An English lesson for the Democrats

Published by The i paper (3rd February, 2020)

Rashida Tlaib is one of ‘The Squad’, a quartet of first-term, female Democrats in the House of Representatives that has made headlines with willingness to confront the political establishment. They have been targeted with racist abuse by Donald Trump, who sees them as handy props to highlight the threat of progressive politics to fire up his base. She is, inevitably, a big fan of Bernie Sanders, the socialist running again for the White House. ‘He makes me feel less insane,’ she said. ‘We’re not insane. We’re actually real. We’re humanists.’

There are, however, limits to her humanism. Standing in for Sanders at a campaign event in Iowa – which votes on Monday in the first round of the long race for the presidency – she brushed aside the moderator’s effort to silence some booing against Hillary Clinton. “No, no, I’ll boo,” she said, leading the crowd. Later she apologised, saying she would “strive to come from a place of love.” Meanwhile Sanders’ campaign manager tweeted: “Rashida, you’re all good. We love your passion and conviction. Don’t change.”

The incident perfectly encapsulated the plight of their party, united by hatred of Trump and divided by almost everything else. “There is deep bad blood that will potentially again harm the Democrats,” said Steffen Schmidt, professor of political science at Iowa State University. Clinton, their last candidate and wife of a two-term president, is loathed on the left as a symbol of much that is wrong with a system corroded by capitalism and cronyism. Tlaib was reacting to her latest disparaging comments about Sanders, a dogged candidate who ran her closer than expected in 2016. “He was in Congress for years,” Clinton told a new documentary. “Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done.”

Sanders is an impressive political fighter who electrifies his youthful supporters, bouncing back from a heart attack last autumn with a well-timed surge in the polls before Iowa. Much depends on turnout in these caucuses. But he seems to have hauled back Joe Biden, the bumbling former vice-president whose first presidential run famously hit the buffers after it emerged he had plagiarised a speech by Neil Kinnock.  It is the shadow of another Labour leader, however, that looms over this contest – that of the dismal failure Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn and Sanders share many similarities. Both are rumpled hard-left veterans who spent decades in the wilderness fighting capitalism and howling at the political mainstream. They believe their views were vindicated by the 2008 financial crisis, exploiting its legacy of static wages and inequality to build youth movements to reshape both their party and national politics. Against all odds they emerged as significant players, viewed as authentic personalities in a world of artifice. Their fanatical followers saw narrow defeat as near-victory, convinced that such was their righteousness they were on a path to inevitable victory under their elderly hero.

There are some differences between this pair of political relics. Sanders is smarter, more pragmatic, less obsessed by foreign affairs. His party is not stained by anti-Semitism – although Sanders has his own history of questionable positions on race and sexual harassment. Yet such are the parallels several of his media fans wrote gushing articles about Corbyn as a model for American progressives after the 2017 general election that slashed the Tory majority. Labour, they argued, proved their need for radical ideas to stir up young voters and carry them into government.

They even talked about ‘the Corbyn-esque Sanders’. But that was then. Now the American left is running fast from its former idol after his woeful election defeat two months ago, suddenly focusing instead on the contrasts between these veteran left-wingers. They say Sanders adopts a more sophisticated stance on the Middle East as the descendant of Holocaust survivors. They blame Brexit, dump on Corbyn’s “dour” character, insist he was “a very English figure”. Above all, like those deluded Labour figures who rebuff political reality, they argue Corbyn was a problem but his policies were wildly popular.

Sanders is a far more formidable politician than the third-rate Corbyn. He has been plugging away to win power for almost half a century since his first run for Vermont governor won just one per cent of the vote. His fund-raising machine is incredibly effective, raising almost $100m since he announced his latest White House run. But as Democrats kick off the race towards November’s election, the party faces two critical questions that Labour refused to confront: can voters really see this cranky 78-year-old ideologue as their leader – and are his policies just too extreme to win enough votes to carry them to victory?

Sanders is weak on policy. Many of his proposals are fiscally incontinent and would struggle to win Congressional support. His most popular plan – on expanding healthcare – wins support from barely one-third of Democrats, despite his success in dragging the party to the left. Yet Sanders is also much more respected than Corbyn – the third most popular figure in the party after former presidents Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter, according to YouGov, and best liked in this sizeable field of contenders. Some polls find he is the best-placed to beat Trump, although others show the more moderate Biden would do better.

Sanders also struggles with black voters, a key slice of the electorate for his party. Yet perhaps the most significant statistic is one from 2016: almost one in eight of his supporters ended up voting for Trump after he lost to Clinton. This underlines that he is the mirror image of that dreadful occupant of the White House: a populist exploiting divisions to win power with unrealistic promises. Prepare for a fascinating electoral battle. But do not expect it to heal a fissured party or a fractured nation.

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