With Super Tuesday primaries concluded, it is looking like the Democratic presidential nomination will be a two horse contest much like it was in 2016, with Joe Biden replacing Hillary Clinton as the centrist pick backed by the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Bernie Sanders once again carries the underdog aspirations of the progressive wing of the party. This year Sanders represents a more significant threat to the centrists than he did in 2016, and they have worked very hard to disparage him as “unelectable” and “”too radical” for the American voting public. I believe that this may be a wrong assumption to make.
Let’s address the issue of Sander’s socialism first. He professes to be democratic socialist, running as such under the banner of “Independent” throughout his political career until registering for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. But his “socialism” does not include socialising the means of production or doing anything other than using tax policy to redistribute wealth downwards, reforming health and education so that they become affordable to lower and middle income earners, promoting public works projects, re-establishing the role of the State as a macro-manager in economic areas prone to excess or abuse and diminishing support for fossil fuel production and defence spending.
Everything else on his policy agenda, while different than those of his opponents (say, when it comes to the US relationship with Israel and Palestine), may be alternative but are not socialist per se. In fact, all of his policy prescriptions are more akin to those of European social democracy than to democratic socialism (where the decisions about socialising the economy are done via democratic processes) because capitalism as a socio-economic construct is not challenged or replaced. It is just humanised and re-oriented towards the welfare of the majority, not of the elite minority. Sanders himself has pointed out that the stress is on the “democratic” in his democratic socialism, so it does not appear that he is doctrinaire when it comes to policy outcomes.
To this intrinsic aspect of his political philosophy can be added the extrinsic constraints on what he can do. The structural power of capital in the US is not going to be seriously challenged, much less undermined by a Sanders presidency. The US economy and its social relations of production are deeply rooted in notions of private property, self-initiative, “free” enterprise and a host of other market-focused orientations that transcend the business world. The US remains a huge economic engine that, even if it has lapsed into cowboy, crony and parasitic capitalism in places (such as the financial and health industries) and is very dependent on the State for its competitive edge (say, in awarding of defence- and other technology-related contracts), is largely impervious to whole-scale reform or collapse.
Along with an economy that is “too big to fail,” it is best to think of the relationship between US capitalism and the presidency as that of a monkey driving a machine–it is not so much the monkey that matters but the ongoing movement of the machine. In that light, Sanders can play the role of the monkey, acting as a corrective that tries to reign in the baser urges of the cowboys, cronies and parasites now dominating the US economic engine without impeding the forward momentum of the entire combine.
Added to the sheer structural inertia that must be overcome in order to reconstitute US capitalism is the political influence that it wields. Corporate influence permeates all levels of the US political system. Its influence is corrupting and often corrosive in places, and it extended deep into the Democratic Party–particularly the Party’s centrist, corporate-friendly faction. As Poulantzas wrote, the capitalist elite is not homogeneous and is divided into ascendent and descendent class fractions. The GOP defends the interests of the descendent class fractions that represent fossils fuels, auto manufacturers, agricultural interests, the military-industrial complex and traditional financial sectors. Democrats represent high tech, telecommunications, renewable energy, new financial sectors and other nascent and ascendent industries. The Democrats also represent, however diminished in presence when compared to the 1960s and 70s, the organised labour movement in traditional manufacturing industries as well as the public sector.
The capitalist class divisions in the US are not razor sharp and there is some overlapping in their political representation (for example, pharmaceuticals and insurance), particularly when the lobbying interests incorporate cultural idioms (such as the case with the gun lobby). Needless to say, there a host of other non-economic interests represented in the political system, although identity and value-based groups tend to aggregate in polar fashion (say, among ethnic, LBGTQ and religious communities). The main point is the centrist Democrats are corporate Democrats, not progressives, and for all of the talk of the “Gang of Four” leftist female representatives, the majority of Democrats in Congress are underwritten by and represent the corporate interests of the capitalist class fractions that they are associated with.
A Sanders presidency will therefore confront not only a hostile Republican opposition in Congress and in states dominated by Republicans. It will also have to contend with the very centrists that tried to impede his nomination in the first place. These corporate/centrist democrats will demand concessions and challenge anything that see as too radical to pass as law. That means that a Sanders policy agenda is likely to be watered down if it is to be implemented, which means that the final product will be anything but radical. The end result will be an incremental approach to policy reform, not revolution.
Sanders has already reframed the narrative on universal health to the point that some variation of single-user pay is likely to meet with congressional majority approval (assuming that the Democrats hold the house in 2020). He would be smart if he allowed for private health insurance schemes to co-exist with the public option (as in many other liberal democracies), since that will allow those with disposable incomes to afford things such as elective or cosmetic care outside of the public health system. The larger point is that he has offered some alternatives and initiatives that could well find support in Congress, especially if his election victory over Trump is significant. The greater the margin of his victory, the more a mandate he has within the Democratic Party as well as amongst the national electorate, and a large win will also help diminish GOP resistance to post-Trump corrections because in defeat Trump will have few political friends.
All of which is to say that although Sanders has many constraints on what he can do once in office, he potentially will have enough political clout and flexibility to pass legislation and enact significant reforms even if they cannot be described as “radical” or “revolutionary.”
It is true that Trump and the GOP dirty tricksters relish the opportunity to run against Sanders, who they see as easily beatable in a general election. The Republican smear machine is primed to go all out with its Cold War style fear-mongering. For them, Biden is a harder opponent to defeat because he cannot be painted into an ideological corner and tarred by spurious associations with the demons of the bi-polar world past.
But just like the centrist Democrats, the GOP may be wrong in its appraisal. Many younger voters are not frightened by the epithet “Socialist!” and have no memory of the Cold War. Bernie’s cantankerous independence from machine politics is seen as a positive. It is therefore possible that they will turn out in numbers that otherwise will not be seen in support of a Biden candidacy. The defensive “anyone but Trump” vote might be enhanced rather than diminished by Sanders. After all, Bernie represents a true break with the Swamp, whereas Biden is its product and Trump is basking in it while trying to monetarily benefit from the immersion. So it could well be that dismissals of The Bern are premature because his strengths as an honest alternative within the Democratic Party outweigh his weaknesses as an outsider in a system that is rigged in favour of insiders (for example, via the use of Superdelegates as tie-breakers in the Democratic National Convention).
What is clear is that the DNC fear a Sanders nomination not so much because they think that he will lose to Trump but because he represents a threat to THEIR interests. Even if diluted, his policy reforms will target them as a first order of business, as a way of clearing the path for substantive reforms in the policy areas in which they are vested.
Hence the disparaging of Sanders and downplaying of his chances at a general election victory. The proof of whether the anti-Sanders campaign has worked will come in the next two weeks when a cluster of primaries are held, including in Florida where I, just as a did in 2016, voted (via absentee mail ballot) for the Bern. If nothing else, just like then, my rationale is that even if Sanders does not win the nomination, if he gets a substantial amount of delegates he will have influence on Biden’s policy platform. Biden needs Sanders’ supporters to back him–and many “Bernie Bros” have said that they would rather sit on the couch or vote for Trump than see another corporate Democrat dash their progressive aspirations–so my thinking is that if the convention vote is close or at least not a Biden landslide, then the centrists will have to negotiate with Sanders over the campaign platform in order to get him to endorse Biden and encourage his followers to join the “anyone but Trump” camp.
Given the obstacles in front of him, Sanders may not be able to implement the progressive agenda that he campaigns on and which his supporters yearn for. But when compared with Biden, he certainly is not more of the same. Building on the momentum of the 2018 mid-term elections, perhaps that is the best we can hope for.