The early flourish of right-wing tycoon Donald Trump and veteran progressive Senator Bernie Sanders in the US Presidential primaries has been impressive. On the other side of the Atlantic, the “Old Labour” left-winger Jeremy Corbyn is creating shock waves in the race for the Labour leadership. In fact, as the extreme Right which was once marginal has scored spectacular successes throughout Europe, the dire economic crisis pushed Greece’s electorate to take refuge under the tent of an untried, newly formed “hard left” party.
In the United States it is not surprising to see a conservative right-winger leading the field of Republican presidential candidates, for two reasons:
First, the Republican Party, as a whole, has been steadily moving to the right and becoming increasingly conservative. The Tea Party movement is now a powerful bloc, and the religious and social conservatives appear to be decisive players in choosing the GOP’s flag-bearer in the battle for the White House.
Second, the Republicans are today as keen as ever to defeat an ultraliberal Democratic cabal led by two-term President Barack Obama, who is the ideological opposite of the Republican Right. Following Obama’s political successes on the domestic front, Republicans believe that the Obama administration’s dubious silence about the details of the Iran nuclear deal, and its zeal for marketing it in the face of their doubts and reservations, may provide them with a chance of sweet revenge against the Democrats.
The problem with the Republicans, however, is that their front-runner is the controversial Trump, whose unorthodox, sometimes aggressive style, even against his fellow Republicans, is making headlines. Unlike his competitors who are aware of the need not to antagonize party leaders who may prove helpful come the party’s national convention, Trump seems irreverent and uninterested in keeping his options open. In a field comprising several candidates of different ideological hues all qualified to fight the prospective Democratic candidate in November 2016, Trump is proving attractive to people—as per opinion polls—because he is saying what others dare not say. It seems that voters are, indeed, interested in hearing something new, something different from the classic discourse of mainstream Republican and Democrat leaders who always remember that they need to coexist and compromise because they operate in an institutional system based on the separation of powers and devolution of power.
In his own way Bernard “Bernie” Sanders is also causing a stir in the Democrat camp. He too is anything but a typical candidate. He is certainly a seasoned politician, but traditional he most definitely is not.
Sanders—as his biography tell us—was born 73 years ago in New York City to an immigrant Jewish family. After studying in Brooklyn College, he pursued his college education at the University of Chicago where he became a member the Young People’s Socialist League, and active in the Civil Rights Movement as a student protest organizer for the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In 1963, he participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Then, in 1968, he settled in Vermont, one of America’s smallest and most politically freethinking states. There in 1981 as an independent supported by the Vermont Progressive Party, Sanders was elected mayor of Burlington, the state’s most populous city. He was re-elected to three more two-year mayoral terms before being elected to fill Vermont’s only seat in the United States House of Representatives in 1990. He served as a congressman for 16 years before being elected to the US Senate in 2006 as a left-wing independent. In 2012, he was re-elected by a large margin, winning almost 71 percent of the popular vote.
Today as a presidential candidate Sanders is the direct ideological opposite of Trump, as he champions “progressive” issues like income inequality, universal healthcare, parental leave, and climate change, among others. He appeals not only to the young and leftist, but also to many liberal Democrats disappointed with Obama’s style of leadership and those not too enthusiastic about having another Clinton in the White House.
In the UK, the recent defeat suffered by the Labour Party has shaken the party’s trust in itself in a way not even its most pessimistic supporters had imagined. Actually, Labour did well in England where they increased their seats in the House of Commons. However, their vote collapsed in Scotland as they were trounced by the Scottish Nationalist Party who made significant inroads into the former Labour working-class and leftist strongholds.
The ideological schism has been another reason for Labour’s misfortunes. The party has been divided by its right-wing ‘New Labour’ which gained ascendancy at the expense of ‘Old Labour’ after its series of defeats at the hands of the ‘Thatcherist’ Conservatives between 1979–1997, and the left-wing disgruntled by opportunism, nepotism, hypocrisy, and the Iraq War, all associated with the Blair Years.
Thus, after the defeat Labour suffered under the leadership of ‘centrist’ Ed Miliband, two ‘centrist’ former cabinet secretaries (senior ministers) Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, and a “Blairite” right winger Liz Kendall put their names forward to succeed Miliband. Initially, Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran leftist hardliner, had a problem securing enough MP nominations that would allow him to run. However, in a combination of naïveté and irresponsibility, some MPs gifted him their nominations, thus making his candidacy possible.
Once an official candidate, Corbyn was no more dependent on the votes of his fellow MPs, but buoyed by the strength of the traditional “left” in the party’s nationwide branches as well as the powerful trade union vote.
True to form, Corbyn now leads the field to the dismay of many who are worried he might win outright and turn Labour from a “party of government” to a marginal “protest faction” incapable of governing in the foreseeable future.
So what we witness today in both the US and UK is proof of the dynamism of democracy. But it is also an alert to traditional politicians that people retain a powerful “protest vote” which they can effectively use against what they regard as deception, lack of respect, and dubious deals.