The New York Democratic Presidential primary last month likely terminated Senator Bernie Sanders’ chances of taking the White House. Nonetheless, Sanders defeated Clinton on Tuesday in Indiana’s Democratic race, reviving hope of a victory. Though still trailing behind Clinton in the polls, his platform has found resonance with disenfranchised progressives, and could catalyse a new epoch in American politics.
Clinton handily defeated Sanders 58% to 42% in New York. This margin mirrors the 2008 result between Clinton and Obama in the same state. However, the preceding dynamics have been flipped. In 2008 Obama – then a little-known Senator and relative outsider within his Party – established an early lead in pledged delegates, which Clinton then worked to narrow right up until the Convention that elects the nominee. At that Convention, Party insiders and power-brokers cast their votes as ‘super delegates’ to give Obama a majority and a ticket to the White House.
he 2016 New York primary saw history repeat, this time in Clinton’s favour. Coming into New York on April 19, she held 194 more pledged delegates than Sanders. This narrow lead was precarious; her opponent was enjoying a recent surge. According to the RealClearPolitics national polling average, his support among Democrats had grown from 4% to 46% over the year ending 10 April 2016. He won seven primaries straight in the lead up to New York. Associated Press numbers have him averaging an incredible 71% of the vote in these seven states. It seemed eminently possible he might pull off an upset.
The New York result puts paid to Sanders’ hopes for an outright win in pledged delegates. On balance, Clinton is equally unlikely to reach an absolute majority hence Party supremos will once again decide the Democratic Presidential candidate. Unfortunately for Sanders, they decided on Clinton eight months ago. During August 2015 the Clinton campaign and a super-PAC called the ‘Hillary Victory Fund’ signed up to a nebulous agreement with the Democratic National Committee and 33 of its state branches. Under this agreement the Party washes contributions that exceed individual donation limits before passing them on to the Clinton campaign. Instead of the mandated $2,700 maximum donation, wealthy donors can each contribute $330,000. This sum is routed to the Clinton campaign as 33 payments from the Party.
Experts describe this agreement as ‘technically legal’ and a ‘grey area’. It is an untested application of the Supreme Court ruling on McCutcheon v FEC 2014, which uncapped the aggregate annual value of donations that an individual can give to a Presidential campaign. Perversely, such practices are not unusual. Nor are they secret. Political campaigns at the state, federal and presidential level are awash with untraceable ‘dark money’ that is siphoned through shadowy super-PACs. These huge sums serve only to buttress the status quo and sway elected officials.
Research by the Center for Responsive Politics, a transparency not-for-profit, indicates that political spending in the 2012 presidential election year totalled $6 billion. During this year the presidency, 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 23 seats in the Senate were contested. The net incumbency turnover was 8 seats in the House and 2 in the Senate. Put another way, each Federal office seat that switched hands cost the American economy $600 million. This illustrates how deeply big money is entrenched in maintaining a stultifying Republican/Democratic duopoly.
The Center for Responsive Politics describes this system as a ‘dollarocracy’ rather than a democracy. Unsurprisingly, the open secret that is legal corruption has destroyed voter trust. A recent report by the Media Insight Project found that only 4% of Americans trust their elected representatives in Federal Congress and 94% distrust an increasingly corporatized and prejudiced media. These frightening statistics are indicative of a political system on the verge of collapse. They help to contextualise the frequent refrain echoing across the Pacific to us here in Australia that Americans hate their Establishment.
The libertarian Tea Party is an oft-cited symptom of this hate. Hate is not hyperbole. Tea Party representatives twice shut down government in the last few years – and their popularity only grew within their movement even as moderate Republicans despaired. The Tea Party platform is politically nihilist, even anarchist. It is extremely unlikely this movement can garner mainstream support and thus the votes of unaffiliated independents. Worse, the Tea Party – and more recently, Donald Trump – provides a useful bogeyman that co-opts reform-minded leftists into supporting a venal Democratic Party. This has been the holding pattern since 2009 until Sanders put his hat in the Presidential ring.
The emergence of Sanders has given disenfranchised Democrats and independents something more constructive to champion than government shutdowns. As Celine Lau recently detailed in this publication, Sanders represents a new, grassroots phenomenon in campaign financing. This funding strategy resonates with his policy platform, which charts a new path for American political economy. Sanders has made the repeal of disastrous campaign finance rulings and the re-imposition of Glass-Steagall, the Act enforcing separation of retail and investment banks, central to his platform. This amounts to taking money out of politics and inserting regulation back into Wall Street. He is also offering the American public a radically different economy—one that uses tax policy to create equal opportunity. He has proposed closing offshore tax loopholes, a tax on financial market speculation, lifting the cap on taxable income past $250,000, and a range of minor business payroll taxes and levies. These taxes on wealth and commerce will fund, among other things, universal healthcare, $1 trillion in infrastructure spending, free university education, and paid family and medical leave.
Sanders’ policies are close to the Roosevelt’s New Deal: relief for the poor, economic reprioritisation, and reform of the financial system. The New Deal defined the divide between American liberals and conservatives and demarcated a more equitable relationship between labour and capital. No wonder these ideas are resonating in an America still shaking from the aftershocks of the Global Financial Crisis. The philosophical core of the New Deal is the development of a flourishing democracy, based on social justice and equal economic opportunity. Sanders has propounded these values consistently over 27 years in public office, to little acclaim. Based on the rock star reception he has received in a few short months, social democracy could once again be on the rise as a philosophy of the left.
For the last twenty to thirty years, the US and UK have been in the grip of the free market dictums that Reagan and Thatcher normalised. The progressive response to these calls for microeconomic deregulation, free trade and a non-interventionist government are embodied in the ‘Third Way’ politics of Blair, Clinton and – to insert Australia in the picture – Hawke and Keating. The rise of Corbin in the UK and now Sanders in America indicates the mounting frustration of progressive voters with these ‘centrist’ positions which, in many regards, hew much closer to neoliberalism and conservatism than progressivism.
Although Sanders and Corbin are unlikely short term contenders for high office, Australians should watch these developments closely. At the very least, Sanders has demonstrated America’s appetite for challenging neoliberalism as a basis for domestic and foreign policy. If the movement behind him gains momentum over the medium term, it could trigger an economic reformation in the world’s largest liberal democracy – and perhaps the industrial North.
Following his win in Indiana, Sanders told the Associated Press from New Albany, Indiana, “The Clinton campaign thinks this campaign is over. They’re wrong.”