What Bernie Sanders can learn from Britain’s Bernie Sanders
Last fall, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) won an endorsement of sorts from across the Atlantic. Jeremy Corbyn, on the eve of his election as leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, expressed enthusiasm for an insurgency that looked a lot like his own. “We’re exchanging leaflets and badges and things like that,” Corbyn told the BBC.
The echoes were obvious to observers in both countries. Almost at the same instant, after decades on the back benches, two grey-haired leftists arose, rumpled and cranky, as avatars of the New Authenticity. Corbyn, at age 66, and Sanders, at 74, found that their shared brand of progressive populism struck a chord with millennial voters. In September, those voters swept Corbyn into the leader’s chair, over the shrill objections of the party establishment. On Mar. 26, their American cousins gave Sanders sweeping victories in three state caucuses, sustaining his campaign in the face of steep odds.
Yet, Corbyn is already a cautionary tale. The six months he has led his party have been a period of almost ceaseless internal struggle. The troubles have many causes, not all of which have a parallel in American politics — unlike Britain’s parliamentary system, for example, the United States has no party leaders as such.
But Corbyn’s trials should interest an American audience, especially Sanders’ supporters. What Corbyn is undertaking is, in important respects, a dry run of a Sanders nomination — even a Sanders presidency. The Labour leader is demonstrating just how hard it is for a protest politician to carry the mantle of national leadership.
Sanders and Corbyn have a similar style (or anti-style), make similarly class-based appeals and seek similar goals, principally a redistribution of wealth and power. But their connection runs deeper than that. The two men share an underlying premise about political power: that an electoral coalition can become a full-fledged movement, and that after the election, its energy can not only be sustained, but also increased.
Corbyn, to this end, promises a “new politics of engagement and involvement”; Sanders urges “revolution.” By either name, the notion is the same: A grass-roots movement will overpower what Sanders calls “the ruling class” and usher in an era not just of change, but transformation across the political and policy landscape.
Corbyn and Sanders aim to succeed where Organizing for Action, the successor to President Barack Obama’s campaign organization, has failed. The group has fallen well short of its ambition to imbue issues like climate change with election-like urgency and, in the process, turn campaign volunteers into a permanent pressure group.
In Britain, however, the enthusiasm that Corbyn stirred in young voters is already dissipating. Corbyn’s forces have launched an organization named — a bit wishfully — Momentum, with the aim of keeping supporters energized as it battles politically moderate “Blairites” for control of the party machinery.
The group is off to a stumbling start. When its members were accused of harassing Labour members of Parliament who had voted for air strikes against the Syrian regime, Corbyn’s own deputy leader dismissed Momentum as “a bit of a rabble.” Other M.P.’s are calling for it to stop “acting as a party within a party” and, better still, to disband.
For all its ambitions, Momentum has done nothing to offset the exodus of moderates from the Labour Party. Two members of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet recently spent several weeks traveling across England, interviewing hundreds of voters. Most who had left Labour last fall to back the Tories, or even the right-wing U.K. Independence Party, were unrepentant.
The qualities that excited British millennials look like liabilities to the wider electorate. In focus groups, many Britons complained about Corbyn’s shabby appearance. One former Labour voter said that when Corbyn sits on the front bench in the House of Commons, “you think, ‘who let you in there?’ He looks totally out of place.” Another remarked that Corbyn looked more like a grocery checkout clerk than a potential prime minister.
None of this is helping Corbyn gain hold of a balky, divided and ever more defiant party. Like Sanders, Corbyn has spent most of his political life on the margins, where he commanded no faction, collected no chits. To an anti-political electorate, this has its appeal. But it is difficult to lead the party when you have never really been of the party — when you have, in fact, held it at arm’s length.
As Corbyn is making amply clear, the politics of personal conscience are a poor substitute for the skills of compromise and conciliation — the wellsprings of party loyalty. This has been in short supply.
Last week, the Times of London published a list — reportedly left in a pub by someone in Corbyn’s circle — ranking the loyalty of every Labour M.P. Most were found wanting. One member of the “hostile” group responded with a bitter lament about what Corbyn has wrought in the name of “authenticity”: “The ‘new politics’ embraces amateurism; it rejects professional politics as an article of faith and, accordingly, it places no importance on the basic disciplines required for political success.” Others talk of unseating Corbyn. “He’s got to go,” one M.P. texted a reporter, “he’s just got to go.”
Transatlantic analogies can be overdrawn. The political culture of Britain and that of the United States are different in innumerable ways. Still, it is likely that a President Sanders would face some of the same challenges that Corbyn is now confronting. Only half a year after taking the helm, Corbyn is a party leader who has no party behind him, a movement politician whose movement is packing up its placards until, perhaps, the next election.
This suggests why former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is increasingly emphasizing her insider credentials — her strong commitment to the Democratic Party and its members. At a rally on Saturday in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Clinton noted that she has been “a proud Democrat all my adult life. … That’s kind of important if we’re selecting someone to be the Democratic nominee of the Democratic Party.”
Sanders, for his part, wears the party label only reluctantly: Last month, he said that he was running as a Democrat because independent candidates have a hard time getting media coverage. And unlike Clinton, he has thus far refused to raise money for other Democrats. Sanders is, as he must remain, an outsider — though he appears to recognize the difficulty of building and directing a mass movement.
In an interview last month with the Los Angeles Times editorial board, Sanders conceded that his “ambitious agenda” won’t go anywhere “unless millions of people become involved in the political process in a way that they don’t right now.” When an editor asked how he planned to achieve that, Sanders called it a “very good question. And if I had the definitive answer,” he added, “I would give it to you.”
If Sanders wants to be president — and more important, to succeed as president — he will need a better answer.