Sanders and Corbyn: Two Coalitions Compared


The remarkable campaigns of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders were supported by certain left constituencies while being rejected by others.  Itemizing what some of these were provides important information about where the left’s strengths and weaknesses lie and how we should direct our energies in the future.

1) Organized Labor

British unions almost unanimously endorsed Corbyn while over here, with a few honorable exceptions,  they just as unanimously rejected Sanders. As I pointed out previously, the latter was a gigantic fuck-up which was almost certainly decisive in Sanders’s defeat.

2) Party Establishments

Both the institutional Democratic and Labor parties were deeply hostile, though in the case of Labor the hostility was slightly mitigated by the traditional left maintaining a presence within the LP “back bench”. In the DP, New Deal liberals had been almost entirely purged by the neoliberal juggernaut of the 1980s and 1990s.  This brings up the observation that the absence of a Sanderite “bench” is a serious obstacle to the chances of it moving forward.  Our Revolution, Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats, all of which I strongly support, have been conspicuously unsuccessful so far in rectifying what may be a fatal liability.

3) Liberal/Moderate Left Media

The British press’s slanders of Corbyn were truly stunning in their relentlessness and dishonesty and extended across the political spectrum.  In contrast, the contempt for Sanders while dominant, and which sometimes included the liberal left, didn’t always do so. One example is sufficient to give an idea of the difference: the vicious rejection of Corbyn by the Guardian compared to The Nation which combined Clintonite talking points and approved smears form Katha Pollitt and Joan  Walsh with an official endorsement of Sanders.  Also, over here, In These Times, the Progressive and even The New Republic were at least minimally supportive, providing some balance to the predictable ridicule and contempt of the mainstream. Nowhere near what was necessary, but, in sharp contrast to the solid wall of derision from the establishment left media that Corbyn confronted,

4) The Far Right

It’s unclear how many UKIP voters returned to Labour, though at least some did with Labour gaining seats in its traditional strongholds in the North, as Paul Mason suggests on today’s Democracy Now. Both Corbyn and Sanders actively courted this constituency, refusing to concede these regions and those victimized by the post-industrial economy to the right. Clinton famously denigrated them as irredeemably racist “deplorables” as do elements of the the “hard” left (see below) now targeting them for “Nazi punching.” This, as I pointed out previously. is a suicidal strategy which will contribute to ensuring continuing right wing dominance of what should be at least swing districts, if not strong support of a Sanders type insurgency.

5) Socialist/Marxist “hard” left.

Self-defined independent socialists or Marxist organizations remain marginally influential on the left though probably more so there than here.  For years, the most important of these was the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) which was gravely damaged by a sexual assault scandal in 2013.  This may have been  a blessing in disguise: Had they remained viable, they would have been invested in protecting their own brand possibly resulting in a rejection of Corbyn and a fracturing of the coalition.  After its implosion, a significant core of the SWP migrated to the left wing of the LP, functioning within Corbyn’s campaign.  In sharp contrast, the alphabet soup of left sects here were largely hostile to Sanders, maintaining a steady stream of villification of him as a “sheepdog” herding activist energies into a Democratic Party which, according to the longstanding criticism, functions as “a graveyard of social movements.”

6) Greens

It is notable that the sheepdog term was invented by a Green Party operative who, with some justification, regarded the Sanders insurgency as presenting an existential threat to the national GP. The Greens by and large served as a small but perhaps not insignificant obstacle to achieving the broad coalition which a Sanders victory required. In contrast, rather than embracing their role as spoilers, as did Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein,  British Greens stood down in many close local elections likely providing a crucial margin of victory for Labour in several seats.

7) Corbyn vs. Sanders Rhetoric

Both Corbyn and Sanders self-identify as socialists but are conspicuously and rigorously undogmatic banishing entirely the insular, off-putting and frankly ugly Marxist jargon of the verticalist left. Corbyn, in what may be his most beautiful speech (and yes, John Cassidy/New Yorker, many of his speeches are rhetorical masterpieces), states that he doesn’t care what you call his form of politics. “I call it socialism. You might call it sharing. It doesn’t matter.” (That’s a paraphrase-need exact quote). Sanders rhetorical styles is similar resulting in attacks from the hard left for not being “a real socialist.”

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The bottom line seems to me that Sanders had significant disadvantages which were not due to his campaign or platform both of which were similar in many crucial respects to Corbyn’s. Rather Sanders’s set-backs were imposed on him due to importantly dysfunctional elements within the left, such as it is.

We will need to deal with these if a comparable insurgency is to succeed here.

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