There are two key words in this year’s U.S. presidential election: progressives and establishment.
Both words have been linked to Democratic Party candidate Bernie Sanders. Nine months ago, Sanders was not a household name, and few thought anything of his electoral prospects. However, in the span of a few short months, he has whipped up a political maelstrom that has closely pressed Hillary Clinton, whose polling figures had been far and away above any other Democratic candidate. He has even prompted the European media to ask whether America is now prepared to embrace a socialist president.
Never has such a question been asked throughout all of U.S. electoral history. While the Socialist Party of America participated in multiple past elections, it never garnered more than approximately 4.8 million votes at most, and once as little as 2,000. Socialists have always been fringe characters in presidential elections, more often than not, coming in dead last. And although Sanders has chosen to run on the Democratic ticket this time around, as the self-appointed “gatekeeper of who’s a progressive” (as Clinton put it), it is small wonder the socialist label has stuck.
Sanders also knows such a label will not help his electability across the nation, and he has more recently restyled himself as a progressive, saying he is carrying the torch of Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Era and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal politics, while framing Clinton as a moderate within a Democratic Party that lacks reformist and progressive ideals.
The most obvious political ramification of the Progressive Era, at the turn of the 20th century, was to expose and dismantle unlawful ties between politics and industry. For example, the Rockefeller family’s Standard Oil Trust was deemed a monopoly, and its holdings dissolved by the Supreme Court into 36 smaller entities. Similarly, when senators were still indirectly elected via state legislatures, elections were often manipulated through an injection of funds from wealthy tycoons. This practice forced Congress to amend the Constitution so that senators would be chosen by direct election, which washed clean the tarnished reputation of senators as being hand-picked by financial conglomerates.
Compared to such great political achievements in the Progressive Era, Sanders’ attacks on Wall Street do indeed seem to be sprung from similar stuff. He has criticized Clinton for giving three speeches at Goldman Sachs (for which she pocketed over $600,000 in speaking fees), deplored the fact that Wall Street executives who helped foment the financial crisis have not served time in prison while marijuana-smoking youths are locked away, and relies upon small contributions from over 2 million ordinary citizens to operate his campaign. Clinton has super PACs helping her raise vast sums of money. And like French economist Thomas Piketty, Sanders quotes data in his condemnations of how the wealthiest 0.1 percent have corralled America’s wealth.
Those financiers on Wall Street are the establishment Sanders speaks of, or the “billionaire class.” The magnates of the modern establishment are no different than the Rockefellers of the Progressive Era in how they use their money to manipulate elections and politics, not only by corrupting elections and legislation but also by allowing the rich to become richer while the poor become poorer, which has gradually eroded the middle class to a worrying degree.
In independent candidate Ross Perot’s 1992 bid for the presidency, the support of an anxious middle class gained him about 19 percent of the aggregate vote. Although Sanders is unlike Perot in many ways, his advocacy for moving toward the Northern European model of socialist democracy with the provision of free tuition to public universities and free health care has resonated among a similarly apprehensive middle class, and even low-income and unemployed young voters have become die-hard fans of the septuagenarian.
However, the caveat to Sanders’ campaign is that he is, as Clinton points out, a “single-issue candidate” who speaks only of economic inequality. For months, he has traversed the country echoing the voices of the “occupy Wall Street” movement, calling his campaign a “political revolution.” But is the United States ready to embrace a socialist? As the U.K. paper the Guardian concluded, “probably not.”
Still, even if the revolution fails, Sanders’ story is of a progressive fighting the establishment, and history will not soon forget him.
The author is a visiting professor at Shih Hsin University.
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