The rise of Bernie Sanders in the U.S. and Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. highlights the unraveling of the Washington-Westminster neoliberal center and the movement ascendency of a mobilized progressive left alternative.
One of the most remarkable transatlantic political developments this year has been the surprising rise of two unabashedly left-wing insurgent—initially longshot—campaigns that have upset the establishment sensibilities of the Washington-Westminster neoliberal center: Bernie Sanders‘s campaign in the Democratic presidential primary and Jeremy Corbyn‘s race in the Labour Party leadership election.
The reactions by the neoliberal centrist grandees in the Democratic and Labour parties toward the emergence of Sanders and Corbyn have included, among others, not-too subtle, modern-day form of soft red-baiting, and demeaning insults and over-the-top rhetoric. And in some instances the reactions have veered ingloriously into the territory of strident paroxysms, in particular in Corbyn’s case, with, among other things, outright anti-democratic maneuvering and chilling warnings about an intra-party putsch. (Should Sanders be on the verge of capturing the Democratic nomination for president in 2016, his campaign would do well to wisely study the British establishment’s all-out assault against Corbyn and be ready to counter similar undermining torrents of attacks that may await the senator should the neoliberal Beltway centrist insider class become severely rattled by the political threat posed by a left-wing insurgent within reach of leading a major party.)
In light of all this, what explains the reactions toward the insurgent campaigns of Sanders and Corbyn by the neoliberal array of centrist Democratic and Labour grand party poohbahs? One word: Fear.
Specifically, they fear that their Democratic and Labour centrist theory of progressive change has lost its legitimate hold, credibility, and political luster among the vast swath of supporters in each party as the political landscape has shifted to the left, among the grassroots base, in a seismic fashion in revulsion to the many decades of unprincipled triangulation and the domination of carefully scripted politics of style over profound, progressive substance. And that such lost only does more to publicly reinforce what many astute party activists and outside progressive critics of the Democratic and Labour establishment have long known: the ideological exhaustion, failure, and ideological bankruptcy of third way neoliberal centrism that has gripped both center-left parties for more than two decades.
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During the 1980s, in the aftermath of successive defeats by Democrats and Labour to, respectively, Reaganism and Thatcherism, the centrists in each party argued—with the force of seeming credibility that arises after losing landslide elections—that the electoral shellackings were caused by one critical thing. Specifically, each party supposedly veered too unfashionable left during the decade of conservatism.
Now, in the Democratic Party, the form of this argument specifically posited that the party’s landslide defeat in the 1984 presidential election, under the helm of former Vice-President Walter Mondale (viewed by party centrists, at that time, as the paragon of out-dated Hubert Humphrey-style liberalism), resulted from the party’s self-defeating attachment to interest group liberalism and its alleged anti-business predilections. While, similarly, the Labour version of this critique went something like this: the reason for its landslide defeat by Thatcher in the 1983 general election was because the party embraced an “unelectable” left-wing manifesto (famously derided, at that time, as the “longest suicide note in history“) pushed jointly by the supposedly feckless leadership of Michael Foot, who coddled Labour’s hard leftists, and those, within the party leadership, content in standing resolutely with the party’s old constituencies (i.e., the working class and the trade union movement) at the expense of targeting “Middle England” and its so-called “aspirational” sensibilities. (Never mind that Foot actually came out of Labour’s long-standing “soft left“ tradition centered around Tribune magazine that took a determined, implacable stand against hard leftism, especially entryist tactics by Trotskyists, that was indistinguishable from the anti-radical old Labour revisionist Right. And never mind that elements, within Labour leadership, for years actually supported several policies that were inimical to the interests of trade unionists as well as embracing the proto-Thatcherite turn to monetarism under the last pre-Blair Labour government under the premiership of James Callaghan during the late 1970s.)
In essence, according to centrist neoliberals in both parties, the bane of the Democratic and Labour parties’ electoral woes, during the 1980s, encompassed the old, unfashionable gospel of traditional Keynesian New Deal-Fair Deal-Great Society liberalism (progressive liberalism) and Fabian social democracy that failed to speak to the conservative mood of the 1980s and the changing rightward drift of the voting public. (In 1989, public intellectuals associated with Democratic centrism of the Progressive Policy Institute [interestingly, the Blairite pressure group, continuing the centrist knack for appropriating progressive branding, calls itself Progress], went so far as to even label—with marginalizing rhetoric—party adherents to traditional liberalism as “liberal fundamentalists.”) Essentially, the thinking that emerged during the 1980s and early 1990s among many centrists in both parties was that the only sensible conclusion that could be soundly drawn from all of this was the following: for Democrats and Labour to be electable they must hew to the “sensible center” and resist any and all attempts to veer toward the “unelectable” left.
And it was from these aforementioned arguments that sought to explain the Democratic and Labour electoral traumas of the 1980s at the hands of conservatives that provided the intellectual foundation for the theory of progressive change propounded by neoliberal centrists in both parties. According to party centrists, because the Democratic and Labour parties were electorally marginalized after subsequent defeats to conservatives during 1980s (that included landslide losses), the only alternative for the center-left parties was for them to regain the “center.” (In other words, tacking toward the political right since, for all practical purposes, conservatism during the 1980s helped shift, in a rightward direction, the political center in the U.S. and U.K.).
Without moving to the center—so argued by centrists (that required modifying the parties’ values away from their own supposedly unelectable progressive values and policies)—both center-left parties would continue to suffer electoral defeats and thus be marginalized in the political landscape. And, as such, the failure to electorally achieve victory would prevent each party from attaining power. Without power, according to the centrist argument, both the Democratic and Labour parties would be in no position to enact the necessary progressive changes that were (1) required to counter the political right and undo the damaging achievements of successive conservative governments, and (2) demanded by the parties’ grassroots to critically sustain continued support for, and interest in, the parties by their supporters.
In essence, the implicit thrust behind the centrist theory of progressive change is this: achieving political power—a critical threshold that must be first met—would inexorably take care of political principles. For without power, any focus on principles would be nothing more than a pointless exercise of political impotency. The enactment of principles, through policies, is only achievable if a party possesses the levers of power to act. And to possess the levers of power requires winning elections.
In light of this, Democratic and Labour centrists offered their parties’ more progressive base of grassroots supporters the following proposition: We, like you, want to achieve the sort of progressive change that is at the core of our party’s values. But to do so requires that our party achieves power. And we cannot achieve power so long as our party is perceived, beyond the party base, as ‘unelectable’ as the public has shifted to the right. As such, we must moderate—if not downplay—our party’s core progressive values in order to win. Although we realize that many party supporters think that this approach goes against what our party stands for, in the end, the rewarding trade-off is this—power. Once we achieve power, then we can advance our shared progressive principles through governance that leads to concrete legislation.
Sadly, for many decades, far too many among Democratic and Labour progressive supporters accepted the proposition outlined above—and acquiesced, albeit with discontented grumblings, to both parties moving more and more to the right after each election during the 1990s and early 2000s. (To be fair, such acquiescence is understandable, especially for those progressive partisans of the Democratic and Labour parties who were old enough to have lived through the political traumas of consecutive defeats at the hands of, respectively, Reaganism and Thatcherism during the 1980s.)
More disconcertingly is the fact that as the centrist proposition gained tremendous currency among the parties’ leadership class and, to a certain degree, an electorally traumatized grassroots base of each party, what started out initially, in its early manifestation, as a strategic debate over electorally strategy, later morphed into a substantive debate over the parties’ identities. Specifically, what should each party stand for? It was in this milieu that emerged the rise of organized neoliberal centrism that has, till this day, come to dominate both parties: the New Democrats who arose during the mid-1980s under the auspices of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) (superseding, in a more rightward direction, even those on the right-edge of technocratic liberalism of the early ’80s—American-style neoliberals, i.e., “Atari Democrats“) and the emergence of New Labour during the early 1990s led by the Blair-Brown-Mandelson wing of so-called “modernizers” in Labour.
Now, the most damning aspect in all of this is that the fundamental premises (i.e., the electoral lessons of the 1980s gleaned by party centrists), used to discredit progressive liberalism in the Democratic Party and social democracy in Labour, suffer from one critical defect: they are both historically problematic. Specifically, the premises are misreadings of the actual electoral histories of the 1980s in the U.S. and U.K.
In 1984, Walter Mondale, despite his political pedigree steeped in the political tradition of Hubert Humphrey-style Midwestern lunch pail liberalism, actually ran on a technocratic, mildly center-right economic program. As astutely pointed out in The American Prospect by Jeff Faux, the founder of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), Mondale ran on an budgetary program that accepted Reaganism:
In 1984 the New York Times headlined: “Democrats’ Platform Shows a Shift from Liberal Positions of 1976 and 1980.” The press lauded Walter Mondale’s acceptance speech for its break with the past. “Look at our platform,” said Mondale. “There are no defense cuts that weaken our security, no business taxes that weaken our economy. No laundry lists that raid our Treasury.”
Now, across the Atlantic, the conventional wisdom, accepted as gospel by Labour centrists to explain their party’s electoral drubbing during the 1983 election, fares no better either. As perceptively pointed out by Craig Murray, human rights activist and former British Ambassador, the “Falklands War factor” had much to do with contributing to Thatcher’s 1983 victory:
Michael Foot consistently led Margaret Thatcher in opinion polls – by a wide margin – until the Falklands War. He was defeated in a victory election by the most appalling and intensive wave of popular war jingoism and militarism. . . . It was the most unedifying political climate imaginable. . . . Few serious commentators at the time doubted that Thatcher might have been defeated were it not for the Falklands War.
Moreover, in terms of Labour, one should also add the vote-splitting effect of the Social Democratic Party (SDP)—a then-new third party comprised of leading social-democratic centrists who bolted from Labour in 1981 under the auspices of the Limehouse Declaration—on Britain’s anti-Tory center-left vote during the 1983 election. Also, there are even some who would go so far as to argue, quite persuasively, that the SDP’s vote-splitting effect was the crucial factor in tilting the ’83 elections to Margaret Thatcher. Either way, the joint debilitating impact of the Falklands War and the SDP-Liberal Alliance‘s vote-splitting effect—rather than, squarely, Labour’s much-maligned election manifesto (one that was “timid compared with the 1974 manifesto, which put Labour in government,” as noted by the former Joint Secretary of the Labour Representation Committee, Andrew Fisher)—seriously undermined Labour’s chances to defeat Thatcher at the ballot box.
As such in light of all this, the aforementioned premises peddled by centrists lack persuasive explanatory power in understanding what happened, electorally, to the Democratic and Labour parties during the age of Reagan and Thatcher. As a result, this glaring problem calls into question the centrist theory of progressive change. If the Democrats’ and Labour’s losses, during the 1980s, resulted more from outside factors than anything related to each party’s supposed “leftist drift” during that decade, then tacking rightward to the center-right, particularly on economic policy, would have no decisive impact, alone, on the likelihood of center-left parties achieving power. Thus, the supposed intra-party tension, among Democrats and Labour, between the politics of power and the politics of principles is nothing more than an illusory choice.
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Now, even if one assumes that the basic premises in explaining the Democratic and Labour electoral traumas of the 1980s are essentially correct (which, again, they clearly are not)—the bases of which have been used to give persuasive heft to the centrist theory of progressive change—such theory, on its own merit, suffers a defect as glaringly problematic as its bases. A center-left party tacking to the right, to achieve electoral success to obtain power, does not make it more likely that progressive change will occur. Why? Because moving toward the right—and, by extension, failing to challenge the conservative framework that defines the limits of political debate—does nothing more than to further legitimize conservatism in the electoral landscape even if the center-left party gains power by vanquishing the right at the ballot box. By legitimizing right-wing politics, a center-left party who moves rightward simply reinforces the further entrenchment of conservatism as the unquestioned, default political center and thus pushes the Overton Window further to the right with the effect of severely circumscribing the ability of progressives, once in power, to pursue even mildly center-left policies, let alone those that are robustly left-wing.
Furthermore, moving rightward to capture the highly elusive, free-floating political middle in order to win (and thus achieve power) is, from a pragmatic standpoint, a dubious proposition for the center-left. Why should voters pull the lever for center-right Democratic or Labour candidates when they could just vote for the real deal, i.e., conservatives with the more stalwart commitment to right-wing policies? (Or, as George Monbiot recently wrote in The Guardian: “Why vote for the echo when you can vote for the shout?”) And, even more problematic, why should each party’s own voters bother to show up and vote when their own respective party apes the opposition’s political and policy positions that do nothing more than make these political supporters dispirited and unmotivated to vote on election day (as had happened during the 2010 mid-terms for the Democrats) or to push them into the camp of third parties, even right-wing ones (as what occurred recently for Labour in last May’s British premiership election)?
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In light of all this, this is why the rise of Sanders and Corbyn is one of the most important developments to come out of the 2015 political season. Sanders and Corbyn are not only tapping into the deep, passionate and engaged energy of robust resurgent progressivism that’s resonating among large sections of the electorate disaffected by the prevailing Washington-Westminster neoliberal consensus, but these candidates are doing it by refuting, head-on, the centrist theory of progressive change in an unabashed fashion. In essence, what these candidates are offering to the public is a bold progressive alternative that’s attempting to shift the national political dialogue leftward by campaigning unequivocally on the left with clear left-wing messages and policies of which the American and British electorates have not seen since the days when Democratic and Labour politicians actually believed in the progressive liberal and social-democratic values of their parties. The neoliberal centrist days, inside the center-left parties, of downplaying progressive values and embracing the me-too (lite) politics of mimicking the right (i.e., compassionate neoliberalism) are clearly waning.
And more importantly, the receptivity to embracing the neoliberal centrist theory of progressive change has decisively lost its enduring hold among the party grassroots base, as Democratic and Labour supporters, in large numbers, are not only rejecting such politics but are doing something critically about it: they’re politically mobilizing in a progressive fashion. Specifically, they’re organizing to create sustainable progressive movements in the U.K. and U.S. that will exist beyond the conclusion of each campaign for Corbyn and Sanders, irrespective of what happens to the electoral fortunes of these two men, respectively, in 2015 and 2016. The voters of this sizable, engaged progressive electorate, in each country, are rejecting en masse the politically exhausted and bankrupt ideology of neoliberal centrism that’s been prevalent among center-left parties. In contrast, Sanders and Corbyn are the sharp antitheses to the decades-old centrist politics (and its concomitant theory of progressive change): theirs is the politics of principles over vacuity, substance over style, policies over personalities, values over triangulation, and, more importantly, robust progressivism over compassionate neoliberalism. The spin politics of poll-driven policies and triangulating accommodation has clearly run it course, while the signpost politics of conviction is clearly in the ascendency.
Now, although the final outcomes of the Sanders and Corbyn campaigns are yet to be decided—though both show tremendous possibilities and promise—what is certain is that, as a result of their political emergence this summer, politics going forward will not be the same. Politics as usual (i.e., party centrism’s slavish accommodation with the right) will not cut it anymore among supporters of America’s and Britain’s main center-left parties.
What Sanders and Corbyn have tapped into is the growing, building momentum of a resurgent political left. It is a left-wing resurgence that arose in the wake of global neoliberalism’s greatest meltdown in 2008, and the subsequent age of austerity and, many would argue, the unmet progressive potential of the Obama presidency. It is also a resurgent left that manifested itself during the past several years that included the popular, organized movements against anti-labor attacks by the GOP in Wisconsin, the upsurge of Occupy activism against rampant inequality and the 1% economy, and the meteoric rise of the progressive Warren-wing inside the Democratic Party. Though the Sanders and Corbyn campaigns cannot claim credit for being the sources behind the groundswell renaissance of the progressive left in both their parties, what they can deservedly take credit for is providing political vehicles, through their candidacies, that give voice to such energy and channeling it in a constructive democratic fashion: through engaged electoral politics. And because of this, for people in America and the British Isles who believe in a principled and thoughtful politics of compassion and inclusion, progressive reform and social justice, the political cultures in both countries are all better for it.
(Photo: Photographs of Bernie Sanders [left] and Jeremy Corbyn [right]. Sanders photo by Gage Skidmore on Flickr licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License. Corbyn photo by stopwar.uk.org on Flickr licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License. Both photos used in the post cropped by the post’s author.)