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Issue #1750      September 28, 2016

Culture & Life

Bernie Sanders and mass action

Bernie Sanders, the independent US social democrat Senator, has been a left-wing voice in the US Senate for years without making much impact outside his own Vermont constituency. To reach a wider audience, he decided to join the race for the White House.

Bernie Sanders

As an independent he could expect to be almost completely ignored by the mass media. Most Americans would never hear of him or even realise that he was standing, just like the candidates from the Greens and the Workers World Party. So in a carefully calculated move he abandoned being an independent and joined the Democratic Party.

Initially, his campaign was treated as a joke. After all, the Democrats’ establishment had anointed Hillary Clinton as their chosen candidate, and she was funded by big business so what chance did an elderly bloke who had no corporate backing and talked about socialism have?

But as Sanders told The Nation, “The ideas that I was talking about are what most Americans would support if they had the chance to hear these views, which they do not under normal circumstances.”

And support him they did, as the progressive ideas he championed – healthcare for all, free college tuition, progressive taxation, a living wage and a complete rejection of the influence of corporate power in US politics and daily life – resonated with ordinary Americans. Financially, they could only afford to give his campaign small donations, but they sent in such a flood of them that Hillary Clinton’s handlers were moved to complain about the size of Sanders’ war chest. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!

“You could watch CNN for the next 14 years, and you’re not going to hear a discussion about the need for a single-payer health-care system,” he continued. “You’re not going to see a critique of the drug companies, and you’re not going to hear much discussion about income and wealth inequality,” Sanders told The Nation’s editor Katrina van den Heuvel and national affairs correspondent John Nichols.

“My view was that if we could get out to the American people, get the exposure, make the personal contacts, we would do well.” And he did do well, to the consternation of Hillary Clinton and her many corporate backers. In the event, Sanders won more than 12 million votes in the Democrat primaries and to secure his endorsement Hillary and the Democratic Party establishment were forced to adopt much of his agenda, making their platform in this election one of the most progressive the Democrats have produced for many years.

Nevertheless, his eventual endorsing of Hillary Clinton shocked many of his supporters. She is after all far from sharing his antipathy to big business. But as Sanders makes clear in his Nation interview, unfortunate as a Hillary Clinton presidency might prove to be, a Donald Trump presidency, in his view, would be an “absolute disaster.”

To gain his endorsement, Clinton had to go on record as supporting what Sanders calls “the issues of importance to the people of this country” which he lists as “things like free college tuition, expanded access to healthcare, pay equity for women, and climate change, among others”.

Sanders believes that, of the two nominees, Hillary Clinton will do a better job for middle-class and working-class families than Donald Trump, a conclusion few would argue with, although it is only viable if it carries a corollary that Sanders is all too aware of: What kind of President Hillary Clinton will make is dependent on what mass pressure is brought to bear on her and the leadership of the Democratic Party.

“[T]he day after the election, we will mobilise millions of people to make sure that we make her the most progressive president that she can be,” he vowed.

US commentators speak of the “Sanders revolution”, which of course it is not, yet. But if Sanders and his supporters really do start a movement to pressure the Democratic Party to adopt progressive positions on key issues, it is going to make events in the USA very interesting indeed.

Australian readers will have noticed that one of Sanders’ policy planks is free college education. The Whitlam Labor government introduced that into Australia but it has largely been scrapped since, with university degrees leaving students burdened with huge debts incurred for their tuition.

Education (including higher education) is free under socialism, but in many capitalist countries higher education usually involves payment of a fee. In Germany, Sweden and some other European countries, tuition is still completely free; in the UK, a degree at Oxford costs about $12,000 a year.

On the other hand, a degree from Harvard in the US will set you back a cool quarter of a million dollars. As former US State Department officer Peter Van Buren notes, “right now there are only a handful of paths to higher education in America: have well-to-do parents; be low-income and smart to qualify for financial aid, take on crippling debt, or join the military.”

Yep, so keen is US imperialism to foster the military that they will provide free higher education if you just join up. Given that the US is engaged in fighting three or four wars in different parts of the globe at any one time, a GI’s tertiary education is likely to be eventful at the very least (and actually fatal at worst).

What does it say about a country that it will use access to higher education as bribe to get people to join the army and take part in its aggressive attempts to control the world’s energy resources, trade and anything else that takes their fancy?

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