11th Election Report from the USA:
The impact of Sanders’ left-wing populism on the US election

Published on 2016/06/12

The chances of the left-wing populist Bernie Sanders securing the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination are certainly slim. Nevertheless, his socialist slogans have had a decisive influence on the current election cycle, especially now that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are trying to lure the supporters of this self-proclaimed socialist.

Sanders has been quite justified in complaining that the way the Democratic Party selects its presidential candidate is unfair. After all, Hillary Clinton is only ahead because of the endorsements of so many “super delegates”. Still, the system isn’t about change anytime soon. Sanders is in the last chance saloon, clinging to the hope that Clinton will face prosecution over the emailgate scandal. A highly unlikely outcome.

Sanders has so far refused to concede, and he certainly won’t be doing so before the Washington D.C primary on June 14. The question comes up again and again: “Why has Sanders refused to throw in the towel, even though his chances of securing the Democratic nomination are close to zero?”

Sanders has inspired a movement across the USA that has so far had a significant influence on the positions of the other presidential candidates. Hillary Clinton may not traditionally belong to the left wing of the Democratic Party, at least in economic policy terms, but as the campaign has progressed she has moved noticeably to the left. Her shift is not particularly credible, especially given her well-known proximity to Wall Street and the heavily publicized support she has received from a catalog of billionaires and Wall Street banks.

At the same time, Sanders has had an equally significant impact on the general political discourse. Take the minimum wage: Sanders has called for the minimum wage to be more than doubled, from $7.25 per hour to $15. His absurd argument: “Increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour would reduce spending on food stamps, public housing and other programs by over $7.6 billion a year.” Although she doesn’t want to go quite as far as doubling it, Clinton has also called for a massive increase of more than 50 percent, and would raise the minimum wage to $12. Even Trump has said that he is open to the idea of increasing the minimum wage, although he has also pointed to the fact that the cost of living varies so widely from state to state that each state should be given the freedom to set its own minimum wage.

Sanders’ candidacy has contributed to a massive leftward shift in social and economic policy discourse. The reason: Both Clinton and Trump are now in a battle to find favor among Sanders’ supporters. Trump has repeatedly praised Sanders’ economic policy positions – including Sanders’ hostility to free trade agreements. Trump has also gone easy on Sanders, and has admitted as much, because he wants to lure Sanders’ voters to his side.

Above all, Trump and Clinton are fighting over the so-called “millennials”, the young voters who Sanders has so successfully fired up. According to a YouGov poll, 52 percent of US Americans are in favor of “capitalism”, compared with 29 percent who express a preference for “socialism”. Among young voters under the age of 30 this result is reversed. 43 percent believe that a socialist economy would be best, while just 32 percent align themselves with capitalism. In a recent survey by the Gallup Institute, an astonishing 70 percent of young voters under the age of the 30 said that they would be prepared to vote for a socialist presidential candidate, whereas just 34 percent of voters over the age of 65 would do the same.

Trump is especially unpopular among female, black and hispanic voters. He has explicitly targeted the white, working-class voters who are most worried about their future economic prospects. Trump sees himself as the “voice of the silent majority” and has tapped into the fears of those voters who the Democrats have abandoned in favor of the interests of minority groups.

It is clear that Trump lacks a clear free-market compass. He has a track record throughout his career of flip-flopping between free-market and anti-capitalist positions. During a hearing in the early 1990s, for example, he spoke out against one of Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts and called for the cuts to be reversed and for the top rate of tax to be increased from 50 percent to 60 percent (see Michael D’Antonio, Never Enough, NY 2015, page 222). Trump’s rejection of free trade is a major reason for the reserved support he is getting from free-market Republicans.

Trump recently declared that he doesn’t see the Republican party of the future as a conservative political force, but as a blue-collar workers’ party. In an interview with Bloomberg he explained: “Five, 10 years from now – different party. You’re going to have a workers’ party. A party of people that haven’t had a real wage increase in 18 years, that are angry.” Cuts to Social Security were a “big mistake” for the Republicans: “Cutting it the wrong way is a big mistake, and even cutting it at all”, said Trump.

In making statements like these, Trump is, of course, targeting Sanders’ supporters. But what are these Sanders’ voters going to do? Stay at home on election day? Grit their teeth and vote for the same Hillary Clinton that they have so passionately opposed and branded as a puppet of Wall Street, just to avoid a President Trump? And how many Sanders’ supporters will switch their allegiance to Trump, just so they can carry on protesting against the “Washington Establishment”? The eventual outcome of the presidential election will, in part, be determined by the answers to these very questions.

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