Bernie Sanders quit the presidential race on April 8 before formally endorsing the leading candidate, Joe Biden, a few days later. Several commentators in the mainstream U.S. media, and on a much smaller scale in Quebec, have criticized Sanders for staying in the race too long, whether out of pride or self-deception. They also exaggerated his popularity, his influence and the influence of his supporters. Along with the Democratic Party establishment, they all sided with a candidate deemed safer and less radical.
Rather than listing the strategical errors or weaknesses of candidate Sanders, it is more interesting to inquire into what brought him to the forefront of the American political scene over the course of the last five years. We don’t stress nearly enough the extraordinary nature of his breakthrough into the bastion of capitalism. The idea that a socialist, or, more correctly, a social democrat, could aspire to the presidency of the United States is unprecedented in the history of the country, with the possible exception of Democratic candidate George McGovern in 1972.
Fundamentally, the emergence of “Bernie” is the expression of a dull anger, of an impatience increasingly shown toward half-measures and abstract principles unaccompanied by real substance, such as binding measures that would force a more equitable division of resources without regard to socioeconomic class, race or gender.
It also speaks to exasperation with a permanent political class that is draped in the virtues of bipartisan compromise and civility, but which, like Bill Clinton, has gutted social programs, eliminated important parts of financial regulation, and encouraged mass incarceration; or, as Barack Obama did, has favored mass deportations, ordered drone attacks, and bailed out the large financial institutions that caused the 2008 crisis; or even, as Biden did, voted for the invasion of a foreign country, Iraq, for false reasons.
This is the soft and porous center of American politics that has defined the limits of political imagination since the 1990s. It’s precisely the realism, pragmatism and moderation that will be at the center of the return to normal Biden is proposing. After four years of Trump, this program looks like real deliverance. But there is a real risk that the tensions and the discontent that propelled Sanders onto the national scene will remain.
A Passionate Outcry
Indeed, his emergence is also a passionate outcry from a significant part of the population. A large majority of young people (those 40 and younger) voted for Sanders. Some would say that it was trendy to do so, but it would be fairer to say that the support of young people stems from the fact that they are heavily in debt after their studies, have little or assets or real estate, have limited job prospects, are often overqualified and underpaid for the jobs they do hold, and are facing an unprecedented climate crisis. This young generation, part of which engineered an unprecedented ground-up mobilization, joins millions of other forgotten Americans, who struggle to pay their bills even while holding multiple jobs.
In his speeches, Sanders liked to repeat that the three wealthiest people in the United States have more money than half the population, that millions of Americans do not have health insurance, that 500,000 Americans have declared bankruptcy due to excessive medical bills, and that more than 500,000 Americans sleep in the streets each night. Regardless of who was bragging about the health of the American economy prior to the coronavirus crisis, these numbers were accurate, and the dissatisfaction of many Americans with their economic and financial situation remains palpable.
If the level of obscene inequality was not a sufficient reason, numerous laws passed by Congress have been written by lobbyists for banks, oil companies and other special interests for decades. This stranglehold of special interests over the government has no equivalent in Western democracies. In this context, we can excuse some Sanders supporters for being a little more forceful and uncompromising.
The vast majority of Sanders supporters will vote for Biden in November, but will not do so with a cheerful heart. Now that the coronavirus is wreaking havoc on the United States and making the appeal to create a universal health care system more attractive, it remains to be seen whether Biden will yield more ground to the party’s left wing, with Sanders and another former Democratic presidential candidate, Elizabeth Warren, at his side.
The hope for a more united world, for a resurgent welfare state within a more equitable and coordinated global economic system, depends in large part on the destiny of the United States, which has led a globalization effort focused on the reduction of production and supply costs, securitization, the flow of capital, and the extreme valuation of shareholders and private enterprise.
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