United States: Democratic Primaries Amid Crisis and Polarization

The Iowa and New Hampshire primaries inaugurated the road leading towards the Democratic party’s presidential candidate nomination that will take place at the Democratic National Convention in July. The first results express the reality of a party in crisis in the context of a country marked by social and political polarization.

Sanders emerges from the first two contests as one of the winners. Despite not achieving decisive victories, he does hold an important base in the face of his rivals dispersal. He won the popular vote in Iowa, although he came second in the number of delegates because of the anti-democratic system. He also won in New Hampshire, but with a much smaller margin than expected. 

Biden, who entered the race as the candidate of the democratic establishment, finished 4th in Iowa and 5th in New Hampshire. This poor result sent a shockwave of doubt among his millionaire donor base and within the Democratic establishment that still fails to find a strong candidate behind which to coalesce the fight against Sanders.

Elizabeth Warren, the bid to weaken Sanders with a moderately progressive candidacy, finished in third and fourth place, calling into question the real chance of her campaign moving forward. And proving that, in a scenario of social polarization, a position that looks to bridge moderates and progressives fails to draw wide support.

Within the spectrum of so-called “moderates” it is instead the less-known Pete Buttigieg who has come out stronger. He won the delegate count in Iowa and came in second in New Hampshire. Former mayor of a small town, young, openly gay, combatant in Afghanistan. With a billionaire donor base, he presents himself as the new, friendly face of the same policies that Biden upholds. Senator Amy Klobuchar, who came third in New Hampshire, aims to occupy the same space.

Social and Political Polarization

The broader context in which the current process is framed allows us to understand some of its fundamental characteristics. The economic crisis of 2008 opened a period of greater social and political polarization in the United States. A process of political radicalization of the youth developed and had expressions in the ascent of movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter.

Donald Trump’s presidency further polarized the situation. An important response from the feminist movement won the streets. There have also been massive protests against global warming. The last few years have also seen a resurgence of the struggles of the labor movement. While coming from historically low levels, 2018 recorded the highest number of strikes since 1986. Teachers have been one of the great protagonists of this cycle, but not the only ones. 2019 saw a 40-day strike at General Motors, for example.

In this scenario of social polarization, the traditional political structures of the US regime have been shaken by an “anti-establishment” sentiment. “Moderate” positions within both the Republican and the Democratic party have lost ground to emerging phenomena like Trump on the right and Sanders on the left. Early results in the 2020 primaries show that this trend continues.

The Crisis of the Democratic Party

This general context has a particular expression in the Democratic Party. In 2016 this crisis was expressed in the emergence of Bernie Sanders. A voter base more radicalized and fed-up of traditional figures in a party that ruled for the richest 1% of society, pushed Sanders into a long primary dispute against Hillary Clinton.  In the 2018 legislative elections, they paved the way for the emergence of figures such as Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who contrast with the official apparatus of the Democratic Party.

Despite having won over the House of Representatives in the midterm elections, democrats are dragging on a crisis that complicates their outlook for presidential elections. Crisis that is also aggravated by their lack of initiative to confront Trump from the House. The failed impeachment was little more than a publicity stunt based on arguments that sought to defend US institutions and international standing.

The division between a progressive wing and an establishment wing is an indicator of this crisis. It is in turn expressed in the dispersion of candidates in the primaries. While Trump navigates the Republican primary virtually in solitude, there are at least four or five candidates in place in the Democratic primary. This is mainly because the Democratic leadership fails to find a candidacy that coalesces the “moderates”. Their main bet, Obama´s former Vice President Joe Biden, got hit hard at the first two contests.

Against this backdrop, billionaire Michael Bloomberg appears as a new card. Listed at number 11 of the world’s richest people according to Forbes magazine, with a fortune valued at $50 billion, the former mayor of New York has swinged between the two parties of the U.S. regime. He launched his candidacy inside the Democrats in late November 2019 with a speech focusing on the importance of defeating Trump. He has already invested more than $300 million of his own money in the campaign, managing to buy a spot in the polls. In early February, the Democratic National Committee changed the rules on campaign debates for the presidential nomination to open the path for Bloomberg’s participation. In the face of Biden’s downfall, the billionaire appears as an alternative to Sanders. His bet is to come in hard into the arena on “super-Tuesday”, after bypassing elections in the first four states.

Adding even more elements to this complex panorama, the primary began with a fiasco in the Iowa vote count. The digital system failed and several days passed before the definitive results appeared. This led to cross-allegations and even suspicions of manipulation as the company that developed the application has links to Buttigieg’s campaign.

All Together Against Trump?

There is no doubt that Trump is a racist and misogynist who governs for the rich. That is why there is a widespread and legitimate feeling about the need to defeat him in the presidential election. However, the leadership of the Democratic Party tries to tie this sentiment to the back of some other figure that continues to rule for the 1%. The “anybody but Trump” campaign points straight in this direction.

This could clearly be seen in last Friday’s New Hampshire Democratic debate. The coincidences between candidates were highlighted and, apart from a few moments of controversy, the hardest blows were avoided. More importantly, all those who aspire to the nomination pledged to support whoever gets nominated against Trump. Unfortunately, this includes Bernie Sanders who has repeatedly said it, and has already done so in 2016 by calling to support Hillary Clinton.

This is an example of the limitations of Sanders. Not only does he run within the Democratic Party, but he also respects party discipline and does not raise the question of breaking with the democrats. He capitalizes on the political radicalization in the absence of a left-wing alternative. The need to build an alternative for the working class, women, the LGBT movement, migrants, the youth, independent from the parties that protect the interests of corporations and the rich, remains a central issue. The social and political scenario shows that there is space for this fundamental task.

Luis Meiners (ISL – United States)