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Scripting an audacity of hope, the Sanders way

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders  

The rise of the Vermont Senator as a frontrunner has upended many myths, and opened up several possibilities

The emergence of Bernie Sanders as the frontrunner in the Democratic Party primaries has stunned the world. But it shouldn’t have. The U.S. is merely joining in the wave of electoral insurrections that are upending the political order across the world. Underneath it are two fundamental drivers. First, the phenomenal growth in inequality, both of income and wealth. After a period of four decades, from the 1930s through the 1970s, in which the gap between the rich and poor actually narrowed, economic inequality today is back to the levels not seen for 100 years.

But it isn’t just that the rich have got richer. It is also that the standard of working class living has actually declined in many ways. Wages have stagnated for 40 years, and to maintain their income, families have had to work longer and longer hours. As a result, health indicators among the poor have declined as overwork, exhaustion, and anxiety have become epidemic. Several recent studies report not only dramatic increases in psychological stress among Americans, but also that its main cause is job insecurity and overwork — economic factors. All this while the U.S. is the only industrial country without a national healthcare plan. Hence, the physical and psychological breakdown goes untreated — and we have the hitherto unimaginable fact that life expectancy among adult males has actually decreased in recent years, for the first time in over a century — and that too, among white males, the section of the population pilloried by the left as “privileged”. In the richest country in the world, the lifespan of working-class men is now getting shorter.

 

This collapse in living standards has been overseen by both political parties in the U.S.’s two-party system. This is the second driver. The Democratic Party was once seen as the party of the working class. And while this description was always a bit of an exaggeration, the unions and advocacy groups representing working Americans did have some influence within it. Because of that, the Democratic Party was behind the two waves of expansion of the welfare state — first the New Deal under Franklin D. Roosevelt, and then Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programmes in the late 1960s. But, by the 1980s, this connection was severed. Under Bill Clinton, the Democrats became Republican-lite — committed to the same neoliberal economic principles. As Gore Vidal brilliantly described it: “There is only one Party in the United States, the Property Party... and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat.”

Rebellion against the elites

What is unfolding now is something akin to a rebellion against this order, with Mr. Sanders at its helm. The Vermont Senator has never been a Democrat. He has always run as an Independent, eschewing any connection with either Party. But once he decided to run for President, he knew that it would be suicide to try it outside the Democratic Party. This was Ralph Nader’s great error in 2000, because in a winner-takes-all system, small third-party campaigns are inevitably viewed as spoilers. They not only lose, but end up draining votes from their closest ideological competitor — in this case, it would be the Democrats. Mr. Nader lost, and then was vilified for supposedly draining votes away from Mr. Gore. So, Mr. Sanders registered in the Party and ran under its umbrella, first in 2016 and then again in this cycle.

But make no mistake, Mr. Sanders is also running against the Democratic Party. And the Party’s leadership understands that, which is why it is trying its best to defeat him. The last time anyone ran on a platform as progressive as Mr. Sanders’s was in 1984, when Jesse Jackson took on the emerging right wing in the Party with his ‘Rainbow Coalition’. Mr. Jackson’s campaign was in many ways very similar to Mr. Sanders’s. It proposed national healthcare, a raise in the minimum wage, extending the social safety net and also a shift in foreign policy. Nobody expected it to succeed, and yet he made a serious run for the Party nomination — so much so, that a panicked Party had to take desperate measures to prevent its success, including shutting down polling booths in many cities where Mr. Jackson was gaining momentum. But Mr. Sanders’s campaign is more radical, if only because the forces it is taking on are so much more entrenched after 40 years of neoliberal turn. Mr. Jackson ran when unions and civic organisations still had some weight inside the Party, and he could garner some support from them. Mr. Sanders stands virtually alone, having only the forces he built up, or has helped build up since 2016, as his support base.

 

Mr. Sanders’s success has upended several myths about the American electorate, which the two parties have used to justify their neoliberal policies. The first is that the reason America does not have a robust welfare state is that the public is uniquely suspicious of “big government”. In other words, when politicians refuse to even consider social insurance policies, they are merely reflecting American values. But in fact, public opinion polls have shown for decades that, when the question is posed appropriately, Americans have expressed the same desire for social insurance as publics everywhere else. It is not that they are suspicious of big government, but that they have given up hoping that the state will ever do anything for them. Mr. Sanders is the first political figure in almost two generations to break through the embargo, and it has caught fire.

The second myth is that the only way to win is by veering toward the ‘centre’, which makes a Sanders platform suicidal because centrist voters are hostile to the policies it espouses. This has been the most common justification for eschewing progressive policies for decades, and it is a variant of the first myth. Once again, politicians are supposedly just following what the public wants. But what is not mentioned is that only about half of the American electorate participates in presidential elections — and it is the wealthier half. Poorer voters have given up on the system precisely because the system is not only indifferent, but hostile to them. They choose not to vote. So the ‘centre’ of the voting population is much to the left of the part that typically votes. It is to this section, shunted aside and ignored, to which Mr. Sanders is making his appeals, and it is working.

Welfare of minorities

The final myth is that Mr. Sanders is proposing “white” policies that ignore issues of race and ethnicity. This is the most toxic of the shibboleths. It supposes that economic issues — of wages, healthcare, education, etc. — do not attract black and brown voters. And yet, Mr. Sanders has built up the biggest following of all the candidates among non-white voters. He is the most trusted and most loved by minorities of any politician in America. In Nevada, Mr. Sanders garnered a staggering 70% of the Latino vote and was a close second to Joe Biden among the Blacks. The reason is obvious — because minorities are the most economically desperate section of the American population. They are the natural constituency for a campaign centering on economic justice.

 

Mr. Sanders is succeeding because he is attracting voters who are either ignored or actively discouraged from voting by his Party. And with every victory, his campaign is gaining exponentially in strength. After five decades of neglect and abuse, working-class Americans had given up on the system. Their cynicism and sense of hopelessness was not only accepted by the two Parties, but encouraged by them. Up to this past weekend, the message on the airwaves was, “he cannot win”. The idea is for every household to feel that even if they feel attracted to his programme, they are alone in their sentiments — that that the mythical ‘centre’, will reject him.

But with every win, every success, the brute facts have become impossible to ignore. Iowa showed that he had a real base; New Hampshire confirmed that it was not a fluke; Nevada has shown that he is not only able to attract minority voters, but that he is by far the most popular candidate among them. Mr. Sanders got more votes in Nevada than the next three candidates combined. The Party is in full-blown panic and, over the next months, will do everything it can to stop him.

 

But its power is limited. The fact is that the American Parties have very little control over who can and cannot run on their tickets. Anyone is free to enter a primary, and if they can attract enough votes, it is very hard to stop them. And the Party leadership’s helplessness is becoming palpable. The last weapon they had was their fear mongering, and now that too has become ineffective.

Mr. Sanders has tapped into a deep, simmering sentiment among the American people. It is far more dangerous than anger. It is hope — and it threatens to overturn the entire political establishment.

Vivek Chibber is a Professor of Sociology at New York University and editor of Catalyst magazine

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 2:11:10 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/scripting-an-audacity-of-hope-the-sanders-way/article30945432.ece

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