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Bernie Sanders: the radical moment has begun

by Paul Mason

Even Lebanon voted for Bernie Sanders. As I write, the small rural upmarket Grafton County, NH has Sanders beating Clinton by 32 per cent. The county is 94 per cent white, 3 per cent Asian, 1.8 per cent Hispanic and 0.9 per cent Black. It’s middle-class white America and they voted, on a large turnout, for the first serious left-wing candidate in the history of the Democratic Party.

What does it mean? Quite simply that the radical progressive sentiment that’s swept Greece, Spain, Scotland and the British Labour movement has now hit America. It’s the same basic pattern: protest movements against austerity and financial power in 2011 were heavily repressed. They did not peter out, but simply worked their way into mass consciousness.

The unequal global recovery did the rest. That and the sight of political elites revelling in the rising inequality that results from sustaining growth through printing money. Oh, and the abject failure of the West’s expeditionary warfare doctrines, which have produced — in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya — four spectacularly failing states.

In Spain, so entrenched was the elite culture in politics, that the alternative had to come out of nowhere — in the form of Podemos and the En Comu community activist movements that now control three major cities and 20 per cent of the vote.

In Greece it came via an old political formation — Syriza — newly infused with protesters and disaffected social democrats. In Britain it’s flowing through many conduits: the tens of thousands of pro-independence left-wing Scots who flooded into the SNP after the failed referendum, the millions who made Ukip the third largest party by share of the vote in 2015; and the hundreds of thousands of people who joined Labour to support Corbyn.

In the USA it’s going to work out differently. US politics is now — despite a bunch of rigmarole dating from the era of Meet Me In St Louis — highly networked. What we saw in NH was effectively a swarm — with new voters, young activists and middle-class older voters — responding to an effective media campaign by Sanders: switching and swarming to achieve last night’s result.

Sanders — like Syriza and Corbyn— is a known quantity. His politics are clear and actually have deep roots in US culture: a mix of Keynesian economics, America-first trade policy, opposition to expeditionary warfare, critical support for Israel, legalising 11m undocumented migrants while restricting future migrant flows through visa reforms, and a universal healthcare system.

What’s put him on a roll — both in Iowa and New Hampshire — is simple: the failure of elite control in the Democratic Party. A whole host of candidates could have bridged the gap between Sanders and Hillary Clinton, offering greater choice. The list is long, if admittedly non-spectacular, of people to the left of Clinton, or with reputations less encumbered, but for some reason the entire Democrat establishment assumed that, if everyone withdrew, it would be a shoo-in for the former First Lady.

So now the Democrat establishment faces two choices: throw everything at Sanders — detaching itself from the mass base of enthusiastic support; or hedge its bets by filtering resources, experts and cautious public support in return for pledges to moderate his platform if selected. With Trump himself having won big in the Granite State, the prospect of a Sanders v Trump race will almost certainly tempt a third establishment candidate like Mike Bloomberg to run.

Two things make a potential Sanders nomination unique. First, when Corbyn took over Labour, it was a signal moment of panic for the UK establishment: it understood for the first time since George Lansbury left office in 1936 that the party was no longer under establishment control. In the USA the Democratic Party is far more amorphous as a political machine, because of the federal system and powerful local governments. It can, I think, tolerate Sanders as a figurehead in a way Labour and the PLP have found it hard to tolerate Corbyn.

The second thing is, America is a country big enough to enact Sanders’ programme with ease. There is no European Central Bank to stage what looked to many in Europe like a financial coup; no bond market big enough to stage a run on Treasuries at the promise of higher debt and public spending; no military power capable of bullying it into submission. Sure, there is a bunch of mad-as-hell militia types on the populist right, but a Sanders nomination would actually appeal to their sense of fair play.

What we are seeing all over the developed world is the detachment of ordinary voters from an entrenched, increasingly hereditary elite, wedded to high finance and high inequality.

Weirdly, what New Hampshire showed, is that the elite’s head office — the haut Democratic networks of the east coast — has very few defence mechanisms against the radical surge. Above all, unlike in Britain, Spain and Greece, it cannot rely on the much of the established media to destroy Sanders because the broadcast media long ago destroyed its own credibility by becoming a self-imitating entertainment circus; and because, well, the internet.

It’s by no means over. There’s the unions, there are the powerful city mayors. There is identity politics, which in America can break towards the establishment as much as the challenger.

But on both the left and right of American politics, the radical moment has begun.

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