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A Socialist returns to the United States

27 December 2017

A Socialist returns to the United States

Jan MarijnissenWhat happens in the United States becomes to a great degree reality in our own country within ten years. That's why in 1993 we made a study of the condition of the US in regard to such matters as wages and profits, labour laws and working conditions, education, health care, housing and integration. The visit provided the inspiration for a book, Tegenstemmen, published in 1996 and translated into English as Enough! A Socialist Bites Back. Three further trips ensued, in 1997, 2002 and then in October 2017, almost a quarter century after the first visit. During that most recent of visits three questions took centre-stage. 1. What are the similarities and differences between the 1990s and now? 2. How could Donald Trump be the White House's new resident? 3. What explains the success of Bernie Sanders? To prepare for this we spoke to many journalists, columnists and correspondents, analysing the political situation in the US. Once there we met with dozens of people from different interest groups and with different viewpoints.

Where in the past Americans were first and foremost American, now they're Republicans or Democrats, for Trump or against Trump, for or against Clinton. This is the result of decades of neoliberal politics: increasing differences in incomes and wealth; a public sector and infrastructure which, as a result of spending cuts, are utterly neglected; deregulation of the banking sector; liberalisation of labour law; irresponsible globalisation, which has cost many jobs; and the promotion of blaming the victim and introduction of a culture of every man for himself, every woman for herself. People's mistrust of 'the power' and above all of ‘Washington’ has grown further in recent years. Many see Trump's victory as 'the final warning' to the politicians and everything related to politics.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders form in a certain sense two sides of the same coin, a left side and a right side, both of which, in the eyes of the voters, present an alternative to the perverse political and economic elite, an alternative for which the people are demonstrably ready. The reasons for this are the enormous inequality – the 99% versus the 1%; the powerlessness of politicians to do anything which benefits the country; the arrogance of a ruling elite which shows no interest in the needs of ordinary people; the sacrifice of employment on the chopping block of globalisation; low wages and spreading poverty; the curtailment of a decent system of health insurance available to all; the exorbitant costs of study; the purchased influence of big capital and the banks on Capitol Hill (Clinton spent $1.4 billion on her campaign, Trump a billion).

A good indication of the hopelessness of existence is the use of hard drugs. The number of deaths as a result of overdose ( primarily of heroine) rose from 10,000 in 1985 to 60,000 in 2015.

Many people's despair has become so great that there now exists a 'deaths of despair' index, measured amongst middle-aged white people, which in the US rose from 30 per 100,000 inhabitants in 1990 to more than 75 in 2012. In Germany the rate has gone in precisely the opposite direction, while in Canada and Australia it has remained more or less stable at around 30.

Overall, distrust is growing. Two-thirds of Americans no longer believe in what is printed or broadcast in their own media. Another indication of widespread despair is the prevalence of greed, which has undermined people's confidence in, for example, banks, corporations, but also in the legal profession and in politicians.

So the American Dream, which has always existed, is now being noisily and violently disturbed by everyday reality. In 1980 half of the American population still believed that their children would have it better than they had, a figure which has now fallen to 20%.

The success of Donald Trump

Despite the general view that Donald Trump is actually simply a fool, it has to be said that he has evidently struck a chord in the minds of many Americans. With his agitation against the political elite, even within his own Republican Party, and against the hypocrisy of people who represent vested interests, he has won many people over. Fully a year after the elections the great majority of his voters continue to support him, arguing that we should give him a chance, that he's been there barely a year and has another three to go.

But who are these Trump voters? In the first place there's the traditional Republicans, who voted for him en masse. In addition there's a lot of people who haven't voted before, but saw in Trump someone who represented their political views. Finally, there were former Obama voters, disappointed by the results of his eight-year presidency. However euphoric many were at the election of the first black president, his erudition and charm, it's fair to say that the results were meagre indeed. An important factor was the Republicans' resistance in Congress, but there was also the president's relative powerlessness in relation to the banks and to big capital, which make a successful presidency extremely difficult. All in all Obama failed, in the eyes of many people, to bring about real change and real improvement in the lives of ordinary people.

It also became the general opinion in the US that Trump's success could be seen as proof of the weakness of his Democratic Party opponent, Hillary Clinton. She was considered to be a member of the elite, with a great many friends in Wall Street, where, as was widely known, she had given numerous speeches for exorbitant fees, a matter which was originally kept secret. The Democratic Party's traditional support must, however, be sought in the working class and amongst minorities who feel that their voices are never heard. In particular, the Democrats forfeited a great deal of credit, especially in the South and the middle states. All of this held true, despite many people holding their noses and voting for Clinton, the slogan being 'Clinton is bad, Trump is worse.'

It should not go unmentioned that Clinton, under an electoral system based on a straightforward majority vote, such as we have in our own country, would have won. In the United Kingdom and the United States the way things are organised demonstrates time after time that a constituency-based system in which the winner takes all in each separate voting district is inferior in form and often does not do justice to the will of the majority across the country. Small parties have no shadow of a chance and parties holding power can manipulate constituency boundaries to their own advantage. This is what makes Bernie Sanders unique. He succeeded for forty years in being the only independent member of the House of Representatives, and later of the Senate.

The success of Bernie Sanders

A poll held in March 2017 reported that Bernie Sanders was by far the most popular politician in the United States, with the approval of 61% of respondents. One consideration of those who support him is that he has always remained true to his message. In essence he now tells audiences at his countless mass meetings the same things he told people as mayor of Burlington,Vermont thirty-six years ago. This creates confidence, as does the fact that he has never been linked to big money from banks and corporations.

Of course, his programme too has become for many people a real alternative. A few of the more important points it contains are free education; the right to join a union, which is now often forbidden; a minimum wage of $15 an hour; the right to vote for all; respect for the interests of Native Americans; savings banks and the postal service back in state ownership; more attention paid to the environment and to the climate; affordable health care available to everyone, under the single payer system; a fair system of justice with equal access for all; no financing of election campaigns by corporations and banks; and a tax on speculative transactions.

Yet it remains remarkable. The man is in his seventies, comes out with a left socialist programme in the country where the word 'socialism' is in general seen as a term of abuse, and attracts masses of people to hear his speeches, amongst them many who are young. Asked about this, the answer that comes is mostly that 'for many young people socialism is something new. They arrived after 1989. They've inherited a rotten capitalism and know its excesses. They want something different, something new...And many have found it in “socialism”, and in the face and the interpreter of socialism.' Take note: Sanders attracted more votes in the primaries amongst people from 18 to 35 years old than did Clinton and Trump combined.

An important question is how things will develop with all those people whom Sanders united behind him. Is he, in contrast to Obama, really going to build an organisation? He's promised as much. In order to have any electoraal impact, it will of necessity have to be a construct operating partly inside and partly outside the Democratic Party. The result is that within the Democratic Party two currents exist, roughly speaking the Clinton camp and the Sanders camp. One of the important differences between the two concerns so-called 'identity politics', which in certain circles is very much in vogue. Clinton rides along on it; Sanders keeps it at as much distance as possible, this political view that origin, gender, colour and sexuality – in short, who you are – is more important than the major contradiction between labour and capital.

Subjects such as war, the economy, class, the general interest and the public sector are in danger of being snowed under. Alongside this, it brings the demagogues of the right into the picture. As one person we interviewed put it, “identity politics is a matter of excluding, not convincing. Healthy politics shouldn't be about the differences between cultural and ethnic identities, but about what we have in common and how we can serve everyone's interests.” Many of those with whom we spoke think that the – according to some left groups – politically correct identity politics has killed the left as a whole, with Clinton's defeat as the final proof. Of course there has to be attention to the specific interests of minorities, because after all we are for equality and solidarity, but the left must not allow itself to be divided, or, to put it better, must not divide itself. The left, and socialists in particular, must concentrate on the main order of business. - the depraved elaboration of neoliberal ideas, capitalism and the arrogance of the elitist establishment, at home and elsewhere, that's the idea.

DSA, Democratic Socialists of America, was until very recently a small, marginal party. This has changed in the last few years. In a fairly short time they have grown from 10,000 to 30,000 members. Not many, of course, in a country with a population of 320 million, but their viability is now confirmed. The new members all come from the social movement which gathered around the Sanders campaign last year.

The DSA spokespeople with whom we discussed things all held the view that 'who loses the workers, loses everything.' Understand that at the start and the left can be saved and stop the future from going to the right. The left shall be one with the working class or it won't be anything. Their slogan is 'Link the issues.’ Politicise! Tell the whole story, lay bare the connections. Keep posing the question, 'who loses, who gains?' Count! Have the figures in your head. Keep calling 'the power' into question. Keep calling on those in power – in politics, across the economy, in the public sector - to accept their responsibilities, everywhere, always. Inform and criticise, inspire and mobilise.

If it is indeed still the case that the United States almost always turns out to be the example which we follow, the left will have to give some thought to what its role should be in a a more polarised, privatised, liberalised Netherlands. What applies in the case of the SP is that we are anticapitalist and in favour of socialism; we reject neoliberal politics and are for what's humane and social; we aren't elitist, we don't belong to the establishment; we are amongst the people and struggle alongside them for a better future. The SP has insight and vision and all that is needed to be a committed, combative, intelligent, political refuge for which intelligent, socially-minded people are or will be searching.

Jan Marijnissen was leader of the SP from 1988 to 2008 and a Member of Parliament from 1994-2010.

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