President Sanders: A Disaster for the US Left?

Despite his impressive record in the U.S. Democratic primaries, including racking up wins in Indiana, Colorado, Michigan, Washington, and West Virginia , it is all but clear that Bernie Sanders will not be the Democratic Party’s nominee for President. What seems equally clear is that Sanders is determined to stay in the race until the end, resulting in a contested nomination, despite certain Democrats pressuring him to pull out. Whether Sanders follows through with his stated intentions or not, the history of left-wing populist movements tells us that Sanders has achieved all he can through pushing Clinton as far as he has; and that a Sanders presidency would probably do more to harm the grassroots movement that he has created than were he to be successful come November’s election.

That Sanders has been as successful as he has is in itself an achievement. In a country where President Obama has been called a socialist simply because of promoting a watered-down (by European standards) form of universal healthcare, for a self-proclaimed socialist to have won victories against a member of the political establishment, with as much political experience and financial backing as Hilary Clinton, is astonishing. It has raised awareness of the large grassroots left-wing movement that exists in the United States today, as well as providing an alternative channel for the anti-establishment feeling that on the right has manifested itself in the form of support for Donald Trump. Sanders, like Trump, has given voice to those who feel that “establishment” politicians represent “big money,” or are corrupt, and/or insincere. He has mobilised huge numbers of people who for the past few years have felt themselves disillusioned by the political class, and who now see, in Sanders, a candidate who truly represents them.

However, it has not all been rosy. An interview with the New York Daily News revealed huge holes in Sanders’ concrete policy proposals, which led to an intense media fire back of the kind that Sanders, up until then, had not really experienced. Further questions have also emerged over his stance on gun crime, and his popularity amongst minority voters, issues that would gain even greater attention if he were to be named the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. The fallout from the Daily News interview gave the Sanders campaign just a glimpse of the intense scrutiny he, and his ideas, would come under were he to be the single Democrat candidate against a single Republican. His vague answers during debates against Hilary Clinton would be targeted far more vocally (and aggressively) once the conservative US press moved away from debating the Republican race for nomination – and, when it has focused on the Democrat race, angling its attacks on Clinton – and turned its full attention to the Democrat nominee. It is not too much of a leap of imagination to see the popular Sanders suddenly become symbolic (for many) of an idealistic left, full of ideas but lacking substance. Past quotes would be mined for any inconsistencies, anything (no matter how insubstantial) that could tie him to the establishment or to “Big Money”, groups he has been vocal in opposing. After several months of an aggressive presidential campaign, Sanders’ image may not emerge unscathed. For the young activists who at the moment follow him devotedly, a tarnished Sanders may not be so easy to worship, and his movement may well suffer as a result.

The situation would not become any easier were Sanders to enter the White House. To start with, he would face a tough time with Congress. Whether Congress is majority Republican or slimly Democrat, Sanders would be forced to adopt one of two techniques: either compromise on the most radical of his policies to try and pass some sort of moderate legislation, or take on Congress directly, appealing to his democratic mandate. The former approach would alienate the grassroots youth support that has been the lifeblood of the Sanders campaign so far; the latter approach would likely lead nowhere. One can look not only at Obama’s forced compromises on things like Obamacare, but even further back in US presidential history. Before Obama, the last successful candidate to adopt such a messianic rhetoric of deep-seated political change was Jimmy Carter, who came from nowhere to defeat Gerald Ford in 1976. Carter’s message was one of left-wing liberalism, of openness and honesty. His approach, however, was to choose a confrontational approach to Congress (including accusing his own Congressional leaders of being “wasteful and corrupt,” and calling a Congressional Committee “a pack of ravenous wolves”). Looking back, Carter regrets his approach, stating that it was his poor relations with Congress that led to his failure to get them to budge on Social Security, as well as his proposal for a long-range energy program.

A Republican-dominated Congress would make passing any of Sanders’ most controversial proposals – on the minimum wage, for example – nearimpossible; the fact that many of Sanders’ own Democrat colleagues do not agree with some of his proposals even more so. Faced with either Congressional obstinacy or voluntary moderacy, Sanders would lose support amongst his core supporters, while making no friends amongst more moderate voters. The mid-term elections would likely be disastrous; re-nomination come 2020 seem impossible. All the momentum that Sanders has developed over the past few months in favour of progressive policies would be lost, and US politics would return to the centre ground.

Sanders, it is likely has achieved as much as he can in the short term in terms of shifting US politics to the left. Clinton has already altered her stance on some key issues in response to Sanders’ popularity, and come her nomination it is likely that she would have to make at least some concessions to Sanders’ demands on her platform. She may even decide to put some Sanders-like progressive Democrats in her cabinet. As Tony Blair demonstrated in the UK, shifting the location of the accepted political centre, rather than coming in as an acknowledged extreme on the spectrum, can be a far more successful tactic, and may have a vastly further-reaching effect. Presented with the same policy, voters (and members of Congress) are more likely to accept it when the politician proposing it is a perceived moderate bending slightly, than a perceived radical seen to be compromising. The fact that a politician universally known to be a centrist (Clinton) has shifted her political stance to the left, and as a result will most likely be able to garner far more support for her policies than Sanders, is one of Sanders’ most fundamental achievements. Clinton’s history of working successfully with Congress only increases the chances of some Sanders-influenced policies passing under a Clinton-, rather than a Sanders presidency. A structural shift in US politics towards a European-style spectrum, with “democratic socialist” policies seen as more politically viable, would represent far more of a victory for Sanders than a four-year stand-off with Congress, followed by a return to political “normality” with the election of an establishment Democrat – or, as a result of a backlash against Sanders’ left-wing politics, a reinvigorated Ted Cruz – come 2020.

Examples from Europe support this analysis:In the aftermath of the financial crisis, several European countries – such as Spain, Greece, and Portugal – saw voters shifting to the left, even occasionally electing “socialist” candidates, as the continent saw an upsurge of off-centre grassroots movements. However, in almost all cases, the realities of institutional rule (the need for political compromise, the frustrations of implementing political revolution in a democratic system, and so on) has resulted in moderation of policies, frustration of idealistic goals, and eventual disillusionment from core supporters, without gaining support from those the socialists have compromised with.

In France in 2012, Francois Hollande ran against incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy promising to raise taxes on big corporations, banks and the wealthy, create subsidised jobs in areas of high unemployment for the young, and promote French industry. He defeated Sarkozy in the run-off, but since then has overseen a plummeting in popularity, both personally and for his party, with personal approval ratings reaching a low of 12% in November 2014. Only his “strong” (and arguably authoritarian) reaction to the Paris shootings helped his ratings at all, and even that bounce has proved temporary. Having failed to win over most of France, Hollande has also alienated his party’s traditional core support, with labour unions uniting for a day of protest against Hollande’s proposed labour reforms.

A similar phenomenon has beset the Syriza party in Greece. Elected in protest to the austerity policies forced upon Greece by the European Union, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was forced to accept a Memorandum with the EU on Greece’s debt. Following this, 25 Syriza MPs split from the party (including finance minister Yanis Varoufakis), forcing a new election. The results of this election again allowed Syriza to enter government in a new coalition, but after a year in power polls showed that Tsipras’ personal approval ratings have declined, while the party has been accused of selling its soul in return for power. Worn down by the realities of political compromise, the EU’s refusal to compromise, and internal bickering, the Syriza movement, while not dead by any stretch of the imagination, now lacks the widespread public appeal that it once held. One can easily imagine such a scenario besetting a frustrating Sanders regime.

A slightly different phenomenon has been seen in the UK, with the election of socialist Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn has not overseen a loss of core support, but infighting and bickering, as well as an almost universally hostile media, has meant that the public continues to see Corbyn’s (and Labour’s) role as one of opposition, rather than a party ready to rule. Corbyn’s political background is strikingly similar to Sanders: while not politically inexperienced, they both lack experience of leading diverse coalitions, and are both unaccustomed to having to moderate their policies in the face of political realities. Sanders’ interview with the Daily Times exposed the lack of political tact and subtlety that would allow him to thrive were he to ascend to the presidency; statements that can appear prophetic in opposition suddenly seem impractical and unworkable when in power, and there is a real danger that President Sanders would seem weak and inept. A four-year lame-duck presidency could well follow.

Sanders’ grassroots campaign has seen over four million contributions, with only three percent of the total money raised coming from supporters who have contributed the maximum $2,700 that an individual may give to a candidate running in primaries and caucuses. Meanwhile, three-quarters of donations to Sanders have been below $200, compared to only 17% of Clinton’s. Sanders’ supporters have successfully mobilised supporters via the internet to organise events ranging from canvassing registering voters to creating carpools, while the “Grassroots for Bernie Sanders!” Facebook page has over 32,000 likes. Sanders would do well to harness this popular momentum, targeting the 2018 mid-term elections to send more of his supporters into Congress. It is in this way, rather than through top down politics, that Sanders is most likely to achieve long-lasting and deep-seated political change.

Sanders has already had a huge effect on this US presidential election; he has tapped into a previously-neglected electorate, while bringing previously fringe issues into the mainstream. A failed Sanders presidency would undo all the momentum he has created up until now, resulting in the unfolding of his grassroots movement and a continuation of traditional US politics come 2020. However, by continuing to apply pressure from the sidelines, building a grassroots movement, and taking a long-term strategy of changing the political makeup of the Democratic Party, and eventually Congress, he can have a long lasting effect on US politics.

Author Bio

Joe Mansour is a history graduate from the north of England. He loves travelling and experiencing different cultures, and it is this that informs most of his work. He is interested in British and US politics, global inequality, and structural barriers to social mobility, and seeks to use his knowledge of history to inform his understanding of current affairs and events. In the future, he wants to go into journalism or public policy, using his writing raise awareness of the problems of inequality societies around the world face.

Cover image ‘Bernie Sanders – Caricature‘ by DonkeyHotey (edited by GPPW)

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