IT SEEMED so simple–and soul-deadeningly boring–a year ago. Election 2016 would be a match-up between two political dynasties–the Clintons and the Bushes–with nothing but months of Super PAC spending and stage-managed sound bites between then and the election.
Now, we’re headed for a February where the Republican heir apparent Jeb Bush is bumbling along among the also-rans in opinion polls, and the first primary contests seem certain to be won by right-wing maniacs who regularly denounce their own party’s establishment leaders. Billionaire Donald Trump remains the runaway frontrunner, but Tea Partier Ted Cruz is coming up on the outside.
And on the Democratic side, a self-identified socialist has a fair shot at winning at least the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary over Hillary Clinton, who was once thought to have the Democratic presidential nomination in the bag a full year before the party’s convention.
For anyone on the left, this should inspire both dread and enthusiasm.
Neither Trump nor Cruz may survive what promises to be a bruising and unpredictable GOP primary battle that won’t be decided for months. But in the meanwhile, they give legitimacy to ideas at the far right of the mainstream political spectrum–and then some.
As for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, he has a lot more obstacles–like, for example, the Democratic Party’s completely undemocratic practices, like seating party insiders and officeholders as unelected “superdelegates,” specifically designed to head off left challenges–between him and the party’s presidential nomination.
But Sanders has tarnished the aura of inevitability that once surrounded Hillary Clinton–and what’s more, he’s done so by generating real excitement among millions of people who vote Democratic mainly because they despise the Republicans, not because they feel inspired by the corporate-dominated party that falsely claims to speak for them.
Sanders is talking about the issues that should matter in a real election campaign, like jobs, health care, poverty, challenging racism and the like. It’s no wonder that so many people see him as a breath of fresh air–though he has also gone along with many conventional mainstream Democratic positions, most obviously to defend and extend the power of the American empire.
We can celebrate the opinion polls that show Sanders gaining support against Clinton, most of all because of what they show us about the growth of a layer of people in society who are looking for a radical alternative to the political and social status quo.
If Sanders fails in his still-long-shot quest to win the nomination and then does what he has promised from the start and endorses the presidential candidate of a pro-corporate party, he won’t have answers for the questions those people are asking. Socialists need to be ready with answers of our own, and we can start now, as this election year is unfolding.
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AT ONE point not too long ago, Hillary Clinton greeted Sanders’ candidacy within the Democratic Party as a positive. Clinton understood that Sanders’ campaign would motivate the party’s base of progressive supporters, while she could still be seen as the “realistic” candidate who stood the best chance against the Republicans in a general election.
Since then, opinion polls have shown that Sanders could hold his own against the Republicans. In December, in a hypothetical race against the GOP’s front-running reality TV star, the Vermont social democrat came out ahead by 13 percentage points–stronger than Clinton’s 7 percent–according to a Quinnipiac poll.
As Sanders has climbed in the polls–building a clear lead over Clinton in New Hampshire, threatening in Iowa and creeping toward a real contest nationally–the Clinton campaign went on the attack.
Often enough, this merely provided further evidence of what a cynical political insider she’s always been. According to the Nation, for example, the Clinton campaign put out a press release calling Friends of the Earth Action a “dark money group”–after it put out TV ads commending Sanders’ fight against the Keystone XL pipeline.
During a candidates’ debate in South Carolina, Clinton claimed that Sanders was going to undo all of the Obama administration’s hard work on a health care law and tear up the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Clinton acted as if she was attacking Sanders from the left, but as Sanders explained during the debate, he favors a much more radical solution to the health care crisis that the ACA has made worse in numerous ways: a universal, “Medicare for All” health care plan.
For the most part, though, Clinton is sticking to what she knows. That’s her claim to be the only “viable” candidate against a host of scary Republicans.
As the first primary contests approach, the organizations whose jobs it is to rally followers behind the conventional liberal choice–the Human Rights Campaign, Planned Parenthood, a number of unions–are announcing their endorsements of Clinton. This despite her record of betraying the very people who are expected to campaign for her–as in the case of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which only recently backed the campaign for a living wage at Walmart, where Clinton once served on the board of directors and silently sat by while the mega-retailer rolled over workers.
The Clinton campaign understands that the odds are still with her winning the party’s nomination. But victories for Sanders in New Hampshire, Iowa and beyond would damage her inevitability factor in a race against Republicans.
What all this reveals is something that mainstream political commentators have a hard time predicting or processing–despite all the talk about Clinton being the most viable candidate among the widest range of voters, Sanders is showing that there is a huge opening for unapologetically liberal and even radical political ideas.
The huge electoral support for Sanders is a reflection of the state of U.S. politics, where a growing number of people are expressing their dissatisfaction with status quo politics. That sentiment is expressed in specific attitudes about issues like police violence or racism, but it can also be seen in the widespread feeling that political leaders don’t represent us–and don’t even try. No event illustrates this more than the protests by residents of Flint, Michigan, whose elected officials allowed their drinking water to be poisoned.
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ON THE other side of Election 2016, the Republican Party establishment is discovering that its anointed “inevitable” candidates–conservatives like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio with just enough sheen of moderation to appeal in a general election–are in big trouble.
The reason is that the Republican right–unleashed as attack dogs during the Obama years to drive the political mainstream further and further to the right–isn’t going away. It wants its place in the spotlight.
The mobilization of the Tea Party fanatics, backed by big-money right-wingers like the Koch brothers, was central to the Republican victories in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections. But Republican base voters were whipped up not only against “big government” and “special interests,” associated with the Obama administration, but the “Washington elite” in general–which sometimes meant Republican leaders like former House Speaker John Boehner who were judged to be not fanatical enough.
Now that it’s time to elect the president, the GOP establishment would like the right-wing fringe to step aside. But no such luck. In spite of every vile statement and blunder, billionaire Islamophobe and immigrant hater Donald Trump has stayed well ahead of the pack in opinion polls. After the rise and fall of crackpot Ben Carson, Ted Cruz has been the only contender to make a real run at Trump–and in some ways, he’s more of a threat to the party establishment than Trump.
The structure of the Republican primaries, with delegates awarded based on the proportion of votes in each contest, guarantees that the nomination battle will drag out for months. It’s impossible to predict whether Trump or Cruz will survive to become the party nominee, or if the establishment will unite around an alternative. But whatever the case, this is a recipe for chaos and splits within the historic party of Corporate America.
The enduring appeal of the Trumps and Cruzes in Election 2016 is more evidence of the instability and polarization in a society that’s motivating people to reject politics as usual. But it’s not only that.
In Barack Obama’s State of the Union address this month, he boasted about the amazing U.S. economic recovery. But for most working-class Americans, there are few signs of these better times. This, coupled with the Obama administration’s escalation of the “war on terror,” has produced a frightening and unpredictable world.
This is why Trump can gain a hearing for right-wing ideas that attempt to redirect the blame onto scapegoats, such as immigrants or Muslims.
In this respect, Trump is leading the way for the Republicans, as conservative ideologues Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru wrote in the National Review: “[W]hile Trump is not a conservative and does not deserve conservatives’ support, Republicans can nonetheless learn from him…He has exposed and widened the fissures on the American right. If conservatives are to thrive, they must figure out how to respond creatively, sensibly and honorably to the public impulses he has so carelessly exploited.”
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IT FRIGHTENING to think of the “public impulses” that Lowry and Ponnuru want another Republican to exploit less “carelessly.” But as the atrocities of the Republican presidential contenders pile up, it will be important to remember that the same political circumstances are radicalizing people to the left.
The strong support for Bernie Sanders is the most obvious evidence. But the people being won over to Sanders won’t necessarily stop with a campaign within the Democratic Party. While Election 2016 goes on, there will be many opportunities for protest and politics, with those enthused about the Sanders campaign certain to play a role.
And the odds are still strong that Sanders will ultimately confront those supporters with a choice later on this year. They can join him in supporting the candidate who beat him for the Democratic nomination, even if they represent everything that millions of Sanders supporters are fed up with.
Or they can stand for a real alternative. That will mean casting a ballot for an independent left candidate next November. But even more important, it will mean participating in the grassroots movements and struggles well beyond the ballot box that, as history has shown us, can bring real change.