Democratic Primary

Why Bernie Sanders’ home run in Washington state matters

A look at recent Seattle politics vindicates the Vermont senator’s theory of change
Photo: National Nurses United

On Friday, Mar. 25, I watched as Bernie Sanders spoke to a massive crowd from a stage at home base on Seattle’s Safeco Field. The next day, he hit a grand slam, sweeping the Washington state caucuses by a stunning margin of 73 to 27 per cent over Hillary Clinton, and winning in every single county in the state.

The corporate media had nothing of substance to say about the Washington caucuses. To hear the pundits tell it, the state is just a tiny, remote and nearly barren wilderness, and Sanders’ crushing win there is meaningless.

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In fact, Washington is 13th out of 50 states in population, and the results there matter. A closer look at recent politics in Seattle, in fact, shows why Sanders’ campaign resonates and vindicates his theory of progressive change.

With three more wins by 40-point or more margins on Mar. 26, Sanders is clearly on a roll. He’s now won 15 races, including five of the last six contests. With Wisconsin and Wyoming coming up, he’s poised to make it seven of eight states heading into the crucial New York primary on April 19.

The fact that Bernie Sanders has the momentum and that the race with Hillary Clinton remains competitive is now undeniable. But of course many corporate media pundits will continue to deny it. After all, they would look foolish and anachronistic if they were forced to concede at this late date that an actual race was underway and that Sanders’ challenge to neoliberal orthodoxy and the Democratic Party leadership needed to be debated and discussed seriously.

The fact that Bernie Sanders has the momentum and that the race with Hillary Clinton remains competitive is now undeniable.

In order to deny the breadth of Sanders’ appeal, therefore, many commentators have resorted to embarrassing intellectual contortions, which have sometimes backfired spectacularly, as we’ve seen over the past couple of days with the hashtag #BernieMadeMeWhite.

Other than to dismiss the state and its inhabitants entirely, few pundits writing for national publications bothered to get into specifics at all about why Sanders won such a decisive win in Washington state. David Roberts, an energy and climate writer for Vox who lives in Seattle, did weigh in about his fellow citizens of the Emerald City, alleging that they were big on progressive rhetoric but reluctant to make incremental, substantive changes.

The only cyclists I met in Seattle were organizing for Sanders, but, being from Vancouver, I understand the phenomenon of green politics that are shallow or gestural and ignore social justice. I just don’t see how that criticism applies particularly to the Sanders campaign, which has consistently advocated principled environmental positions with an unwavering concern for the working class.

Bike for Bernie
Seattle's E-Bike shop near Safeco Field
Derrick O'Keefe / Ricochet

Roberts’ apparent cyncism about the Sanders campaign has struck me as a sad denouement for someone whose TedTalk on climate makes the case for dramatic economic and political change, concluding with a rousing appeal to the audience: “Your job, for the rest of your life, for anybody who hears this, is to make the impossible, possible.”

Roberts also made an apparent effort to explain away Sanders’ appeal as resting on a delusional assumption about the viability of a candidate identifying as a socialist.

On both points, Roberts ignores the evidence right in front of him in Seattle. The city’s recent political history shows that socialists running in elections, combined with vigorous grassroots movements, are precisely the best way to make substantive, incremental change. And the fact that Seattle voters have twice elected Kshama Sawant, who proudly identifies as a revolutionary socialist, shows that the Cold War is over and that the “s” word is no longer kryptonite for progressive politicians. (In fact, some polls have shown both young Americans and Democrats have a more favourable view of socialism than capitalism.)

I can only assume David Roberts wasn’t at the rally at Safeco Field on Saturday. After packing Key Arena a week earlier, Sanders returned for a mega-rally on the eve of the Washington caucuses.

I made the trip down from Canada to take in the event, waiting in a slow, winding line for over an hour before getting into the stadium. City Councillor Sawant, who is encouraging support for Sanders but also urging his supporters to take independent political action if and when their candidate is denied the nomination, was on the undercard at Safeco. She spoke before Sanders, and I was still outside the stadium when she addressed the early crowd. But even those of us in the line outside heard the roar of the audience as she called for socialist politics and saluted the organizing efforts of Black Lives Matter.

There is simply no evidence that Republican red-baiting will hurt Sanders in the general election.

Now I’m of course not suggesting that Seattle is representative of the United States as a whole (although some influential trends have been known to start there.) But, as someone like Roberts surely knows, Sanders’ brand of socialism is quite different from the one advocated by Sawant, who calls for the nationalization of major industries. The fact that a major city in the United States can elect and re-elect a socialist who views herself in the tradition of Trotsky and James P. Cannon (hey, as it happens, there’s even a Lenin statue in Seattle) suggests, if anything, that the wider U.S. public won’t fall for red-baiting smears against a left liberal democrat who casts his socialism as a fulfillment of the progressive vision laid out by FDR when he called for a Second Bill of Rights and welcomed the hatred of big business.

There is simply no evidence that Republican red-baiting will hurt Sanders in the general election, especially against a thuggish proto-fascist such as Donald Trump or an extremist such as Ted Cruz. All the available data suggests that Sanders, in fact, fares better against those two potential Republican nominees than does Hillary Clinton, a scandal-ridden candidate who has high unfavourability ratings.

Bernie Sanders is not selling fantasy. He’s selling history, and making a strong case that progress — whether incremental or revolutionary — comes when millions of people join together in action. Change, as Sanders repeats in every speech, starts from below.

Seattle confirms that Sanders’ theory of change is actually the most pragmatic on offer.

At Safeco last weekend, Sanders elaborated on his usual points when he spoke about the need to raise the federal minimum wage to $15/ per hour, praising the vanguard role that Seattle played in the nationwide struggle. Indeed, Councillor Sawant made this a touchstone of her initial campaign for office, and, together with grassroots activism by workers themselves and support from the labour movement, she won the demand for a higher minimum wage.

The lessons from Seattle are there for all to see, even though most corporate media pundits prefer to look away. Rather than suggesting that Bernie Sanders is backed by legions of deluded idealists cheering on a mirage-like political revolution, Seattle confirms that Sanders’ theory of change is actually the most pragmatic on offer. To wrest reforms today, we need revolutionary energy to transform a rotten system. If you’re actually working for positive change, that’s really the only way you can be progressive and “get stuff done.”

When politicians run socialist campaigns, and are backed by working-class and social movements, the impossible becomes possible. Don’t let any pundit tell you it can’t be done.

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