In Philadelphia last week, Hillary Clinton was confirmed as the first female presidential candidate to represent a major party in American history. At the same time, a much unlikelier bid for the White House officially came to an end. Bernie Sanders tested the bounds of plausibility in his race against Clinton, winning over 40% of the Democratic national primary vote. It’s hardly a surprise that Sanders — a humourless, self-described “socialist” of Jewish heritage — failed to beat one of the most powerful and determined figures in American politics. But the tremendous support he received is a sign of deeper political changes in the country.
I confess to have followed his campaign with a deal of sympathy, even if his imperfections as a candidate were always apparent. Like many others, I found his candour refreshing, how he eschewed pieties about god and family and harangued Wall Street in his Brooklyn brogue. Unlike Clinton, he was resolutely against the Iraq War, the single most important action taken by a US government in decades. His criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and gentle defence of the rights of Palestinians also marked a departure from the norm.
What really struck a chord with Democratic voters, of course, was his unwavering, stubborn assault on economic inequality. That tireless message left its mark.
At the most immediate level, Sanders tugged Clinton’s campaign to the left. His allies helped devise the platform adopted at the Democratic convention last week. Clinton took Sanders-esque positions on tuition in public universities, the minimum wage, blocking the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and healthcare. In speeches, she echoes Sanders’ rhetoric about the insidious role of corporate money in politics, even though she has long been a recipient of Wall Street largesse. While her husband Bill Clinton announced twenty years ago that “the era of big government is over,” she insists now on the role of the state in bringing “fairness” to the economy and in reducing inequality.
Clinton realises that the Democratic party is much changed from the party that twice elected her husband to the White House. Sanders’ campaign made visible a significant shift in political beliefs. According to polls, the proportion of Democrat voters who consider themselves “very liberal” (American parlance for left-wing) has grown sharply in the last eight years to fully one quarter of the Democrat electorate. In that same period, the percentage of those who deem themselves “moderate” or “conservative” has shrunk from over half the electorate to 39%. Given that Sanders romped away with the votes of young Democrats, it’s clear that the base of the party will skew further left in future election cycles.
“Progressive” candidates for congressional seats are already gaining ground. Figures like Jamie Raskin in Maryland and Timothy Canova in Florida are threatening to upset the Democratic party establishment. Like Sanders, Canova raised money for his campaign solely through small individual contributions, refusing to court the traditional elite donor class of American politics. As Canova told the New York Times, “Bernie Sanders could disappear from the scene and what he has helped to ignite is going to keep going on.”
A look back helps bring Sanders’ contribution into greater perspective. From the 1980s into the 2000s, the Democratic and Republican parties converged significantly on economic matters (thanks in large part to Bill Clinton and his “New Democrats”). New York and Silicon Valley blossomed, but in that same period, income tax rates were slashed, manufacturing jobs dwindled, middle class and working class wages stagnated, and inequality mushroomed. In the absence of great disagreements on economic policy, cultural issues like gay rights, gun rights, and abortion delineated Republican from Democrat.
That has changed. The 2008 recession shook public confidence in the prevailing economic status quo. The right-wing Tea Party movement pushed Republican politicians into previously fringe ideological territory. With the flaring of the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 and now Sanders’ unexpected rise, an equivalent popular and political leftward retrenchment is underway. According to the economist Thomas Piketty, “we are witnessing the end of the politico-ideological cycle opened by the victory of Ronald Reagan at the 1980 elections.”
What will take its place? Clinton will likely battle Republican nominee Donald Trump for the votes of Sanders supporters in several key states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, where globalisation has hollowed out once-booming manufacturing industries. But she has been reluctant to tackle head-on the main question bedevilling politics in America and Europe: How can Western societies, which encouraged a borderless world of capital and the flight of jobs overseas, revive the moribund fortunes of their working and middle classes? Sanders’ relentless and uncompromising answer — the strengthening of the welfare state — may not be the solution, but it’s considerably more promising than the racism and anti-immigrant xenophobia offered by right-wing authoritarians like Trump.
Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among the Stars: Stories and the presenter of the BBC radio series Museum of Lost Objects