Was Bernie Sanders the American version of Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn? In the aftermath of Super Tuesday and the Michigan primary, the answer is yes—and no.
The parallels are striking: Both the 78-year-old Sanders and the 70-year-old Corbyn are living fossils of the left of the 1960s and ’70s. Both were marginal figures in politics for decades—Sanders as the only self-described socialist in the United States Senate, Corbyn as a backbencher in the Labour Party of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Both combine support for social democratic reforms including the socialization of major industries—nationalization of rail in Corbyn’s case, nationalization of health care in the case of Sanders—with a reflexive (though nuanced in the case of Sanders) opposition to U.S. military intervention abroad. In foreign policy, Corbyn has more of a Third Worldist ideology than Sanders, despite the latter’s praise for Fidel Castro’s allegedly wonderful literacy programs in Cuba—a ritual talking point of the fellow travelers of the Cold War era—along with the supposed virtues of now-defunct communist worker cooperatives in Yugoslavia.
Both Sanders and Corbyn had a chance to emerge as national leaders only after the Great Recession had discredited the bipartisan establishment with its shared vision of market-driven globalization under American/Western military domination. In the United States and Britain, as in other Western democracies, the failure of establishment centrism made viewpoints on the left and right that were formerly considered extreme seem more credible to many citizens than the exhausted neoliberal consensus.
As politicians who were also mass movement leaders, both Sanders and Corbyn benefited from the half century of decay of institutionalized party structures. The decline of the parties as strong organizations has turned them into little more than brand names, subject to attempts at capture by outsiders over the objections of legacy party establishments. Some of these outsiders are self-financed candidates, like Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer. Some are TV celebrities, like Italy’s Beppo Grillo and Donald Trump, who though rich, is more a celebrity politician like Arnold Schwarzenegger than a major donor dabbling in politics like Bloomberg and Steyer.
And some are movement leaders, like Sanders and Corbyn. Both men are anything but charismatic in their modest styles of dress and speech, but each has benefited from a cult of personality among their devoted followers. In an age of weak parties, mobilized movements, like mobilized money and mobilized celebrity, can hope to capture a national party label.
Both Sanders and Corbyn have been astute politicians, able to appeal beyond their fervent followers to assemble diverse groups in a broad left-of-center coalition. Putting and keeping together old-fashioned unionists, academic socialists, and apocalyptic Green activists convinced that the human race may be extinct as a result of climate change in a few decades is no easy feat.
Ultimately, however, both failed. Corbyn led the Labour Party to its most crushing defeat in generations at the hands of Boris Johnson’s Conservatives. And as of this writing, the success of Joe Biden in the Super Tuesday state Democratic primaries and most of those since makes the nomination of Bernie Sanders as the Democratic presidential candidate improbable if not impossible.
The very success of Corbyn and Sanders as coalition builders uniting the left contained the seeds of their defeat. The reason is simple—all of the various factions of the left put together make up a minority of the electorate, in both Britain and the United States. To win a general election, a party of the left must appeal to nonleftists. But this will not happen if some of the elements of the left-wing coalition repel nonleftist voters.
In the United States as in Britain, it can be argued, there are three lefts: the labor left, the socialist left, and what has come to be known as the woke left. These are entirely different movements, with different worldviews, constituencies, and histories.
The labor left is sometimes described as “social democracy,” but this is misleading, inasmuch as important elements of both the American and British labor left do not trace their origins to continental European revisionist Marxism. During the generation after World War II, center-left parties on both sides of the Atlantic were allied with powerful unions concentrated in manufacturing, mining, infrastructure, and transportation. Some trade union leaders and activists were socialists, but the labor left in general was content with a mixed economy, in which government provided a basic safety net while powerful unions bargained with employers for better wages, working conditions, and benefits.
Along with the once-powerful labor left, there was always a tiny and mostly insignificant socialist left, influenced by Marx but not dogmatically Marxist. Consisting largely of professors, journalists, and trust-fund bohemians on the sidelines of politics, this group clung to versions of Marx’s stage theory of history and watched for signs of the inevitable crisis that would lead to the replacement of capitalism, including the welfare-statist, mixed-economy form that the labor left accepted. Some socialists worked for pro-worker reforms within the conventional system, while others denounced trade unionists as “class collaborationists” for cutting deals with employers.
The third left in the trans-Atlantic democracies is what has come to be known as “woke” (a term borrowed from left-wing African American activism). In the 1990s, the name for this school, borrowed from communism, was “political correctness.” The roots of the contemporary woke left lie deep in 19th-century German/European Romanticism, with its ethic of the authentic individual, its celebration of cultural diversity, its hostility to the Enlightenment, and its cult of the pure and spiritual natural world. Every generation or two, this romantic strain on the left flowers for a decade or so, before vanishing again until its next springtime. The bohemianism of the early 20th century and the hippie and back-to-nature movements of the ’60s and ’70s were efflorescences of this perennial tradition. Today’s woke hipster left, celebrating the right to choose one’s own authentic gender and calling for the salvation of nature from industry-caused climate change, is the latest manifestation of this quasi-religious romantic mentality.
Of the three lefts, the only one that has ever had broad popular support in modern industrial democracies is the labor left. Its traditional agenda—higher wages for poorly paid workers, decent working conditions, affordable health care and other necessary services, adequate retirement income—is popular among many voters on the right side of the political spectrum as well as in the center and on the left. Indeed, polls showed widespread public support for many of the economic proposals of both Sanders and Corbyn.
What did Corbyn in, and what may have already done Sanders in, are the other two lefts: the socialist left and the woke left, since neither has significant support in the electorate. Foregrounding the obsessions of these noisy but tiny movements by denouncing “capitalism” as such or devoting a disproportionate amount of attention to issues involving the minuscule portion of the population that is transgender, drives off voters who are not socialists and who do not share the fad-driven woke culture of a portion of the highly educated elites of the United States and Britain.
Serving common-sense wage and social insurance proposals buried under a heaping helping of what strikes many voters as radical weirdness was political suicide in Britain’s general election in December and in the Democratic primaries on Super Tuesday. The Labour Party under Corbyn lost great numbers of working-class districts, possibly forever. The Sanders campaign was too odd for most black American Democratic primary voters, who are far from being conservatives, no matter what some embittered white hipsters claim in the aftermath of their hero’s defeat.
Here the difference between Sanders in 2016 and Sanders in 2020 is instructive: In 2016, Sanders did relatively well among rural and white working-class voters, because he campaigned on classic labor-left issues, some of them shared with Trump, like protection of American manufacturing from unfair competition with low-wage foreign workers. In his first presidential campaign, Sanders was criticized by the woke left for “class reductionism” and neglect of race and gender, and his followers were caricatured as anti-black, misogynist “Bernie bros.” Sanders was also denounced for sharing the labor left’s traditional worry that mass immigration would undermine worker bargaining power with employers.
In 2020, in contrast, Sanders engaged in an arms race with the other major progressive candidate, Elizabeth Warren, to ingratiate himself with the various groupuscules and coteries of the woke left. Sanders reversed himself on immigration and adopted the woke left’s hostility to any effective enforcement of immigration laws. He uncritically endorsed the propaganda of the crackpot fringes of the climate change movement, claiming that if elected he would outlaw fracking, prosecute oil and gas company executives as criminals, and transition to wholly renewable energy in a decade, something that no credible engineer or physicist believes to be possible. To his discredit, even though he is the regular victim of Russia-baiting tactics by his neoliberal and conservative critics, he even repeated the false claim that Vladimir Putin and his army of Russian trolls had swung the U.S. presidential election from Clinton to Trump and threatened to control American democracy.
The result? By Super Tuesday, the Bernie Sanders who could present himself as the rumpled, avuncular avatar of common sense and the tribune of working-class people of all regions and views had been replaced by a politician who, like his rival Warren, seemed to be competing to win college campuses and hipster havens like Brooklyn, Oakland, and Takoma Park. On Super Tuesday, Biden defeated Sanders in rural areas, small towns, and suburbs. Meanwhile, the wave of youthful leftist voters who were supposed to be inspired by Sanders to go to the polls did not materialize.
Here we come to the major difference between Sanders and Corbyn: the difference between the parties they led or sought to lead. The Corbyn faction managed to take over the Labour Party, marginalizing the neoliberal faction associated with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. In the case of the Democratic Party in the United States, however, the centrist neoliberals—consolidating behind their standard-bearer, Joe Biden—have managed to block a takeover of the party by the united three wings of the left in 2020, as they did previously in 2016 when Hillary Clinton denied the presidential nomination to Bernie Sanders.
The tragedy is that the economic agenda of the classic labor left is far better for most people than any alternatives offered by the left-neoliberals of the Clinton-Obama and Blair-Brown schools. It is also better than the agenda of the right-wing neoliberals who dominate the Republican Congress, which has blocked Donald Trump from acting on his populist promises during his 2016 campaign, assuming those promises were sincere. But barring freakish contingencies, the labor left will never be able to stagger to electoral victory with the two albatrosses of socialism and hipster wokeness around its neck.
Creative politicians on the right, like Boris Johnson in Britain and Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio in the United States, may be able to incorporate elements of the labor left agenda into a new conservatism that is at the same time patriotic and pro-business. If they do, then the choice of Corbyn and Sanders to embrace, rather than distance, themselves from the loud but numerically insignificant socialist left and woke left in hindsight will seem even more misguided.
Michael Lind is a Professor of Practice at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, a columnist for Tablet, and a fellow at New America. He has a master’s degree from Yale and has taught at Harvard. His most recent book is The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite.