With less than two weeks left before Super Tuesday, the single most important day in the US’s highly convoluted and highly un-democratic primary elections, Bernie Sanders has consolidated himself as the candidate to beat, particularly following a very strong showing in Nevada and polls that show him gaining an ever greater share of national support. There are, of course, still obstacles to his nomination. Michael Bloomberg (the 9th richest man in the world) could still find ways of ad-blitzing his way to the nomination with his virtually unlimited cash. Or the Democratic establishment (namely the so-called Super Delegates) could end up voting for someone else in the event of a contested convention, even if Sanders gets the most delegates. Suffice to say that that the Democratic establishment is not keen on a Sanders candidacy and will continue doing everything it can to derail his chances at securing the nomination.
But even as the Sanders steamroller continues to get stronger, one of the most frequent criticism I hear about him is that he can’t beat Trump, and that if the Democrats are unwise enough to select a radical leftist, they will suffer a similar defeat like that which Corbyn faced in December 2019 in the UK. Trump, after all, continues to enjoy the support of a rabid, fired-up support base, Republicans are united behind him, and the prospect of the country that pretty much invented modern capitalism voting for a self-declared socialist seems almost preposterous. Well, for starters, the polls show otherwise. Even in 2016, polls showed Sanders having much wider leads in match-ups against Trump than Clinton did, because both represented anti-establishment figures willing to take on entrenched elites (only one of them, Sanders, clearly meant it). This time around, polls also show Sanders ahead of Trump and I suspect the difference will keep getting wider as his campaign continues to strengthen.
But the comparison with Corbyn is the focus of this post. Is Sanders like Corbyn, and if so, is he pre-destined to lose? My answer is an unequivocal no. While Sanders and Corbyn both come from a similar ideological background based around democratic socialism, both of them could not be more different and both face, or have faced, considerably different political circumstances on their road to office. And in almost all cases, Sanders has a huge advantage that could help him win it.
1) No Brexit
There has probably not been a single political issue that has completely hijacked the national policy debate in a major Western country in recent decades the way Brexit has in the US. Ever since the 2016 referendum, Brexit has completely swamped every other issue of national importance and consequently, made the 2019 election a confirmation of whether Brexit was going to happen by whatever means necessary or whether there was some hope of reversing it. Little surprise that the big vote swing came from Brexit supporters in Labour’s northern industrial heartlands. Had the UK election not had Brexit looming over it, it is likely that Corbyn would have had a much better shot of winning, proof being the 2017 election where Brexit was taken as a given and the election was able to revolve around policy in a way that it was not possible in 2019.
Sanders has no such problem because the US does not have a single dominating issue that drowns out his social agenda. The US election will be about policy and particularly, domestic policy: healthcare, inequality, the environment, etc. And on virtually every issue Sanders has a huge advantage over Trump who has little to show for his 4 years in office aside from record stock market highs, little of which has trickled down.
2) Crazy Bernie the Gruff
One of the main complaints against Corbyn (one that I frequently pointed out) is that he appeared weak and spineless. He looked more like a librarian than a politician, one who rarely got angry even during the most heated PMQs or debates. His constant flip-flopping on Brexit, his pathetic responses to the anti-Semitism scandal, his scruffy clothing, and perhaps most unforgivable in Britain’s highly class-defined society, his “champagne socialist” demeanor (including his accent) did not make him the working-class hero he saw himself as and certainly did not endear him to the people who should have seen him as one of their own.
Sanders, in contrast, is Corbyn’s polar opposite. Sanders is a gruff, with a hoarse voice and a thick Brooklyn-accent. He does not make much efforts at personal pleasantries and agreeableness, letting instead his undeniable compassion for the less fortunate and his commitment to fight injustice speak for itself. And furthermore, Sanders has maintained consistent on all the issues he has been fighting for. For decades. Videos of Sanders from his time as mayor of Burlington, Vermont in the 1980s or as a newly elected Senator in the 1990s shows him advocating for universal healthcare, and against the privileges of the corporate elite with the same passion as today, a remarkable achievement in an age where politicians reinvent themselves from one day to the next whenever they sniff out any possible political (or personal) gain from doing so. He’s a fighter, which at the tender age of 78 is quite a thing to say. And which is why potential Trump insults like “Crazy Bernie” are simply going to bounce off much like “deplorables” was taken as a badge of honor for Trump’s fanatical supporters.
3) Your terrorist friends
One of the biggest stains on Corbyn’s public image were his foreign policy views. While his life-long advocacy for peace, disarmament, and opposition to Western imperialism and militarism is admirable, like much of the “hard” left, this has come with a rather uncomfortable reluctance to criticize some of the more despicable regimes that oppose the West. It is certainly not a sin to have sat down with groups like the IRA or Hamas, but it is entirely different to call them his “friends”. The list of egregious actions is quite extensive, be it appearing on Nicolas Maduro’s radio show where he praised the chavista regime, or failing to say he would attack North Korea if they nuked Britain first, or giving Russia the benefit of the doubt following the Salisbury nerve agent attacks, all of this gave the impression of someone who seemed eager to let the enemies of the West off the hook while painting his own country as complicit in all geopolitical evil.
Sanders, however, has had a much more level-headed view of foreign policy which is not a stretch to say is the most revolutionary element of his agenda. Sanders seems to have no stomach for foreign interventions or propping up murderous regimes like Saudi Arabia, which puts him firmly in the Corbyn camp of ending the “geopolitical interests above all” mentality that dominates foreign policy both in Republican as well as Democratic circles (even Elizabeth Warren, who is closest to him on domestic policy, is quite a foreign policy hawk). However, he manages to do this without praising vile regimes and unsavory characters. His take on Venezuela, in particular, is precisely the nuanced take on a complex issue that is so lacking among most people: condemn potential US intervention but at no point suggest that Maduro is a good guy or that the Venezuelan model is the kind of socialism that he would want to replicate in the US.
4) He’s Jewish
Along with the lack of a consistent policy on Brexit until the very last minute, few things hurt Corbyn more than the anti-Semitism scandal. Although the scandal certainly started as a media witch hunt, it soon found its witches once evidence of systemic anti-Semitism among the most left-leaning elements of the Labour Party gradually became too obvious to deny. Unfortunately, by insisting that the scandal was a a product of media bias, Corbyn and his supporters failed to convince the public that his party took the problem seriously and failed to offer a credible response. Yes, it was awfully hypocritical that this scandal drowned out the Tories’ own problem of structural racism against Muslims, blacks, and even Jews, to say nothing of Boris Johnson’s record of racist, sexist, and homophobic remarks as a journalist. But this is one scandal that Corbyn could have done without, and his attitude towards it only made it worse.
It is certainly true that the “hard” left, perennially obsessed with conspiracy theories and unable to understand the difference between legitimate criticism of Israel and hatred of Jews, has a problem with anti-Semitism. But Sanders just so happens to be Jewish which will make the accusation of anti-Semitism a bit tricky even if he ends up abandoning the US’s traditionally pro-Israel foreign policy. Not that this has stopped the most desperate attempts by groups like AIPAC (the US’s biggest pro-Israel lobby group) for putting out ads against Sanders, or vaguely implying that Democratic “radicals” are anti-Semitic. Just don’t expect this to work.
5) Grassroots rather than Trotskyism
Another important complaint about Corbyn was directed at the main grassroots organization supporting him, Momentum. Created in 2015 in the wake of his party leadership bid, Momentum has since become something of its own monster, a veritable parallel structure within the Labour party that wields considerable influence in ensuring that the party sticks to the Corbyn line. Although getting rid of the Blairite stranglehold of the party was definitely a necessary step, the presence of Momentum has certainly raised concerns that the party’s new socialist leanings are being upheld using Trotskyite tactics from an organization that has only a fraction of the membership (around 40,000) of the largest political party in Europe (concerns that persist even as the party searches for a new leader in the wake of its December debacle).
Sanders, however, benefits that in the US, executive and party are completely separate entities. His grassroots movement has been tremendously effective in keeping his campaign well-financed, with only Bloomberg being able to outspend him anytime soon. That this is done without the benefit of billionaire donors or Super PAC spending is all the more impressive. But his movement is mostly an electoral one, and there does not seem to be an intention of creating anything like Momentum should he win. In that sense, Sanders’ movement may end up resembling Obama’s back in 2008: a fearsomely effective electoral force but one that was quietly disbanded once he won.
6) The alternative for the left is Trump
In Britain’s more fragmented political landscape, the Labour Party is not the only option for left-leaning voters. And it has not helped the Labour Party that it’s main rival from the left, the Liberal Democrats, has positioned itself as a party with appeal to Labour’s discontents, be it by its clear position on reversing Brexit as well as not going so far down the socialist route that Corbyn intended to. A committed left-of-center Remain voter therefore had a perfectly valid alternative to Corbyn’s Labour in the form of the Lib Dems. Even the non-centrists had the Greens while Scottish leftists had the SNP which has already largely replaced Labour as the dominant political force in Scotland. Ultimately, it was not Corbyn or Bust.
In the US’s bipartisan system, should Sanders and Trump face off in the presidential election, it pretty much means anyone not voting for Sanders is giving his vote to Trump. This is highly unlikely to happen. As much as left-of-center voters may be cynical of Sander’s brand of democratic socialism, or annoyed by passionate (and undeniably hostile sometimes) Bernie Bros, to imagine most Democratic voters preferring Trump having four more years is preposterous. In fact, polls show Sanders as being the second option for many Democratic voters in the primary campaign which means that he has much greater appeal as a next-best choice than the media seems to suggest. Likewise, there is much less Bernie or Bust sentiment this time around than in 2016, probably since it is now obvious that not voting for whoever the candidate may be will pave the way for Trump remaining in power. Ultimately, expect most Democratic voters to go out and vote for this candidate, whoever he or she may be, with perhaps the only exception being Bloomberg who may face a serious backlash if that other New York billionaire ends up getting the party’s nomination.
Yes, people, he’s electable
It’s time to end the tired trope that Sanders is unelectable. It appears to be less of a honest analysis of the political situation than it is an excuse by centrists to support other candidates without addressing the merits of their agendas. By any standard of the imagination Sanders is both electable as the Democratic nominee as well as electable as President.
This is, of course, not to say that he has victory guaranteed. Far from it. The small margins of victory in the US’s two horse race elections means most are relatively tight affairs, while the peculiarites of the US system can also work against him: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million votes yet still lost the election due to 80,000 votes in three contested states that went to Trump. A last minute war or terrorist attack could also shoot up support for the incumbent. A second heart attack, even if mild, could raise suspicions that his health is not in good enough shape for the presidency. But political analysis is not about considering every possible eventuality, but rather the structural factors that influence a candidate’s popular appeal. And thankfully for Sanders, virtually none of the factors that led to Corbyn’s December defeat are present in the US.
For the sake of everything this blog stands for, he better win it.