How Sanders Exposes the Democratic Establishment's Neoliberal Underbelly

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How Sanders Exposes the Democratic Establishment's Neoliberal Underbelly

A view from abroad

A scene from inside the 2016 Democratic Convention for Washoe County in Nevada last weekend where supporters of Bernie Sanders made their presence felt. (Photo: Trevor Bexon/flickr/cc)

On Friday April 2nd, President Obama observed, in a gently scolding tone, that “people pay attention to American elections”, and indeed they do. The pantomime-like atmosphere of US Presidential campaigns has a frenetic and transfixing appeal, as do the gaffs and quips and dressing downs generally, but there is more to the drawing in of international bystanders than entertainment. The outcomes of US elections are duly noted and folded into the daily efforts of almost everyone on the planet to navigate a world vacuum packed by globalisation. What happens in America doesn’t stay in America. What changes America changes everything.

Certainly few races have been quite as revealing or compelling as the last few months of the Presidential Primaries. The increasing absurdity of the Trump extravaganza has focussed international incredulity to a point of high mania. Undoubtedly, mainstream political commentators did not expect Trump to get so far, but then no one expected Sanders to still be in contention either. Where Trump has become the media’s go to sideshow, Sanders has been maligned and ignored, treatment which has oddly, oxygenated both campaigns. The refusal of Sanders to politely bow out when the Clinton corner gave the nod has infuriated Democratic Party faithfuls, and ratcheted up antagonisms between camps from the centre to the far left and everywhere in between. If Trump represents some kind of Rubicon moment for Republicans, then Bernie is staging a pretty seismic shakedown too.

"It looks as though Clintonites are fast discovering that as far as the Sanders platform is concerned, progressives cannot have Wall Street and their equality politics too."

In one sense, Trump diehards are probably the least surprising phenomenon of the last few months. Whilst this demographic is not a homogeneous group, there is an anti-establishment pathos threaded through a varied collective. Suffering badly at the hands of economic and social reformists over the last 20 years, they have given over to the rhetoric of reductionism and fear, but who can really blame them? What indeed did anyone think was going to happen? The rise of populist leaders in the context of disenfranchised and impoverished majorities is an old and dreary story that we should all know well by now.

The more surprising phenomenon is the zealousness of the attempt to shut down the Sanders platform. The depth of Clinton’s contempt for Sanders has had a deeply destabilising effect, allowing a space for the full articulation of long held suspicions about the extent to which the ideological differences between leftists and progressives are reconcilable to surface. Since the 1990s, progressives have increasingly focussed their egalitarian spirit towards issues like marriage equality and the gender pay gap; the social justice concerns of the upwardly mobile. Of course in questions of identity politics these issues are as good as any other, but they do not a complete worldview, nor a presidential platform make. The contradiction that the Sanders campaign has forced into the arena is that, if you are more or less a neoliberal, you can ill afford to scrutinise too rigorously broad-based questions of economic justice. The problem is what it has always been, class. Yet instead of getting down in the trenches and grappling with it, Clintonites have gone on the offensive, levelling all manner of accusations at Sanders advocates. They are privileged, they are white, they are young, they are single issue, they are not playing the long game, they are impractical, they are irresponsible, they do not understand realpolitik and they absolutely cannot do math. This commentary has been so shot through with condescension, disregard, and a general tone (pardon the pun), that it could be construed as an attempt to filibuster a way to the start line. I mean, who needs Republicans when you have friends like that? These allegations however have not dampened the mutinous spirit. Sanders is still in the race and he is gaining momentum, stretching even longer the distance between leftists and progressives that at some point will need to be bridged or abandoned.

Clinton is a pioneer, certainly, and it does matter that she is a woman, of course it does. But it does not matter more than the fundamentals of a long and hazardous struggle for economic justice. Nothing ever has. The momentum of the Sanders campaign is a result of his open acknowledgment of the centrality of economic justice to the possibility of every other thing, and no amount of identity politicking is going to be distracting enough to obscure that. Feminist Andrea Dworkin famously noted in her critique of a left that would conflate pornography with freedom, that “the Left cannot have its whores and its politics too.” It looks as though Clintonites are fast discovering that as far as the Sanders platform is concerned, progressives cannot have Wall Street and their equality politics too. Theatrics aside, on both sides of politics, paradigm shifts look set to be negotiated in what might yet prove to be democracy's finest hour. As an international bystander, it is hard not to be captivated by that.

Aisling O’Donnell

Aisling O’Donnell is a Lecturer of International Development at Australian Catholic University.

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