Saturday, 23 January 2016

Explaining Sanders and Corbyn

A longish post in which the author ruminates on why one has succeeded in capturing the Labour party and the other might possibly get the Democratic nomination against conventional wisdom.

Corey Robin at CrookedTimber has a post up about the USA election, specifically on the fact that the race for the Democratic nomination looks like it's going to be close; in the Iowa poll and the New Hampshire primary Bernie Sanders appears to be leading Hillary Clinton by eight points, and a whopping twenty-seven point lead respectively. Still a way's to go yet, of course, but this is rather surprising.

The parallels between Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have been noted since both campaigns began. Both are, seeming, outsiders who are suddenly getting a groundswell of support. But the two parties they're running in are in, respectively, different positions: the Democrats have held power for the last eight-years, whereas Labour have been out of it for the last five, going on ten. Nonetheless, I think there are some similarities in why they're both doing well. These, essentially, have to do with two things: the problem of 'the end of history' and the problem of the 'Third Way'.

I should explain this; Francis Fukuyama, as everyone knows, declared that history had ended in 1989, and then definitely ended in 1991. The Soviet Union collapsed and that was the end of ideological battle. Socialism lost, capitalism (more specifically liberal democracy) won and all that was left was for people to wait for the rest of the world to fall in line. This was the TINA generation, effectively. And it was out of this, to a degree, that the Third Way evolved.

The Third Way was the project of triangulation, started by Bill Clinton and adopted by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as the means by which left-wing parties could rejuvenate themselves and get into power. There's a lot spoken about it, but what it amounts to is this: move right-wards to occupy the centre ground.

This is the two prongs on the explanation. The generation of young people have grown up being told that this is the way the world is, there is no alternative. And you should never underestimate the power of a grumpy old man saying 'no it f*cking isn't'. That's a powerful driver, where people discover that actually there are alternatives. And for this generation there isn't the baggage and the hangover from the actually existing Socialist regimes spoiling the dream [1]. Secondly there's a general tirdness with triangulation and the Third Way politics.

This is most apparent in Corbyn's case. The Labour party was, effectively, told that in order to win the election they needed to address people's 'very real concerns' (i.e. be tough on deficits and the causes of deficits, and tough on immigrants and the causes of immigrants). And the party swallowed this. The belief was that the Conservatives would be booted out after running the economy off a cliff and the Lib Dem collapse would favour Labour. Things didn't quite pan out that way, though, for a variety of different reasons.

The membership was thus very irate that, having been assured that this was the way to win, they had in fact lost. And that the party was then rushing out to tell them that next time would be different if they just moved that bit further to the right. Fed up they then plumped for the only person who seemed to actually speak human, and put his standard in the ground without any sloganeering or fannying about or playing silly political games (as Harman and the others did on the welfare vote).

This is also the case from the other direction with Sanders. This piece, by Ezra Klein, explains how a Democrat, Lucy Flores, came to support Sanders. Because he represents the idea of breaking with the current system, ending the big money monopoly in America and reducing inequality so that everyone can have a better chance. As noted in the piece, this is similar to how Obama ran his campaign. And I think that gets to the nub of the problem. Democrat voters have been disappointed by Obama. Not enough to allow any of the Dukes of Hell masquerading as humans that the Republicans have put up, but enough to allow them some control in the House and Senate.

I might be wrong but for a significant chunk of Democrats I believe think that they missed an opportunity [2]. That they believed that Obama was an opportunity for a new FDR - pushing through bigger financial reform, welfare system upgrades and getting a proper bloody civilized healthcare regime through. Now some of this was achieved by Obama, but it was a bit underwhelming compared with what people thought they were going to be getting [3]. In this case Clinton is suffering precisely because she is the continuity candidate; people want more, more than what Obama gave. That's what Sanders represents.

Paul Krugman's points are well taken about the vagueness of some of Sander's plans. But I think that people are aware of this vagueness but they don't care [4]. They want something to dream for, to aim high as it were. They are, in short, as tired of the whole triangulation guff that Clinton and Obama, to a degree, represented as the Labour members were. Now they just want someone having the courage to advocate for something big.

Whether Sanders can do it or not is another question, just as it with Corbyn. But given the Republican field, he's got a heck of a chance; as John Scalzi points out, for many centrists in this it may well be the case that 'any democrat will do'. And that sense of a chance might just be what's driving people. Whichever way the cards fall in this it's going to be fascinating to watch.


[1] I think there's an implicit recognition about this among the commetariat and hence why articles of the 'I used to be/my parents were intolerant left-wing arseholes, but then I saw the light/the error of their blinkered views and became an intolerant right-wing arsehole' variety are cropping up everywhere.

[2] Obama didn't help himself on this by spending a significant chunk of his first term attempting to be the 'Great Con-sensor' when it was obvious to everyone that the Republican's weren't interested.

[3] The point about never letting a good crisis go to waste applies to both Left and Right parties. It's just the left parties are always too timid to take advantage of the opportunities.

[4] His other post (which I can't link to because I've run out of free articles for the NYT) about how a Sanders win would inevitably lead to a Trump victory is not so strong though. Not least because that exact same argument could have been deployed against Obama and is thus demonstrated to be wrong.

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