In a conversation with one of my former professors this past summer (in the middle of July), I had predicted that the general election would be match-up between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. I think I am still right. These are two figures, which are so different, yet share the same feature: they are opposed to the political establishment, which includes the media, the big corporations/lobbies and most of the mainstream politicians in both parties. The establishment politicians claim they want to make things better for most Americans, when they know that this is not true, and that a thoroughly corrupted political system, which only pays attention to the needs and interests of the mega donors, cannot produce the kinds of candidates with the campaign platforms that are truly benefiting the masses.
In March 2015, Rob Andrews, former Democratic Congressman from New Jersey, had come to campus, and predicted that the final match-up will be Clinton vs. Bush, the establishment figures facing off each other. These are two rather familiar names, as they both appeared on the 1992 ballot, except that this time it will be the wife and the son of either of these former candidates respectively. I initially bought into the logic of the establishment, and did not think that the political outsiders will get very far.
How wrong I was. In the summer, it became clear that Donald Trump rose in the polls with his biting political statements, his sexism, racism, anti-Muslim, anti-Mexican, anti-Chinese hate speech. The more hateful and controversial his statements, the more political support he would get. The establishment first denied that Trump was more than a fluke, who would collapse as soon as the summer was over. But he kept on climbing up, and never came down. For a short time, we thought that Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon just as crazy as Trump, could compete with him until errors in his campaign made him disappear in the background.
What makes Trump, whom I regard as a modern day fascist for his crude racist and envy against the weak (Muslims, immigrants etc.), so popular? It is the fact that he does not speak for the political establishment. He claims that all the Republican candidates raise money from the big banks, big pharma, big defense, big insurance, big oil and other big lobbies. It is not surprising that they are all beholden to the big corporate interests. That was certainly the case for the union-busting Scott Walker, who was set up by the Koch brothers, but quickly dropped out of the race to save himself more embarrassment. Ted Cruz is the most promising of all establishment candidates, though he tries to portray himself as the representative of the Tea Party and the evangelical right. But that is being a fake outsider, because the Tea Party is bankrolled by the wealthy oligarchs, and the evangelicals under Bush were also financed by the rich, but were galvanizing the less educated, devout followers. Cruz or any other candidate for that matter would be nowhere without their megadonors behind them.
The Republican base knows this, and why should they continue to fall for this sham? Here they have a candidate, a smug, half-educated (though he graduated from Wharton), posh real-estate tycoon, reality TV star and multibillionaire, Donald Trump, who can say whatever he thinks without relying on the money of his fellow plutocrats. In his Facebook and Twitter messages, Trump emphasizes how he does not rely on money from the donor class, and he clearly gets the positive feedback from the Republican base. The rest of his status updates are empty platitudes, which ranges from demeaning his opponents or a minority, to “making America great again”- whatever that means. The policy implication here is quite obvious: the voters will not really get anything from Trump except empty rhetoric, more tax cuts for the rich, and harsher anti-immigrant policies. It does not put their kids to college, pay rent or medical bills, or give them a job, but they sure as hell will have punished the establishment.
Among the Democratic contenders, there is a little bit more optimism. Bernie Sanders has a true social democratic (though not really democratic socialist) agenda, i.e. making capitalism work for working class people (see Liu 2015). Sanders started with 2-3% in the polls, while Clinton had been the “inevitable” candidate with 60 or 70% voter support. She had the name recognition, which continued throughout the summer, because the mainstream media kept on accepting her as the inevitable candidate. But there is something very different today, and even Barack Obama had realized this in his 2008 bid. Essentially, the power of the internet, social networks and online alternative news media means that particularly younger voters have a much broader range of news sources, and they were certainly hungry for a political candidate, who provided better solutions to their pressing problems.
As the summer months went by, Sanders had reached 25% of the national voter support in polls, and was narrowing the gap quite substantially in New Hampshire, the second state for voting. Clinton was still 25-30 points ahead, but who would have thought that Sanders can gain so much momentum? Then something strange happened. The summer turned into autumn, and around September the poll figures began to stagnate for Sanders. Joe Biden decided not to run. In late fall, I began to accept the narrative again that the establishment figure, Clinton, will make the race. Historically, one might say that she deserved to be the first female president after the more charismatic Obama took the limelight from her 8 years prior. But let’s be careful here: no person has a natural entitlement to the presidency, and people should select the candidate that is best for the country.
On all political issues, Clinton is nowhere near as progressive as Sanders. She had formulated some progressive positions, but only after Sanders pushed them forward. When Clinton served as Secretary of State, she was quite supportive of the Transpacific Partnership and was open to the idea of the Keystone oil pipeline. When Sanders voiced his opposition, she swung against both. She told journalists that she “evolved” on these issues. She had no strong position on the minimum wage until Sanders took the popular demand for 15 dollars an hour, and she repeated the mantra but only 12 dollars an hour. She developed no clear plan for college access until Sanders pushed for free college tuition at public universities, and only then did she reveal a plan to “make college more affordable”, whatever that means.
To say that this is “evolving” on issues is just plain stupid. Clinton was pressured to make concessions to Sanders, and when she made them, she pretended that her previous position did not matter. For people on the left, who are serious about political change, this is a very bad message. If she is so quick to change her position like the color of her clothes (no sexual pun intended), what will prevent her from switching back to accepting the status quo once elected? In some policy areas, that is rather obvious as is the case for he unwillingness to break up the big banks (huge campaign contributors of hers) or to create a single-payer health care system (with big insurers and pharma backing her). Clinton represents the rotten core of establishment politics.
In December, I was anxious and checked the polls, showing that even though Sanders was narrowing the Clinton lead in Iowa while building his lead in New Hampshire, he was still trailing by more than 20 points nationally. In comparison, in December 2007, Obama was trailing Clinton by an average of 10 to 15 points nationally, so there wasn’t much time for catch-up, I figured. I was counting the days toward a Clinton-Trump match-up. But the latest January polls indicated otherwise. Clinton is now in serious trouble, because she gave up on both Iowa and New Hampshire, while nationally she only leads between 5-7 points. I think that national lead can quickly melt away, as Iowa and New Hampshire bring forward the political momentum. Now it is likely to say that Bernie Sanders will win the Democratic nomination for president.
People are feeling the Bern, as they come out to his events, see his social media presence and hear him speak on the most serious issues facing the country. Clinton is clearly a seasoned politician, but beyond the same-old, she has nothing to offer. We know why that is. Clinton wants to be populist enough to get the popular vote, while not being too populist to prevent offending the megarich donors like the big banks. We know that this has been the story of the Democratic Party. As income and wealth became more concentrated, the Republican Party became a rich-people party, while the Democratic Party wanted to fake it both ways. That is what the Bill Clinton New Democrat movement was all about, and that is what Obama’s hope and change message was all about.
With Bernie Sanders it is quite different. He gets earth-shattering small donations from voters, while rejecting the super PACs and other big campaign donors. With that structure in place, he could afford to offend the wealthy interests, and say what he thought was always right: break up the big banks, create a huge infrastructure project, tax the rich, single payer health care, free college tuition and a higher minimum wage. People hear that and they love it.
The pro-Hillary media establishment phalanx has tried its best to downplay the Sanders phenomenon. First, they had a blackout on Sanders. Second, they said that Sanders function is just to push Clinton to the left rather than be a serious candidate himself. Third, they tried to get Sanders to make personal attacks against Clinton, which Sanders never does because he only cares about the “issues”. Fourth, they hammer Sanders on supposed inconsistencies with his issues, but Sanders dismantles substantial attacks on his policies easily. Now that he is rising in the polls, these tried strategies don’t work. So now they are really covering Sanders, albeit still less than what his poll numbers would suggest. Mahatma Ghandi said, “First, your enemies ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
The Clinton campaign flips from calmness to panic. Daughter Chelsea Clinton made cheap shot attacks against Sanders’ health care plan for “dismantling” Obamacare, without mentioning that he intends to replace it with a more cost-effective and universal single payer program. Hillary Clinton tried to paint Sanders as a gun nut, which might be a smart move in a country polarized and shocked by senseless gun murders. But the strategy exhausted itself, because Sanders proudly defended his D- gun lobby voting record. Clinton then said that if the electorate wants to guarantee a Democratic president, they should vote for the moderate candidate, i.e. her. What nonsense!
The polling shows that in the key swing states, Sanders defeats Trump and Cruz by significantly higher margins than Clinton, contrary to what Clinton said. Why does that make sense? Political punditry should convince us that the moderate figures can pull more votes. Clinton is clearly the moderate politician, while Cruz and Trump are evidently on the crazy fringe to the right, and Sanders on the left. Yes, in normal political times this might be true. But we don’t live in normal political times. We live in an economy where only very few people benefit from it. Many are working longer hours for lower wages, while almost all new income flows to the very rich, making the wealth distribution similar to what we had in the late 1920s. This is a politically and morally untenable situation, and people have had enough of it. They need change.
When Clinton wins the party nomination she might narrowly win the White House against Trump or she might lose against him, and that is because the left-wing Sanders supporters will be so furious as to stay home in the general elections or even switch over to Trump to air their frustration against Clinton. Most moderate Democrats will continue backing Clinton, but the Republican base and many independent voters will stick with Trump. He is anti-establishment, and she is part of the establishment. Period. To show the corrupted nature of Clinton one just needs to look at Clinton’s visit of a family friend’s wedding ceremony in 2005: no other than Donald Trump. How much money did Trump give to her senate reelection in 2006?
When Sanders wins the party nomination he will smash any Republican opponent. He will have the left-wing firmly on his side, and most of the independent voters and moderates, who find free college and universal health care to be more promising than immigrant bashing and xenophobia. I think Sanders will even pull some of the Republican base with him, especially in the key swing states like New Hampshire or Ohio. In the case of Trump vs. Sanders, the voters have a genuine choice between two anti-establishment figures, and that will likely drive the voter turnout. The choices can not be any starker, because the one is a social democrat and the other is a fascist. A candidate of hope and a candidate of despair.
Electoral shakeup is the way forward in economically and politically challenging times. Democratic decision-making is hampered when neoliberal and oligarchic economic policies are the only tolerable mainstream positions (see my discussion of democracy’s decline in Liu 2015). Anybody who begs to differ will carry the most votes. Syriza in Greece; Corbyn in the UK; Trump or Sanders in the US. If even then, the political economy does not change for the better, then even more radical solutions can no longer be precluded. Let us hope it won’t get this far.