Last Thursday, in a car-park in south-east Washington DC, Bernie Sanders spoke at what was probably his last rally in a campaign that has shaken the US political status quo. That at least ten million people have voted for him to be the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate is only part of the story, although that result was unthinkable at the start. The figure represents only about 3% of the US population, but the Sanders campaign has a significance beyond numbers. Like the crude populist Trump, Sanders connected with the deep political resentment that has simmered in the country for decades, but began to boil after the 2008 crash. This could be the year America finally begins to break from its political duopoly and rediscovers some if its deep-rooted, often hidden, socialist soul.
Sanders’ speech was like an A – Z of US injustice and inequality. He covered everything from Native American poverty and Black Lives Matter to drugs, mental health, student debt and the growing demands for a $15 an hour minimum wage. ‘H’ was for universal health care and housing, about which he said ‘we need to build millions of affordable homes and invest in public housing’. Housing is increasingly the locus of political and class discontent on both sides of the Atlantic.
The similarities with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn are obvious. Both men have an authenticity built on decades of campaign struggle. Like Corbyn, long before his dramatic ascendancy, Sanders was known as a loyal champion for social justice, including among tenants and housing campaigners for whom both men have provided a voice in the mainstream political wilderness. But Sanders, like Corbyn, now faces the challenge of moving beyond his movement moment.
For Sanders, this will inevitably entail confronting the role of the Democratic Party which has used every trick in the book to ensure that only the establishment’s candidate, Hilary Clinton, would win the nomination. The questions now are whether the assorted socialists, progressives and environmentalists who supported Sanders will vote for Clinton and what, if any, new political formulation could emerge if business as usual politics takes America back round the same old circle. One of the notable things about Thursday’s rally was the eclectic mix of people who were there. Like Corbyn, Sanders has been credited with reaching a new layer of younger people, but the demographics of support for real change in US politics is much wider.
Sanders came to the rally from a meeting with Barak Obama at which, presumably, he was asked to help unite the party around Clinton’s candidacy. In the face of the Trump threat, that’s understandable, but represents a similar reductive impulse to the one that habitually pulls the UK labour movement back towards the Labour Party. So far, there’s no indication that Sanders is going to lead a movement away from the straight-jacket of bi-partisan politics. The imperative of defeating Trump will prolong the Democrats’ support, but without genuine moves towards policies that re-balance gross socio-economic inequality, that support is increasingly conditional. The toothpaste is out of the tube and as an activist from Atlanta said to me today ‘there’s never going to be an ideal time to try something new’.
At the end of his speech, Sanders invoked the spirit of struggle that has brought every step of social progress in US history, from the emancipation of slaves and the 8-hour day to civil rights and gay marriage. As he said, all of those achievements appeared impossible ten years before they happened.