Notwithstanding the age factor, a heart attack last October, being a life-long socialist, and a defeat against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic Party race for the presidency, US Senator Bernie Sanders, 78, is enjoying a robust lead in the polls against other Democratic Party contenders Pete Buttigieg, Michael Bloomberg and Joe Biden.
However, only if he becomes the official Democratic Party nominee and also if he wins against incumbent US President Donald Trump in this autumn’s US presidential elections, both of which are very uncertain scenarios at this point, can Sanders hope to implement his platform strategy, which is a stark contrast to the existing way of doing things in the United States. Dare we imagine real change in the making under Sanders’s watch, and is the US even ready for such change?
Sanders solidified his place in the race when he won the Nevada Party caucus, and it was then that people began looking at him as an actual contender for the presidency. A 31 per cent lead against the other Democratic Party nominees puts him in a good position to win more caucuses and to gain further ground. He is arguing for radical reform plans and a socialist course, and he has engaged in a verbal onslaught against the Israeli government, things which will likely make or break his path to the White House.
Despite the sudden surge in his performance in the polls, Sanders has a long way to go. Buttigieg, much younger at 38 years old and the first openly gay candidate for the US presidency, is liked by many voters and stands second in the race for the Democratic Party nomination. Though Joe Biden is in fourth place, he hopes that having been vice-president to former president Barack Obama will stand him in good stead and attract the support of African-American voters. Billionaire candidate Michael Bloomberg may be able to transform the equation through his $434 million advertising campaign.
Sanders describes himself as a democratic socialist, though according to the polls most American voters say they would be uncomfortable with a socialist president. However, his anti-establishment rant at how things have been run has hit a nerve with many voters in the US, especially younger ones.
Sanders stresses the need to reverse economic inequality in the US because according to him the American middle class is disappearing. He champions expanding the social safety net in the country by a “Medicare for All” plan, a $15 per hour minimum wage, and tuition-free public college education. “I believe that in a democratic, civilised society healthcare is a human right. Government should make that happen. I believe that every young person in this country regardless of his or her income has the right to get all the education they need,” he has said.
This is an admirable wish list, but it will be extremely difficult to achieve as it may reshape the capitalist contours of the US as we know it. In addition, implementing his reform plans would add trillions to the already unsustainable US national debt. “Medicare for All” alone would cost the US over $25 trillion. While total student loan debt stands at $1.6 trillion in the US today, the government would have to find the money to pay for free college tuition. The US minimum wage for 2020 stands at $8.72 per hour, though some states have opted to increase this. But a $15 minimum wage would have a huge impact on all levels of business in the country.
Socialism falls between communism and capitalism: it relies on a socially owned economy that gives an important role and deserved equity to workers and unions versus privately owned corporations. A socialist US is something none of us could have anticipated seeing, but Sanders, a millionaire himself, dislikes millionaires and what they stand for and wants to see significantly higher taxes on the rich.
“The only way we will win this election and create a government and economy that work for all is with a grassroots movement the likes of which has never been seen in American history,” he says.
Sanders may also end up being the first Jew to lead the US, but he has not let his religion play a role in his political views, and he may be the only US presidential candidate ever to side with justice and human rights as far as the Palestinians are concerned. He does not favour Israelis over Palestinians and believes that the Palestinians should have a state of their own. He also believes that supporting Israel should never be at the expense of the Palestinians.
In fact, his view of the Israeli government is very telling. He makes a clear distinction between the people of Israel and its government. When asked about the relationship between the US and Israel, Sanders said that “to be for the Israeli people and to be for peace in the Middle East does not mean that we have to support the right-wing, racist governments that currently exist in Israel.”
While the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other Zionist lobby groups play an influential role in all presidential races in the US by donating millions of dollars to the nominee who will ultimately be the most supportive of Israel, Sanders has openly blasted AIPAC, accusing it of bigotry and vowing not to attend its annual conference, normally a prerequisite for potential presidential candidates and for in-office presidents. Then again, Sanders also lost family members in the Holocaust, which may give him a boost as far as regular, but influential, non-Zionist Jews are concerned.
Bernie Sanders is up against many obstacles and hurdles in the US presidential race, but if he wins, we may see a different US, one that is more compassionate and just to its own people and to others. More important then would be whether he will be able to realise the promises he has made or whether he will stumble before the many hurdles that may turn out to be impossible to overcome.
*The writer is the author of Cairo Rewind on the First Two Years of Egypt’s Revolution, 2011-2013
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly