Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Jeremy Corbyn, the new surprise leader of Britain’s Labour Party, have a lot in common. Most of all, they are unlikely messiahs and symbols of rebellion and political change.
Both Sanders and Corbyn are grumpy old men who look far more like high school teachers than politicians. Each is a highly-experienced politician with decades of experience in office who is running as an outsider. Both are old-time leftists and advocates of democratic socialism and redistribution of wealth. Each man has an ambitious scheme for free or at least government subsidized education paid for higher taxes on the wealthy.
Each is running an insurgent candidacy that capitalizes on growing frustration with lack of opportunity, growing poverty, increasing income inequality, and frustration with the status quo. Both are also challenging powerful and well-entrenched centrists whose middle of the road economic policies seem out of sync with the times.
Something else that the two have in common is that each came seemingly out of nowhere to completely disrupt the electoral status quo. Corbyn captured 59% of the vote in an upset victory that amounted to a leftist takeover of Labour. Sanders has effectively turned the Democratic primary race upside down by coming in first in polls in New Hampshire and Iowa and putting Hillary Clinton on the defensive.
Why Sanders is not Corbyn
That being said, the two are in very different positions because of the vast differences between American and British politics. All Corbyn had to do to win control of Labour was win one vote, in which anybody who claimed to be a Labour member and paid a £5 fee (about $7.71) could participate. Sanders would have to win 25 to 30 state primaries in order to secure the Democratic nomination.
Corbyn might have to wait as long as five years for a national election against Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, who won a decisive victory in this year’s parliamentary elections. Sanders would be running for President next year in 2016 if he wins the primaries.
When Corbyn faces the national election, it could be in 2020 in a very different nation with an independent Scotland. I would not put it past the Conservatives to hold another Scottish independence referendum just to get rid of Scotch voters that are more inclined to vote Labour. Perhaps Mr. Corbyn should consider moving to Scotland. He currently represents Islington in London.
History and national character also favor Bernie. Americans tend to swing left and vote for those offering radical solutions in times of economic uncertainty. Britons generally turn right and choose Conservatives when the economy gets tough.
Another difference is that Bernie seems to be laying the groundwork for a national political movement. Corbyn has a movement behind him. The final goals are also different: Cobryn’s agenda appears to be to restore the traditional British welfare state of the mid-20th century, while Sanders is promoting programs, some of which are unprecedented in American history.
The Wall Street Journal estimated the cost of Sanders ambitious agenda at $16 trillion over 10 years. That’s going to be a very tough sell to the American people, even if it is filled with popular notions such as Medicare for all and government-supported college.
Different Leaders, Different Countries
Corbyn also takes strong stands on foreign policy; he wants to pull Britain out of NATO, abandon nuclear weapons, and apologize for the Iraq War. Bernie has largely ignored foreign policy and concentrated on domestic affairs. The few statements he has made have been staid and middle of the road; for example, he supports the Iran nuclear deal.
Sanders’ radicalism is far more tempered than Corbyn’s is. Bernie would never refuse to sing the national anthem as Corbyn has, and he gets strong support from veterans’ groups for promoting greater benefits. Nor has Sanders mentioned where he stands on Russia, nuclear weapons, or the United Nations; the few pronouncements on issues, such as border security, that he has made have sounded very nationalistic. Corbyn has praised Russia and hinted about changing Britain’s relationship with other nations.
If his reconstituted Labour were to win a general election, Corbyn would have a parliamentary majority behind him and the ability to create laws. As I pointed out earlier, there is a strong chance Bernie could be elected President with a Republican majority in one or both houses of Congress. Even if he had a Democratic majority, it could be composed of moderate centrist Democrats who might be as committed to sabotaging Sanders’ agenda as any Republican was.
The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is a powerful national leader, while the President of the United States is more of a figurehead under the Constitution. In many ways, the American President is closer to the Queen than the Prime Minister, a head of state whose duties are largely symbolic.
Bernie Goes South
The final difference between Bernie and Jeremy is that Sanders is going to have to assemble a national coalition of divergent groups, such as labor unions, leftwing intellectuals, African Americans, young radicals, veterans, peace activists, and Hispanics, some of them who are very much at odds with each other, if he is to win.
Sanders seems to have strong support in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest areas; with historic leftist and even socialist traditions. He also does well in the industrial Midwest and West, where he has strong union movements and a long history of populist protest to draw upon. His problem could be the South, where he is largely unknown to African Americans that make up the majority of Democratic primary voters in that region.
The advantage Sanders has there is that he only needs to get between 20% and 30% of African American votes to win a Southern primary in a state like South Carolina. Polls show Sanders doing well with some groups like men (50% in some parts of Florida) and whites (also 50%) and very well among those under 30 (up to 80% in some areas).
Sanders can also go after dissatisfied elements in an African American community, such as radicals and young people. That’s where the Black Lives Matters protests can help Sanders by getting his face before African Americans. Sanders is also using the tactic of having radical college professor Cornel West act as his warmup man. West spews out the racial rhetoric then Sanders comes in and gives his economic message.
This enables Sanders to attract radical African Americans without having to say anything that could scare off white voters. It also allows him concentrate upon his economic message, which will be his strongest selling point among blacks.
Something that pundits forget is that the unrest in the African American community, and even the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore, were largely economically motivated. Interestingly enough, one of the few political figures other than Bernie to recognize this is the only African American in the race, Dr. Ben Carson. One factor in Bernie’s favor here is that unemployment among African Americans is twice that of whites, nearly 9.6% in April.
It will be the meat and potatoes economic issues, like free college tuition and single payer healthcare that will win over African Americans, not the obsession with police shootings. Thinking that the largely middle class and well-educated radicals obsessed with police abuse represent African American opinion is a mistake could cost the Democratic establishment dearly.
Sanders and Corbyn are as different as the United States and the United Kingdom, but at the end of the day, their success is being pushed by economic discontent. The countries and candidates might be different, but the frustrations are the same, and so are some of the results.