While the Republicans undergo an identity crisis, Bernie Sanders has revealed that a shockingly large number of Americans think another world is possible.
The 2016 election has highlighted deep ideological divides across the country and presented some very encouraging signs for communists. The media script for the 2016 primaries featured Hillary Clinton as a lock for the Democrats while Republican voters chose between party hacks with identical positions on policy. While the Republicans have unmasked themselves as unashamed xenophobic hate mongers, what is occurring overall in the election cycle is not only surprising, but is in many ways encouraging. In this article I will try to look at the state of US politics right now and what it means for us as libertarian communists.
First off, let me start with the Republicans. The Republican base has revolted against the Party elite over what they see as an unwillingness by establishment politicians to stand firm to Republican values. Additionally, Republican voters harbor an increasingly volatile resentment of both the government and society itself. To this end the base has aligned themselves with the campaigns of Texas senator Ted Cruz and businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump.
Both candidates are despised by the Party elite who regard them as unelectable, insulting, and damaging to the Republican party brand. In 2013, the government shut down for weeks after Cruz spearheaded a refusal by the Republican congress to ratify President Obama’s budget. The shutdown was a national embarrassment to the Republican party establishment, and Cruz was held responsible. At a time when Republican politicians are voting with uniformity, Cruz also became an unlikely opponent of free trade agreements and subsidies for ethanol production. While a senator, Cruz further angered Republican politicians through unprofessional conduct in Congress, reportedly embarrassing his colleagues with long rants about their unwillingness to push for more right wing policies.
Cruz has run afoul of the Republican Party establishment for other reasons as well. Cruz has surrounded himself with conspiracy theorists such as Frank Gaffney who Cruz recently appointed as one of his top national security advisers. Gaffney recently warned in an interview about, "a coming together of... Islamists — Islamic supremacists if you will, the Muslim Brotherhood — and Black Lives Matter and Occupy movements and sort of anarchists and other assorted radicals on the left" who are "joining forces" to create a "very violent prospect, in fact a revolutionary one." Following the Brussels attacks Cruz stated that he thinks police should "patrol and secure" "Muslim neighborhoods" across the country. Cruz has racked up an impressive array of extreme right wing elements who most mainstream Republicans try to distance themselves from. For instance Cruz has been enjoying the support of pundit Glenn Beck who famously accused Barack Obama of being a "racist" with a “deep-seated hatred of white people.” Beck, a Mormon, has recently spoken at several Cruz rallies passionately telling the audience that God wants them to vote for Cruz in order to fulfill a prophecy that is written in the Book of Mormon. Cruz has also received the support of right wing pastor Kevin Swanson, who recently said the leaders of the Girl Scouts should be executed for their support of LGBT rights.
Despite his support from the radical religious right Cruz will certainly lose to the obvious Republican front runner, Donald Trump. Trump began his campaign by doing what he always does, drawing attention to himself with crude jokes and political incorrectness. By doing so, he appealed to Republicans and Independents who hate the political establishment and politicians in general. His crass remarks during the debates were like a breath of fresh air to voters whose lives are not reflected by the wholesome charms of traditional Republican candidates such as Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. By transporting his crude witticisms from reality TV to the comparatively restrained tone of the presidential race, Trump was able to sell himself as a genuine political outsider who would refuse to cow to the pressures of the liberal interest groups that control Washington.
The popularity of Trump and Cruz can be traced to the most serious issues affecting the Republican Party voter base today. The Republican base is made up mostly of middle aged whites. As a recent groundbreaking study has shown, “The mortality rate for whites 45 to 54 years old with no more than a high school education increased by 134 deaths per 100,000 people from 1999 to 2014.” The decline in life expectancy seems to be due to an increase in suicides, alcoholism, and substance abuse. This group of voters sees their lives getting worse each year, and they feel, correctly, as though the media and the political establishment are not addressing the issues that are important to them. In desperation they are seeking out candidates to “make America great again,” or, in other words, start making their life expectancy go up again, instead of down. It should be no wonder then, that one-time Republican front runner Ben Carson opened up the February 25th Republican debates by proclaiming, “our nation is heading off the abyss of destruction.” Noam Chomsky presciently commented that Trump’s rise represented the, “breakdown of society.” Indeed, the Party elite is aghast at how well their efforts at politicizing religion and racism have succeeded. Much of the blame for this current situation may not lie with the Party elite itself, but rather with the Koch brothers who have tried for decades to foment insurgency within the Party in an effort to create a militant grassroots movement. The current situation bears many similarities to the sudden rise of the Tea Party 7 years ago.
Whatever the case, it has now gotten to a point where the elite can no longer control the base and the veneer of respectability that the Republican Party tries to command can longer be maintained. This election cycle almost certainly signals a major turning point for the party. The Party will have to decide whether or not to embrace its new identity as an openly racist populist party, or to try, by means of a figurative coup at the convention, to sabotage the campaigns of Trump and Cruz in favor of the more respectable John Kasich.
Against all odds, Sanders makes it far into the primary
Perhaps of more interest to communists is the revolt taking place on the other end of the political spectrum amongst the Democratic Party base. The Democratic Party primary was supposed to be an easy win for centrist Hillary Clinton. Her politics of quietly pushing the Democratic Party to the right has been key in shaping the current identity of the party as a representative of fiscally conservative and socially liberal Wall Street. As I’ve written about before, Hillary Clinton supported NAFTA, she supported the escalation of the war on drugs, she supported the dismantling of the welfare system, she voted for the Iraq war and was the leading US figure in the 2011 Libyan intervention. Her entire professional career, from her time as a lawyer representing Tysons Foods and Wal-Mart, to her support of the military coup in Honduras has been characterized by a series of right wing policies that have pushed back against all forms of government protection for the world’s poor.
Sanders, for his part, is about as far as you can get to the left while still being an American politician. He describes himself as a democratic socialist. He openly supports expanding Medicare to not only all US citizens, but undocumented citizens as well. He supports raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour. He wants to kick start the economy with massive investments into renewable energy. He is opposed to the war on drugs and wants to curb the powers of the police. He opposed NAFTA, he opposed the Iraq war, and he has supported treatment and prevention rather than policing as a more appropriate reaction to drug abuse.
Given the fact that Sanders regularly points out that the media is owned by large corporations and/or billionaires such as Jeff Bezos (Washington Post) and Rupert Murdoch (NewsCorp), the corporate media’s reaction to his campaign has been predictably over the top negative. At first the goal was to try and simply ignore his candidacy. However, after tying Clinton in Iowa and receiving increasingly high poll numbers, the media went into attack mode. Two well-known incidents in particular highlighted the media’s frenzied panic over Sanders’ continued success. One well-known incident came in a single 16-hour period between March 6th and March 7th, when the Jeff Bezos owned Washington Post ran 16 negative Bernie Sanders articles while publishing 0 positive ones. Another well-known incident of the media trying to sabotage Sanders came from the New York Times in a March 15th article about Sanders’ record of pushing for progressive policies in the Senate. The article originally was somewhat favorable to Sanders, and although it described him as the “liberal mirror image of the Tea-Party”, it also made note of how as a senator he, “secured money for dairy farmers and community health centers, blocked banks from hiring foreign workers and reined in the Federal Reserve.” The Sanders campaign even linked to the article on their website. However, after the Sanders campaign linked to the article, a number of mysterious edits to the article were made. First of all, the title had been changed from Bernie Sanders Scored Victories for Years Through Legislative Side Doors to Via Legislative Doors, Bernie Sanders Won Modest Victories. Next, a quote from a Sanders adviser saying, “it has been a very successful strategy” was deleted and replaced with the following two paragraphs
But in his presidential campaign Mr. Sanders is trying to scale up those kinds of proposals as a national agenda, and there is little to draw from his small-ball legislative approach to suggest that he could succeed.
Mr. Sanders is suddenly promising not just a few stars here and there, but the moon and a good part of the sun, from free college tuition paid for with giant tax hikes to a huge increase in government health care, which has made even liberal Democrats skeptical.
As Matt Taibbi wrote in Rolling Stone,
There were other changes...The salutary line about Sanders being an ‘effective, albeit modest legislator’ – a key passage that in the original article directly contradicted the Clinton-camp contention that Sanders can't ‘get things done’ – is now followed by a sort of disclaimer:
‘He has enacted his agenda piece by piece, in politically digestible chunks with few sweeping legislative achievements in a quarter-century in Congress’…Worse, the line about ‘tacking on amendments to larger bills that scratch his particular policy itches’ has now, absurdly, been rewritten to read:‘…tacking on amendments to larger bills to succeed at the margins.’
The list of media efforts to sabotage the Sanders campaign are legion, and too numerous to document here, but these are the two most well-known incidents.
Despite all of the odds stacked against him, Sanders is surviving in the race far longer than anyone expected. A recent Bloomberg poll of democrats show that he Clinton are tied for support nationally. It is still conceivable for him to win a majority of the delegates in the nomination process, but he will have to rack up major upsets in upcoming states in order to do this. His victory in the race is not inconceivable, however it is unlikely.
What does the Sanders phenomenon mean for communists?
The Democratic Party nomination process has highlighted the fact that a very substantial portion of the population has views about how society should be run that are far to the left of both political parties. The question is what does this mean for libertarian communists and how do we relate to this progressive movement? Our major talking point on the Sanders election campaign should be; why do we need politics? For example, why should someone who is working two full time jobs in order to survive wait for the majority of Americans to vote for a politician who will address this issue? Direct action outside of the political parties solves this issue without needing to enter into the corporate media dominated circus of the election process. We do not need to wait for the government to protect us or give us rights, we should take them through organizing and direct action.
It should also be pointed out that Sanders simply does not go far enough. I agree that Sanders’ policies would improve the world. However, were we put on this earth to spend each day working in a cubicle, at a checkout counter, in a warehouse, just so various companies can out compete each other on the marketplace? What kind of life is that? Can’t we envision something better?
For now, the Sanders campaign has shown that people are open to the idea of another world. Let’s organize and take it.