OPINION | Bernie and conventional wisdom


Crispin Hull

Guest Columnist

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Here is another Donald Trump-Richard Nixon comparison. When Nixon sought a second term in 1972, the Democrats nominated Senator George McGovern the most left-wing candidate in US history to challenge him.

The result was disastrous for the Democrats. Nixon won 49 states. So, a nasty, disliked, sociopathic, dishonest Republican President can win easily if the Democrats are stupid enough to nominate as challenger someone who is seen as unacceptably left-wing. And that is what is happening now.

Worse than that, the Democratic front-runner, Senator Bernie Sanders, unnecessarily describes himself as a “democratic socialist”. This is despite the fact that he is not really a socialist at all. He does not advocate nationalisation of industry or that the state owns the means of production. He just advocates universal free health insurance and free college education, which would put him around the centre of the spectrum in most European and other democracies.

But in America, if you call yourself a socialist, you make yourself as unelectable as if you called yourself an atheist. Sanders is the candidate of choice for Trump and the Russians. They must be salivating at every extra convention delegate he gets.

It is sad in a way. Sanders’s policies would be very good for the US and the world. But his unnecessary self-branding makes him his own worst enemy.

Even sadder is that a Sanders loss (of both the popular vote and the Electoral College) would legitimise Trump. And as the Democrats have already had one unsuccessful crack at the impeachment and removal process, a second-term attempt (as happened with Nixon) would be nigh impossible.

And this is aside from Sanders’s age. He will be 79 come election time.

But all of the above is the conventional thinking. Let’s look at it another way. 

First, Trump was the oldest person elected to date. So maybe that with increasing longevity, age will not be an issue.

Secondly, Sanders has revolutionised electoral fund-raising.

In the last full quarter (ending 31 December 2019) Sanders raised $34.5 million, more than any other Democratic candidate. More importantly, the money was raised from 1.8 million individuals at an average of $18 each – lots of small donors.

The amount of money he raises from corporations or Political Action Committees is minuscule. PACs are the vehicles through which corporations often funnel money to make it less conspicuous.

A lot of the “small donors” information is a bit distorted. A donation listed as given by “small donor” is a donation of less than $200. Donations above $200 require disclosure of name and address. But some corporations and individuals can sprinkle lots of small donations to lots of candidates and PACs, really making them large donors.

So when you look at candidate information it looks as though most candidates get most of their money from small donors. Not so. Sanders is the standout because he has so many donors giving not small, but tiny (average $18) donations.

The importance of this is that this model is more resilient than having a few large donors. Sanders now has more cash in hand and has raised more money up to the beginning of this week than any other Democratic candidate, aside from the two self-funded billionaires, Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer who are hardly rating in the polls.

The resilience of Sanders’s donation base comes because small individual donors are motivated differently from corporate donors. Individuals give from the heart and for idealistic reasons to help their candidate win.

Corporate donors, on the other hand, give purely to further their own ends. They give in a way that ensures that when the dust settles that they have given reasonably substantially to whomever happens to be the winning candidate. That way they can exercise influence over the Government. They simply would not give otherwise.

Corporations exist, not for altruism and civic duty, but purely to make their shareholders richer. This is why a single corporation can happily give to many different candidates even if they have conflicting policies.

It also means that if a candidate goes down in the polls or, worse, does not come in near the top in a primary, the corporate donors will stop wasting their money on that non-viable candidate. Corporations primarily give to political parties and candidates to ensure influence AFTER the election. That is why they are so insidious, undemocratic and should be banned.

Individuals, however, especially the young idealists who back Sanders, will keep backing him no matter what. In 2016 the donations kept coming in even when Sanders’s quest for the nomination was doomed. And doing a micro donation of just a couple of dollars online is so easy.

With money a candidate can get a message across and counter misinformation. The latter will perhaps be more important than the former in this campaign. Misinformation won the day in 2016. At least in 2020 people are aware of what the Russians did in 2016 and are alert to the likelihood that they will again use internet misinformation to support Trump.

Sanders’s internet-savvy support base will be useful in countering misinformation.

It would be a mistake to under-estimate Sanders. According to polling, Sanders has as much chance as any other Democratic Party candidate to beat Trump, provided the youth turn out to vote.

Sanders supporters may not vote for any other nominated Democratic candidate, but the supporters of other Democratic candidates would vote for Sanders over Trump.

Whether Sanders’s centre-left policies stir moderate Republicans – otherwise disinclined to vote – to come out to vote for Trump is anyone’s guess.

Whatever happens, Sanders has changed the donation landscape in a way that is heartening for democracy.

The success so far of his massive-micro-donations model has not been seen before. It shows you do not need corporate donations to run an effective campaign, and if he wins he will be a rare politician in not being beholden to the corporates. But getting an agenda through Congress whose members are so beholden is another matter.

It would be nice to think that the massive-micro-donation model spreads. It may not replicate as readily to Westminster systems because it is personal and under Westminster there is no guarantee that your candidate will remain leader throughout the term because leadership is at the whim and mercy of the party.

Even so, the power of small amounts of money from many people is at last providing a pushback against the wealth and corporate power that has so suborned democracy since the surge in government-shrinking neo-liberal economics began in the 1980s.

Crispin Hull is a current columnist and former Editor of the Canberra Times.

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