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Socialist Sanders grabs the lead in Democratic presidential race

Despite Trump’s red scare tactics, issue-based policies are cutting through with the US public, says LINDA PENTZ GUNTER

BERNIE SANDERS, the lone socialist candidate among Democratic contenders for the US presidency, is now the official frontrunner for the party’s nomination to take on incumbent Donald Trump in next November’s presidential election.

Sanders won the popular vote in both the February 3 Iowa caucus and Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, although upstart moderate Pete Buttigieg leads by two in the delegate count, pending the conclusion of a recanvass in Iowa. 

However, Buttigieg’s star may start to fade as the campaign moves to more diverse states like Nevada and South Carolina where the 38-year-old mayor could struggle to win minority support.

Sanders prefers the term “democratic socialist” to describe his politics, but his opponents on all sides are eager to stigmatise him for what they see as his “far-left” views. (Although running on the Democratic ticket, Sanders serves as an Independent in the US Senate.)

During his February 4 State of the Union address, Trump warned that “socialism destroys nations” and that Democratic legislators were plotting “a socialist takeover of our healthcare system.”

Two days earlier, Trump had called Sanders a “communist” during a television interview on the right-wing Fox network.

Last October, the Republican National Committee (RNC) set up a Victims of Socialism website, warning that “2020 Democrats are obsessed with bringing socialism to America” and “are offering ‘free’ everything, from government-run healthcare to free college for all.” 

Yet, while the Republican Party seems genuinely frightened that Sanders, if he wins the Democratic nomination, could topple Trump next November, the Brahmins inside the Democratic Party elite are equally terrified that a socialist nominee would be unelectable. 

Enter members of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), who thought they had all but anointed former US vice-president Joe Biden as the party heir apparent. 

Now, with dismal results for Biden in the first two state contests, the DNC is preparing, as it did successfully in 2016, to “sabotage a Sanders nomination,” writes journalist Kevin Gosztola on the progressive news site The Grayzone. 

The DNC, Gosztola says, is “foisting a collection of neoliberal and imperialist hacks” to serve on the Democratic National Convention nominating committee, many of them “vocal opponents” of Sanders during his 2016 run. 

This could rig the nominating process at the convention, with more than 700 superdelegates who would not be obliged to vote for Sanders “even if he won a majority of pledged delegates in their state’s caucus or primary,” Gosztola explained.

The firepower to derail Sanders is coming from the pinnacle of the Democratic Party, with former president Barack Obama warning that “the average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it. They just don’t want to see crazy stuff.” (“Crazy Bernie” is, not uncoincidentally, Trump’s nickname for Sanders).

Hillary Clinton, still smarting from her 2016 loss to Trump, lambasted Sanders in an upcoming documentary, claiming: “No-one wants to work with him,” a slur quickly disputed on the debate stage by Sanders’s Senate rivals.

At last week’s televised Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire, the first question put to candidates collectively was whether any of them was “concerned about having a democratic socialist at the top of the Democratic ticket?”

“I’m not!” Sanders shot back, drawing laughter and applause. Senator Amy Klobuchar argued that “Donald Trump’s worst nightmare is a candidate that will bring people in from the middle.” 

Klobuchar’s surprise success in New Hampshire, where she finished a strong third, may bolster that assertion. But a moderate candidate could also, as in 2016, turn out to be the Democrats’ worst nightmare. 

A surprising 12 per cent of those who voted for Sanders in the 2016 primaries then voted for Trump in the general election, indicating that it is Sanders’s anti-Establishment empathy for the underdog that has greater appeal than left or right politics.

Sanders’s response to the socialism question during the debate was not to take it head on, but immediately bridge to the policies that represent it.

“The way you bring people together is by presenting an agenda that works for the working people of this country, not for the billionaire class,” Sanders said, before listing raising the minimum wage, making healthcare and prescriptions affordable and eliminating tax breaks for corporations and the super-rich, as further ways to reunite a divided nation.

The tactic may be working. Canvassers for Sanders have said it is these issues — not the definition of “socialism” — that most frequently come up on the doorstep.

And despite Trump’s red scare tactics, four in 10 Americans said in a recent Harris poll that they would prefer living in a socialist country over a capitalist one, including 55 per cent of women between ages 18 and 54.

The fate of a white-haired septuagenarian pushing a socialist manifesto has, for the 78-year-old Sanders, summoned a similar barrage of unfounded accusations to those faced by his British counterpart, Labour leader and socialist Jeremy Corbyn, who is 70.

Despite being Jewish, Sanders has been labelled anti-semitic, because, like Corbyn, he supports a Palestinian state. 

“Bernie Sanders may be ethnically Jewish, but his campaign is rapidly turning out to be the most anti-semitic in decades,” crowed the right-wing Washington Examiner.

The press attacks on Sanders have been less vicious than the fusillades faced by Corbyn, although the media was quick to sound the death knell of the Sanders candidacy after his October 2019 heart attack. Instead, Sanders and his campaign came back with renewed vigour.

On the positive side, Sanders, like Corbyn, attracts the enthusiastic support of young people. The dynamic youth-led Sunrise Movement, formed with one goal in mind — to push a Green New Deal through Congress — endorsed Sanders in January. 

“We are not looking to the right or left. We look forward,” says the Sunrise Movement website. What they may now be able to look forward to is a Sanders presidency.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the curator and editor of Beyond Nuclear International and the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear. Beyond Nuclear is a Maryland-based non-profit membership organisation.


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