Jeremy Who? The Bernie Sanders phenomenon at home and abroad

by David Coates David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies 27.08.2015

If you watch virtually any major American news channel right now, you could be forgiven for thinking that the only political development worthy of note was the on-going presidential campaign of Donald Trump. But you would be wrong.

Key sections of the American press are currently playing Trump’s main calling-card for him by giving excessive amounts of coverage to his bombastic rejection of the intelligence and policies of the rest of the political class. By doing so, they are helping him to frame the national political conversation in a frightening and reactionary way, for which one day I hope they will be held accountable. But they are doing more than simply trumpeting Trump. They are also failing to recognize and report on the fact that it is not just ultra-conservative voters who are mobilizing behind new and unexpected candidates. That kind of unexpected and unprecedented mobilization is currently happening on both sides of the political divide. It is happening not just among the Tea Party right but also among the Progressive left; and in the case of the left at least, it is happening not just here at home but in the United Kingdom as well.

For Donald Trump is not alone in drawing substantial crowds to each of his election rallies. So too, in the United States, is Bernie Sanders; and so too, in the United Kingdom, is Jeremy Corbyn.

That last name probably means nothing to most Americans. Indeed my computer’s spell-checker doesn’t even recognize the surname. But it will need to soon, because Jeremy Corbyn will likely win the leadership election for the British Labour Party when results are declared in mid-September; and even if he does not, his politics will inevitably figure large in any Labour political program to come. Jeremy Corbyn is having that impact because, as with Bernie Sanders, his radicalism is galvanizing a new generation of potential voters. These are potential voters who – like those supporting Donald Trump – are tired of “politics as usual.” But for them, the tiredness rests, not in the stupidity or incompetence of those who govern us, as Trump would have it. The crowds drawn to both Bernie Sanders1 and Jeremy Corbyn2 are tired of “politics as usual” because for far too long those politics have been too right-wing, and too lacking in both progressive impulses and equalitarian outcomes.

In other words and at long last, the Democratic Left is stirring again in ways that we have not seen in more than a generation. It is a stirring that we should welcome, and it is one that we should support.

I

Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn share many things in common, in addition to their considerable age, their ethnicity and their gender. They share the fact that they are both unexpected candidates for high office, not least because of their long-established reputations as political mavericks; and they share the way in which their rise to prominence has been not simply surprising but also rapid. Their new-found prominence has been surprising to commentators used to a political class high on platitudes and low on stridency – that was perhaps to be expected – but it has also been surprising to the men themselves. Certainly, “Feel the Bern” is something that took the Sanders’ campaign team initially entirely by surprise; and Jeremy Corbyn for his part was an entirely last-minute recruit to the leadership race triggered by the British Labour Party’s election defeat in May. On his own admission, he only ran to keep a left-wing voice alive in a campaign that was likely to be dominated – we all thought – by protégés of either Tony Blair or Gordon Brown, Labour’s heavy-weights in the years of New Labour rule.

But we – and no doubt, he – got that one entirely wrong. For his campaign quickly revealed the existence of a previously untapped hunger in key sections of the UK electorate for a new tone, a new honesty and a new radicalism in British politics.3 Since his campaign, and his alone, offered that new tone and that new radicalism, the hitherto little-known Member of Parliament for Islington North has been unexpectedly filling stadiums and halls with huge numbers of enthusiastic supporters – and attracting huge numbers of new party members4 – ever since he decided to run.

II

Likewise, Bernie Sanders. Standing as a self-proclaimed democratic socialist in a political system long used to equating socialism with Soviet tyranny, the Sanders’ platform has unexpectedly resonated strongly with a wide range of American progressives. His attack on income and wealth inequality, and on the impact of that inequality on the behavior and policies of most candidates for public office, has struck a deep chord of unease with the political role of the Koch brothers and their kind. His advocacy of policies to eliminate poverty, protect basic welfare services, and raise the wages of American workers has been equally popular;5 and has its equivalent in Jeremy Corbyn’s critique of excessive CEO pay,6 and in the Corbyn call for “shared economic growth”7 built on “a National Investment Bank, to be capitalized by canceling private-sector tax relief and subsidies, and [on] what he calls ‘people’s quantitative easing’ – an infrastructure program that the government finances by borrowing money from the Bank of England.”8

It is not that either of these men, or the programs they espouse, are particularly radical when measured against the best of the Left over the last century or more. It is rather that the center of political gravity in both the US and the UK these days has moved so far to the right that you have to be a radical merely to be a decent human being. As 40 of the UK’s leading economists put it in an open letter published in the London Observer last Sunday, “it is the current government’s policy and its objectives that are extreme, not the Labour leadership candidate’s….His opposition to austerity is actually mainstream economics, even backed by the conservative IMF.”9

What both men’s campaigns are making crystal clear is that there is a vast constituency of support, on both sides of the Atlantic, for a fundamental rejection of austerity politics and of its associated claim: namely that high levels of income and wealth inequality automatically raise all ships, and that accordingly economies flourish best when taxed and regulated least. What both campaigns are also making clear is that the articulation of a radical program of economic and social egalitarianism can and does make mainstream politicians and commentators uncomfortable. But then it should: because normal politics in both Washington and London these days survives only by ignoring the fundamental causes of income inequality and social injustice, or by addressing those causes in at best only a superficial manner. Given the current state of the United States and the United Kingdom as both troubled economies and divided societies, comfortable superficiality is the last thing that our politicians should now be offering. When electorates are more radical than those who seek their votes, it is not the electorates that need to change.

III

Such a dramatic redefinition of the policy priorities of the Democratic Left is not, of course, without its dangers. It will inevitably invite backlash: backlash not just from political conservatives threatened by the exposure of the hypocrisy of their politics, but backlash too from more moderate Democrats and Laborites whose role and record is now fully under challenge.10 Indeed that backlash is already well under way: with the legitimacy of Jeremy Corbyn’s likely victory already being questioned by former Blairite luminaries,11 and with moderate Democrats in Washington quietly regrouping around Joe Biden as the Clinton campaign begins to look ever more vulnerable.12

The main argument currently being deployed here is that the Anglo-American electorate in general is too conservative to ever generate a Sanders’ presidency or a Corbyn-led Labour Party victory.13 Critics of the new radicalism point to the resilience of the Republican vote in the American heartland, and to the four million votes won by the anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party in the May General Election. They then use both as evidence that the US and British electorates are more open to conservative rhetoric than to its radical equivalent, and as justifications for outflanking that conservatism on its right by renewed promises of center-left moderation in office.

But the more faint-hearted members of the current center-left coalitions on both sides of the Atlantic would do well to remember that electorates that are truly conservative invariably prefer to vote for genuine conservatives on election-day, rather than for their paler, electorally-motivated moderate opponents. They would also do well to remember that neither the US or UK electorates are currently as conservative as the moderate critics of Corbyn and Sanders imply. The UK Conservative Party won the last general election because of the vagaries of the UK electoral system, rather than because of overwhelming popular support for Conservative policies. Only 37.5% of those who voted in May voted Conservative. Almost two voters in three did not! In the two-horse US presidential election in 2012, electoral support for Mitt Romney was higher: but at 206 electoral votes in an electoral college of 538, support for the Republican Party and its leading candidate was well short of the national sweep that a successful presidential campaign requires. There are plenty of conservative voters out there, it is true: but there are also millions of frustrated progressive ones.

IV

So progressive supporters of Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn should take heart from the fact that the outcome of elections is not something fixed in stone, years in advance. They should gather strength from the fact that elections are rather political battles won long in advance, and won by sustained campaigning around progressive agendas that alone can pull the center of political gravity back from the conservative settlement point now so effectively articulated by the likes of Donald Trump.

The fact that such a political repositioning is possible is already clear from the enthusiastic response to the campaigns of Sanders14 and Corbyn15 by wide social groupings in both countries: by old and young voters alike, by long-term activists and the newly mobilized, and by workers in manufacturing industries, in public service sectors and even in the professions. That enthusiasm does more than suggest a lack of support for the old politics of the Clinton-Blair era, though it certainly does suggest that.16 It also points to the emergence of a new electorate: one that is keen to see public policies put in place that genuinely enhance social justice – one that is available to be shaped and energized by principled political leadership, but also one that is likely to be quickly disillusioned and alienated by anything less.

If progressives fear, as many do,17 that too radical a program will let in its ultra-conservative alternative, such fear should not lead them to abandon radicalism and its leading advocates. It should instead inspire Americans with progressive values to join the Sanders campaign, and their UK equivalents to support Jeremy Corbyn – the better in both countries to help strengthen their message and their programs. Neither of those programs is yet complete or perfect. On the contrary, there is much work to do on both. But each constitutes an important launch-pad for the regeneration of a strong center-left; and each needs to be honored (and supported) as such.

For there is no avoiding the fact that only by articulating a coherent alternative vision, of the kind for which Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn are now striving, can we hope to ultimately keep conservatism at bay and radical politics in the ascendancy. Progressives cannot duck the left-right battle for ideological dominance in the era of Fox News and Murdoch papers, in the hope that if we remain quiet the center of political gravity will remain largely unchanged. That center of gravity is already being dragged ever further to the right in the US by the antics of Donald Trump and his media acolytes, and in the UK by the steady erosion of welfare rights through one Tory legislative move after another. To hold the current political center of gravity where it is, or better still to pull it back in a progressive direction, necessarily requires therefore an equivalent pull from each and every one of us.

As R.H. Tawney once sensibly reminded an earlier generation of Labour Party leaders, the first thing you need to do – if you want to win a political fight – is to get off your knees. And he was right: we don’t win unavoidable battles of ideas by choosing not to fight. So if there was ever a time for courage on the Left, that time is now. The center-left politics of the 1990s, heavy as it was with triangulation and class accommodation – collapsed in the financial crisis of 2008. Its day is done, as is the credibility of anyone associated with it. The Democratic Left needs a new message, a new vision and new leadership. All three are beginning to emerge – and in the end we will all be better for that.

1 Jason Horowitz, “Bernie Sanders Draws Big Crowds to His ‘Political Revolution’,” The New York Times, August 20, 2015: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/21/us/politics/bernie-sanders-evokes-obama-of-08-but-with-less-hope.html

2 Helen Pidd North, “Jez we can! Corby draws thunderous support on rainy day in Middlesbrough,”The Guardian, August 18, 2015: available at http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/aug/18/jez-we-can-corbyn-middlesbrough

3 Rafael Barr, “Whatever Labour’s new leader does, it will have to be done with conviction,” The Guardian, June 17, 2015: available at http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/jun/17/whatever-labours-new-leader-does-it-will-have-to-be-done-with-conviction

4 400,000 new members in just two months, taking the total up to 600,000. Some no doubt, as critics claim, are spoilers: people joining to support the most radical candidate in the hope of making Labour unelectable. But the overwhelming majority of new members are not of that kind. They are progressives excited by the prospect of helping to pull the Labour Party firmly to the left For more general data on UK political party membership, see Richard Keen, Membership of UK Political Parties, Briefing Paper SN05125, House of Commons Library, August 11, 2015.

5 Steven Rosenfeld, “20 Big Ideas From Bernie Sanders to Reverse Inequality, Expand Safety Nets and Stop America’s Plutocrats,” posted on Aternet.org May 27, 2015: available athttp://www.alternet.org/election-2016/20-big-ideas-bernie-sanders-reverse-inequality-expand-safety-nets-and-stop-americas

6 Jim Pickard, “Jeremy Corbyn targets ‘ludicrous’ pay and Murdoch’s media empire,” The Financial Times, August 23, 2015: available at http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/89a31210-4976-11e5-9b5d-89a026fda5c9.html#axzz3jsG0qAQi

7 Jeremy Corbyn, “Investment, growth and tax justice”, posted August 13, 2015: available athttp://www.jeremyforlabour.com/investment_growth_and_tax_justice

8 Robert Skidelsky, “Taking Corbynomics seriously,” posted on socialeurope.eu, August 21, 2015: available at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/jeremy-corbyn-uk-economy-by-robert-skidelsky-2015-08

9 “Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition to austerity is actually mainstream economics,” The Observer, August 23, 2015: available at http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/aug/23/jeremy-corbyns-opposition-to-austerity-is-actually-mainstream-economics

10 Owen Jones, “The Right are mocking Jeremy Corbyn because they fear him,” The New Statesman,August 4, 2015: available athttp://genius.it/7500374/www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/08/owen-jones-right-are-mocking-jeremy-corbyn-because-secretly-they-fear-him

11 PA, “Lord Mandelson offers bleak warning over Labour leadership contest,” The Daily Telegraph,August 26, 2015: available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/labour/11757247/Lord-Mandelson-offers-bleak-warning-over-Labour-leadership-contest.html

12 Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman, “Hillary Clinton’s Woes Pushing Joe Biden to Reach Out to Those Who Would Back a Campaign,” The New York Times, August 21, 2015: available at XXXX

13 Janan Ganesh, “It’s as simple as it seems: Corbyn spells disaster for Labour,” The Financial Times,August 25, 20215: available at http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/85d51748-4a41-11e5-9b5d-89a026fda5c9.htmljQuery111109100316802393387_1440668104883ftcamp=crm/email/_DATEYEARFULLNUM___DATEMONTHNUM___DATEDAYNUM__/nbe/UKPolitics/product#axzz3jgMhxWRg

14 Molly Ball, “There’s Something About Bernie,” The Atlantic, July 29, 2015: available athttp://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/07/theres-something-about-bernie/399740/

15 Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, “Who’s backing Jeremy Corbyn? The young,” New Statesman, July 23, 2015: available at http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/07/whos-backing-jeremy-corbyn-young

16 Benedict Cooper, “The triumph of Corbynism is the death rattle of New Labour,” New Statesman,August 18, 2015: available at http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/08/triumph-corbynism-death-rattle-new-labour

17 Polly Toynbee, “Free to dream, I’d be left of Jeremy Corbyn. But we can’t gamble the future on him,” The Guardian, August 4, 2015: available athttp://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/aug/04/jeremy-corbyn-gamble-labour-future-yvette-cooper-best-chance

Tags: Bernie Sanders, Democratic Left, democratic party, Donald Trump, hegemonic politics, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party, progressives


Dr. David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies. Born in the United Kingdom and educated at the universities of York and Oxford, he came to Wake Forest University in 1999, having previously held personal chairs at the universities of Leeds (in contemporary political economy) and Manchester (in labor studies). He has written extensively on UK labor politics, contemporary political economy and US public policy. For further details, www.davidcoates.net.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

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