A Mormon for President?

Mitt Romney tries to assuage fears about his Mormon faith as rival Mike Huckabee gains ground among

“You, sir, are an apostate!” So went my first media introduction to Mitt Romney – delivered as a question (well, statement really) in one of his early media appearances when he was getting his campaign going. It seemed to be a bad portend for his attempt to seek the highest office in the land.

Having avoided the question for so long, the former Massachusetts Governor and CEO of Bain & Company, finally caved on Thursday and delivered a speech seeking to address his Mormon beliefs.

The reason for this decision? The rather sudden ascent in early primary polls of former Arkansas Governor and ordained Baptist Minister Mike Huckabee, a self-styled “Christian Leader,” whose emphasis on religion in advertising has been widely seen as a direct appeal to the Christian conservative constituency of the Republican Party. For these undecided Republican primary voters, the idea of voting for a Mormon holds little appeal, almost as little as it does voting for a divorcee (Rudy Giuliani, amongst his many problems) or the increasingly lacklustre John McCain or Fred Thompson. Mike Huckabee’s corny humour and endorsement from Chuck Norris on the other hand appears to be gaining some traction amongst the 40% Iowa Republican caucus voters who identify themselves as “Christian Conservatives.”

To counter this looming storm, Governor Romney decided to have a “JFK moment” – bringing to mind as it did the famous speech that then-Senator Kennedy made in 1960 in which he repudiated those who had attacked him for his Catholicism – Mitt the Mormon stood up and assured the public “that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions.”

Instead, Governor Romney emphasised his piety and the importance he placed on religion in America, to counter “those that are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism.” To a European audience, brought up on a rigid diet of separation of church and state, these words are surprising to say the least, and Governor Romney even took time to point out our religious vacuity stating he had “visited many of the magnificent cathedrals in Europe. They are so inspired.....so grand....so empty.”

Still, this was not a speech aimed at Europe, rather it was aimed at an American audience, and rather specifically at a deeply religious constituency within the United States – the Christian right. It is a historical fact that Karl Rove managed to mobilize them and secure a double election victory for President Bush, and reaching out to them was what Governor Romney’s appeal was all about.

The Church of Latter Day Saints is (by some counts) America’s fastest growing religion, numbering some 6 million nationwide. Founded by the rather forgettably named Joseph Smith in the 1820s, Mormons follow a set of beliefs that were handed down to Smith in the form of golden plates that he translated with the assistance of angels. This made up the Book of Mormon, that denote the articles of faith by which Mormons live (rather than go into detail about what exactly Mormons believe, here is an excellent Q & A).

The first thing most American’s will say about Mormon’s is that they practice polygamy. This is not actually true anymore; the religion has long banned the practice, though fundamentalists continue to pop up in some of the more obscure parts of the mid-West. However, it is emblematic of a feeling among Americans, as indicated by one CBS poll in June 2006 that showed that 43% of respondents would not vote for a Mormon.

The problem is that unlike President Kennedy who was defending himself from the accusation that he was under the influence of foreign prelates (the Catholic Pope); Governor Romney is defending his membership of what many Americans see as basically a weird cult. A cult whose beliefs dance closely to the Christianity that most of them practice, and yet worships as a prophet a man who had visions that Jesus was going to come back and establish his kingdom on earth in America, practiced polygamy, and led a group of early settlers in open conflict against the then-government.

Ultimately, the religious question is not, however, aimed at most Americans, but rather specifically at Republican primary voters. Hence Governor Romney’s decision to take the line that he is a pious man, who simply happens to have a slightly different belief structure. The Republican base, as indicated before, has a substantial and powerful religious constituency, whose stridency has all the potential to overwhelm most other issues.

So for Governor Romney, the sudden appearance of a seemingly viable candidate who is able to appeal directly to this group, presents a genuine threat. Or does it? The truth is that Governor Huckabee’s campaign remains infant in comparison to any of the other top tier contenders. While he may have had a slight upswing now, his national profile remains volatile (his current surge is mostly due to his novelty factor in a campaign that has been dragging on for a year now), and he has no-where near the financial war chest that Governor Romney boasts (whose personal wealth has been placed at a cool $250 million). This is important, as even if he is able to do well in some of the early polls, Governor Huckabee lacks the political infrastructure to be able to necessarily effectively capitalize upon it in subsequent primary races.

The problem for Romney, however, is that for him the primaries count a lot. He has purposely invested a lot in the early primary states on the assumption that he could use the momentum to carry him through to the nomination. A dent too early might sink him and let someone like John McCain catch up.

Arguably, for the rest of the world, all this matters little. Even if Governor Romney overcomes the “apostate” brand and wins the nomination, he faces an uphill battle in convincing America that they need another religiously inspired Republican in charge. Still, one discounts the power of the Republican mid-West at one’s peril – their ability to mobilize on polling day is in stark contrast to apathetic Democratic voters. Whether they would do this for a Mormon, however, is another matter altogether.

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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