Tuesday, February 18, 2020

CAN BERNIE SANDERS, A DEMOCRATIC SOCIALIST, PREVAIL IN THE 2020 US ELECTION?


The year was 2016, and it was the time for another primary election in the US. Time for the Democratic Party to appoint the proper successor to their leader, Barack Hussein Obama. It was Mr. Obama, who came into office on the promises of hope and change; whose presidency was seen far and wide as a symbol of America’s ascendancy from the racism that has been part and parcel of its society since the time of its founding; and, of course, whose election win was heralded as a new day, a new form of governance in the American history.
Vying to carry on Mr. Obama’s legacies was Hillary Clinton, the former Senator from New York, the former United States’ Secretary of States and of course, the former First Lady of the United States. Mr. Obama had called her “the most qualified candidate to run for the presidency”. A real deal Presidential candidate. Many Democratic party insiders considered her nomination a done deal, saying that “it’s her turn”, referring to her loss at a previous presidential bid at the hands of a little known junior Senator from Illinois named Barack Obama. She was widely viewed as the “rightful heir” to the Obama legacy, the one to continue Obama’s administrations’ legacy.
Ms. Clinton opponent for the Democratic nomination in 2016 was a surly, rather curmudgeonly old Jewish Senator from the 49th least populous state of Vermont, Senator Bernie Sanders. In contrast to Ms. Clinton, he was probably the furthest thing from a Democratic Party Establishment figure. In fact, he has proudly proclaimed himself as an “existential threat” to the Democratic Party and the way I had run things.

Sanders was an anti-establishment figure, a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist and the one candidate in the primary race whose claim was representing the concerns of the American working-class. He championed expanding Medicare, a government funded health insurance program available to those 65 years and older, to all Americans regardless of age. He proposed an increase to the marginal tax rate to the top 1% wealthiest people in the population to curb wealth inequality. He promised an end to the US militarism abroad, de-escalation of tensions with other nuclear-armed countries. He pledged to cancel Student debts, the amount of which had reached the mind-blowing number of $1.6 Trillion. A true blue Democratic Socialist indeed!

To be fair, Mr. Sanders’ policies, if discussed in any other countries in the world, would seem like the default positions. Other developed countries, especially those Scandinavian countries, have universal healthcare. They guarantee higher education for their citizens, if not free then the tuition is at an affordable rate that doesn’t lead to crippling student loan debts. His policy propositions are the center position, if you will. But in the United States, Mr. Sanders was regarded as a lunatic left-wing fringe guy and maliciously smeared as a socialist who wants to turn the United States into Venezuela!.
One may wonder why the discrepancy between what the American mainstream view and that of the rest of the world?
Back in the 1970s, Bill Clinton, and the Democratic Leadership Council, reshaped the Democratic Party to the way it is today. Gone were the days when the Democratic Party represented the American working-class people, whose interests aligned with the interests of the working class. The Democratic Party that mobilized the Federal government with massive public jobs program to lift the American population from the pits of the Great Depression was gone under Ms. Clinton’s administration. The Democratic Party that aligned itself with unions, labor movements and Left-wing activism, as they did in the days of FDR, was also no more.

The Democratic Party of the present day could be described more aptly as “moderate Republicans”: socially liberal, fiscally conservative and allied with moneyed/special interests, with little interests for the concerns of the working-class voters and more interested in what their billionaire donors care for. Bill Clinton has successfully shifted the Democratic Party to the right. His passage of NAFTA, cutting the deficit and weakening New Deal Banking regulations to give Wall Street more latitude were just some of the achievements that a Republican would be proud of had it been enacted under a Republican presidency!.
Ideologically, Bill Clinton shifted the Democratic party to become a Center-Right party, which consequently pushed the supposedly Right party in the country, The Republican Party, further to right, and some even say, it had been pushed completely off the spectrum to become what Norm Ornstein, from the American Enterprise Institute, has called “an insurgent outlier in American politics”.

The changes in the ideologies represented by both parties then naturally led to a shift in the so-called “Overton window,” namely ranges of policy ideas that are acceptable to be discussed or debated in mainstream views. In the United States, that Overton window ranges from Center-Right to extreme-Right, as represented by the two major political parties that set the tone of policy discourses.

It shouldn’t need any reminding that Ms. Clinton, the most qualified candidate to ever run for presidency, lost to Donald J. Trump, a game-show host and self-proclaimed billionaire who has never worked for public offices, not even once, in his life. Her loss came as a surprise by many in the mainstream media. Many, many things were blamed, or ascribed blame, as to the reason why someone like Ms. Clinton, a staple figure in American politics, could lose to someone like Mr. Trump.

However, if one was intellectually honest, the answer was actually right in front of them the whole time.

Forty years of Neoliberalism has left most of the population behind. Their lives haven’t gotten easier with each successive administration, if it’s not gotten worse. Job outsourcing is at an all-time high. Unionization is at an all time low. Wages haven’t increased, nor have they kept pace with inflation. Sure, the stock market is doing great, but the stock market doesn’t give an indication on how well the workers are doing. Unemployment is also on a decline, but if you actually take note of what kinds of jobs are generated, you will see that the jobs available nowadays render people underemployed, or without benefits.
Obama, the great hope and change to the American way of life, governed as nothing more than a standard Clintonian Democrat, contrary to his progressive rhetoric on the campaign trails. In one interview he even said how preposterous it was for his critics to label him as a Socialist, as his policies were more in line with the policies of moderate Republicans back in the Reagan era.

Under Mr. Obama, nothing fundamentally changed for the American people. His landmark healthcare plan, the Affordable Care Act, while now made it illegal to deny coverage under pre-existing condition, introduces an individual mandate, requiring every single person in America to have health insurance or they have to pay a tax penalty. Obama advocated for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would further increase job outsourcing and destroy the manufacturing sector of the US economy.

In foreign policy, Mr. Obama also increased military actions in the Middle East and increased the frequency of drone strikes, which disproportionately targeted civilians instead of their actual targets. There are still some of his policies that I haven’t mentioned regarding the moneyed interests, though suffice to say that he was very much on the side of Wall Street and not Main Street when push comes to shove. These were his legacies, and Ms.Clinton was poised to continue them and more.

On certain aspects, Hillary Clinton is even further to the Right on the spectrum than Mr. Obama was. Her foreign policy was downright hawkish. She voted for the invasion of Iraq in 2002. She called for a no-fly zone in Syria. Under her tenure as Secretary of State, she sanctioned a US/NATO-backed invasion of Libya, leading to the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi and the destruction of Libya. She supported NAFTA and TPP, though later she recanted her support of the latter after Mr. Sanders challenged her on it. She was very cozy with Wall Street, giving paid speeches for tens of thousands of dollars, telling them she has “private and public positions”. Her 2016 presidential campaign was centered around the fact that she was not Donald Trump, instead of trying to draw a policy contrast between herself and the man.
In retrospect, Hillary Clinton represented the Establishment that had failed the American people for decades, and Donald Trump was the anti-Establishment candidate, promising to “drain the swamp,” bring back the troops and stop outsourcing. Of course he hasn’t done any of the things he promised on the campaign trail, but with the facts laid out between Clinton and Trump, is it any wonder that the desperate American electorate decided to take a chance and roll the dice with an outsider instead of going the same route over and over again? After all, isn’t the definition of “insanity” was to do the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome?
Fast forward in the context of the 2020 US Presidential election, while the incumbent Mr.Trump represents the populist Right, now Mr. Sanders represents the populist Left. His appeal stems from the fact that he stood for true Left values that has long been forgotten by the American public after years of Neoliberal/ Neoconservative brainwashing. As I expressed previously, Mr. Sanders’ policies aren’t radical or too far left. They are commonplace in other developing countries such as the UK, Sweden, Denmark, Germany etc. His philosophy is that of Social Democracy, a belief that there should be economic and social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a liberal democratic polity and a capitalist-oriented economy.

In essence, Mr. Sanders’ ideology is one where in a capitalistic society measures are taken to curb the excesses of capitalism, to ensure the abuses by the owner-class are non-existent and that everyone will have a chance to succeed based on merit. A social democrat believes in the country having a strong social safety net, which means things such as healthcare, pension, education are provided and guaranteed by the government.

Although those in the media have labeled him a Democratic Socialist, and even Mr. Sanders himself and his followers like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) have been using this term incorrectly to refer to his policies, the term simply doesn’t really apply. That is because his policies and platforms don't call for collective ownership of the means of production, nor does he seek to abolish the class differences inherent in a capitalistic society. His popularity is something undeniable, with him being the most liked Senator in the country for the last 4 years. His policies are policies that ensure better life, better health outcomes and better living conditions for the working class.

Under a Sanders presidency, there will still be millionaires and billionaires. Capitalism will still be the main economic system, with a few caveats. The rich won’t have as big a power as they would have previously. The influence of money on politics will be curbed, and for the first time in their lifetimes Americans will get to see their concerns reflected in the policies debated, discussed and voted on by their representatives.

After his recent wins in Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, Mr. Sanders seems poised to win Nevada caucus and California primary. His poll numbers have been very good in those states, with Mr.Sanders coming out on first place in both states.

Mr. Sanders rise in the polls and in the national consciousness is not something that happened coincidentally nor overnight. He has successfully built a true grassroots movement in the past 40 years that mobilizes the people who believe and will fight for the policies he champions. He has proudly boasted an anti-endorsement lists filled with Wall Street executives and company CEOs who felt threatened by the popularity of his movement and his message.

The success of Bernie’s campaign stems from the fact that he understands what the people, the working-class people of this country truly need in their lives, and he tailors his message accordingly. His campaign slogan is “Not Me. Us.”, a perfect encapsulation of his movement’s philosophy that everyone is in this fight together. That Bernie Sanders’ only interests are the interests of the people. Contrast this slogan with Hillary Clinton’s campaign slogan from 2016, “I’m with her.” She’s not with you, she’s not actually concerned about your issues, she’s not that interested with your problems, all that she needed to know was that you’re with her.
Of course, the Democratic Party Establishment will not take this existential threat lying down. At the moment, they are doing their hardest to sabotage, smear and rig primary elections and caucuses against Mr. Sanders and his movement of working class people. The plethora of Corporatist-Centrist candidates that are currently in the race against Mr. Sanders seemed to point to a maneuvering for a contested convention.

They are trying to prevent Mr. Sanders from receiving more than 51% of the total delegate count, which will lead to a contested convention where party leaders will be able to pick the nominee, in defiance to what the base actually wants. A Sanders Presidency will mean an end to the money gained from corporate lobbying. It will mean the beginning of a Democratic Party free from the shackles of corporate and moneyed interests. The Democratic Party as it stands today will cease to exist.

Truth be told, I’m not actually sure if that’s a bad thing at all.

*) PhD candidate, Dept. of Biological Chemistry, School of Medicine, University of California, Irvine, CA, USA
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