A 72-year-old college professor named Alexander van der Bellen, running for president as the candidate of the leftist Austrian Green Party, a fringe party that had never been considered a serious contender in post-war Austrian politics, just won a narrow victory over Norbert Hofer, a right-wing candidate of the neo-fascist Freedom Party who had been favored to win.
The run-off, held on Sunday, but not decided until today when some 750,000 mail-in ballots were finally counted, was held after an initial presidential election contest on April 24 in which no candidate won a majority of the vote. In that first contest, voters humiliated the candidates of Austria’s two establishment parties, the center-right Austrian People’s Party, and the center left Austrian Socialist Party, who came in fourth and fifth with 11% each behind Hofer (35%) and van der Bellen (21%) as well as an independent candidate who won 18.5% of the vote.
In the two-person run-off, most Socialist Party voters, independents, as well as many People’s Party conservatives, voted for van der Bellen, to ensure that the Freedom Party’s Hofer not become the first European head of state since the fall of Nazi Germany to hail from the far right.
For an American looking at this (and I was actually in Vienna for much of last week during the final days of the run-off campaign), there was a distinct sense that I was looking at a possible scenario for the upcoming US general election.
After all, we too have a crusty 70-something socialist, always considered a fringe political figure, running for president who is proving to be surprisingly popular.
If we look at the Democratic primary as a kind of general election (given that until the ascendancy of fringe neo-fascist candidate Donald Trump, nobody was giving the Republican Party much of a chance at winning the presidency, no matter who the Democrats ultimately nominated), let’s just suppose things go the way all the pundits are predicting, and Hillary Clinton wins the nomination. Everyone knows that she is one of America’s most disliked and distrusted political figures, outside of her base within the Democratic Party. Independents don’t like her, and Republicans loath her. Not surprisingly, Trump, the presumptive candidate of the Republican Party, since all the rest of quit the primary race at this point, is gaining in popularity as he moves away from some of his more incindiary primary positions, and polls now show him tied or actually ahead of Clinton.
So what if Sanders, having lost the nomination but won most of the primaries since mid-March, and whom polls show doing better than Clinton against Trump, and in fact beating him in key swing states critical to victory in November, urged on by his millions of supporters, decides not to back the corrupt and distrusted Clinton, and instead accepts invitations that have been extended by at least some Green Party activists, including the Green’s own likely presidential candidate Jill Stein, to run as the Green’s candidate in November?
Would he have a chance to pull a van der Bellen, and win in the general election “run-off” in what would be a three-way race against Trump and Clinton?
Many fearful Democrats say no way. In the view of one activist in the American Federation of Teachers, which was the first national union to endorse Hillary Clinton before the primaries even began (a move made in opposition to much of the union’s membership, which was not given a chance to vote on the endorsement), Bernie is seen as “Bernie Nader,” a reference to the false belief that left-activist Ralph Nader, running as an independent in 2000, “lost” Florida to George W. Bush. This AFT member, and many other Hillary supporters, say that they “like” Bernie and his ideas, but they don’t think he can win, so they’re backing Clinton.
But increasingly, it is becoming clear that Clinton cannot win. The more people learn about her and her political history of betrayals of progressive causes, of support for endless wars, and of groveling for money from everything from Wall Street mega-banks to for-profit prison companies, the less they want to vote for her. With Sanders it has been the opposite. From single digits in the polls last fall, when his campaign began, largely blacked out by the national media, he has moved to winning most of the contests since mid-March, and stands a good chance of winning California next month.
Logically, the so-called “superdelegates” in the Democratic Party, who were not elected in primaries but who account for 15% of the total delegate votes at the convention, should look at the situation, recognize that their premature early endorsements of Clinton are about to lead the convention to nominate a losing candidate, and should throw their support to Sanders, who has already battled to within less than 300 delegates of Clinton despite the strenuous efforts of the Democratic National Committee and the corporate media to undermine him.
But loyalty to money and political power die hard, so it is more likely that the superdelegates will take the suicidal option and cast their votes for Clinton, giving her the Democratic nomination.
At that point Sanders is supposed to offer his support and to urge his minions to back her candidacy. But now suppose he doesn’t, and instead bolts to the Greens, who already have a ballot line in over 21 key states with over 310 electoral votes (270 are needed to win the presidency), and who are working hard to up that number considerably.
Sanders, running as a Green candidate, would be no Nader, who as an independent was completely blacked out by the media for the entire election, got on no televised debates, and had to spend most of his time and money fighting legal battles, many of them unsuccessful, just to get his name on state ballots. Sanders, in contrast, would be a candidate known nationwide, thanks to his primary campaign in every state. His polling numbers would be so high that the media would have to cover him, and to allow him into the presidential debates. And he’d also have plenty of money. Just imagine how the Sanders supporters, who have already ponied up an unheard of $150 million or more during the primaries, all in small mostly two-digit contributions, would respond to a Sanders run in the general election on a Green ticket! The money would pour in and in even greater amounts, and it would be matched by federal election funds, making him fully competitive with the corporate-donation-funded Democratic and Republican candidates Clinton and Trump.
My guess is that we’d see the same kind of surprise in such a “run-off” election that Austrians just saw in their presidential run-off, with the crusty old socialist defeating both the candidate of Wall Street, Hillary Clinton, and the neo-fascist, anti-immigrant nativist Trump. Sanders’ chances would be even better if, as appears possible, Republicans who cannot stomach a Trump candidacy, turn to the Conservative Party and run a candidate too, splitting the Republican vote.
2016 is clearly not 2000, and Sanders is clearly not another Nader. Not even close. The American electorate this year — including half the Democratic Party, virtually all independents, and many Republicans too — are fed up with the corrupt political and economic system in the US. How else to explain the stunning success to date of the Sanders campaign? Who, a year ago, would have imagined an old JEWISH guy with run-away white hair, and a self-described socialist into the bargain, giving one of the most well-connected political icons in the party a run for her money (literally!)? Who, a year ago, would have imagined the Republican party being taken over by a television huckster, misogynist and fast-buck artist like Donald Trump?
As in Austria, the anger and frustration of the electorate has produced these two insurgent candidacies, and there has been nothing like it in American history.
The beauty of a Sanders run as a Green candidate for president is that if he were to win (or even if he were to lose to Trump, for that matter), odds are he would at least outpoll Clinton, the Democratic candidate. That would be the end of the Democratic Party, that wretched graveyard of progressive politics for the past 70 years or more.
It would also instantly propel the Greens to major party status, ensuring them a spot going forward on every state ballot, and millions of people who would likely become members and financial backers in future elections.
If Bernie Sanders really wants to see his “political revolution” succeed, this is the way he can do it: by running as the Green candidate for president.
If Austria’s van der Bellen can do it, so can Bernie.