In Praise of Sanders

19/05/2016 10:58

Last year, the politician and firebrand Bernie Sanders put himself forward for the Democratic nomination and garnered a great deal of attention for his left-field platform. Dubbed 'Crazy Bernie' by Trump, he made the case - unpopular with economic elites - that whilst the 1% have never had it so good, America was failing miserably to secure a decent standard of living for the majority of its citizens. According to Sanders, as well as Occupy! and many highly regarded economists, there is an overwhelming concentration of wealth and power in the top 1% of the population that creates an enormous imbalance away from policies made in the common good towards those that continue to benefit the powerful. In other words, society is stealing from the poor to help the rich, and Sanders is Robin Hood sweeping us towards justice on his steed, restless to put the world to rights.

The stunning rise of Sanders, the left-wing competitor for the Democratic nomination, is hardly an anomaly. After the global financial crisis threw the repressive nature of the economic system in to sharp relief once again, anti-establishment figures rose up all over the place in Western democracies, with a politics pitched against the neoliberal oligarchy and its' devastating dogma of austerity. It's easy to see why people see Sanders as a brother of Corbyn, a cousin of Podemos, an ally of Syriza. His politics stands up for diversity in the policy debate, deftly moving the discourse to the left, projecting a progressive agenda that rebels against an America of injustice, iniquity and unsustainability. "For many", Sanders said, "the American Dream has become a nightmare" of job losses, home repossession, poverty and environmental disaster.

Sanders stands on a platform of economic populism. He wants to take big money out of politics, to create jobs and affordable housing. If Sanders and the Democrats are elected in the next election, Sanders envisages wealth redistribution - in the form of progressive taxation - between the 1% and 99%. This would bankroll a number of policies. University would be free to make it accessible to people of all backgrounds from across the country. There would be investment in health care. Public services would have more resources. Progressive taxation, public spending and nationalisation are being embraced as sound ideas once again as the Left smashes the Overton window - the range of ideas the public will accept as valid - to let in the light of its own vision of reform, squeezing out the toxic hegemony of neoliberal ideas, which shuts down debate.

It has been a major accomplishment of the Sanders campaign to garner massive public support for left-wing policies that for many decades have lied beyond the pale of 'acceptable' policy, and Sanders plain, approachable style has helped endear people to his social vision. It is sensible, pragmatic, easily understood.

Sanders' appeal lies in the combination of his sagacity and humility. Sanders joined politics at a young age. Until last year he was best known as an outsider, a left-wing independent who crusades against war and capitalism. Since becoming a serious public figure, Sanders nevertheless comes across as a modest man being carried on a wave of warm public sentiment. His campaign reflects a union of youth-led idealism with his wizened wisdom. Since the beginning of his campaign, Sanders has consistently won the support of the young, with the million student march for free education promising to electrify the student movement ahead of what could be a sultry summer of protest.

By combining the amorphous people power and direct democracy of Occupy-style movements with the organisational focus of a political campaign, something resembling a united front may emerge over the coming months amongst Sanders' supporters, to fight for his manifesto for a better America: one with a democratic system which serves society, not business.

Unlike Trump, this campaign isn't simply about Sanders' wanting the big job, but it is about the insidious, unaccountable nature of corporate power in America, its corrosive influence on political decision making, and Sanders' desire to take back the demos for the public. The essence of Sanders' campaign is creating a space where alternatives can be imagined - pause to think for a moment how the flagship neoliberal mantra "There Is No Alternative" specifically discourages debate about the absent merits of their policies. Sanders insists on the alternative to apathy and alienation; grass-roots democracy and civic participation in a vibrant and flourishing campaign. It is the best antidote to Trump: politics with a human face, not politics with cartoon farce.