Earlier this week, a meme was circulating around Twitter aimed at least partly at left-wing critics of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election.
“Dear liberals and independents,” it began. “In 2020 there will be a candidate competing against Donald Trump for president. It is very likely this candidate: 1) Isn’t your first choice, 2) Isn’t 100% ideologically pure, 3) Has made mistakes in their life, 4) Might not really excite you all that much, 5) Has ideas you are uncomfortable with.”
“Please start the process of getting over that shit now, instead of waiting until 2020,” it concluded.
The meme echoes some of the common complaints around the treatment of Hillary Clinton (and, by extension, all centrist candidates) during the 2016 election. Many liberals and Clinton supporters still believe that Clinton’s loss can be heavily attributed to the fierce criticism she received from the Left, particularly during the Democratic primary. Others condemned the “Bernie or Bust” contingent, particularly those who disrupted the Democratic National Convention.
It’s part of a long-running critique of any party’s progressive base: that instead of simply holding their nose and accepting someone who is a flawed but acceptable candidate, they sabotage moderates’ chances at leadership, thereby bringing a much worse alternative to power.
Yet these familiar arguments appeared to have vanished for some high-profile liberals when it comes to the case of Jeremy Corbyn. While Corbyn pulled off unexpected gains in yesterday’s elections, he did it without the assistance of some high-profile liberal voices.
When France stood poised between electing racist populist Marine Le Pen and and neoliberal supply-sider Emmanuel Macron, Obama intervened, explicitly endorsing Macron in a seventy-second video, arguing that he “has stood up for liberal values” and “appeals to people’s hopes, and not their fears.” This was on top of the “bromantic” phone call he had with Macron, which many interpreted as a coded message of support in a country where Obama has a 90 percent approval rating.
Yet when the contest in the United Kingdom came down to Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn and the Conservatives’ Theresa May, Obama was nowhere to be found.
Of course, the Labour Manifesto was a strong set of social-democratic policies that most Democrats would tell you they would be happy to put forward in the United States (with the caveat of “if only it were politically possible”). Macron, by contrast, believes in GOP-style tax cuts for the rich, deregulation, and once told an unemployed protester who said he couldn’t afford a suit that “the best way to pay for a suit is to work for one.”
At the same time Labour was fighting for eleventh-hour votes, Obama found the time to “bring the bromance back” by sitting down for dinner with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, the latest in Trudeau’s series of faux-spontaneous, internet-courting publicity stunts.
Perhaps there’s a simpler explanation: Beyond issues of decorum and precedent, perhaps the reason for the silence is correct: Obama is just not that committed to left-wing political change. After all, he suggested in an interview last year that Labour under Corbyn had lost touch with “fact and reality.”
Another high-profile liberal figure — a self-described “democratic socialist” — who could have used her popularity and influence to build up enthusiasm for Labour in advance of the vote was Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling, an outspoken Labour supporter. Rowling has spent the better part of the last year relentlessly criticizing Corbyn, both for his ideas and his electability. For example:
- Tweeting that Labour was “surely finished for a generation.”
- Mocking Corbyn for sitting on the floor of a passenger train with passengers without seats.
- Charging that “Corbyn only helps Tories.”
- Linking to a story about Corbyn making paid appearances on an Iranian news station, while saying, “Corbyn. Is. Not. Dumbledore.”
- Arguing that “we may be facing the destruction of Labour as a viable political party” because of “empty sloganeering.”
- Tweeting in April that “if Labour is decimated, Corbyn and his comrades will be delighted.”
Accused of opposing Corbyn because, as a possible billionaire, her taxes could rise significantly under Corbyn, she insisted her opposition to Corbyn was purely out of concern that he was hurting Labour’s chances of kicking out the Tories.
“Labour has never won an election from polling numbers like his,” she said in September 2016. “I want a strong, electable Labour party, which is why I despair that Corbyn is leader,” she said in April. “He is killing their chances.” She complained that she and others had been labelled “Red Tories” simply “for wanting to win elections.”
You might have thought that, with Labour surging in the polls from May onward, Rowling might have been thrilled to see that her party’s fortunes had turned around. You might have even thought Rowling would send out encouraging tweets to her millennial fanbase, given Corbyn’s campaign was so dependent on youth turnout.
Instead, Rowling’s election-related tweets went cold, until June 8, when she urged people to vote for Labour MP Jess Phillips. As voters went to the polls, Rowling bafflingly tweeted about a “grinding sense of hopelessness.”
Tony Blair, the former Labour prime minister and famous Third Way pragmatist whose core philosophy was that the Labour party had to reflexively compromise on its ideals, was similarly unenthused about Corbyn. He refused to endorse Corbyn prior to the election, said that Labour was not providing a “competitive” opposition that was a threat to the Tories, and had earlier accused Corbyn of reducing the party to a “fringe protest movement.” (To be fair, Blair’s refusal to follow his own philosophy and be pragmatic and endorse a Labour leader who he didn’t entirely agree with was undoubtedly a good thing: he’s a warmonger, as well as being widely disliked by the British public). Likewise, former chancellor and Blairite Alistair Darling refused to endorse Corbyn in the run up to the election, saying that he was the leader “right up until the general election” and that “leaders come and go.”
Then you’ve got members of the press. Columnist Sarah Ditum, who is also a Labour party member, wrote a widely shared piece in April 18 for the liberal New Statesman, titled “What should you do if you support Labour but can’t stand Jeremy Corbyn?” Unlike Rowling and others, Ditum made clear that her opposition to Corbyn wasn’t based on electability.
“It’s not just that Corbyn is unpopular. It’s not even just that he’s incompetent,” she wrote. “It’s that he’s unconscionable. In the most serious possible way, it is morally intolerable to imagine Corbyn as Prime Minister.” For this reason, she explained, “I can’t campaign for Corbyn.” (Ditum had no such objections to Hillary Clinton, who is not only directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people through the wars she voted for, but, as we recently found out, also owned slaves).
New Statesman editor Jason Cowley has been likewise less than positive about Labour in the lead-up to the election. In February, he warned that “The Zombie Party is too weak to win.” At the close of March, he alerted readers that “the stench of decay and failure coming from the Labour Party is now overwhelming.” Two days before voting, he wrote a piece questioning if Labour was headed towards its worst election defeat since 1935.
Cowley wrote no articles about Labour’s manifesto, which even former Corbyn skeptics on the Left like Polly Toynbee enthused about at the time. But he did find the time to gush about the newly elected Emmanuel Macron, who he argued was leading “a populist eruption from the liberal center.”
All this should come as no surprise, because it’s happened in the United States too. After weeks and months of complaints about the Left’s “ideological purity” and the lack of unity among the Democratic base following Clinton’s 2016 loss, a troupe of Obama loyalists couldn’t stomach the idea of the Sanders-endorsed Keith Ellison running the DNC. So they actively sought out and recruited another candidate, the more establishment-friendly Tom Perez, with Ellison’s opponents specifically citing his views on Israel to justify their opposition.
Of course, most people did not hold out. As mentioned, the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee came around following the release of Labour’s manifesto. So did the New Statesman’s John Elledge. Comedian Steve Coogan, a former Corbyn critic, became a powerful voice in his favor. John Braggins, a former adviser to Blair, wrote a public apology to Corbyn over his earlier hostility to him.
But all of these examples — along with the comparative dearth of liberal voices now calling for voters to abandon “ideological purity” and vote for the “lesser evil” when it comes to a farther-left candidate — should remind us to be skeptical of such calls in the first place. Rather than neutral appeals to reason, they’ve been cynical arguments deployed almost exclusively for centrist candidates.