US election - Sanders and Trump - populism's blind alleys

Spring 2016

As the presidential campaign is getting increasingly polarised in the USA, we reproduce below a large extract of an article first published by the American Trotskyist organisation "Spark" (Class Struggle, 18 January 2016)

The 2016 presidential campaign, is playing out against a background of more than six years of economic "recovery" - recovery in profits and an increase in the amount of money thrown into financial speculation, but little else.

The standard of living of working people continues to go down. The percentage of the work force with a job continues to be significantly worse than it was in the middle of the 2008 collapse. Medical costs - the single biggest factor behind personal bankruptcies - continue to climb. While increasing the costs that retirees must pay for Medicare services, the government froze 2016 Social Security benefits at the 2015 level. The government's excuse: no inflation.

People are fed up, not only with the economic situation, but the political one as well, after eight years of a Democrat in the White House, and six years of Republican control over the Congress. So, it's not surprising to see that two so-called outsiders, Donald Trump for the Republicans and Bernie Sanders for the Democrats, seem to be doing well during the build-up to the presidential primaries.

A billionaire in the Republican primaries

Trump, a billionaire real estate speculator whose companies declared bankruptcy four times, puts himself forward as a non-politician. It may be true that he's known more for his casinos, his television series and his womanising than for politics. But he certainly has done more than dabble in politics, having been a candidate for the presidential nomination of Ross Perot's Reform Party in 2000, winning primaries in California and Michigan even after dropping out. After becoming a Democrat, he then switched to the Republican party when he set up a committee to look into running for the Republican nomination in 2012. He went so far that time, as to issue policy papers on taxes and Social Security, two issues which he has brought into his campaign this time also. And he was a big financial supporter of Hillary Clinton in her campaigns, first as Senator from New York, then in the 2008 Democratic primaries. When later grilled about that by other Republicans, Trump said "I give to lots of people, hedging my bets as a businessman," but he also said in 2006, "She is a great secretary of state and Bill would have been a great president if it hadn't been for the Lewinsky affair."

Trump has changed his ideas as readily as he changed his parties. For example, having been at one time a supporter of women's right to choose abortion, once he envisioned entering the Republican race four years ago, he declared he had become "pro-life," a misnomer if there ever was one: this is a denial that women's lives and bodies are their own to control. And just before the first Republican debate this time, he rushed to criticise government funding for Planned Parenthood - a target for anti-abortion forces.

In 2000 he argued for a "single payer" medical insurance system, saying, "I believe in universal health care. I believe in whatever it takes to make people well and better." Today, he argues for a medical system completely organised by "the market."

Well, he changes his views. What does that make him, except a demagogue, trying to play on whatever works, whatever might touch the population he is trying to reach for their votes?

What is notable about his demagogy in this campaign is that he adopted some of the phraseology from the 2008 "Occupy Wall Street" demonstrations. Denouncing the "carried interest deduction," one of the financial industry's favourite tax breaks, he says that the 1% are taking too much money and that Wall Street bankers do no work that should deserve any tax break on their outsised income. "The hedge fund guys didn't build this country. They are getting away with murder." He proposed an additional tax on them.

He's played this kind of card before. In his 2000 campaign within the Reform Party, he offered a proposal to impose a flat 14.25% tax on the total net worth - net worth, not net income - of individuals and trusts with more than 10 million dollars, with the only deduction being one homestead. Trump estimated then that only 1% of the population would pay, while those in lesser circumstances would have a tax cut, with the balance going to pay off the government debt.

In 2011, anticipating a run in the Republican Party, he moved to the flat tax popular in Republican circles, but gave it the appearance of being progressive: with those under $30,000 paying a flat 1% in taxes, those up to $100,000 paying 5%; up to one million, 10%, and above one million, 15%, with no deductions, loopholes, credits, etc. He made a similar proposal in this campaign, but shifted all the rates down, putting the top rate of 25% on everyone making more than $150,000 a year. A couple would pay no income tax if their earnings were less than $50,000.

He puts himself forward as the only Republican who would leave Social Security untouched: "Every Republican wants to do a big number on Social Security, they want to do it on Medicare, they want to do it on Medicaid. And we can't do that. It's not fair to the people that have been paying in for years, and now all of a sudden, they want to be cut." His concern for "fairness" is called into question, however, by his warning to the Republican party that it would be committing political suicide if it cut a benefit to which such a solid voting bloc is committed.

Trump rants about Obama's free trade agreements, blaming them for the loss of jobs - something that puts him right in step with the unions. When he was in Michigan in June, he denounced Ford Motor Company for its intention to build a new plant in Mexico, saying it would "take away thousands of US jobs." And he pledged that as president he would impose a 35% tax on all vehicles and parts coming from the new Ford Mexican plant into the US. He also proposed a one-time tax on all overseas corporate earnings that have not been repatriated.

None of this makes Trump radical in his economic views. He opposes any increase in the minimum wage, for example. But it's clear he is trying to expand beyond the traditional voting base of the Republican party, dredging up a kind of populist denunciation of the wealthy, the banks and the corporations. He defines himself as the one Republican who speaks to working people.

At the same time, he has worked very hard to touch the traditional popular base of the Republican party, that is, those around the milieu of Christian fundamentalism, playing on the reactionary ideas that the Republican Party has cultivated for years in order to build a popular base for itself.

Trump distinguishes himself only by saying directly and explicitly what other Republicans say implicitly. When he characterises Mexican immigrants as street thugs and worse; or plays on misogynist views of women; or says he would ban all Muslims from entering the country. He may be more crude, but these are themes sounded by the Republican Party for years.

People were already acting violently on the reactionary ideas the Republicans cultivated before Trump came along. Before Trump, white vigilante gangs were already patrolling along the border with Mexico, threatening to kill Mexicans who cross - and bragging that they had done it. The right-wing maniac who proudly gunned down nine people in a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic, killing three, wasn't the first to violently act to prevent women's access to abortion. And in fact it was not Trump, but Carly Fiorina, who in the Republican debate dredged up the lie that Planned Parenthood was making money selling dead fetuses - just two weeks before the Colorado shooting.

George HW Bush's campaign turned Willie Horton (the black convict out on a week-end release who assaulted, robbed and raped someone), into a symbol stigmatising all black people. Bush may not have said it precisely. Trump may be more crass and direct. But the more "cultured" George Bush was just as base in his intentions. And the Republican Bush is not the only one. Democrat Bill Clinton made a show of rushing back to Arkansas during his first election campaign to associate himself with the execution of a black man.

Much of Trump's ranting about immigrants and about jobs going overseas is aimed at those working class whites who are upset by the lack of jobs, wages that don't keep up with necessities, the decrepit state of education for their children, crime in their neighbourhoods, etc., convincing them of a delusion already ingrained in parts of the white working class that it is "them," all the others, who are responsible for the white workers' situation.

By marrying his violently reactionary statements about Mexican people to a vague economic populism, Trump aims to speak to the concerns of native-born workers and lower middle class people, but from a perspective which is wildly against their class interests.

To the extent we can judge from what is said in the big plants today, as well as from the polls, Trump has touched a certain number of those workers, maybe only transiently, but he has touched them. The hearing he gets is much more from the lower end of the economic scale, much more among those with a high school education or less, rather than a college education, and above all, but not entirely, among those who are white.

Workers who are tempted today to vote for Trump will end up harming themselves because his demagogy reinforces divisions and even hatred between workers, pitting one group against another, weakening the working class, strengthening the bosses. Casting a vote for Trump is a way for a worker to vote against his or her own interests.

This is all the more true because the working class does not have - and hasn't had for almost a century - a significant, large party that speaks to the workers about all their concerns and problems from the viewpoint of their own class interests, the interests of the working class as a whole.

An independent/socialist in the Democratic primaries

By contrast to the Republican primary, where 17 candidates have been slugging it out, with Trump ahead, the Democratic primary quickly settled down to a contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, leaving the other four presumed Democratic candidates turning in the wind. Clinton is so far ahead today that everyone assumes she has wrapped up the nomination. But Sanders, without large financial supporters, without support from the Democratic apparatus, nonetheless has seriously challenged her. In other words, he too, has found the way to touch a part of the population.

Even the question of money shows it. Clinton has an enormous fund built up over the years, which she has used to support many other candidates, thus enlisting their loyalty to her, and many bases of financial support she can draw on. She hosted ten times as many fundraisers as Sanders did. Yet in the third quarter Sanders was not far behind in fund raising, with Clinton collecting 29.4 million dollars; and Sanders, 26.2 million. Clinton's money came from a much smaller number of supporters, but whose average donation is much larger. Sanders' money came from many more supporters: his campaign reports 650,000 donors as of the end of the 3rd quarter, averaging $30 a person.

It's obvious that Sanders has engaged at least a part of the Democratic Party's electorate, as well as many independents. He has done it by emphasising the enormous and growing inequality in this American society, and by repeating variations on the idea that America's economic and political systems are broken. He began the third debate this way: "I'm running for President, because as I go around the nation, I talk to a lot of people. And what I hear is people's concern that the economy we have is a rigged economy."

Often he speaks of the disgrace brought upon the United States by certain problems; for example, health care. "I want to end the international embarrassment of the United States of America being the only major country on Earth that doesn't guarantee health care to all people as a right, not a privilege."

And he focuses on the damage done to "our economy" by the big banks: "But at the end of the day, Wall Street today has enormous economic and political power. Their business model is greed and fraud. And for the sake of our economy the major banks must be broken up."

Sanders has made a series of concrete proposals on such things as raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, offering free post-secondary education, establishing a universal health insurance system on the order of Medicare. And - like Trump - he proposes to undo the latest free-trade agreement negotiated by the Obama administration.

If Sanders were to pull closer to Clinton after the first primaries, it wouldn't be a big surprise. After all, he has managed to find a respectable spot in the polls so far without spending any of his funds on large publicity campaigns. He has found support from some unions, and certainly from many union activists, and he has apparently brought a number of young people into his campaign to work for his election.

The question is: What does Sanders propose to all these people attracted by his populism?

A 98% Democrat

Sanders calls himself "an independent," and he refuses to register as a Democrat. But where does this take him and those who would work for him? Howard Dean, past chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said in 2006 that Sanders "is basically a liberal Democrat, and he is a Democrat at that.... The bottom line is that Bernie Sanders votes with the Democrats 98% of the time." He is part of the Democratic Party's Congressional apparatus, taking part in the Democratic policy caucus that decides on what the Democrats will bring to the floor, what they will vote on and how. And he holds one of the committee chairmanships allotted to the Democrats.

In fact, Sanders' populist rhetoric serves essentially to cover how traditional a Democrat he is, including most grotesquely in his consistent support for US imperialism's military crusades. During the 1990s, he supported economic sanctions that killed perhaps as many as a million Iraqi people. He supported every US bombing of Iraq starting in 1992 and ever since. He supported the US military build-up in the Gulf, starting in 1990. In 1999, he voted support for the US war in Kosovo. In 2001, he tacitly supported the Congressional resolution giving George Bush a blank check to invade any country he decided was connected to the 9/11 attacks, which was used as the legal basis for the war on Afghanistan and later on Iraq. In 2002, he may have cast a token vote against the possibility of a future war against Iraq, but he has voted for every appropriations bill to fund the occupation, bombing and wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. In March 2003, he voted for a "sense of Congress" resolution that Bush later cited as the authoriation for his war on Iraq. In 2006, he voted for a resolution aimed at Iran, similar to the one used to legally justify the war on Iraq. In 2006, he voted for a resolution supporting Israel's war on Lebanon. He voted for sanctions on the Palestinian Authority aimed against the newly elected Hamas government. More recently, he voted for a resolution supporting Israel's murderous siege of Gaza in 2014. He supported Obama's drone attacks on Syria and Iraq, saying only that if he were president, he would try to kill fewer innocent people! All through his years of Congress, he supported every other US military intervention, including in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Liberia, Zaire, Albania, Sudan, Yugoslavia, and Yemen. He recently called for freezing the assets of the Russian government, and for Saudi Arabia to carry out more of the fighting in the Middle East - as though Saudi Arabia, with its violently reactionary regime, would be an improvement for a population besieged by ISIS.

He is equally a supporter of the bourgeoisie's war on the poorest layers of the population in this country. He may claim to oppose the death penalty, but he voted for the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which was one of the most vicious in the long stream of laws that have helped to criminalise large numbers of the unemployed population, particularly black men. It is the same law that Bill Clinton recently apologised for, saying he had made a big mistake in pushing for it. Not only did it make execution easier and faster, it considerably lengthened prison sentences for the crimes ordinary people fall into and even for what in the past might have been considered misdemeanours. And it is the basis of the government's attacks on civil liberties in this country since 9/11.

He also voted for a number of bills criminalising immigrants without papers, and most significantly the anti-tunnel bill, which effectively can be used to declare anyone a felon who crosses the border without legal papers. He supported the bill funding electronic verification of employment eligibility - used not only against immigrants without papers, but potentially against any activist fired for union activity.

It should be no surprise that Sanders blames various trade bills for the loss of jobs - Trump does also. They both reinforce the bosses' propaganda that the workers are in competition with low-wage labour in other countries, propaganda designed to get the workers to accept the bosses' enormous push to produce more with fewer workers - which is the biggest cause of lay-offs and job cuts in this country.

Bernie Sanders may call himself a socialist. But in his November 19th speech defining what "socialism" means to him, Sanders started by comparing himself first to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, reminding his audiences that Roosevelt was called a socialist in his time. He went on to assert that Eisenhower could well have been called a "socialist," too (!), given that he continued the New Deal Programs established in the 1930s! In other words, for Sanders, "socialism" is little more than a way to make himself sound a bit more radical than other Democrats.

When all is said and done, Sanders does nothing more than reinforce the worn-out idea that the population can protect itself by pushing the Democratic Party a little to the left, this time by working on the Bernie Sanders campaign. At the end of the November debate, Sanders called on people to support his candidacy in this way: "In order to bring about the changes that we need, we need a political revolution. Millions of people are going to have to stand up, turn off the TV, get involved in the political process, and tell the big-money interests that we are taking back our country."

"Political revolution"? Based on what class? "Political process"? To do what? This is how Sanders answers: "Please go to Please become part of the political revolution." That is, become part of his election campaign.

Sanders is playing the role that others have played before him, especially Jesse Jackson - that is, they draw off the anger of parts of the population with a populist rhetoric, mobilising people who want to be active, bringing them into a long primary campaign, only to bring them right back inside the regular Democratic Party when it's over. He has already said he will support the party's nominee, which shouldn't be a surprise, since he has done that for years, ever since 1984, in one fashion or another. All he is doing in 2016 is giving the Democrats a vague populist tinge.

In other words, he funnels people right back into the same old dead-end.

The working class needs its own party

Sanders has a picture of Eugene Debs in his office. But it's obvious that Sanders' politics have nothing in common with what Debs fought for all his life. For Debs, political parties represented the opposing interests of different classes, which he was always careful to delineate, for example in 1900: "The differences between the Republican and Democratic Parties involve no issue, no principle in which the working class have any interest." It's that idea which runs all through Debs' speeches when he calls on the working class to build its own party.

The Democrats may speak about inequality in the society. Under certain circumstances, Clinton might do that as easily as Sanders does today. But the Democrats will never say that the workers' interests are counterposed to those of the bosses.

Only a working class party will say that. Only a working class party will propose that workers begin to address their own problems, fight to put forward their own solutions to the problems, fight to impose them on the capitalist class.

For the working class really to defend itself, significant parts of it have to know they are a class, with specific interests different from those of other classes - and with specific answers, different from those of the capitalist class, to society's problems.

There is no working class party in the United States, more than a century after such parties were formed in a number of other countries. There has not been a large enough section of the working class which was conscious of its separate class interests and thus the need for its own party.

But the lack of a party is also a cause - that is, with no organised political expression, the workers don't recognize themselves as a class. It is a vicious circle, one that has to be broken - and that can be broken.