How Corbyn’s loss was leveraged to reject Bernie Sanders

– By Jackson Oka

Jeremy Corbyn’s emphatic defeat to Boris Johnson in the December election has meant a variety of things for different interested parties. For young progressive Labour voters, it symbolised a lost opportunity to reclaim the strong lever of government needed to battle economic inequality.

For conservatives, it was reinforcement of an ideology of market-based solutions and fiscal responsibility, as well as a refutation of an antagonistic alternative to the status quo. The rejection of Corbyn and further consolidation of right-wing narratives will continue to cause strife in the UK, but how has this reverberated around the world? 

What has been relatively unrecognised were the implications for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in the United States who, along with an army of liberal political pundits and commentators, were watching the election with acute opportunism. For them, Corbyn’s lacklustre performance provided further ammunition for dismissing the electability of popular candidate Bernie Sanders and his platform of democratic socialism. 

Like Corbyn, Sanders has a long record of commitment to social justice and progressive, revolutionary causes. If Trump’s momentum was a protest against empty platitudes in an era of stale conventional politics, Sanders’ momentum represents a tangible alternative to the real economic concerns of stagnant wages, augmented corporate power, and the widening gap between socio-economic classes.

 In the 2016 US election, a simmering distrust of the political class manifested in the rejection of Hillary Clinton. Anointed by Obama, backed by moderate Democrats and supported by corporate power owing to her neoliberal agenda; Clinton was perfectly placed to fulfil the role of the DNC dynasty’s newest prophet. There was however the slight oversight of how the general population perceived her and what she stood for.

Many voters, including some who supported Bernie Sanders before he was defeated by Clinton in the primaries, saw her as inauthentic, robotic and self-entitled. Trump, au contraire, broke with convention, spoke his mind with bombastic flair, and communicated in an accessible and entertaining way. 

The parallels with Boris Johnson’s rhetoric and political style are not insignificant, as both are ostensibly representatives of ‘the people’ who capture anti-establishment angst reformulated — ironically — as neoliberal policies which have prevailed for decades. In a similarly attractive albeit more sincere manner, Bernie Sanders’ message is unapologetically and explicitly for the working class. 

Just as Corbyn, Bernie is a strong critic of capitalism. He identifies those with exorbitant wealth and disproportionate power as emblematic of the foundational inequality within US society, excluding them from his campaign. This message has resonated with voters; just as Corbyn’s message of power ‘for the many’ resonated with young British liberals.

Despite competing against the influence of corporate interests as well as the disapproval of many Democrats who view his platform as radical and alienating, Sanders outperformed many of his adversaries; building a wide, diverse base of support in the process. But as the majority of the Democratic party coalesce around former Vice President Joe Biden, the true power of Sanders’ campaign is beginning to be truly tested.

In terms of labour power, Sanders’ campaign is backed by the endorsement of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and more than twenty labour unions. On the ground, he benefits from the largest number of small donors, an ‘army’ of prominent left-wing voices on Twitter, and immensely successful left-wing podcasts like Chapo Trap House whose audiences are a young and enthusiastic voting group. 

This base is similar to that of Corbyn’s, reflected in the 2019 election where he overwhelmingly won the young vote, especially those under 24. Many of these are first time voters who, having been dissuaded and pummelled into passivity by the lack of choice in electoral politics, are now finding themselves for the first time motivated to become actively involved. 

There is good reason for the young Left across the Atlantic to be more optimistic than the Corbynites were in December. Bernie had early successes in the primary caucuses in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, winning the popular vote in the first three and placing behind Biden in the fourth.

These successes reflect the popularity of the cornerstone of his policy proposals – Medicare for all, elimination of college debt, higher taxes (particularly on the top income bracket) and raising the minimum wage. Though Sanders has taken a considerable hit in ‘Super Tuesday’ — where 14 states hold primaries simultaneously — he remains the only potential alternative to the establishment candidate. 

As Bernie’s momentum has built, combative strategies shifted and adapted. Initially, liberal media outlets like MSNBC and CNN ignored or dismissed the potential of Sanders winning the nomination, opting instead to focus on the race between tempered progressive Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden. 

But as the unfolding primaries increasingly point to the likelihood of Sanders winning the popular vote, attacks have pivoted to the ‘divisive rhetoric’ of his supporters, with negative similarities being drawn between Trump’s aggressive election campaign. The practicality of his strategy is being called into question. Corbyn’s defeat here in the UK has been portrayed as a cautionary tale of the perils of running an uncompromising and ethically driven campaign.

The rest of the Democratic candidates have averred that their pragmatic and measured approach is the one the public are eager for in order to overcome Trump’s populist strength. These assurances mirror those of Clinton in 2016 who beat Sanders in the Democratic primaries, with some support from the DNC, only to fail to appeal to rust-belt working class and non-college educated white voters in the presidential election.

Sanders therefore faces a similar task that Corbyn did in unifying an uncooperative party and overcoming the hostility of rivalling factions. Significantly though, the US presidential system is separate from houses of representatives, meaning that it is only once in office that this obstacle will truly present itself. 

Though the path to that office is still a monumental task, a battle at each and every step. Firstly, Sanders’ must overcome the now consolidated moderate vote, the split progressive vote caused by Warren’s persistence despite consistently poor performances, and the power of big money donors to secure the party’s nomination.

Secondly, he faces Trump and the Republican party directly who will likely attempt to stoke anti-socialist/communist paranoia, dusting off the ‘red scare’ political playbook to avoid engaging in policy debate. Then finally, at the end of this bleak tunnel, there will be a bellicose Congress and Senate waiting for him to roadblock at every reform.

 Ironically enough though, given national polling data suggesting that Sanders consistently outperforms Donald Trump in presidential debates and his decades long experience negotiating as a minority issue Senator, it is winning the first battle that will prove the most difficult. 

If Sanders does eventually win the DNC’s support, it will assuage more moderate and conservative voters, who will predominantly fall into line to oust Donald Trump and restore some semblance of normality to the now disgraced office.

The struggles described may appear insurmountable, though the path is not as unfamiliar as many presume. Granted, as the global centre of capital the US does lack a history of socialist reforms and protections that many European welfare states and the UK are known for.

It does, however, have the peculiar propensity for electing radical leaders with ambitious objectives on occasion. Franklin D. Roosevelt won in 1933 on a platform of overhauling the national economy to reduce unemployment, poverty, and to undertake large-scale public infrastructure investments. 

Similarly, Lyndon B. Johnson won in 1964 on a platform of progressive reforms and furthering civil rights. Sanders is indeed part of this long lineage of American liberalism, but he would be the first self-declared democratic socialist to achieve office if elected. 

Now is the moment to convert the latent yearning for real reform into political reality. US politics is in a period of flux and volatility which presents its people with a rare opportunity. Through Sanders, they have the ability to touch the invisible force of capital that dictates their lives. The question now is whether he is doomed to the same fate as Corbyn; crucified by the alliance of corporate, media, and political power at the expense of those it governs.

If so, these forces will return to the shadows, remaining hidden, distorted and intentionally concealed by the compelling illusion of political deliberation. A chance to bend these forces towards democratic control is one that ought to be seized; though the painful lessons of history are not comforting for revolutionaries, where power routinely crushes the people.

Image credit: Rebecca Cook – Reuters

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