No-where man v Hero of fitness

Walk around NYC and you'd be forgiven for thinking the US election is already a done deal with Obama

To judge from the level of interest their city is giving the two candidates, New Yorkers could be forgiven for thinking the election is already over.

Everywhere you go, you'll find evidence of the rise of Barack Obama. His face is on t-shirts in shop windows, his name on banners on the side of buildings. At newstands, he can be seen smiling down from copies of The Source, Vibe, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, and (my favourite, this) Men's Health, where he's ranked as 'one of 20 'heroes of fitness'.

John McCain, meanwhile, is ... nowhere. No t-shirts, no magazines, no campaign posters. In two days the only oblique reference I noted was a sign on a building reading (and I quote) 'CON$ervative governMENt'.

Even among the city's conservatives, support for McCain is distinctly flaccid. John Martin is exactly the kind of guy who should be his natural constituency. He's a fiscal consevative, a Republican and a law student; he serves in the Navy reserve, and last year spent six months in Afghanistan.

Yet he's voting for the Democrat. What's more, he's campaigning for his fellow party members to do the same, under the label Republicans for Obama.

'The Republicans have created an environment in which people feel comfortable voting for a Democrat,' he says. 'Barack Obama doesn't demonise republicans - he has the same cross party appeal that Ronald Reagan had.'

Martin gives a couple of reasons for his support. Firstly, despite the Senator's liberal voting record, he's been impressed by his bi-partisan rhetoric, and his ability to work with conservatives like Tom Coburn; an Obama cabinet would contain plenty of Republicans, he thinks. Secondly, he likes his family values, citing his willingness to tell black fathers to take more responsibility for raising their kids, despite (or perhaps because) of the fact it brought steam shooting from Jesse Jackson's ears.

The biggest reason for his defection, though, is his anger at McCain for selling out to the Palin wing of the party. He's had hate mail since coming out for Obama; but even before that he had been called a 'Rino' (Republican in Name Only) and been made to feel distinctly unwelcome in the party. McCain had a chance to put a stop to that, reclaim the centre ground, by picking former Democrat Senator Joe Lieberman as his running mate. Instead, he picked Palin.

Martin isn't the only one that's riled up about this. Several defecting conservatives - among them Christopher Buckley and Colin Powell - have cited Palin as the reason they've thrown their support behind Obama. (As Buckley said, "I didn't leave the party - it left me.") In a bar on Saturday night, a friend of mine told me that the Palin pick had pushed his conservative hedge fund-employed wife firmly into the Obama camp. "She shored up the base," he said. "But it's killed him with the independents and moderates you need to actually win an election."

The more people like this that leave the Republican party - membership has dropped by a quarter in four years - the more it'll be dominated by its evangelical wing. That may make it ideologically purer. But it'll also make it harder to win.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

Campaign pictures/Office of Jorge Sharp
Show Hide image

Meet Jorge Sharp, the rising star of Chile’s left who beat right-wingers to running its second city

The 31-year-old human rights lawyer says he is inspired by Jeremy Corbyn’s alternative politics as he takes the fight to the Chilean establishment.

Bearded, with shaggy hair, chinos and a plaid shirt, 31-year-old Jorge Sharp does not look like your typical mayor elect. But that does nothing to stop him speaking with the conviction of one.

“Look, Chile is a country that solely operates centrally, as one unit,” he says. “It is not a federal country – the concentration of state functions is very compact. In reality, most of the power is in Santiago. There are many limitations when it comes to introducing significant changes [in local areas].”

In October, Sharp upset Chile’s political status quo by defeating establishment rivals in the mayoral election of Valparaíso, the second city of South America’s first OECD country. He is taking office today.

Often compared to Podemos in Spain, Sharp’s win was significant – not only as yet another example of voters turning against mainstream politics – because it denied Chilean right-wing candidates another seat during local elections that saw them sweep to power across the country.

As the results rolled in, Conservative politicians had managed to snatch dozens of seats from the country’s centre-left coalition, led by President Michelle Bachelet, a member of Chile’s Socialist Party.

Sitting in one of Valparaíso’s many bohemian cafes, Sharp accepts the comparison with Podemos gracefully but is keen to make sure that Chile’s new “autonomous left” movement is seen as distinct.

“What we are doing in Chile is a process that is difficult to compare with other emerging political movements in the world,” he says. “We are a distinct political group and we are a modern force for the left. We are a left that is distinct in our own country and that is different to the left in Spain, in Bolivia, and in Venezuela.”

Sharp’s Autonomous Left movement is not so much a party rather than a group of affiliated individuals who want to change Chilean politics for good. Considering its relatively small size, the so-called Aut Left experienced degrees of success in October.

Chilean voters may have punished Bachelet – also Chile’s first female leader – and her coalition after a number of corruption scandals, but they did not turn against left-wing politics completely. Where they had options, many Chileans voted for newer, younger and independent left-wing candidates. 

“We only had nine candidates and we won three of the races – in Punta Arenas, Antofagasta and Ñuñoa, a district of Santiago,” he says. “We hope that the experience here will help us to articulate a national message for all of Chile.”


Campaign pictures/Office of Jorge Sharp

For Sharp, the success of Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump and the pro-Brexit movement are due to people fed up – on a global scale – with their respective countries’ mainstream political parties or candidates. Given that assumption, how would he describe the cause of his own election success?

“The problem in Chile, and also for the people in Valparaíso, is that the resources go to very few people,” he says. “It was a vote to live better, to live differently. Our project for social policy is one that is more sufficient for all the people. It’s a return to democracy, to break the electoral status quo.”   

Sharp – like many – believes that the United States’ Democrat party missed out by passing up the opportunity to break with the status quo and choose Bernie Sanders over the chosen nominee Hillary Clinton. “They would have been better off with Sanders than Clinton,” he believes. 

“The [people] in the US are living through a deep economic crisis. These were the right conditions for Trump. The people weren’t looking for the candidate from the banks or Wall Street, not the ‘establishment’ candidate. The way forward was Sanders.”

Turning to other 2016 geo-political events, he claims Brexit was a case of Britons “looking for an answer to crises” about identity. Elsewhere in South America, the tactics of former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe – who led the “No” vote campaign against peace with the Farc – were “fundamentally undemocratic”.

In the future, Sharp hopes that he and the rest of the Autonomous Left will be better-prepared to take power in higher offices, in order to further reform social policy and politics in Chile.

“For these elections, we weren't unified enough,” he concedes. “For 2017 [when national elections take place], we will have one list of parliamentary candidates and one presidential candidate.”

And while Sharp clearly sympathises with other left-wing movements in countries throughout the world, this is not a call for a unified approach to take on the rise of the right.

“Every country has its own path,” he finishes. “There is no single correct path. What we need to do [in Chile] is articulate a force that’s outside the political mainstream.”

Oli Griffin is a freelance journalist based in Latin America.