Though much of the promises of the Sanders insurgency have become embedded in the Democratic party, it remains to be seen if the movement can lead to any significant political change in the US.
“Our campaign has been about building a movement, which brings working people and young people into the political process to create a government which represents all of us and not just a handful of wealthy campaign contributors,” Bernie Sanders declared.
“We will continue to do everything we can to oppose the drift,” he continued, “which currently exists toward an oligarchic form of society, where a handful of billionaires exercise enormous power over our political, economic and media life.”
One of the biggest questions for the viewers of the US presidential election, which is being ignored due to the mass media’s obsession with Donald Trump, is whether the basic instincts of Hillary Clinton, if she becomes president, will see a major reversal of the gains and promises of the Sanders insurgency – currently embedded in the Democratic Party’s official election platform and espoused in Clinton’s public speeches since the party’s July convention.
Sanders and his manifesto is backed by primary election victories in 22 states, securing 46% of all Democratic non-pledged delegates and 13 million votes to Clinton’s 16 million and Trump’s 13 million. How might the impulse, insurgency or revolution of Sanders become politically embedded and simultaneously in touch with its popular roots and energy, and actually make a difference?
How might its momentum deliver at least a part of the political revolution that Sanders demanded? Also, should Clinton even continue to espouse the Sanders programme? Will the Congress go along with it and permit the anti-Wall Street legislation, vote for a much increased federal minimum wage, reject the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and abolish tuition fee at public universities for most students, among other things? Will the Sanders movement affect the politics of the Congress?
The right to revolution may be enshrined in the history of the US, but will its political system of divided government restrain radical political change, adding to the likely inertia and foot-dragging of a Clinton presidency won with massive Wall Street funding, now with even more traditional conservative and GOP donors?
The official national GOP might be dying due to Trump’s unabashed white ethno-nationalist identity politics, but its ghost may haunt the next Democratic presidency through its continuing grip on the levers of power in the US House of Representatives.
The diverse range of Democratic Party policy planks installed after Sanders’s pressure may be significant for their direct beneficiaries. But critics complain that they continue to be at the margins and can be withdrawn or much more likely eroded over time. They are in the nature of concessions that might split the Sanders movement.
Given this situation, what would drive real and lasting change and how might it come about? Where is the locomotive of political change and what is the mechanism by which that change might be effected?
There is great pessimism about the political situation in the US, especially on the Left. Yet, the political system of the country is flexible and capable of accommodating programmes as statist as the New Deal of 1930s and as reactionary as the Contract with America of the 1990s Newt Gingrich-led GOP.
Politics is a struggle, a constant system of flux, of forces locked in conflict vying for power to establish their agenda over that of others. What we are witnessing today in the US elections is nothing short of revolutionary.
When has a female candidate from a major party incorporated into her platform an overtly socialist agenda and then been pitted against an extreme right-wing xenophobic and misogynistic ‘Republican’ television celebrity with no prior political experience who is rejecting the few tenets both main parties agree on – US globalism and free trade? This is hardly politics as usual and the result of the November presidential election, whichever way it goes, is unlikely to return the US to normalcy.
There is a new normal and we should get used to it.
Let us take a look at the several continuing initiatives of Sanders, and his supporters, to build on his momentous challenge to the Clinton machine. The movement has sprouted a Sanders Institute to mobilise progressive congressional candidates across the US.
According to Sanders, candidates may get support in fund raising and in hustings, even if they happen to be progressives from the Tea Party. Former Labour secretary Robert Reich has spoken of a new progressive party – the kind of organisations that are now in motion may well lead to such an outcome.
The Sanders Institute’s aim is to conduct political-ideological work on the key issues of power, wealth and inequality that struck a chord during his bid for the Democratic nomination. Although he has not endorsed it, some of his supporters are also actively aligning their work with the Green Party, which previously asked Sanders to run for the White House on their ticket. Its candidate Jill Stein hovers around 5% in presidential election polls.
Brand New Congress is another key grouping on the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party. It is a political action committee that aims to identify and support hundreds of non-politician candidates for over 400 congressional seats with the aim of replacing the entire House by the mid-term elections in 2018.
Formed in April 2016, it has raised nearly $100,000 in small donations and is looking to the future – without Wall Street big money politics. It complements the Sanders Institute’s plan to back 100 progressive candidates in congressional, state and local elections in November 2016.
Sanders’s Our Revolution organisation aims to build on his campaign and revitalise democracy, empower progressives to run for school board elections, mayoral offices and take on big money politics. It also seeks to “elevate political consciousness,” take on the corporate media, educate the public and improve public discourse and understanding.
It is instructive that more people in the corporate media seem to pay attention to what Trump’s post-defeat strategy might be than to what Sanders’s post-convention strategy actually is. The corporate media may not tell us what to think, but it remains spectacularly successful in telling us what to think about.
It is not all about Sanders either: Senator Elizabeth Warren continues to hold major financial institutions to account with Republican support from the likes of John McCain for a law to bring back the Glass-Steagall Act, which was passed in the 1930s to protect the banking system and ordinary savers, but was abolished by president Bill Clinton in the late 1990s.
The Democracy for America organisation, which backed Sanders for the White House, is also endorsing progressives up and down the country and the ballot.
If Trump’s non-conservative statist message and Clinton’s shift to the Left have shown us anything, it is that there are big changes afoot in US’s political fabric. Even Wall Street now agrees that wages must rise, infrastructure needs investment and inequality has reached extreme levels.
These are early days and no political outcome is certain. There is much going on, but returning to normalcy is unlikely to cut it now or after November.
Inderjeet Parmar is the head of the international politics department at the School of Social Sciences, City University, London.