British politics rarely intrudes into a US presidential election. In 1988, Joe Biden was forced to abandon his first bid for the White House after it emerged that he had quoted without attribution a chunk of oratory from the then Labour party leader, Neil Kinnock. In 2016, Donald Trump deployed Nigel Farage as an occasional mascot on the stump, the Brexit victory in that year’s referendum deemed a happy omen that populists could defy the odds and win. In 2020, a third name has surfaced, offered as a cautionary tale to a Democratic party that this week confirmed a septuagenarian radical socialist and longtime backbench rebel as its frontrunner. That name is Jeremy Corbyn.
“I don’t want the Democratic party of the United States to be the Labour party of the United Kingdom,” James Carville, the victorious manager of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, told audiences on cable TV and in New Hampshire this week, warning that if Democrats nominate Bernie Sanders, they will almost certainly be following Corbyn’s Labour party to defeat.
On the US campaign trail, journalists, strategists for rival Democratic candidates, and even the occasional voter cite Corbyn in the case against Sanders, offering the result of December’s UK general election as evidence. A week spent in New Hampshire watching the Vermont senator and his opponents do battle provides some answers to the question many US Democrats are asking themselves: is Sanders fated to be America’s Corbyn – or are the two men, and their two situations, radically different?
Team Sanders is understandably reluctant to encourage the parallel. “I didn’t hear that on the streets, I heard it in the bubble,” Nina Turner, a national co-chair of the Sanders campaign, told the Guardian. “The talking heads and the elites said it to try to dismantle Senator Bernie Sanders, to say, ‘Aha, this can’t happen!’” All the same, Turner was keen to add that “both men have a healthy respect for each other”.
Yet within minutes of that conversation, the first New Hampshire voter stopped by the Guardian at a polling station in downtown Manchester – retired airline pilot Paul Demars – volunteered, unprompted, that he was voting for Sanders even though “I was nervous about the electability business: it’d be a real bummer if he got Corbyn’d”.
The similarities between the men are obvious. Both spent decades on the political margins, regarded as perennial troublemakers with no prospect of gaining national power. To their critics, they remain stubbornly stuck in the 1970s; to their admirers, they have stayed unwaveringly true to their principles. They both exude a rumpled authenticity, their appearance – Sanders’ wayward hair, Corbyn’s beard – visible proof that they are not careerist politicians of the usual stripe.
Their messages are similar too. Sanders wants “an economy that works for all, not just the 1%”, while Corbyn stood as the champion of “the many, not the few”. Both are exponents of a particular brand of leftwing populism, offering themselves as tribunes of the hard-working majority against an elite of bankers and billionaires that has rigged the economy in its own favour.
Both boast of the scale of their ambition. Corbyn trumpeted Labour’s 2019 manifesto as the most radical programme in a generation, while the warmup track at a Sanders rally is Tracy Chapman’s Talkin’ Bout a Revolution. Both have promised that victory for them would see their respective countries transformed.
That has opened up a line of attack against both men which is remarkably similar. Sanders’ opponents criticise him for implausibly offering “free stuff” to voters, just as the last Labour manifesto was lampooned as a wishlist of impossible giveaways. Sanders provokes scepticism from Americans when he says his healthcare plan would not only guarantee free medical care for everyone but also free eyeglasses, hearing aids and dental care. It triggers a chorus of questions about where the money would come from – a chorus with distinct echoes of the reaction that greeted Labour’s pledge of free broadband along with a series of other costly measures. Some policies are identical, such as free university tuition for all.
The effect in both cases is to redefine internal party opponents as dull “centrists”, cautious defenders of the status quo. Corbyn did that to rivals Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall when he ran for the Labour leadership in 2015, and Sanders is doing it to Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar now, just as he did it to Hillary Clinton in 2016. If anything, Sanders goes further. Corbyn never suggested his Labour opponents were agents of the City of London, the way Sanders supporters broke into chants of “Wall Street Pete” in New Hampshire last weekend.
Which brings us to the followers of both men. The crowds at Sanders rallies are strikingly similar to the audiences that once came out for Corbyn. Huge numbers of young people, especially students, joined by sixty-somethings who are thrilled that, at last, “we have our party back”. The latter group reckons Sanders is returning the party to the best traditions of Franklin Roosevelt, just as Corbyn liked to invoke the glory of 1945 and Clement Attlee.
Some Democrats welcome the infusion of much-needed youth and energy that Sanders has brought in, hopeful that the independent senator – he’s still not a registered Democrat – might make good on his promise to expand the electorate and bring in previous non-voters. (That was the promise of Corbyn too.) But others lament what they regard as the aggressive intolerance of the “Bernie Bros”, accusing them of slamming those who dare voice anything but wholehearted devotion to the leader. A report this week described “the swarm” that descended on a leftwing organisation that endorsed Elizabeth Warren rather than Sanders, detailing a level of online abuse that would be familiar to those on the wrong end of what they would call “the Corbyn cult”. When the MSNBC host Chuck Todd quoted an article that had branded Sanders backers digital “brownshirts”, a hashtag campaign by Sanders defenders soon had #SackChuckTodd trending.
The result is a wariness in some quarters – most notably among Sanders’ rivals – to attack him directly, for fear of stirring his supporters’ wrath. Several US journalists admit, albeit privately, to a similar nervousness at going too directly after Sanders – a fear that might resonate with at least some of their counterparts in Britain.
But if there are similarities, there are glaring differences too. Perhaps most significant is that Bernie Sanders has suffered nothing like the protracted onslaught of criticism that rained down on Corbyn, from press and internal party opponents alike, from the moment he became leader. It’s one reason why many Democrats are sceptical of polls showing Sanders would beat Donald Trump in a head-to-head matchup. Sanders, they say, has never been on the receiving end of serious negative campaigning or even a thorough trawl through his back catalogue of statements and past affiliations (including, for example, to the Socialist Workers party of America). Clinton steered clear of that tactic in 2016, calculating that it would backfire. So Sanders has never experienced the scrutiny that Corbyn endured – not yet, at any rate. When it comes, say the doubters, his numbers will tank.
Still, there are some contrasts with Corbyn that might offer Democrats reassurance. For one thing, Sanders has no credible case to answer on antisemitism; on the contrary, he identifies strongly as a Jew. A couple of his congressional supporters have made clumsy and insensitive remarks, but that is a world away from the decades-long, personal record of appearances with, and indulgence of, antisemites that proved so toxic for Corbyn.
Similarly, while Corbyn was often accused of “siding with his country’s enemies” – note the £20,000 he was paid to be a presenter on the Iranian state network Press TV or his 2009 meeting with Bashar al-Assad – Sanders is rather less vulnerable on that score. Some admiring words for Fidel Castro and the Sandinistas, along with a honeymoon in Moscow, are about the most damaging items on the Sanders charge sheet. That’s largely because of a difference in world view between the two men. While the senator’s chief focus has long been on domestic issues of economic inequality, for Corbyn, opposition to what he would call US imperialism was for many years the defining core of his politics. One illustration: Sanders supported and voted for the Nato-led military intervention over Kosovo in 1999; Corbyn opposed it.
There’s one last contrast that should give Sanders supporters cheer. Even Corbyn’s most devoted admirers would never describe him as a great orator. Sanders, though, is a compelling speaker: focused, strong-voiced, able to land a rhetorical riff in a way that usually eludes the Labour leader.
Sanders will need all those gifts if he is chosen to take on Trump in November. A leftwing leader fighting a fair-haired populist with only a casual relationship with the truth has the odds stacked against him – as Corbyn knows all too well.