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Democratic contest heats up

23 October 2019

Millions of Americans hoping to evict Donald Trump from the White House have turned to the Democratic Party’s contest to determine their next presidential candidate for the 2020 election.

While Trump has been blocked from enacting many of his pledges, he has done tremendous damage from the Oval Office: detention prisons locking up immigrant children on the Mexican border; a trillion dollar tax cut for business and the rich; a bullying foreign policy with trade wars that have hit the US economy; and installing a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, with the first abortion case slated to be heard next year.

This – and the fact that he gained 3 million less votes than Hillary Clinton in 2016 – should put him in a weak position. However, he was in a similar place last time round and still managed to win over a hundred million votes. So this time he will ramp up the racist, nationalist demagogy even further to rally his base and win a second term. The question is what kind of opposition he will face?

Without question, Bernie Sanders, the “democratic socialist” Senator who came close to beating Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primaries (and terrified the party establishment in the process), has set the political parameters of the Democrats’ contest. Policies that would have been considered fringe five years ago are now mainstream.

The $15 minimum wage is now Democratic policy, while his call for Medicare for All (extending the government funded health programme to everyone, not just the retired) and the Green New Deal are now the points of reference in the debate, with other candidates queuing to sign up to them.

The same is true of other key Sanders’ wedge-policies: student debt cancellation, union rights and hiking taxes on the wealthy, all nationally popular. This is not just the biggest field of Democrat candidate wannabees but also the most “progressive”, surfing in Sanders’ wake.

So far Joe Biden, the Democratic establishment’s candidate and one of the most moderate, has established his lead over Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, though the gap is narrowing.

Biden: Clinton throwback

Biden is a paid-up Washington insider, Obama’s Vice-President and a senator since 1973. In short he is Hillary Clinton’s successor. Despite his tagline of “middle-class Joe” from the Pennsylvania industrial town of Scranton, and his playing heavily to the unions, he is little different from the rest of the Washington establishment.

He supported the Iraq war, pushed neoliberal policies from NAFTA to the 2008 bank bailout that have hit workers so hard and played a key role in Bill Clinton’s law and order bills in the 1990s that made the US prison population the biggest in the world.

Biden kicked off his campaign at the Teamsters Local 249 in Pittsburgh with the President of the Steelworkers union at his side. But this was immediately exposed as hypocritical humbug when his first fundraiser ($2,800 a plate) was hosted by the chair of a union-busting law firm. Ironically, of all the main candidates, his record of voting for AFL-CIO union positions in Congress is the weakest. He has failed to sign up to Medicare for All and he supports fracking.

Now Trump’s attack on his son’s business dealings in Ukraine have exposed how Biden’s family have used his name and connections for decades to enrich themselves, from running hedge funds to sitting on the boards of firms. This dynastic cronyism, especially pronounced among the Democrats, with the Clintons as the model (Republicans are usually already rich), will hurt Biden.

Indeed the House Democrats’ bid to impeach Trump over his attempt to bribe Ukraine into investigating Biden’s family has to be seen in this light. Trump may have broken the law by abusing his presidential powers, but many voters may view impeachment proceedings as the Democrats protecting their own, which of course they are.

America’s second corporate party

The Democratic National Committee’s strategy of pitching to the “centre” and “moderate voters” failed in 2016, as many working class and poor Democrat voters just stayed at home, despite their repulsion of Trump.

Yet they hope to revive triangulation. They calculate that if Biden puts forward a policy only a few degrees away from the Republicans on law and order, imperialist foreign policy and a deregulated Wall Street bonanza, then sprinkle the most meagre reforms on top, they can blackmail voters to the polls by pointing out the alternative is Trump.

Yet Hillary Clinton lost using precisely this same strategy. And with a growing wedge of younger, more multiracial and left wing voters, it is a dead-end.

The last three Democratic presidents – Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – won elections thanks to union grassroots organising, but all three broke promises to reform or repeal anti-union laws. Meanwhile, at the state level, Republicans have introduced “right to work” laws, which have not only decimated union organisation but also eaten away the Democrat vote.

But the Democratic establishment, a prominent part of the US corporate elite, don’t give a damn about workers’ rights. They are there to defend America Inc. and enrich themselves in the process.

Many have pointed out that this should be a golden age for the Democrats. With a more multiracial, less conservative electorate each passing year, they should dominate politics. Trump’s victory in 2016 showed, however, that it is the Democrats’ status as the USA’s second capitalist party that is the problem. They put pro-business policies first, impoverishing their own voters in the process.

Not surprising, since s/he who pays the piper calls the tune. In 2016 four billionaire Democrats gave as much to Super PAC campaign funding machines as the unions combined. According to Open Secrets, for every dollar the unions spent in 2016 election contributions to the Democrats, business spent $20.

Compare that to the British Labour Party, which is overwhelmingly funded by the unions and individual members. That is the difference between a liberal, business party that subordinates the unions and a (capitalist) workers party based on them. Working class independence, breaking that link to the Democrats and fighting for the unions to initiate a new party of labour and the oppressed must be central to socialist strategy in the USA.

Sanders or Warren?

So far 19 Democrats have thrown their hat in the ring, but only Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have come close to Joe Biden at around 15 per cent (until recently Biden was polling nearly double that). For a while Black California Senator Kamala Harris stood her ground before evidence emerged showing her support for the death penalty and her reporting of undocumented juveniles to immigration. Like the other candidates, Harris is now pushed back to 5 per cent or below.

Like them her attempts to square her moderate record with attempts to keep up with Sanders’ agenda have failed to convince Democrat voters. Two more national debates in October and November will narrow the field, with the first state primary held in Iowa on 3 February 2020.

With Biden and Harris polling downwards, the (so far) amicable rivalry between Sanders and Warren has caused a major debate in the Democrat circles. Warren is on the up, pulling ahead of Sanders in the polls and considerably narrowing the gap with Biden, because she is seen as the left liberal alternative to the democratic socialist Sanders, gaining favourable press coverage and rising campaign contributions (like Sanders, mostly small donors).

But while she excoriates Wall Street and puts forward real reforms, these are in the traditional liberal, progressive mould of restricting corporate power, particularly that of finance, in order to stabilise capitalism. Against her “structural change”, Sanders emphasises the “political revolution”, mass mobilisation to force through change.

Warren’s policy positions have evolved to track Sanders, offering more acceptable, weaker versions of the Green New Deal, Medicare for All and union rights. In a CNBC interview, Warren made clear her differences: “I am a capitalist. I believe in markets. I love what markets can do.” She sees corruption and “crony capitalism” everywhere but advocates the same system, better rules.

The Green New Deal is a good example. Put forward by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (aka AOC) it calls for a transition to a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. Most Democrat candidates have adopted various cut-price versions. Warren’s is one of the lowest-costed at £3 trillion. It includes greening the military (!) and relies on the market to deliver. In her own words it is part of her programme of “economic patriotism”.

Sanders’ plan, on the other hand, comes in at $16 trillion and includes sharing new technology with poorer countries. It proposes to fund the transition by cutting military spending and reversing militarisation globally. Sanders’ GND statement does not seek to accommodate to patriotism, instead arguing for the need “to face down the greed of fossil fuel executives and the billionaire class who stand in the way of climate action. We need a president who welcomes their hatred.”

As the New York Times put it, Warren “is a team player who is seeking to lead the party—not stage a hostile takeover of it”. In other words, if Biden continues to falter, the Democratic establishment could turn to her to stop Sanders.

A working class party

However, Sanders has problems of his own. That some sections of workers in the de-industrialised “rust belt” of the Midwest respond to his attacks on neoliberalism and globalisation as well as to Trump’s demagogy is no problem. Any socialist candidate would try to win them to a working class rather than an American chauvinist outlook. The problem is that Sanders’s answers overlap with Trump’s – rejecting free trade deals in favour of protectionism.

And even though he now wants a temporary halt to deportations and an end to Trump’s raids on workplaces and communities to find “illegal” workers, back in 2007 he spoke and voted against a law that would have given millions of them legal status. He said, “If poverty is increasing, and if wages are going down, I don’t know why we need millions of people to be coming into this country as guest workers who will work for lower wages than American workers and drive wages down even lower than they are right now.” Even now as against more radical figures like AOC, he only wants to reform not abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE).

Despite his formal status as an independent and his claims to be a democratic socialist, when push comes to shove, he supports the Democrats. His appeal for his supporters to fall in behind Hillary Clinton in 2016 squandered the movement of millions who campaigned and voted for him. And even if he were to become president, he would simply be a prisoner of a mainstream Democratic Congress.

In short, he is not trying to build even a reformist democratic socialist party that would not only support him but fight for its programme from the municipalities to the White House. Instead he is leading his movement into an endless and futile battle to take over the party, seat-by-seat, state-by-state.

Another huge problem is his unblemished record of supporting US imperialism. In 1996 he voted for Iran and Libya sanctions. In 1998 he voted for the Iraq Liberation Act and more sanctions estimated to have led to the death of 500,000 Iraqi children. He voted for the US bombing of Kosovo, and after 9/11 voted for the authorisation for the use of military force that gave George W Bush the go ahead for the Afghan and Iraq wars. Though he voted against the use of force in 2003 he voted for the war and appropriations to pay for it every year between 2002 and 2008.

On Israel Sanders has condemned IDF atrocities but this has not stopped him voting for billions in arms to supply them with means of repression and voted in support of Israeli action in Gaza in 2014.

The material roots of his support for most of America’s wars lie in the huge arms industry located in his state Vermont. This is why he supports the F-35 fighter-jet program (cost $1.5 trillion) because it means “hundreds of jobs in my city”.

Of course “democratic socialists” in Europe also plead this as a reason; “jobs in my constituency”. In this way, in exchange for crumbs from the table of US imperialism, the principles of international solidarity are being sold cheaply. Marxists have always pointed out that the strategy of social reform rests on the wealth imperialist powers accrue from their exploitation of the natural and human resources of what used to be called the third world and now go by the euphemism “developing countries”.

What America needs is not some sort of populist makeover for its second big business party, but a new, working class party that can campaign for socialism, in and outside of elections; one that wages the class struggle in the workplaces, fighting killer cops and right-to-life bigots, defending undocumented workers and refugees.

That is why Socialists should demand Sanders, AOC and the other “democratic socialist” politicians break now from the Democrats and stand as independent candidates, pledged to form a new working class party. As long as they accept the Democratic Party whip, socialists should not vote for them. Doing so means voting for a bourgeois party and sacrificing the elementary political independence American workers need.

A new working class socialist party must draw in the millions of people of colour, trade unionists, and women who have demonstrated against Trump. It must also include the great numbers of young people who have supported Sanders. In this way we can also give new impetus to the current revival of labour on every front, industrial as well as political.

WORKERS POWER (US) organises supporters of the League for the Fifth International in the United States. Visit their website to find out more.

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