Bernie Sanders has resuscitated the ideals of an inclusive, non-racist and egalitarian social democracy in America’s political lexicon, and for that alone his candidacy is a welcome and sane alternative.
There are a lot of things about the US that puzzles the rest of the world. How can an allegedly vibrant democracy be so in thrall to minority interest groups such as the National Rifle Association or the Israel lobby? How can the self-anointed global champion of human rights have a police force so trigger-happy when it comes to its own black citizens? How does a society with so many Nobel laureates and great universities have so many who deny climate change or believe in creationism? The ascent of Donald Trump and the very real possibility that he may emerge as the Republican contender for president, perhaps even going on to become the president, has only underlined the degree to which the US often comes across as an incomprehensible place for the rest of the world.
While Bernie Sanders may not win the Democratic nomination, his rousing candidacy for the nomination has signaled that at least a significant portion of the US population, and especially its younger cohorts, think along lines that make more sense to many outside the US.
Sanders was born in 1941 to Jewish parents of East European origin and raised in Brooklyn, New York. Although listed today as a Democrat, the Vermont senator was, for most of his political career, an independent, and frequently and unapologetically describes himself as a social-democrat and even a socialist. He was active in the civil rights movement and arrested in his early 20s while a student at the University of Chicago. There has been an impressive and consistent integrity to his politics over four decades: against war, racism and the undue influence of big business, and for the rights of the poor and the middle class in a democracy.
Looking at Sanders’ politics through the lenses of war, wealth and women, one can make the case that they move the US away from a provincial and self-obsessed trajectory to one more in sync with the rest of the world. Even if his candidacy does not culminate with him reaching the White House, it offers the hope that over the longer run the US may yet be deflected from a course that imperils itself and much of the rest of the world.
Sanders is the only candidate on view – from either party– who does not routinely pepper his speeches with the phrase “when I become your Commander-in-Chief.” Reducing the presidency to being a “Commander-in-Chief” is intertwined with another theme that runs through all the other presidential hopefuls’ rhetoric: their faith in US exceptionalism. The idea that the US is somehow a unique nation, that its democracy, commitment to human rights, and its welcoming of the poor and the needy worldwide makes it the world’s premier nation, is a piety to which every candidate, barring Sanders, routinely kowtows. This claim to exceptionalism is inextricable from US military adventurism in contemporary times all over the world, and sanitises a troubled history of the destruction of indigenous peoples, slavery and unilateralism in the Americas.
Sanders opposed the wars in Libya, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, voted against the Patriot Act for its draconian implications for the freedoms of US citizens and hailed Edward Snowden for defending them. He has expressed concern about the rising “dronification” of war and questioned whether the so-called war on terror is moral or effective. Every other candidate fails all or most of these litmus tests of militarism and prizing security over liberty. In fact, they seem to be trying to out-do each other in terms of bellicosity. And while Hillary Clinton proudly describes Henry Kissinger as a close friend and one of her mentors in the realm of foreign policy, Sanders observed with remarkable bluntness that “Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive Secretaries of State. Henry Kissinger is not my friend. I will not take advice from him.”
Sanders’ campaign has already shown that it’s possible to mount a credible run for the presidency of the US without pandering to machismo, to the idea of US exceptionalism, and that “experience” in foreign affairs counts for little if it means furthering US militarism and unilateralism.
Going back at least to the 1980s, Democratic presidential candidates fled from the “liberal” label as it was associated with big government, welfare fraud, softness on crime and appeasing minorities. Most significantly, liberal values allegedly came in the way of economic success because it stifled competition and penalised the entrepreneurship of the wealthy classes that was seen as the only way to generate growth.
If the word “liberal” is an anathema, one can imagine how far beyond the pale words “socialist” or “social-democrat” are in American society. Yet, not only is Sanders unabashed about describing himself as a socialist or social democrat, that label seems to be a large part of his appeal to the younger cohorts of the electorate.
Sanders boldly admits that in his presidency the government will own up to its many responsibilities towards citizens – for their health, education, employment and environment. He does not merely hope that these will be providentially provided by a free market or trickle down as the result of the investment decisions of the wealthy. His message regarding the government’s responsibility is resonating with an electorate that has seen wages for the working class families flat-lining for decades now, a middle class that is shrinking, a youth that has never known the luxury of lifelong employment, and a costly and inefficient healthcare system in thrall to pharmaceutical companies and for-profit insurance groups.
The most resonant part of Sanders’ campaign has been his explicit attack on Wall Street and the bipartisan policies of neoliberal deregulation going back to the 1980s. He argues that such deregulation produced the financial crisis of 2007 and the enormous inequality in the US today. Sanders has shown the continuity between former presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and President Barrack Obama in terms of their policies that have led to the current situation in which political and economic outcomes are decided by and for a wealthy elite and against the preferences of the vast majority.
When Sanders asks how anyone could say, as Clinton does, that her major campaign donors from Wall Street or Big Pharma will not influence her policies once she is president, his incredulity is now shared by all too many Americans. Her acceptance of $675,000 for three speeches to Goldman Sachs looks damaging in a way that was not conceivable even a few years back – and a lot of the credit for that has to go to Sanders, whose own campaign’s donors contribute about $27 on average!
One of the striking aspects of Sanders’ candidacy is his popularity among the young and female voters. The idea that young women should support Clinton because she is a woman (a point made by both former Secretary of State Madeline Albright and by feminist icon Gloria Steinem) has cut no ice with them. When your policies and actions in the realm of foreign policy, national security, welfare “reform” or crime are indistinguishable from that of powerful and conservative men, and seem motivated by a desire to show yourself to be as masculine and ultra-nationalist as they are, there is precious little left of any claim to be feminist.
Clinton comes across as a champion of white women fighting against the glass ceiling within corporate America and in the realms of high politics. But over the years, she has also become a wealthy insider who is now in a position of extraordinary privilege and power, especially in comparison to all the less well-off, young, coloured and white women who have no chance of finding their way into Wellesley College or Yale Law School, let alone the US Senate.
Sanders’ social-democratic ideology sounds far more feminist than anything Clinton has to offer. Young women realise that voting for a woman simply because she is one goes against any intelligent definition of being feminist. The case for Clinton-the-feminist looks even weaker when one views her positions from a less provincial and more internationalist perspective: whether on military interventions in the non-west or free trade pacts built on the backs of young women in foreign countries or supporting the interests and profits of US corporations all across the developing world, she is indistinguishable from all the male candidates, barring Sanders.
Not all these changes in perceptions of war, wealth and women that bring the US more in line with enlightened world opinion can be attributed to Sanders. Unsuccessful and costly wars, neoliberal deregulation and tax-cuts, polarised wealth, outsourced jobs and the undue influence of the rich have all played the greater part in driving his popularity. Yet, his presence and rhetoric have rendered visible much that had been hidden in plain sight for far too long in American politics. If Trump induces bafflement and fear in the rest of the world, Sanders offers hope that many in the US still hew to a humane common sense. Finally, Sanders has resuscitated the ideals of an inclusive, non-racist and egalitarian social democracy in America’s political lexicon: and for that alone his candidacy comes as a welcome and sane alternative.
Sankaran Krishna teaches politics at the University of Hawai`i at Manoa in Honolulu, USA and tweets at @sankarankrishn.