The current US presidential election cycle is set to be the most exciting in living memory. Outsiders have hijacked the primary races of both major parties in stunning fashion. While Donald Trump does what he does best, stealing the spotlight with insidious pandering, his left-wing counterpart is quietly rocking established dogma. Winning 6 of the 7 state primary races in late March with no less than a 38% margin against rival Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist, is no blip-on-the-radar candidate. That said, Clinton has enjoyed the huge advantages of name recognition and being the party’s official preference, and this, along with the promise of being the first female president, and a progressive one to boot, has earned her a hefty overall lead. A Sanders presidency is therefore unlikely, but what can his followers expect, if anything, to change going into the future?
Sanders supporters should not expect a progressive sweep anytime soon. This will come as a disappointment to many, who hope that his legacy will shift future policy discussion and legislation to the left – which they regard as closer to public opinion. In the case of his improbable victory, with the House and Senate still controlled by the Republican Party, and ever increasingly by their far-right Tea Party faction, the obstructionism faced by Obama, who is arguably a centrist, will certainly be amplified. The most recent manifestation of this is the Republican refusal to consider Obama’s appointment to the Supreme Court, the most routine of processes. Until the progressive wing of the Democratic Party retakes the House of Representatives (perhaps with a handful of Sanders-like independents), there will be little progress towards the Sanders agenda, and with potential representatives who share truly progressive values few and far between, this wait will extend beyond the 2016 elections.
Many tout the efforts of Sanders as the reason why Hillary has recently shifted her positions to the left. She has recently swung towards subsidised college tuition, public healthcare for all and financial reform (although not to the extent Sanders advocates) in order to stifle the Sanders campaign’s momentum. This offers hope to progressives by assuring that either Democratic candidate is on their side of the issues. However, the ideological shift occurring on the Democratic side of the primaries should be taken with a pinch of salt. Hillary is an infamous flip-flopper on her positions, provoking the likes of #WhichHillary to trend on Twitter. In the face of her rhetoric, she has tended to prefer more right wing positions, being uncomfortably cosy with Wall Street and leading the destabilising intervention in Libya as Secretary of State. Some have even accused her of a recent tilt to the centre in order to garner votes in the general election; seemingly confident she will follow through with her current primary lead. Hillary’s presidency would not bring the sweeping changes Sanders’ followers demand, and Bernie’s presidency doesn’t offer much more.
Despite the glum picture painted so far, Sanders has caused a seismic shift in the way politics can be done in the USA, bringing a truly populist campaign model out of the realm of fantasy and into reality. American politics is broken, awash with money from multinational corporations who in return receive political favours. Powerful factions include but are not limited to: big oil, big pharma, the National Rifle Association, the financial industry and the odd multibillionaire crony capitalist. Charles and David Koch, two such capitalists, run an organisation that will spend upwards of $900 million in this cycle alone, distributed throughout both major parties. They aren’t doing this for fun. In return, they will expect continued deregulation of the energy industry in which they operate from their chosen candidates. Contrastingly, Bernie Sanders’ average campaign donation is $27, and he rejects any donation above $2,700, in addition to actively stopping Super PACs (money collecting organisations) from backing him. All of this sounds like a bad idea, since 95% of elections in the 2012 cycle were won by the candidate who had raised the most money. However, Sanders has millions of donations coming from millions of ordinary citizens, breaking every record set by Obama in his 2008 campaign. He has raised more then Hillary in certain periods, bringing in $6.4 million in 24 hours after his New Hampshire victory in February. The upside of this style of fundraising is that he can choose his own positions and, more often than not, they are on the side of public opinion and against the aforementioned political players, which is not something many American politicians can claim.
The way in which Sanders’ campaign is financed has brought the much-needed conversation regarding campaign finance reform to millions of American dinner tables and, more importantly, to the news desks of mainstream media outlets. It taps into the lurking disdain the public has for the political class, which is seen as corrupt, unrepresentative and at points dynastic, while offering them a realistic alternative. His litmus test for an appointment to the Supreme Court is as simple as this: repeal Citizens United vs. FEC, the decision that allowed for unlimited political campaign spending. The man is passionate and serious about cleaning up political corruption, and has paved the way for future politicians to appropriate his platform to make real change. Standard bearers for this agenda already include public favourites Elizabeth Warren and Alan Grayson, and the rise of Sanders will surely rally many more to the cause.
A fossil of the Cold War in America is an almost universal and rabid hatred of anything related to the Soviet Union. The US has also succumbed to something its Founding Fathers warned against, partisanship. The Democratic and Republican parties have a vice-like grip on the system, and since the 1980s their views have drifted to the right. These two factors have posed a challenge to Sanders, the socialist independent senator, in terms of electability. However, he has remarkably overcome this stigma and his lack of party support. He has filled the vacuum on the political left so successfully that ‘socialism’ polls more favourably than ‘capitalism’ with the under 30s, and both poll equally with Democrats, according to a 2016 YouGov poll. This broadening of the political spectrum in America is partially owing to Sanders as a person and a politician. His record is particularly strong, from having been a civil rights activist in the 1960s alongside Martin Luther King to being a life-long supporter of LGBT+ rights in his home state of Vermont to his vehement opposition to the war in Iraq, making him difficult to character assassinate as he makes the case for his politics. He has also run the type of campaign seen in the UK with Jeremy Corbyn’s victory, shying away from even criticising his opponents while providing idealistic opposition to the status quo. There couldn’t be a less disagreeable political vehicle to improve the image of socialism in the USA, and the fruits of Sanders’ labour are national polling leads that are greater than Clinton’s against all Republican candidates, beating the likely nominee Trump by an average of 16 points to Hillary’s 10 points.
Regardless of whether he achieves an unlikely victory or even policy change, Bernie Sanders has restored faith in democracy for swathes of the American public. He is only the poster boy of a newly awakened movement, one that has channelled the electorate’s anger at an establishment politics that no longer represents them in a way that offers hope and pushes back against the rampant corporatism that has been ingrained into the political class. Sanders’ success has legitimised this movement, and by extension real left-wing politics in the US, and will continue to do so further into the primary race.