The end of the 2020 American Presidential Election was as bizarre as the year itself, and that is quite normal considering what we have seen over the last 2-3 years with Donald Trump. However, the dust has settled, and now we have Joe Biden as the new President of the USA, all set to try and use his ability to strike bipartisan deals to improve American policy and bring the change he has vowed towards. But we all know it doesn’t work that way. We all know that America still is racist; it will still be bombing the middle east and won’t go much away from capitalism, and the division between the poor and rich remains. But it surely is better than Trump, right? Yeah, definitely, but why do we have this inherent tendency of settling for mediocrity when faced with a crisis or, in this case, a tyrant. Today I want to discuss someone who has been given all names like a communist, labelled as unelectable and well simply an anarchist. We can argue all day long whether the terms are rightly used or not, but no one can deny Bernie Sanders’s importance. If you don’t think so, I will try to convince you why Bernie is not just crucial for American politics but also the Indian political structure.
Bernie Sanders has been what we like to call more or like a self-made politician. From being a mayor of a city not so well known in Vermont to one of the most critical leftist leaders in modern politics, Sanders has most of the time been dependent on appealing to the needs of the working class and students to gain his political base. And that has worked so far. He has been Senator for more than a decade now and even though all of his Presidential runs have finished without him getting a nomination, his impact on American politics cannot and should not be judged through the policies he brings or the critiques he makes. When we say that Obama is the most consequential president in modern American history, which by the way is nothing but facts, we talk about his policies like Obamacare, taxing the rich, his immigration policies and his handling of the immigrant issue, and so much more. But the key thing we focus on is that he is the first African American President, which is a huge achievement in itself and has surely empowered more black politicians to gain higher political offices, point in case, Kamala Harris. However, his impact, as big as it has been in the issue of a shift in the political power structure, has been limited to empowering the African American community. Quite similar is what Bernie has done. Let us go back 30-35 years before Bernie had established himself as a politician. Under Regan, the liberal and rightist politico economy had gained major popularity as the cold war was moving towards the end. Anyone who used to disagree was labelled as a communist, and any left policies felt the wrath of a re-energized McCarthyism. For Bernie, however, one would think that the time was ripe as the cold war was ending and that communism would not be seen as an inherently villainous term in modern America. That was, however, not true. Communism still was seen as this Russian thing that was anti-America and if you visit certain parts in Southern America today, you will still see people labelling you as a communist for having a left stance. Then if the core of Bernie’s political stance is villainous in America, how has he survived all these years and how exactly is his impact so fundamental.
To answer this, I will refer to what Bernie says in almost all of his campaign speeches. For many years now, Bernie in his speeches has talked about bringing a political revolution. By this he means how he wants to change not just the policies but how policies are made. Not just the government’s decisions but how such decisions are taken. He wants to revisit the core ideas of American democracy and bring a fundamental change in their functioning to be more socialistic, inclusive and considerate of diversity. This has been key for Bernie, but he is a little too humble to say that he has already brought a political revolution. A revolution of left politics in America. When we think of left politics, we revisit the 1960s and the civil rights movement. However, the narrative against it was that these are communists and are trying to take away Americans’ hard-earned money and, on closer dissection, white Americans. Bernie has changed that. He has done one thing that quite a lot of communists otherwise would be against. He has compromised his radical views to bring small changes. The most significant example can be seen through his voting pattern in the Senate. Obamacare is ideally far away from what Bernie proposes, but he recognises that some change is better than no change. Such a pattern can be seen in nearly all of his votes on big policy issues. This might not help bring a revolution, but it is a substantial change. One thing communists and far-left politicians need to realise that democracies work on a compromise, and if they don’t, their struggle won’t be of much use. Bernie has been winning small battles and has been fundamental in bringing change. The next thing that Bernie has done is of a much bigger consequence. He has divided the Democratic party. On the face of it, it sounds like something negative, but it’s not. I’ll quote AOC here as she once mentioned that in nearly any other country in the world, I would not be a democrat, and it is true. Democrats are not leftists or socialists. In fact, there is no socialist party in America, and due to this, a lot of budding politicians have been joining the Democrats because at least it’s better than the Republicans. And this is something that Bernie has facilitated. Democrats can’t really do away with him because he is a crucial vote in the Senate, even though technically he is an independent candidate and also Bernie provides mobilisation. No other American politician has been able to mobilise the youth and college students, people of colour, and the LGBTQ+ community like Bernie has. Bernie has been more than successful in creating this new faction within the democrats, including the likes of Alexandria Cortez, Cori Bush and Jamal Bowman. Ever since Bernie entered the Senate, there has been a fall in the number of conservative democrats in the Congress and a rise for the Socialist and Progressive wings’ number. This has been a direct result of Bernie mobilising the left and the youth in America to stand against the conservative wing. The democratic party is more left than ever now, and a huge part of the credit goes to Bernie. The youth of America, distraught by the lack of jobs and the crushing debt they were forced to lay upon themselves under the veil of quality education, has forced them to look left as even Marx said that the natural conflict between the owners and labourers would manifest itself. Once the 1% of the people control the wealth, the 99% will on itself rebel. Bernie, however, has not taken the radical stance of a bloody revolution but has interestingly turned the debate towards a political revolution.
The last point on why Bernie is so important is directly related to why his importance comes across to the largest democracy in the world. Before Bernie entered American politics, as stated before, there had been the Reagan era and a rise in neoliberalism along with an enhanced focus on right-wing politics like the concept of family values being incorporated to promote the policies. From 1980 to 1994, we only saw republican presidents in the form of Reagan and HW Bush. After a small and rather insignificant stint from Clinton’s policy and economic changes, we returned to George Bush, a republican. This right-wing control over American politics was due to various reasons. The end of the cold war had given private players a huge boost, and they started playing more than a subtle role in American politics. Another reason, which I feel significant, was the incompetence of the Democratic party. With Al Gore’s exception, all other Democratic candidates were usually waved off as incompetent, without a proper policy or stance, and lacking the conviction. Reagan’s ‘There you go again’ statement over anything that Carter said was to highlight his opponent’s incompetence, which was not entirely true. The Democratic party at the time lacked organisational structure, had daily cases of infights and most importantly, never defined itself with any single ideology or political inclination, akin to the Indian National Congress. This is where Bernie came in, and so did Obama. Both played a vital role in bringing leftist politics and diversity within national politics and, more importantly, in the democratic party. They might not be fully immersed in left politics, but they now had some ideological identity on which they could mobilise people. Now Obama made use of this shift in his campaign and his policies because he too was from the same crop. Clinton used aspects of this shift, and Biden, a conservative for most of his career, immersed himself in left politics during the campaign. And it has paid off. With this administration, Bernie and AOC are more important than ever and are set to play a huge role in the coming four years. The left politics of Bernie has helped give Democrats an identity which was lost after FDR and JFK. This is what makes him so important in America.
As for India, I’ll get straight to it and say that Congress needs a Bernie of their own. The current party hierarchy won’t align themselves with the left politics of universal health care, restoring the public sector, free education etc. But if they are able to incorporate leaders who are willing to do so and run their campaigns on such promises and mobilise the base on such ideas, they will have a much better chance than they do right now. The problem in Indian politics remains that the opposition itself is highly divided. The Muslim vote is starting to move more towards Owaisi, and the left has never really made an attempt at getting together with other national parties after a certain extent. Local party mobilisation failed dramatically in the 2019 election. For Congress, it is important to make the use of left identity and ideology to serve its purpose of mobilising the opposition because as much as we like to joke about Rahul and Congress, they are our best shot at taking down the Modi government.
A lot can be learnt from Bernie’s rise to mainstream politics. He stuck to his guns and learnt to compromise to win small battles. Congress and the Indian left, too, need to compromise more than ever. Bernie realised that with his ideology, he would never become the President alone, but he has created a huge land, filled with potential for the democrats to exploit from the left ideology. He has put the need of the time ahead of his own personal and even if he doesn’t become the US President ever, it is safe to assume that the left and woke politics that Democrats will claim to stand on from now on has been laid on the foundation built by Bernie.
By Siddharth Kaushik