Liam Payne looks at the similarities and differences between the movements led by Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn here and the lessons that can be learned for the future
In the early part of the 21st century, socialists in the Anglosphere tended to look with longing at political and social events unfolding in other parts of the globe. The Latin American ‘pink tide’, for instance, was a potent and inspirational reference point for many on the left struggling within the institutional and ideological straitjacket of neoliberal economics and ‘third way’ politics at home.
Fast forward a few years, and the situation had changed drastically. In 2015, Labour left stalwart Jeremy Corbyn had unexpectedly claimed the leadership of the Party in a landslide victory. This marked a culmination of trade union shifts to the left – validating the old adage ‘watch the unions’ – and led to an explosion in membership of the Party, the left sweeping to control of the NEC, and eventually the Scottish and Welsh parties as well.
Concomitantly, in America, almost the unthinkable happened. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, took on the might of the Democratic Party establishment – the progenitors of the ‘third way’ – in the Party’s presidential primary race of 2016. Vying with Hillary Clinton for the nomination, Sanders led an effervescent grassroots campaign, attracting large numbers of supporters and activists, millions of primary voters, and a deluge of small-scale campaign donations from the working people of America.
Across society, the concept of socialism in America has usually been used to harangue, delegitimise and persecute even the most moderate of liberals. Yet in 2016, Sanders overturned this ignorance and bad faith to highlight how basic socialist principles such as progressive taxation and good public services could challenge the structural, economic and political malaise that late capitalism had plunged the American people into since the mid-1970s. He eventually won 22 of the 55 primary contests, which comprise all 50 states plus Puerto Rico, Guam, the Mariana Islands, Virgin Islands, and ‘Democrats abroad’, and gathered 13,210,550 votes in total – 43.1% to Clinton’s 55.2%.
The fact that both the Corbyn and Sanders movements happened almost simultaneously was a startling occurrence for many political observers, of all ideological hues, in the metropolitan Anglosphere. In his 2018 book How Bernie Won, Sanders’ campaign manager of 2016, Jeff Weaver, charts the course of the insurgent primary campaign. Through this account, useful similarities and differences between the Sanders and Corbyn experiences can be parsed. Both candidates and movements eventually fell short of their goals, but these convergences and contradictions can be useful in thinking through what occurred in the Labour Party and British politics between 2015-2019, and can form a base of knowledge for what comes next in terms of the British left’s relationship with electoral politics.
The same old struggle
One of the most potent tools in both the Corbyn surge, and Sanders in 2016, was the bypassing of traditional communication channels with voters. Not relying on traditional media and instead taking their messages direct to voters formed a key part of both campaigns. For a large part of his primary run, Sanders was all but ignored by mainstream media outlets – something which would later be dubbed the infamous ‘Bernie Blackout’ – although this ended up playing to one of his key electoral strengths.
Forged in numerous campaigns in the state of Vermont, the Sanders team took their message direct to the people in the form of meetings, rallies, phone-banking, door knocking, street stalls, voter registration, and so on. This was allied to usage of traditional media where available, and a large alternative presence online. Eventually, Sanders would end up addressing mass rallies, which could not be ignored by the media any longer. By once more harnessing this traditional left-wing method of organising and proselytising to an electoral campaign, both Sanders and Corbyn were able to energise a base of voters who had largely turned to apathy under the neoliberal political consensus.
One of the reasons behind this ‘back to the grassroots’ approach was the often vitriolic and false media representations these campaigns were subject to. The burgeoning success and electoral viability of both movements led to scurrilous and similar attacks on both. The ideological and political battle waged online was both a blessing and a curse.
In conjunction with a large and vibrant internet support network, the Sanders campaign had to contend with various negative attack points resulting from online instances. Perhaps the most prominent was the creation of the ‘Berniebros’. This supposedly catch-all term for Sanders supporters online was used to deride them as overwhelmingly young, white, male, chauvinistic and aggressive. This fiction was repeated ad nauseam as a useful tool to delegitimise the very obvious swell of support for Sanders, and to try and destabilise his burgeoning insurgent campaign.
The fact that this same tactic had been used when Barack Obama had the audacity to run against the establishment favourite Hillary Clinton (Obama boys) did not seem to matter. Neither did the fact that the biggest factor designating a probable Sanders supporter was age, not gender or race. The internet is predominately populated and utilised by voters of a younger demographic, and indeed figures from Edison Research showed that Sanders was highly popular amongst 17-29 year olds, regardless of any classification. For Hispanic Americans in this category, his polling lead was an impressive 66-34. Head researcher Randy Brown stated: “I think the big takeaway is that whether it’s among whites or African-Americans, Bernie Sanders does significantly better among the youngest voters in the Democratic primary.” (p.106).
Regardless, this tactic was used by prominent personalities to insist that anyone who wasn’t white or male should not consider supporting Bernie Sanders – a big evocation in the era of widespread ‘identity politics’. Bill Clinton’s former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, even went so far as to state that there was a ‘special place in hell’ for any female voters who picked Sanders over Hillary Clinton. This attack line never truly dissipated for the whole primary race. As we have experienced in Britain – in politics, the facts rarely matter.
Masters of the Dark Arts
Throughout the primary contest, the Sanders campaign had to deal with numerous and increasing instances of the supposedly neutral Democratic Party, represented by the Democratic National Committee (DNC), weighing into the contest with what appeared to be a partisan predilection for a Clinton victory. For most of the race, this partisanship was largely a case of conjecture and counter-claims between the campaigns, around DNC interventions in the race. Weaver charts several of these instances, and makes a compelling case for the Sanders teams growing feeling of a partial Democratic establishment ranged against them.
However, on 22nd July 2016, just before the Democratic convention to announce Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee for President, Wikileaks released a trove of hacked DNC emails which proved conclusively establishment bias and meddling in the campaign, in favour of Clinton. The head of the DNC, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was particularly implicated in these dark arts. Weaver quotes from emails she sent targeting him in particular, calling him variously a “damn liar”, “particularly scummy”, and an “ass”.
As a further example of the tone and conduct of these emails, Weaver offers up what he describes as “the most incendiary email chain”. DNC staffers suggested instructing the Clinton campaign to use religion as a point of attack on Sanders in the Kentucky and West Virginia primaries:
“It might make no difference, but for KY and WVA can we get someone to ask his belief. Does he believe in a God. He had skated on saying he has a Jewish heritage. I think I read he is an atheist. This could make several points difference with my peeps. My Southern Baptist peeps would draw a big difference between a Jew and an atheist.” (p.328).
To anyone on the Labour left, since the publication of Labour’s very own ‘leaked report’, such tactics of establishment extreme prejudice will not be surprising, and may even seem a bit quaint compared to what Corbyn was subjected to. But both instances highlight the fact that dealing with severe obstacles inside the currently available political vehicles for social transformation – the establishment parties that traditionally fall on the progressive side of the tightly controlled political divide – is an obvious first stage of struggle for a renewed left surge in this arena.
Borrowing from Bernie
From reading Weaver’s account, two differences in the Sanders approach compared to Corbyn/Corbynism were apparent. The first was the level of message discipline that Sanders rigidly engaged in. Weaver reports how Sanders wrote an all-encompassing stump speech right at the beginning of the primary race. He stuck to this speech and its contents largely throughout the entirety of the campaign. This gave the Sanders platform great exposure – if the media reported on Sanders, or anyone came to hear him speak, they would be bombarded with a consistent message and policy proposals. This took previously marginalised issues, such as a living wage, and propelled them into the national consciousness, where they have since stayed.
Anyone who has seen a Sanders interview should not fail to be impressed by this dogged message discipline. No matter how hostile media figures try to trip him up or divert him, Sanders reverts these attacks back to his core message and agenda. This not only highlights these for a potentially national or international audience, but also blunts attempts to shift the narrative on to issues that could potentially damage his campaign. When dealing with such establishment animosity, Sanders in 2016 largely successfully called the tune.
Secondly, after quickly realising that facts were not going to be given any credence where political expediency presented itself to the opposition, the Sanders team quickly came out swinging when such issues arose. Weaver describes in detail a high profile occasion were Sanders campaign staff inadvertently gained access to voter information, due to a fault in a DNC firewall, that was supposed to be restricted to them. This led the DNC to terminate all access to voter data by the Sanders team, breaking the contract they had bought and paid for at the start of the race, and grinding the campaign to a halt at a precipitous moment.
The notion that this was somehow a nefarious act by members of Sanders campaign was championed by the DNC, Clinton campaign, and the obsequious media. In the ensuing furore over both these instances, the Sanders team were urged to apologise for supposed misdeeds. This they categorically refused to do. Instead they issued a combative statement outlining the true details of the case, and laid the blame correctly at the door of the DNC. Eventually, later the same day, the DNC capitulated after legal proceedings were due to begin and returned access to the data.
The struggle continues
The similarities and differences between the socialist advances in Britain and America of the past decade could and should garner much more attention and investigation than can be afforded in an article such as this. However, from Jeff Weaver’s telling of the 2016 Democratic presidential primary race, important lessons can be gleaned about both. Grassroots organising is the most valuable and viable tool available to the left in any struggle to advance the cause of socialism. In both Britain and America, organisations such as Momentum and the Democratic Socialists of America are already in existence and endeavour to forward this initiative.
The utter bad faith and mendacity of establishment resistance to any left surge occurring in mainstream politics again should be evident to everyone by now. Recognising it is the first stage to combatting it. To go further, the left in Britain could do worse than inculcate some of the tactics deployed by Bernie Sanders and his campaign in 2016. Strict message discipline, which could have avoided the Brexit bind Labour found itself in by 2019, and a steadfast refusal to apologise for obvious smears and falsehoods would be a welcome addition. Such attacks need to be challenged with facts, arguments, mobilisations, legal challenges and anything else feasible in a democratic context. Without learning lessons from sister struggles, we risk simply repeating the past – first as tragedy, then as farce.
Liam Payne is a Labour Party member based in Edinburgh.
Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts