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The Bernie Sanders campaign is over, but the fault lines of US politics have changed

Bernie Sanders announcing that he is dropping out of the Democratic primary race, April 8, 2020

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Brian Cahn/Zuma Press/PA Images

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the US election looked to be the defining event of 2020.

Would Donald Trump win a second term, and scale up his xenophobia and religious bigotry in a similar fashion to how Modi has done since reelection in India? Would former Vice-President Joe Biden overcome poor performances on the debate stage to mount a credible challenge for the White House? Would Bernie Sanders, riding on a wave of electrified first-time voters, become the first self-proclaimed democratic socialist to enter the Oval Office?

These were the questions whose answers would set the tone of a new decade; and while rightly sidelined by the catastrophe currently sweeping to all corners of the globe – now more than ever, politics must not be forgotten.

It was Milton Friedman who, in the updated 1982 preface to his book ​'Capitalism and Freedom', wrote: ​“Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around”.

Unpacked famously in Naomi Klein’s book, ​'The Shock Doctrine',​ ​Friedman espoused a “disaster capitalism complex” – the manipulation of social common sense at moments of mass material and psychological unrest to the benefit of his free-market doctrine – privatisation, deregulation and austerity.

And with the US stock market crashing harder than it did during the Great Depression, unemployment skyrocketing, and the US healthcare system, already the number one grievance of voters prior to the outbreak, now fully exposed as a hollow for-profit insurance machine, the disaster capitalists are once again circling.

Large-scale government bail-outs to big business are concentrating the influence of monopoly platforms, and further exaggerating the fusion of state and corporate power. Insufficient bail-outs to individuals (a $1200 one-time cheque in the US), without rent freezes or debt cancellations, ensure those at the bottom struggle, but profits resume their trickle upward.

As Trump locks down the borders, threatens to suspend the payroll tax, and promises to use his $500 billion slush fund to bail out airlines, cruise ships, hotels chains and fracking companies, it is only too evident that out of this crisis ​a pandemic Shock Doctrine is emerging​.

But even as this begins to play out, one thing is abundantly clear – in the age of the coronavirus, there are no more market fundamentalists. Pandemics are not solved at the intersection of demand and supply. The question now is not, should the state intervene, but why had it not prepared?

From the Tories in Downing Street promising blank cheques, to the Republicans in the Senate crafting a stimulus package more than twice the size of that passed in 2008, it is clear that the parameters of politics have shattered in the space of just a few weeks.

As Boris Johnson stated last week in a signalled repudiation of 40 years of Thatcherite neoliberalism, now apparently “there is such a thing as society”.

So as key tenants of the neoliberal ideology come crashing down around us, the question remains: what ideas are “lying around”?

In the US, the only comprehensive vision broad enough to tackle the scale of America’s current predicament is that upon which the Sanders campaign stood – the “progressive” left.

As anyone who has watched a Bernie Sanders rally will know, his stump speech always contained the same, ruthlessly clinical policy agenda: single-payer healthcare as a human right, reform the military industrial complex, free college, cancel all student debt, a $15 federal minimum wage, and a Green New Deal investment plan to create millions of good-paying, clean energy jobs.

As repetitive as it might have been, this consistency reflected the relevance of his revolutionary platform. Just as Roosevelt’s New Deal transformed an economy marred by the Great Depression, Sanders’ set of universal policies provide the only big-picture vision of how to lift the dysfunctional American economy out of its current crisis.

While Sanders dropped out of the Democratic primary, his movement will not end.

Just as neoliberal economics were formulated through decades of systematic preparation, from the Mont Pelerin Society of the post-war period, to the Chicago School academic exports of the 70s and 80s, the US progressive movement has formed a broad consensus from the bottom up on a range of issues over the last decade.

From social movements like Black Lives Matter, to climate organisations such as Sunrise and electoral machines like Justice Democrats, Sanders’ vision is predicated on a deep grassroots coalition.

This depth is unique in American politics today; providing progressive politicians with a foundational base of policies to transform a broken economy at every level.

From challenging the military industrial complex, to demanding a transformative Green New Deal, universal housing, education and healthcare as a human right, the Sanders movement shifted the policy parameters of American politics.

In our time of crisis, when fear becomes the adhesive and populism becomes the opt-out, the Democratic party must adopt this transformative agenda if they are to block the path to a second Trump term.

This week, we will release the second episode in openDemocracy’s new ourVoices podcast series on the US election. We explore how the discourse is changing in fundamental policy areas ahead of the November election.

Subscribe openDemocracy’s new podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Soundcloud.

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