Like many people in Canada I have been watching the American primaries with a detached morbid curiosity. And this last week in American politics did not disappoint. Bernie Sanders pulled off a stunning upset against Clinton in Michigan on Tuesday. Both of the outsider candidates in the Republican race, Trump and Cruz, continued to rack up primary delegates. The Republican establishment is in full meltdown mode, leading lights and donors of the party secretly met in Sea Island, Georgia to plot against Trump.
Clinton had one of her worst weeks. She easily lost the Miami debate, saw the re-emergence of stories about Libya and Honduras, that reminded voters of her hawkish foreign policy. She pissed off one her core constituencies, the LGBTQ community – especially affluent gay men – by stating Nancy Reagan started the national conversation about HIV/AIDS.
She followed that up by her bizarre response to the Chicago anti-Trump protest, which didn’t condemn Trump but cautioned protestors about using violence with a nonsensical reference to the Charleston murders. And on top of that it looks like her 20-point leads in Illinois and Ohio have evaporated.
More importantly, a different dynamic beyond the election has emerged. The anti-Trump protest in Chicago, which cancelled the Trump rally, has asserted mass politics onto the national stage. While Trump rallies have been met with protests for some time now, the scale of the Chicago protest and its ability to shutdown down Trump was a game changer.
The broad coalition of Bernie Sanders supporters, Fight for $15, Black Lives Matter (BLM), trade-union, immigrant right and student activists who participated inside and outside the rally managed to do what no one else has: shut Trump up! The protest was well organized, but it also turned into a chaotic scene in Chicago.
The energy that the protesters tapped into was the same energy that has driven the Sanders campaign. By making Trump look weak and beatable they inspired and embolden others to take action. His subsequent rallies and public appearances in places such as St. Louis, Cincinnati, Dayton and Kansas City have been shutdown or marred by interruptions and demonstrations. Trump has lost the narrative. The story is about the protests, about his incitement of violence, about his bigotry.
The Sanders campaign and the anti-Trump movement seem to be feeding each other, at least for now. The Sanders campaign has not denounced the protesters and has blamed Trump for the violence. Trump has in turn blamed the Sanders campaign for the protests and even threatened to send his own supporters to Sanders’ rallies. The political field is polarizing with both the establishment of the Democratic and Republican parties in deep trouble.
Within the context of the economic decimation of the working class various movements have come to life over the last number of years – BLM, immigrant rights, Fight for $15, Occupy – that have successfully pushed their politics and caused innumerable fractures in American political life. Both the Trump and Sanders campaigns, from wholly different places, are speaking over the heads of the rotting political class directly to the American masses.
The Sanders’ campaign, when it works best, is giving voice to those social movements, raising expectations of the working class and directing this fear, anger and despair against Wall Street, corporate America and the political establishment.
Trump is not just taking that same energy and directing it towards racist and xenophobic ends, which he most assuredly is. As Thomas Frank notes, Trump is also speaking directly to people’s real fears about job losses and about free trade deals that have crushed American workers. The underlying conditions of the polarization of American politics aren’t the words of Trump or Sanders, they are the very real material circumstances of people’s lives and the debate now is who is going to give political shape and direction to them.
Lost in Canadian Translation
In Canada, there has been no shortage of fascination with the Trump and Sanders campaigns. The former is viewed with a mixture of humour and fear, while the latter has captured the imagination of large parts of the left. Sanders’ campaign largely embodies what the NDP is perceived to be, a classic New Deal social democrat. But the NDP has tacked so far to the right over the last bunch of decades that Sanders serves simply as a reminder of what the NDP is not.
He supports taxing the rich, opposes free trade deals, he supports breaking up big banks, regulating the financial sector, implementing a $15 minimum wage, he has responded to pressure to and come out against police violence, he is against the guest worker program and he is willing to state he supports socialism.
Those within the NDP apparatus that are attempting to harness this Sanders phenomenon to reenergize the NDP, are with the possible exception of Gary Burrill, aiming at a cheap PR makeover. In this way the NDP party machine has more in common with Clinton, who sees politics as an eternal exercise in branding. Sanders is far from perfect politically but watching his campaign from north of the border shows how narrow our political discourse has become.
Those of us in Canada who are sympathetic to Sanders’ (or Jeremy Corbyn for that matter) message miss something fundamental when we ask, “where is our Sanders or Corbyn or party that expresses a strong left position?” This type of question guides people to look for quick fixes. Sanders arose out of moribund political expression on the left within a context of economic insecurity. The openness of the masses to more radical ideas was far in advance of mainstream political debate.
In this way Sanders’ rise to prominence should be seen as the result of political conditions that have been shaped by social movements on the ground (such as BLM, United We Dream, Fight for $15, Wisconsin Bail Out the People, Climate Justice and Occupy). Sanders’ campaign did not create these conditions but has so far reverberated them, given them political expression, which has served to stoke the latent contradictions within mainstream American politics. The Trump protests were significant because they highlighted what is so very true in this election; the masses are the real force shaping American politics.
Watching the American election is in many ways like watching our future. In Canada, those who want to shift the debate leftwards should think less about dumping Mulcair or changing the NDP and think more about building the movements and local left organizations that can create the conditions for a renewed and militant working class politics. If we fail to do so we are in much worse trouble than a bad election outcome.