United States

Todd Chretien: Can Bernie beat the odds?

Todd Chretien is an author, translator, and teacher and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America in Maine. This article was originally published by Brazil’s Esquerda Online.

Bernie Sanders is a socialist running for president in the United States. Millions of working-class people are voting for him, giving small donations to his campaign, and hundreds of thousands have attended campaign rallies to hear Bernie (everyone calls him Bernie) call for a “political revolution” to attack the “greed and corruption” of the “billionaire class.” Bernie’s campaign has tremendous strengths and there is a real possibility that he could become president, yet the last week has also exposed important weaknesses. 

1. It is important to understand the radical nature of Bernie’s political program for democratic socialismin a U.S. context. His campaign has a plan to raise taxes on big corporations and the 1 percent by at least 30 trillion dollarsover the next ten years as well as deep cuts to Pentagon spending. His plan for Medicare for All will guarantee all people in the U.S. (citizens and non-citizens) medical care and it will effectively nationalize the private health insurance corporations. Bernie also proposes to cancel all medical and student debt, make public colleges free, and raise public school teachers’ salaries to at least $60,000 per year (I currently make $41,000 per year, which is just above average for a starting teacher). Bernie proposes a Green New Deal for 100% renewable energy within the next generation, while producing 20 million new jobs to make the transition. Bernie promises to defend abortion rights and mandate equal pay for women, open up citizenship to more than 10 million undocumented immigrants, close down all private prisons and ban racial profiling by the police, defend equality for all LGBTQ people, respect indigenous sovereignty, and prohibit the rich and big corporations from buying (“donating to”) politicians. These are the most radical reforms raised by an American politician since 1860 when Lincoln promised to prohibit the spread of slavery and these reforms would transform America

2. Bernie’s vision has won over a large part of the youth and has made important gains among working-class people, especially Latinos and other immigrant groups, and that support is penetrating even the most conservative states in the U.S. For instance, on March 3, exit pollsindicate that Bernie won 58 percent of votes from people 18-29 years old (former vice president Joe Biden won 17 percent) and Bernie won 36 percent of the Latino vote (Biden got 25 percent). And, remarkably, among Democratic Party votes, solid majorities think favorably of socialism. Support for Bernie’s campaign reflects a growing desire for radical change and a recognition that “politics as usual” in the United States will condemn the working class to precarious living conditions, intensifying social oppression, climate collapse, and escalating threats for international conflict and war. 

3. Until March 3, so-called “Super Tuesday,” it looked like Bernie’s campaign just might push aside a divided field of Democratic Party centrists. However, the Democratic leadership imposed discipline on several minor candidates, forcing them to drop out (Buttigieg, Klobuchar) and Democratic billionaire Mike Bloomberg (who spent 600 million dollars of his own money on advertising in just two months) quickly followed suit. These moves sent a signal to the mainstream media to begin an all-out red-baiting attack on Bernie’s campaign and rallied virtually the entire Democratic Party establishment behind Biden. Combined with rising fear of a corona virus outbreak, the majority of Democratic Party voters were convinced to support Biden, the supposed “safe” choice to confront Trump and Bernie’s momentum was stopped. As of today, Biden holds a small lead and the election may well be determined in the next 10 daysas big states like Michigan, Florida, Washington, Arizona, Ohio, and Illinois vote. It is still possible that Bernie can win, but the combined power of Bloomberg’s money and the centrist united front behind Biden are very big obstacles. 

4. Bernie’s rhetorical appeals for a “political revolution” are a critical component in the massive growth of interest in socialism, including the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America from 8,000 members in 2016 to over 55,000 today. Yet, so long as the level of concrete social and class struggle remains relatively low, transforming the aspirations and hopes Bernie gives voice to into real victories – at the polls and in the streets – is at a disadvantage. There are, in fact, important indications of growing class struggle. In 2018 and 2019, almost half a million workers went on strikeeach year, more than tripling the average numbers over the last decade led by education workers. But union membership continues to declineand teachers, nurses, and university workers strikes have not inspired workers in the private sector to follow their lead. And while Donald Trump’s 2016 election provoked a year of historically large marches and protests like the Women’s March, mobilizations in 2019 and 2020 have declined due to liberal attacks on women of colorand differences over strategy. Of course, it is never possible to simply “plan” mass resistance and there are continuing signs of struggle, like graduate workers on strikein California. But there is also an element of exhaustion after three years of unprecedented attacks by Trump and a lingering hope that the Democratic Party leadership might push Trump out through impeachment. But the impeachment process was never designed to get rid of Trump, it was merely a (badly-managed) ploy to soften him up for the 2020 election and, primarily, to defend Joe Biden. And the overall level of class struggle remains quite low. For instance,between 1967 and 1970, more than 2 million workers took strike action each year, meaning that strike levels were 6 or 7 times higher in 1970 than they are today. So long as the working class and social movements remain weak, electoral insurgencies like Bernie’s face greater vulnerabilities

5. All this has led to sharp debates among socialists in the United States. There are four basic positions. First, there is a very small group (mostly outside of DSA) that argues Bernie does not represent a challenge to the system, but is merely reproducing a long history of Democratic Party. Second, there is a larger layer of socialists (mostly inside DSA) who are campaigning for Bernie, but regardless of the outcome, believe his campaign raises the question of how and when to create a path to a new party. Third, there is a similarly sized layer that supports Bernie but feels it is premature to consider laying the foundation for a new party. Fourth, the vast majority of new socialists (inside and outside DSA) are hoping against hope that Bernie can still win. This layer has not yet hardened its opinions or gained enough experience to create its own strategies and tactics and will have to learn how to fight in the coming years. Despite what the first layer may fear, Bernie winning as many votes as possible (and socialists doing what we can to help him), including the possibility for an underdog victory against Biden and then against Trump in November, presents the best terrain for the movement to take its next steps. How we fight today will determine our influence in the struggles to come.