I grew up in India in the seventies and eighties in the shadow of the Cold War, and then in a world where America reigned supreme. The United States was synonymous with capitalism, and thus, for us on the Left, it was the source of an indefensible system that privileges profits over people.
When I came to the United States in the mid-nineties, it was what I largely expected — a country where a massive concentration of wealth at the top along with a thriving middle class had normalised large pockets of destitution and disenfranchisement. It had a population mostly apathetic to a political system run by two parties beholden to their corporate funders.
What was somewhat surprising to me, coming from a country with an organised Left, was how much in disarray and how marginalised the Left was in the United States.
Last summer, I overheard my teenage nephew in Delhi arguing with his friend on whether or not America would become socialist if Bernie wins the presidency. And I realised that in less than five years, thanks to Bernie Sanders, the United States had become a different country from the one that the world had always known.
It’s true that Bernie’s first run for presidency came in the wake of a major financial crisis and the Occupy movement which propelled class reality to centre stage. Movements like Black Lives Matter, as well, testified to a restiveness in the larger populace and did mould public perceptions to some extent, but the reigning political system was strong enough to absorb them.
But Bernie was another matter. His campaign tapped into the deep anger and despair of the wider population and turned them into an urgent demand for justice.
Bernie the presidential candidate, mobilising millions with the call for radical change, is a different figure than the Bernie who had spent three decades as an elected representative in the US Congress and Senate.
As an independent, Bernie never had the clout to move bills compared to a representative of the majority or even the minority party. He had the choice of voting his conscience while occupying the sidelines of the legislative halls. But he rejected that option, and instead, formed painstaking coalitions across the aisles one issue at a time and built an extraordinary record of successful amendments to bills.
The long list of progressive, meaningful amendments making a palpable difference in the lives of ordinary people include holding the IRS accountable for pensions, increasing funding for heating for the poor, prohibiting the importation of goods made with child labour, support for treating autism in Military Health Care, and a first-ever audit of funds given out by the Federal Reserve.
It’s remarkable that the amendments were often attached to bills that Bernie did not care about. He, for instance, strongly objected to the Affordable Care Act for its limited reach, but his vote was crucial to the passage of the bill. He used it to win funding for free health treatment for 10 million people through Community Health Centres.
The amendments tell the story of a shrewd politician, keenly cognisant of the balance of power and forging narrow paths for progressive policy.
There is of course also the other, more recognisable, Bernie who voted against the Patriot Act, the first Gulf War, the Iraq War, and who delivered a filibuster on the Senate floor lasting more than eight hours against a bipartisan tax deal which extended the Bush-era tax cuts and lowered the estate tax threshold for the mega-wealthy.
How has it all worked, I’ve wondered. How does someone who deplores the system, a solitary man who by his own admission has no patience for pleasantries, negotiate the halls of power without either conceding an inch of his convictions or becoming marginalised? We know how power works. Few escape the overt and covert pressures it mobilises to force dissidents to either break or get in line. How does one reside in the heart of power for three decades and emerge unscathed?
Bernie had little name recognition when he decided to run against Hillary Clinton in 2015. Then there was the matter of his outside status in a party presided over by the Clintons. Even that constituted a fraction of the odds stacked against him. It’s the campaign finance system of the country that made it almost impossible for someone eschewing corporate donors to make it. Bernie was the first high-profile Democratic presidential candidate to refuse super PACs and the influence of corporate funding in elections.
Could he have possibly known that the outcome of his call for small donations from supporters would steadily erode and then overtake the formidable funding advantage of the former Secretary of State? Suddenly, being viable did not presuppose having to be a party insider, nor did you have to ingratiate yourself to corporate bosses. The political and economic establishment was not that invincible after all. It’s a message that a next generation of progressives has taken to heart. That extraordinary feat (repeated in 2020) alone would ensure Bernie’s 2016 campaign a memorable place in US political history.
Bernie’s campaigns signalled a departure not simply in the manner they were funded but how they were conducted. He rejected the dominant focus-group style of politics – catering to moulding public opinion to match elite interests – and instead adopted the tools of mass politics, inspiring an army of volunteers to knock on doors, hold small meetings, and build a grassroots campaign.
Sanders travelled the country, absorbing everything he took in, especially in depressed and forgotten towns, and in the squalid quarters of megalopolises. He met with people who work seventy to eighty hours a week but are unable to pay for their child’s root canal, workers from Walmart, from McDonald’s, from Disney, from Amazon who can be fired at will, exhausted workers who had never known a vacation, mothers who were not sure if they could make the electric bill, families at the brink of homelessness because of medical costs, young people stuck at low-end jobs and saddled for life with student debts.
As Bernie listened to tired and dejected people across the country, he said he wanted them to “feel less alone.” He steered these conversation so they could see that it was not they who had to feel shame and guilt for their lives. It did not have to be this way, not anywhere, and certainly not in the wealthiest country in the world.
Sanders said he wanted people to understand that there was nothing “private” about their hardships, so they could say: “I thought it was just me who was struggling to put food on the table. I thought I was the only person. I thought it was all my fault. You mean to say there are millions of people?”
The campaigns addressed the despair and alienation generated by a system that thrives on human exploitation by invoking the power of solidarity. Instead of a politics of identity, his campaign promoted a politics of identification — fight for someone you don’t know.
We will not forget that Bernie’s campaigns were waged in the citadel of capital and catapulted working-class demands onto centre stage. Nor will we forget that after decades of unremitting attacks on the working class, the campaigns resonated with millions not in spite of but because of his embrace of class struggle.
We will not forget that young people in America decided they favoured socialism over capitalism!
The two Sanders campaigns transformed the realm of the possible in community organisations, in unions, in activist organisations, and in the domain of electoral politics. And for socialists, the campaigns served as a reminder of a cardinal rule of what it means to be political — we may have all the answers but we matter only if we engage the masses.