Two opposing voices have emerged amidst popular disgust over politics in Washington D.C. – those of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. They have both received a great deal of media attention and have generated a visible public response.
It would be a serious mistake to dismiss Trump as a loud-mouthed clown. European right-wing parties, once considered the lunatic fringe, like Le Pen’s National Front in France, are now considered legitimate electoral parties. Trump’s campaign shows that there is an opening for reactionary politics that play on people’s fears and anger. He scapegoats the victims of the crisis, much like the Tea Party has done, appealing to growing racist, sexist, anti-immigrant and nationalist sentiments. But he also attacks the government’s failure to fix the many problems that people face. His rants resonate with many working class people, especially white workers, and those middle class whites who feel their livelihoods are under attack. His candidacy is a warning of an option the U.S. ruling class could promote if other political choices don’t serve their needs.
Bernie Sanders directly addresses some of the problems many people face and proposes what seem like sensible solutions. He talks about the environment, single payer health care, affordable education and ending student debt, increasing employment through public works, defending the rights of all workers to a living wage, getting big money out of politics and taking on the greed of Wall Street. Tens of thousands of people have come out to hear him, showing their discontent with the usual Democratic Party candidates. The National Nurses United has endorsed Sanders’ campaign, while other unions are holding off on endorsing Clinton in an attempt to pressure her. But the hesitation of the unions is also a result of their members’ discontent with Clinton and other Democrats.
The Sanders campaign raises issues for those of us who understand the need for a total economic and social transformation as opposed to a change in the presidency or the modification of some laws. He is popularizing the word “socialist” even if what he means by this is not an end to capitalism. This is significant in the U.S., with its pervasive anti-communism, and the fact that it has never had a labor party let alone a strong Communist Party. At the same time, he sidesteps a range of problems. His solution to the deep racism and other systemic problems of this society is to pass new legislation and to create new social programs. He avoids touching foreign policy, especially the role of the U.S. in the Middle East. He even supported Israel’s claim to the right of “self-defense” when it slaughtered 2,000 Palestinians in Gaza last summer.
So far he has avoided criticism of Hillary Clinton, directing his critiques against the Republican Party. While he continues to present himself as a longtime independent and not part of the Washington D.C. establishment, he is nonetheless running as a Democrat. As a result, many of the people who are now supporting him will end up holding their noses and voting for whomever the Democratic Party runs in the general election. The fact that he refrains from criticizing Clinton suggests that he may ask them to do so.
Sanders’ campaign is activating people like the Obama campaign did in 2008. In both cases the campaigns were launched in a period without big popular movements. The Sanders campaign appeals to a new group of activists who feel angry about the conditions of the world and focuses them on elections, reinforcing the belief that the capitalist system can still be reformed.
Those of us who seek revolutionary change cannot turn our backs on this rise in political interest. We need to think about how we discuss this campaign with those who are attracted to it. But we cannot call for a vote for Sanders. We must be honest about the nature of his campaign and its inherent dangers. We encourage illusions if we foster the belief that electing Sanders or anyone else would be enough to change things. Significant changes have only come about when millions of people mobilized and forced the politicians to give concessions. They have only come when the working class and other popular social movements have used their real power in the workplaces and in the streets. We saw this with the workers’ movement of the 1930s and with the massive civil rights and other social movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
We must be clear that the Democratic Party has been used by the ruling class repeatedly in the past to co-opt social movements and to convince people to put their faith in the capitalist system. Given this history, we cannot allow ourselves, or others, to be fooled again by the Democratic Party. Election campaigns can be a useful tool for the working class to run its own candidates and gain an experience in putting forward a program that addresses its needs, but such campaigns need to rest on a real workers organization not just an individual candidate. What we do today needs to be based on what will increase the confidence of the working class in itself and its considerable potential power.
If Sanders doesn’t win the nomination, probably a number of people active in his campaign won’t vote for the Democrats in 2016. But what will they do instead? Wait for the 2020 elections? Try to get better organized for the next campaign? Or work for an NGO that seems to address the issue they feel most strongly about? We can also hope that some of them will consider a revolutionary socialist perspective. How we discuss with these activists now might help determine what they decide in the future.
Trump’s and Sanders’ appeal reflect a massive popular discontent. But it also shows the lack of a visible and viable left-wing alternative, which could attract some of these activists, providing them a different organizational perspective, political program and a real sustained activity in the working class. We need to build a network of revolutionary activists who can lead struggles that show the working class that it can defend its interests. It is only if systematic work is done by revolutionaries, on a regular basis in the workplaces, that we will see the working class organize itself to use its social and political power. Otherwise we will continue to be limited to critiquing the policies of others without the possibility of demonstrating a real alternative.