Politics is full of surprises of late, as both a resurgent left and an atavistic right win one surprising victory after another.
One peculiarity of the conjuncture is that the rising social-democratic left in the English-speaking world has produced two oddly similar, and similarly odd, figureheads: Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.
Both, of course, fit a similar style profile, as old and somewhat disheveled white men, seemingly a bit out of touch with the contemporary culture that has propelled them to unprecedented levels of political success. Hence the inherent humor of something like Corbyn’s arrival on the talk show The Last Leg, or Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash. Each exploits the incongruity of these men’s nebbishy affect when contrasted with their youthful supporters.
But I don’t think it’s quite an accident that it was men like these who ended up in this position, in this particular moment.
Our political period is characterized by a rising, but still largely disorganized left, arrayed against a moribund but still institutionally powerful neoliberal order that uses its accumulated power to compensate for its complete lack of compelling answers to contemporary political questions. In order to contest state politics at the highest level — the presidency of the United States, the prime minister of the UK — someone had to be found, within the higher echelons of power, who could serve as a figurehead.
After decades of reaction, few such people were available. But what we found was people like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.
And so the interesting question is, how do we characterize politicians like them? I’d suggest that they are best summarized as survivors.
They are people who lived through a period of reaction, during which their leftist peers generally burned out, faded away, or reinvented themselves as neoliberal hacks. Whereas people like Sanders and Corbyn managed to hold on to something resembling traditional social-democratic politics, while remaining in proximity to the highest reaches of power within the capitalist state. They managed to survive a period of reaction without either being driven out of politics or becoming reactionaries themselves.
Although Sanders and Corbyn were immersed in the Left during its high points in the 1960s and 1970s, nobody would have considered them great figures for the history books until recently. Sanders participated in the Civil Rights Movement as a student, and in left-wing electoral projects in Vermont, but was essentially a minor figure. Corbyn attended discussion groups with luminaries of the British left like Ralph Miliband and Tony Benn, but was mostly remembered as a quiet and unremarkable figure, peripheral to the movers and shakers on the Left of that era.
So what distinguishes people like Sanders and Corbyn is that they survived. Not just in the literal sense that they’re still alive, but in the sense that they were in a position to contest the Democratic presidential nomination or the leadership of the Labour Party from the left, when nobody else was.
People like that have, I would say, three important characteristics.
First, and most obviously, some level of idealistic and ideological commitment to social democracy or left-liberalism. This is the aspect that the lazy press tends to harp on — look at these doddering hippies, with their “values” and their “ideals”! See how out of touch they are with the cynical compromises with capitalism that, as all savvy observers know, are the essence of politics.
And of course it’s true that Sanders and Corbyn had to have some kind of principled commitment in order to avoid giving up their ideals in favor of what would surely have been a better dispensation, had they conceded to Clintonism and Blairism.
But to portray them as merely hippy-dippy idealists is to leave out two other, and equally important, parts of their political persona.
The first is that they are, in fact, extremely pragmatic, strategic, and at times ruthless politicians. How else, after all, could they have survived for so long in an environment where even their own ostensible party-mates and allies rejected their positions?
At the apex of the Sanders campaign, the New York Times ran an article entitled “Bernie Sanders’s Campaign Past Reveals Willingness to Play Hardball.” It detailed some of the tactics that Sanders used to win and maintain power in Vermont, sometimes with harsh attacks on his opponents.
The subtext of the coverage seemed to be that such tactics were at odds with Sanders’s program or his image. But all the article really demonstrated was that the media’s portrayal of Sanders as a genial hippie grandpa was at odds with his real nature as a political survivor, someone who was always interested in merging principle with power.
The final distinguishing characteristic of these left-wing survivor politicians, who have been thrust into leadership, is that they tend towards an individualistic, lone-wolf approach to politics. Bernie Sanders has spent decades as the only party-independent member of Congress (despite caucusing with Democrats). Corbyn was content to tend his London district until he reluctantly agreed to pursue what he thought would be a doomed protest candidacy for Labour leader.
And what other course would have been available, during a period when New Labour and the Democratic Leadership Council were loudly and fiercely denouncing the politics of a Corbyn or Sanders as out of date, out of style, and beyond the boundaries of respectable politics? (This is, perhaps, a neglected interpretation of Sanders’s initial difficulties when confronted by Black Lives Matter activists: it wasn’t just that he had some blind spot about racism, but that he was generally not used to being held accountable by a mass movement.)
And so it is that we enter a period of renewed left organizing with men like these as our figureheads. Their particular combination of idealism, ruthlessness, and iconoclasm made them well-suited to the dark years of “lifeboat socialism” that they survived. These traits do not, however, make them particularly well-matched to the period we are now entering. And so we will need to find new leaders from the ranks of organizers who have been radicalized over the past decade.
In the meantime, however, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go to the war with the social-democratic politicians you have. Which means Bernie Sanders, who took his campaign farther than anyone could have reasonably expected, and Jeremy Corbyn, who will hopefully hold on against the inept and despicable attempts of his parliamentary peers to depose him.
And hopefully we will all look back at their improbable moments in the spotlight, and see them as the early days of a better world.