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26 February 2020

Bernie Sanders can defeat Donald Trump – but he must learn from Jeremy Corbyn’s mistakes

As well as mobilising a radical movement, the Democratic candidate should offer reassurance to centrist voters.   

By Paul Mason

Over the past two weeks it has dawned on the US political establishment that yet another unthinkable event is about to happen. If Bernie Sanders wins big on Super Tuesday (3 March), all that can stop him from becoming the Democratic presidential nominee is subterfuge, sabotage or scandal. 

And as they scramble around for ammunition, the right of the Democratic Party are increasingly prone to invoke the spectre of Jeremy Corbyn. Labour’s election defeat in December, goes the argument, proves that Sanders cannot win. The candidate’s own supporters are so aware of the power of this assertion that, until now, they’ve tried to avoid it. When I spoke at a London meeting of pro-Sanders Democrats, I was quietly advised not to draw parallels with what happened here.

But there are parallels, and the American left should not be afraid of exploring them. Because they show – contrary to the wisdom of the US commentariat – that Sanders can beat Donald Trump.

The first parallel lies in the total incomprehension among normcore politicians over the class dynamics that are driving political radicalisation. Trump won because he gave racists the permission to be racist – in a way no previous right-wing Republican had dared to – and because he codified isolationism into a clear economic offer. 

As I argued in Clear Bright Future, Trump represents a fraction of the US ruling class that needs to dispense with business regulations and a multilateral global system, in order to dump the social costs of its own failure onto the rest of the world. To achieve that, he is prepared to manipulate the electoral system, and use the US’s grotesque billionaire media to keep his dynasty in power for the rest of the decade. He will borrow to finance tax giveaways and allow the Federal Reserve to go on blasting trillions of newly-created dollars into the economy to stimulate growth. 

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Trump’s strategy, then, comes down to “buying and lying” – and against it, normal centrist politics is doomed to fail. When you consider the challenges facing Sanders – and they are real – you have to remind yourself that centrist candidates such as Joe Biden, Pete Buttigeig and Amy Klobuchar stand for a return to normality that simply cannot happen, using political methods that cannot work.

When Corbyn took the Labour leadership in 2015, the same people who are now telling us Sanders “can’t win the suburbs and the educated middle class” told us Labour could not do so either. However, Corbyn proved – between the 2016 coup and the 2017 general election – that if you can overcome the inevitable sabotage of the machine itself, you can indeed win votes from the centre on a left-wing platform.

Here the parallels are not exact: Labour is above all a permanent, constituency-level machine, with a stable funding channel via the trade unions. Sanders, by contrast, will have to fuse his own campaign machine with that of the Democratic National Committee (or supplant the latter with the former) and he will only have the summer and early autumn to make it happen. But the actual lessons from Corbyn’s experience at a similar point in the cycle – i.e. the early days of taking control – are positive for Sanders.

What the latter needs to do, if he clinches the nomination between now and the convention, is what Corbyn also did: construct a team of competent politicians and strategists who stand mainly to the right of him – a negotiated alliance including as many factions of the party that will play ball. If you look at the shadow cabinet Corbyn appointed in 2015, it’s hard to remember that it was full of Corbynsceptics: Hilary Benn, Tom Watson, Michael Dugher, Angela Eagle and Owen Smith, for example, had major roles. 

It’s also worth remembering that, having won the battle for a radical reframing of Labour’s offer, the actual policy revolution inside early Corbynism was pretty thin: the promise of a million homes, a single nationalisation (the railways), the reversal of the anti-trade union laws, and an end to wars of aggression. If you compare Corbyn’s original 10 Pledges (2016) to the ones issued by the allegedly centrist Keir Starmer this year, the latter are more concretely left wing. 

The lesson here is that, once Sanders establishes the basic offer – on healthcare, the minimum wage and state-led green investment – he doesn’t need to start adding commitments at the behest of activists and think-tanks who are determined to hang their pet obsession onto his successful brand.

There is, unfortunately, one obvious and glaring parallel that Sanders will have to overcome – and that is the branding of him as an anti-Semite. This has reached a new level of ferocity since Sanders’ victory in the Nevada caucuses, with Fox News host Mark Levin (who is also Jewish) accusing Sanders of “embracing an Islamo-Nazi mentality when it comes to the Jewish state”. 

Just as in the UK, parts of the American left look determined to rise to the bait. The actual lesson of Corbynism for Sanders should be to recognise the existence of a small number of left anti-Semites, dissociate his movement from them, and engage the Jewish community with messages of reassurance and cross-community collaboration.

For those on the American left that do want to learn from the Corbyn experience, then, as someone who was at the heart of it, I would offer this. Once Sanders wins the nomination, every effort has to be made to meld the radicalism and excitement of the mobilised base with the desire of centrist voters (and millions of non-voters) for security and predictability. As we found here in 2019, three decades of neoliberal reality have created in the minds of many voters a fear of anything radically different, no matter how unequal and unjust the present system is.

Sanders, like Corbyn, is essentially pitching a story of economic renewal, which his strategists believe can cross the divide between liberal, urban America and the more socially-conservative, suburban and rural communities. The danger is that the right simply overwhelm this message with scare stories about economic chaos and geopolitical risk. Trump will focus the entire battle around the risks involved in a radical change.

To meet this challenge, I would say to Sanders what I said to Corbyn: if you’re going to take away a portion of the elite’s wealth, don’t threaten to take their toys away at the same time. That means stating, as Syriza prime minister Alexis Tsipras did in Greece, that you want to respect the country’s constitution, uphold national security and the institutions that underpin it, and maintain most existing geopolitical commitments.

Unfortunately, for a large part of Corbyn’s followers, taking toys away from British imperialists and disrupting the global order became, together with Lexit, their defining project. Sanders needs to outline a relatively orthodox and prudent foreign policy, which is tough on the human rights abuses of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, and which recognises the possibility of the US playing a role in stabilising the multilateral order, while simultaneously pursuing its own foreign policy goals. It means brokering peace in Libya, pursuing democratisation in Venezuela, and seeking to bring Turkey out of the orbit of Putin’s Russia.

Because I know how badly such advice was received by Corbyn’s inner circle, I can predict it will be howled at by contributors to Jacobin and The Nation. But the opportunity is there for Sanders: to spell out a radical economic programme alongside an expansive, peaceful and collaborative vision of America’s place in the global order.

If he can do this, and deal intelligently with the smears (which came thick and fast in last night’s Democratic TV debate), Sanders can override voter concerns about the radicalism of his economic programme – and for a clear reason: America is not Britain. The US enjoys the world’s reserve currency, and it can borrow and print money without causing capital flight much more easily than Britain, which is suffering from decades of low productivity and wage stagnation.

Finally, the biggest contrast between Corbyn in 2019 and Sanders in 2020 should encourage left-wing Democrats, and give them hope. The former failed because he never found a coherent narrative that could link the cosmopolitan, networked city population with the left-behind industrial working class. Sanders already owns that story, and his ability to refine that narrative is what’s made him the Democratic frontrunner now.

At last year’s election, Corbyn was up against a new form of right-wing populism that the Labour Party had never encountered, and had no theoretical armory to understand. It was still trying to fight the austerian centre-right when it was, in fact, now up against a profligate authoritarian. 

But Sanders, and the US electorate, are facing a devil they most definitely know. And the American left has a strong theoretical grasp of what Trump is, what he wants, what his weaknesses are. And that knowledge, if translated into a strategy, can put Bernie Sanders into the White House.