietly laid to rest. It has been transformed into a vehicle for fantasies nurtured in a political hothouse made in the USA. The Republican Party which has superseded the GOP embodies all the myopia and dementia of a culture remarkably out of touch with the world which it has dominated and largely controlled since World War II. It is now desperately trying to compensate for its declining power and influence worldwide by becoming a fortress dedicated to battling forces of change inside and outside of its territory. We must make America great again, in the words of Donald Trump.

The Republican Party has been trying to slam the door on the openness to ideas, immigration, and other cultures which distinguished the early history of the USA, and which enabled it to participate in the creation of both the League of Nations and the United Nations.  Its predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon, evangelical, older, male voter base can no longer be relied on to secure a majority, even with the loyal support of big business and the military/industrial complex. The demographic sands are shifting fast. By the middle of this century Spanish will be the first language of a majority of Americans.

If only 36.4% vote, is the US still a democracy?

It all too often escapes attention that, in the 2014 congressional elections, only 36.4% of Americans entitled to vote actually did so. 63% of Americans believe that US democracy is not for them, but for others. There is only one possible explanation for such a pattern of non-voting. Generations of Americans have lost all faith in the electoral process and know that, if they vote, nothing will change for them.  

If you are poor and black, indigenous Indian, Latino, Asian or white, neither the GOP nor a Democratic Party more in touch with Wall St than the Bronx is perceived as representing your interests. And the Republican Party has worked tirelessly for decades to minimize the number of black voters, continuing an inglorious tradition of racism dating back to pre-civil war America.  The sustained virulence with which the Republican establishment has attacked, blocked, demeaned and vilified the black man in the White House can only be explained in terms of festering racism.

This is the crisis of American democracy that only a few are talking about.

The Donald out-trumps the Republican establishment and Fox News

Until now one thing has gone seriously wrong with these hard right machinations: Donald Trump has become a very large spanner in the works of the Republican war machine. Not so secret hard‑right presidential preferences of the Fox News commentariat such as Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are languishing in the wake of The Donald, as he is sometimes known.

When Trump first stood for election, Charles Krauthammer, Fox News’s elite commentator, was openly derisive, looking down on him as a clown who was manifestly out of his depth. In the meantime, Fox News has clashed with Trump, who was enraged at being grilled by the unholy trinity facilitating the Fox News Republican presidential debate. For a few days Trump even refused to be interviewed by Fox, costing it a large slice of income. He would also have seriously damaged Fox’s all-important popularity ratings if he had persisted with his boycott until the end of the presidential election in 2016.

It was therefore unsurprising that Fox’s CEO Roger Ailes came running cap in hand, quite possibly with mediation from Rupert Murdoch, to be received back into the fold of The Donald. It is grotesquely ironic that Sean Hannity, who normally poses as the irresistible incarnation of hard‑right reason and fortitude, smiles sycophantically and almost grovels when he now interviews Trump – even when Trump transgresses against fundamental aspects of the Tea Party ideology to which Hannity pays homage.

Until the first Democratic presidential debate the Republican right had crushingly dominated what counts as political discourse in the US. Its relentless campaign was based on the assumption that Hillary Clinton was the only Democratic candidate worthy of mention. If Clinton could be hounded out of the presidential race the Republicans could only win, it was thought. 

In the meantime The Donald has single‑handedly out-trumped the GOP. Sniggering initial assumptions that he is a blowhard who would run out of puff within a few weeks have now been set aside in the face of irrefutable evidence that he is a blowhard with staying power.

What worries the Republican establishment is the fact that Trump is not in any way beholden to them and their mega-billionaire pied pipers, and is manifestly capable of defying ideological orthodoxy, having even suggested that the super rich and fund managers should be taxed more heavily.

Should Trump actually be appointed President he would undoubtedly be a loose cannon, domestically and internationally. This could seriously damage the standing of the Party and the nation for a decade or more to come. But polls are beginning to show that the gap between him and the gaggle of Republican also-rans is now widening.

The CNN Democratic Party presidential debate

Until the CNN presidential debate took place, the GOP right and Fox News had been calling all shots, with the glaring exception of Trump, who they have distractedly struggled to accommodate.  There had been almost no mentionable media coverage of the Democratic race as such, least of all on Fox, for all its lip service to traditional concepts of journalism.  All attention, driven by Fox, had been on so-called Benghazi and email scandals, blown up out of proportion, conveniently ruling out a clear focus on the major policy issues confronting the US.

Most Americans would have been unable to name any Democratic candidates other than Hillary Clinton and possibly Bernie Sanders, whereas they would have been quite familiar with most GOP contenders.  In spite of the tremendous coverage devoted to Trump and, incidentally, to the shambolic Republican presidential race, the US public still knew little or nothing about real political issues of economic and foreign policy.

On the eve of the televised CNN debate the Fox News elite was puffed up with arrogant self‑satisfaction, hinting that the CNN show would pull in far fewer viewers than Fox, and even, in the case of Bill O’Reilly, saying dismissively that the CNN anchor was a mere ‘liberal’ who would not be up to anything.  For its part, CNN was nervously aware that, if its debate failed to pull in large numbers, it would very publicly be seen to be outshone by Fox News. This would have been commercially and politically damaging. 

Both the expectation of Fox News and the apprehension of CNN went unfulfilled.  The debate was one of the most popular events in the history of cable TV, attracting an audience of about 15.3 million. A transcript of the entire debate is here. A useful brief analysis plus live blog is here. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton completely dominated the debate, with Sanders speaking with power and conviction, from the heart. Most unusually for the US, which has not experienced a socialist presidential candidate since Eugene Debs in the early twentieth century, he openly describes himself as a democratic socialist whose ideal societies are to be found today in the social democracies of Scandinavia. 

Bernie Sanders

He is not exactly a Trotsky or a Lenin, but is a battle-scarred old warrior who has consistently fought for his entire political life for a more equal and truly democratic America in which political decision-making bodies would represent not self‑serving elites, but the interests of the American people at large. He is for the more equal distribution of wealth in a country with Third World income distribution; he wants education to be accessible to and affordable for all Americans. 

Although Sanders is 74, his support base currently consists mainly of young people, only 20% of whom voted in the 2014 elections. This is a major electoral constituency which the Republicans have simply ignored, and which other Democratic contenders including Hillary Clinton have failed to attract in large numbers.

Although the concept of democratic socialism does not resonate positively in an America still overshadowed by decades of anti-communism, Sanders is tapping into deeply-rooted popular frustration with inauthentic politicians who read from scripts, consult with focus groups and deliver polished sound bites prepared for them by others, and who rarely deliver on their false promises. Strangely enough, his appeal to an absolutely alienated electorate is comparable to that of Donald Trump.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton, who was known to have benefited from intensive training with specialist advisers, predictably delivered a polished performance, calling on a repertoire of well-rehearsed lines. Before the debate she tried to steal some of Bernie Sanders’ thunder by suddenly adopting some of his key policies, for example on the Keystone pipeline and the TPP. It was apparent that she had flip-flopped out of naked opportunism.

She pretended to share his general commitment to fundamental change in US society, while carefully emphasizing that she is a moderate who is for improving capitalism, not transforming it. Her grim insistence that Edward Snowden should be punished for his crimes was conspicuous. No hint of mitigation there.

Both Clintons have historically been associated with a conservative wing of the Democratic Party that has played the classic political game of mobilising voters to vote for change while generally failing to deliver on their hopes and expectations. The same voters have, however, elevated Bill and Hillary Clinton into the very heart of the US establishment, where they are completely at home.

Over the years 1999 to 2015, Hillary Clinton has been generously backed by donors from a large assortment of major corporations including financial giants such as Citi, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chance, Morgan Stanley, and Lehman Bros. to an extent that must cast doubt on her protestations of commitment to the reform of Wall St.

Clinton super PAC attacks Sanders

On the eve of the debate, an email from a Clinton super PAC launched what Sanders’ staff described as a “vicious” attack on Sanders, who was to stand up for Clinton during the debate. He was red-baited by association with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and England’s Jeremy Corbyn.

On foreign policy Hillary Clinton has always been on the right of the Democratic Party, sometimes more at home with certain Republicans than with members of her own camp. During the debate she signaled that, unlike President Obama, she would support a muscular foreign policy, and explicitly stated that she does not like Iranians. This went down very well with her audience. Here she was deliberately pandering to the many Iranophobes in the US.

She pretends to be a progressive, while touching hot conservative political buttons to reach out across the partisan divide. 

A President Clinton would undoubtedly re-set US foreign policy in ways that would appeal to a cross-section of conservative US political opinion. She would proselytize against Russia, China and Iran, and would be an advocate of hard power, to the delight of the military/industrial complex.

No candidate advocates cutting military expenditure

Not one of the Democrats ventured to touch upon what is a skyscraper-sized elephant in the room of US politics: the enormous and ever-increasing cost of military expenditure.

Until now US debate on economic issues has been dominated by those conservatives in both major parties who unrelentingly argue that government expenditure must be slashed, but who, by political sleight-of-hand, exclude military expenditure from review within the general category of government spending.

If military expenditure was viewed as a category of government spending, hard questions could be asked of a dysfunctional war machine that, since Vietnam, has abjectly failed to achieve most of its stated goals, and that is nevertheless not satisfied with spending about three times more than China, its major military rival, and considerably more than all of its competitors put together.  

If military spending was drastically cut, much more money would be available for education, health, infrastructure, public transport, and many other sadly neglected domestic priorities.

Eisenhower’s military/industrial complex has not gone away

The extreme power of the military/industrial complex which President Eisenhower warned of so eloquently in 1961, now far greater than he could have imagined then, has in the meantime ensured that congressmen who persistently questioned military expenditure have tended either to fall strangely silent or to lose their seats when they were targeted by well-funded interest groups.

Without a major reduction in military expenditure democracy cannot take root in US society, which will continue to be dominated by industries fatally dependent on the military for highly profitable contracts.  It can be contended that the US has become a war economy which, to avoid recession, must continue to sink ever greater proportions of the total US budget into foreign wars and conflicts, which can then be exploited to open the purse strings at home.

As in the Middle East today, such instability and conflict commonly encourages other states to spend prodigious amounts on their own militaries, mainly to the advantage of the US armaments industry. Much of America’s enormous intelligence and black ops resources are used, not to defend the US, as we are told, but to support frequently shadowy and undeclared foreign engagements that are neither discussed nor sanctioned by Congress and, least of all, by the general public.

The US now lags behind many other developed countries

Civic organisations and institutions will continue to be starved of the resources which they need to flourish. Except in Washington – a poster capital city – public transport, urban infrastructure, education and public health throughout the US now lag far behind other developed countries. Visible extremes of inequality are omnipresent.

The US has ceased to be a political and moral world leader and is sliding down the First World league of nations.

As is customary with mainstream US media, what masquerades as post-debate analysis has mostly been shallow and banal. The talking heads of the commentariat have mostly favoured Hillary Clinton in the immediate aftermath of the Democratic presidential debate. Because they are mostly centre-right and are flummoxed by a candidate who describes himself as a socialist they snuggle up to Hillary Clinton, who makes them feel safe.

Three focus groups support Sanders

What is really fascinating about the debate is that all three focus groups set up by CNN, Fox News and Fusion strongly endorsed Bernie Sanders. In the case of the CNN group, although more than half had supported Clinton when the debate began, a clear majority actively supported Sanders at the end. 

In the case of Fox News, an overwhelming majority enthusiastically supported Bernie Sanders, to the ill-concealed consternation of some resident talking heads. They identified very strongly with Sanders’ criticism of the US as controlled by elites who are responsible to themselves, and not to the US electorate. They were also attracted by his authenticity. Yes, he is a politician, but he is still doing what he has always done – fighting for what he passionately believes in. He genuinely seeks to improve the lives of all Americans, especially the far too many who are marginalized, dispossessed, and discriminated against.  This is what sets him apart from other established politicians, including Hillary Clinton. One focus group member spoke of “unrest which is so deep” and of a mood for “radical change”.

Bernie Sanders emerges from the shadows

Since the presidential debate Bernie Sanders has emerged from the shadows, and will now play an increasingly prominent role in public debate about the future of the US. Republicans and Fox News will stop chortling about this old “curmudgeon”, and will begin to take him seriously.  Maybe in the form of strident attack ads retrieved from their Cold War arsenals?

Bernie Sanders is now mounting a serious challenge to Hillary Clinton, whose all-too intimate alliance with Wall St and the high end of the US establishment may further erode her credibility with Democratic voters.  

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