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2 February 2016

No, Bernie Sanders is not America’s Jeremy Corbyn

Bernie Sanders' policies and career bear little resemblance to the Labour leader's. So why are the Corbynites so keen to support him?

By Henry Zeffman Henry Zeffman

Bernie Sanders is the more left-wing of the two remaining candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. Jeremy Corbyn was the most left-wing candidate in Labour’s summer leadership election. These two facts seem to have persuaded a sizeable portion of the British left that Sanders is the American equivalent of Corbyn. He is not. Far from it.

Take foreign policy  Corbyn’s preoccupation over his 33 years as an MP. Corbyn has never voted for military intervention, and has often marched against various British actions abroad. Compare this to Sanders. First, he has barely talked about foreign policy in his campaign – a pronounced difference in emphasis from Corbyn. And though he voted against the Iraq War (unlike Hillary Clinton), Sanders did back the intervention in Afghanistan and supports the maintenance of a US army presence in the country after the Obama presidency concludes. Sanders also voted for military action in the Balkans in 1999, which Corbyn opposed.

It’s the same when it comes to Israel-Palestine. Corbyn’s position now he’s leader is slightly opaque – he says he supports Israel’s existence though was criticised for refusing to say the word “Israel” at a Labour conference event – but he has repeatedly advocated economic sanctions against the country. Which is a far cry from Sanders, who holds a relatively mainstream view: he opposes settlements and condemns bouts of Israeli violence while consistently advocating a two-state solution. And here’s a video from August 2014 in which Sanders, confronted at a town hall meeting by constituents asking him to condemn Israel’s actions in Gaza, tells one to “shut up” and lambasts Hamas (who Corbyn has called friends) for firing missiles into Israel from “populated areas”.

Add Hugo Chavez, the former Venezuelan president, into the mix eulogised by Corbyn as a leader who “forged alliances to try to bring about a different narrative in world politics”, while Sanders preferred to remember “a dead Communist dictator” – and it’s clear that Sanders is no Corbynite peacenik, even if he is doveish by American standards.

And then there’s domestic policy, where Sanders, like Corbyn, rails against inequality. But so does Clinton, who said in July, well before the Sanders surge was a reality, that her “mission from the first day I’m president to the last” will be to “raise incomes for hard-working Americans so they can afford a middle-class life”. Sanders espouses a universal healthcare system, but it was Clinton as First Lady two decades ago who first seriously pursued the cause of healthcare reform. Sanders supporters slate Clinton for failing to oppose the death penalty, but Clintonites could easily fire back with his mixed record on gun control.

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The complicated truth is that both Sanders and Clinton are operating in a political culture that is far less amenable to progressive change than our own. Even so, it is difficult to mount an argument that Sanders advocating the healthcare system the UK has had for 70 years, and his jibes at the big money necessary to mount a US presidential campaign, make him identifiably similar to Corbyn in any meaningful sense. His programme may be radical by US standards, but it’s barely more radical than Clinton’s, and quaint by comparison even to the three leadership candidates Corbyn ran to the left of last summer.

Corbyn and Sanders also differ dramatically in their career paths. Until September, Corbyn was a career backbencher, unsullied by the constraints of leadership and the exigencies of executive office. By contrast, Sanders’ first prominent political office was the mayoralty of Burlington, Vermont’s largest city. And though in his 25-year career in Congress Sanders has been one of very few independents, he was far more influential than Corbyn ever was in the Commons: Sanders spent two years as chair of the Senate’s Veteran Affairs Committee, whereas Corbyn generally avoided select committee work.

So, unlike Corbyn, Sanders has followed a fairly standard career path: from state politics, to the House, to the Senate, to a presidential run. Clearly Corbyn’s unlikely path from eccentric backbencher to leader was part of his appeal to his supporters, but it’s another difference from Sanders.

Many Corbynites find themselves supporting a candidate whose career bears little resemblance to Corbyn’s, who would run fast from the Labour leader’s foreign policy, and to whom comparisons on domestic policy are at best muddled. Sanders’ cheerleaders on the British left are going to have to come up with a better reason to support him than the notion that he’s like Corbyn, because at the moment the most striking parallel is that they’ve opted for the white man over the woman once again.