“The movement inspired by Sanders has shifted the centre of political gravity leftwards & the COVID crisis has added urgency to the need for change.”Steve Howell
As Joe Biden embarks on his presidency, the ideas and policies promoted by Bernie Sanders are a benchmark against which millions will judge him writes Steve Howell.
This time two years ago, the idea that both the White House and Downing Street could be occupied by socialist leaders seemed a stretch but plausible.
In the United States, Bernie Sanders had launched his second bid for the Democratic presidential nomination with polls showing he would beat Donald Trump comfortably.
In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn was neck and neck with the Tories in the polls, having led Labour to its best vote for twenty years in the 2017 general election.
But in both countries, desperate centrists – backed by the media – pulled all the stops out to thwart those hopes. This side of the Atlantic their subterfuge and trickery resulted in a Tory administration that has sunk to new depths of nepotism and negligence.
For Sanders supporters, anger at the manoeuvres that stopped their candidate winning the nomination is tempered by the pleasure of seeing the back of Donald Trump and the opportunity to hold Joe Biden to progressive commitments in the Democratic election platform.
Socialists in the US are understandably sceptical about Biden. And who can blame them when, in 2019, he promised rich donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” if he was president. But the political mood is different now – the movement inspired by Sanders has shifted the centre of political gravity leftwards and the COVID crisis has added urgency to the need for change.
On no issue is this clearer than healthcare. Since Sanders made the issue central to his 2016 campaign, polls have consistently given majority support to a system in which all Americans would get their insurance from a single government plan.[i]
Now, Sanders is using his new position as chair of the powerful Senate Budget Committee to put Biden and centrists on the spot by pushing for Medicare For All on an emergency, temporary basis.
His Health Care Emergency Guarantee Act (HCEGA) would guarantee everyone – regardless of employment, immigration or insurance status – the healthcare they need during the pandemic, including free testing, vaccines and treatment.
The move comes with a warning from Sanders that the Democrats will lose control of Congress in the midterms if they don’t follow what he calls an “aggressive working-class agenda”.
Recalling what happened after the victories of Bill Clinton in 1992 and Barack Obama in 2008, he says: “In 1994, Democrats in power lost big because they were not bold. In 2010, it happened again. If we do not take aggressive action now to protect working families, it will happen in 2022.”
Sanders has always been good at shifting opinion by focusing on a small number of big issues. Critics of his campaigns used to deride the fact that all his speeches were so similar, always built around a repetition of his policies on a handful of core issues.
What those detractors didn’t appreciate was that his speeches were tailored to people who were too busy making ends meet to worry about the minutiae that fascinates professional pundits. He treated his rallies as his one chance to tell people clearly where he stood, unmediated by hostile commentators.
But, while Sanders remains one of the giants of US politics, he is far from being a one-man band. The whole ethos of his campaigns – embodied in the slogan ‘NotMe.Us.’ – was to build a mass movement and encourage new leaders to come forward.
OurRevolution, the organisation he launched after the 2016 campaign, is now a formidable force at grassroots level across the US. In parallel, Justice Democrats has raised huge sums to support progressive candidates for Congress, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has seen its membership grow from less than 10,000 five years ago to more than 85,000 now.
Socialism is now talked about in the US in a way not seen since the New Deal era. In the presidential election, this became something of a pantomime when Trump repeatedly said Biden was a socialist provoking Obama to go out on the stump saying, ‘Oh no he’s not’.
But even that farce must make people think that socialism can’t be so bad if it is about providing Medicare For All, creating good jobs, a $15 minimum wage, tackling climate change, cancelling student debt and stopping endless wars.
Biden won the election on a massive surge in support from working class voters. If you convert the New York Times exit poll into votes, more than 63 million of Biden’s 81 million votes came from households with a combined income below $100,000 – that was nearly 16 million more than Trump and 18 million more than Hillary Clinton achieved in 2016.
Trump, on the other hand, fared far better with well-off voters. He beat Biden by 54% to 43% (or by five million votes) among people from households with an income of more than $100,000 – having narrowly lost to Clinton in that category in 2016.
In other words, the Democrats fared far better among working class voters than in 2016. They turned out in their tens of millions for Biden, while Trump relied more than in 2016 on those who had benefited from his tax cuts.
Democrats need to heed the message in the voting numbers. If they want to win in the midterms, they really do – as Sanders says – have to deliver now to those who gave Biden victory.
They should, of course, do that anyway. But, as in Britain, centrists won’t implement progressive policies merely because they’re the right thing to do – they have to be shown that there is also an electoral payback.
The oddity on this side of the Atlantic is that Keir Starmer has now gone for the most electorally unattractive combination – he’s viewed by many Remainers as having betrayed them, while also abandoning the economic and social policies that are known to be popular in ‘left behind’ Leave areas.
Starmer needs to learn from Biden’s electoral success. While he has suspended Corbyn, his counterpart got to the White House by working with Sanders and letting him campaign on an “aggressive working-class agenda”. You never know, perhaps the penny will drop before 2024 General Election.
- Steve Howell was Labour’s deputy director of strategy and communications in 2017 and is the author of Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics. His second novel, Collateral Damage, will be published in the spring.
- He will be speaking at a Labour Outlook forum at 2pm on February 20 on Why socialists can’t leave Labour to the centrists & should unite to build resistance to the Tories – register & info here.