The politics of America are too important to ignore the Sanders Phenomenon. While it has no chance of succeeding, it is still a movement worthy of attention, if not sympathy. The 74-year-old Senator Bernard (Bernie) considers himself a member of the working class. In 1981, Sanders was elected Mayor of Burlington (Vermont State) as an Independent and reelected three times. In 1990, he became the first Socialist Congressman in decades. He served the House of Representatives for 16 years before being elected to the Senate in 2006. In 2012, he was reelected with 71 per cent of the popular vote.
In early 2015, Sanders announced his intention to seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for President. He became the first Democratic Socialist to win a US Presidential primary. Opening his campaign he said: “I don’t believe that the men and women who defended American democracy fought to create a situation where billionaires own the political process”. This was anathema for a party that had begun to depend on Wall Street Big Banks/Funds and Big Business interests for money and relied on their traditional vote banks — unionised workers, African-Americans, Hispanics and educated liberals — to come to power. The Sanders campaign relies only on individual contributions averaging US $27 from nearly 4 million donors. The tens of thousands that turned up at his rallies shocked the party bosses who had already rigged the system with rules and procedures favouring their official candidate — Hillary Clinton.
On policy issues, Sanders appears to be winning despite Hillary trying to outmaneuver Sanders. But she is constrained by her, and her husband, Bill Clinton’s, past 30-year record and her wealthy donors. What are the issues that Sanders supports that disturb the Democratic Party and Hillary?
Sanders called international trade agreements a “disaster for the American worker”. Millions of jobs were lost as big US companies shifted operations overseas and as cheap imports from China and Mexico bankrupted small and medium US firms that remained. He, again like Trump, blamed the party bosses, Big Business and the Big Banks/Funds for this de-industrialisation. Again like Trump, he wants to protect pensions, make health care affordable, reduce student costs, lower taxes on the middle class, strengthen the military, take good care of retired armed forces personnel and stay out of foreign adventures. They both think the party system is rigged. Thus, unusually, Trump and Sanders have a common platform.
On other issues he differs with Trump. Sanders cautioned against “Islamophobia” but said, “We gotta be tough, not stupid” in the war against ISIL. He would welcome Syrian refugees. He will regularise illegal immigration and considers climate change a threat. Sanders won 21 States and Hillary, 27. So far, he won 10 million primary votes; Hillary won 13 million. But Hillary got 1768 delegates and Sanders 1495. There are 712 ‘Super Delegates’ (15% of the total) who are all party bosses who can vote for whomsoever they like anytime of whom Hillary won 525 and Sanders, 39. That leaves 789 delegates and 148 “Super Delegates” left to be won. The Democratic Party bosses want him to concede immediately as he has no chance of winning the nomination. But he is still in the race and winning state primaries. They fear the continued contest will only strengthen Trump and hurt Hillary. They are also scared of a contested Democratic Convention, where “Super Delegates” may switch to Sanders.
The critical element is not the vote banks of White Americans, African-Americans, Hispanics and women etc, as such. The key to this US election is the 43% of US voters who are Registered Independents. This section, which constituted 14% of voters in 1952, has grown to 31% in 1988, 39% by mid-1994, declined till 2004 (32%) and from 2004 has risen steadily to 43% — currently outranking both Republican (26%) and Democrat (29%) voters. Why is this happening?
The weekly Rasmussen poll found that 68% of Americans think their country is on the ‘wrong track’ while only 27% think it is heading in the ‘right direction’. This is in line with the data over the past decade. The World Values Survey from 1981 has asked US respondents about their “confidence” in their institutions. This has steadily declined. By 2010-14, as for “confidence in their government” 14% voters say they have none at all and 51% not very much; only 4% have a great deal and 29% quite a lot. As for “confidence in political parties”, the results are stunning — 20% had ‘none at all’, 65% ‘not very much’; while 1% had a ‘great deal’ and 11% ‘quite a lot’. Of “confidence in Congress”, 20% have none at all, 59% not very much while 2% had a great deal and 19% quite a lot. Regarding “confidence in the press”, 16% not at all, 59% not very much, while 2% have a great deal and 21% quite a lot. With such low confidence levels in the most important national institutions, one can understand the basis of the popularity of ‘outsiders’ — Trump and Sanders.
It is possible that as the Democratic Convention approaches, the “Super Delegates” may switch to Sanders as he has a better rating with the public than Hillary or Trump. If that happens, the Presidential race will be between ‘Independents’ who are nominally candidates of their respective parties whose bosses don’t like them. This is an unusual election — will it result in an American democracy — ‘independent’ of political parties? Wait and see.
Gautam pingle is former Dean of Research and Consultancy, Administrative Staff College of India, Hyderabad.