With Bernie Sanders’s relentless rise, the specter of Jeremy Corbyn now hangs over the Democratic race. At times, it’s uncanny how similar the two left-populist leaders are. An outlier long at odds with his party’s establishment? Check. A legislator with decades of voting who has almost no legislation to call his own? Yep. A 70-something beloved by 20-somethings? Check. An insurgent movement with cultish overtones that took over the party from more moderate figures? Yes. A more left-wing platform than any in his party’s history? Uh-huh. A man with many, many embarrassing connections in the past with hard-left figures across the globe? Oh yeah. Someone who hasn’t changed his mind on almost anything since the 1970s? Pretty much. Some highly unsavory hangers-on and followers? To put it mildly.
But there are two versions of what happens when this kind of nostalgic left radicalism is put to the public at large. One is the British election of 2017, when Corbyn surged during the campaign because of his radical, generous, big-spending platform, denying Theresa May a majority in the Commons. The other is the British election of 2019, when Corbyn led his party to their worst drubbing in its history, giving the Tories a landslide, and losing Labour’s own working class heartlands. Are we reliving the first or the second? Or does it matter? Corbyn lost both elections, after all.
The major difference between Bernie and Corbyn, of course, is their relative popularity. Bernie is much more liked than Corbyn ever was among the public at large, and polls better than Trump in a way that Corbyn never managed against David Cameron, Theresa May, or Boris Johnson. When Corbyn first emerged as the Labour Party leader in 2015, in a party membership vote that he won by a landslide larger than Tony Blair’s in 1994, the general public was less impressed than his fellow Labourites were. In YouGov’s polling, Corbyn started out at a negative 8 percent approval/disapproval rating. But his Labour leadership opponents had never unleashed the kind of warfare the Tories were about to, in exactly the same way Bernie has so far managed to dodge the worst of the charges and smears that will be brought to bear by the GOP in the summer and fall. Before too long, as the public grew more aware of who Corbyn was, his ratings began to plummet. Between September 2015 and January 2016, as opposition research took its toll, and the Tory tabloids stuck the knife in, he dropped to a net negative 39 percent. It took just five months to define him indelibly, and destroy him politically. There are now just less than nine months before the U.S. election.
After 11 months, Corbyn bounced back a little, but by February 2017, Corbyn sunk again to negative 38 percent. When May subsequently called a snap election in 2017, pundits (and May) thought Corbyn would thereby cause a Labour wipeout. Looking at the polls, they were right to be confident. But they were wrong. The issues that Corbyn ran on — soaring inequality, stagnant wages, the cost of housing, student debt, ever-rising costs for a middle-class life — had real traction. The rallying cry — “For the Many, Not the Few” — was inspired.
Massive borrowing, big tax hikes on the wealthy, industrial policy, huge infrastructure spending, and a largely isolationist foreign policy turned out to have strong support in the U.K., especially among the young. After their platform was published, Labour gained almost 20 points in the polls in six weeks of campaigning, a staggering comeback. And in the actual vote, Labour surged 9 percent from the previous election, to reach 40 percent of the vote. They still lost — to the Tories’ 42 percent — but the logic of a far-left platform was vindicated. Or at least that was the major conclusion by the Corbynistas, as it is today by Bernie supporters.
Large swathes of the Labour Party in Parliament nonetheless tried to get rid of Corbyn, just as the Democratic Establishment is trying to figure out how to stop Bernie now. But the party base rallied behind the leader, as the divide between moderate and Corbynite party members deepened. There was no way to run the left-populist demagogue out of the party without splitting it in two. And as the May government collapsed into Brexit paralysis in 2018, it looked as if sticking with Corbyn was a good idea.
It wasn’t. Even with May’s floundering, Corbyn lost ground. He hung on, buoyed by his grip on the party membership, until, in the election last December, Labour had their worst result in decades, their support dropping back to 32 percent, giving Boris Johnson a landslide. The Tories, just to rub in the catastrophe, won far more working-class support than Labour.
What caused the collapse? Voters told Labour candidates on the doorstep that Corbyn was the deal-breaker, and they also cited Brexit. Many white working-class voters in Labour heartlands were old-school patriots who had voted to leave the E.U., and had severe worries about mass immigration. They saw the Labour Party’s waffling and incoherence and delaying tactics on the question maddening, and they hated the PC bromides of the London elite. And though they liked Corbyn’s policies, they were skeptical about how he would ever pay for them. Meanwhile, the Tories under Johnson shrewdly moved left on economics, abandoning austerity, and promising big increases in domestic spending. So vast swathes of Labour seats went Tory — often for the first time in modern history.
We’d be foolish not to weigh this as a possible Bernie scenario. Left populism has real support out there, but a party leader’s credibility as a future national leader is also crucial. The Tories and their press hammered Corbyn on extremist moments in his past: inviting members of the IRA into the Commons, placing a wreath at a ceremony where Black September terrorists were honored, calling Hamas leaders his friends, and several incidents which revealed either Corbyn’s anti-Semitism or his staggering indifference to it in his own ranks.
You can see an identical strategy by the GOP. Sanders’s kind words for left-wing despots, his defense of the Sandinistas, his honeymoon in the Soviet Union in the Cold War, his affiliation with the Socialist Workers Party while it was supporting the Iranian revolution, his admiration for some of the policies of totalitarian Cuba, his refusal to speak at AIPAC: All this and more will be playing on a loop by the summer. The Corbyn precedent — though Corbyn was comparatively more extreme and anti-Western in his rhetoric and foreign policy — suggests it could be fatal.
Bernie, of course, has strengths Corbyn didn’t and doesn’t. Bernie’s a strong and aggressive debater and speaker, where Corbyn is useless, passive and meandering. Sanders is much more widely liked than Corbyn ever was. His favorables are at a negative 2.7 percent — nowhere near Corbyn’s ratings in the negative 30s. There’s no third party on the center-left like the Lib Dems to split the anti-Trump vote. Polarization in the U.S. is also so deep that a huge McGovern- or Corbyn-scale loss for the Democrats is unlikely. The polling now gives Bernie an edge over Trump — and a marginally bigger one than his opponents. For his part, Trump is not as deft a politician as Johnson.
And yet I worry. Watching Sanders in the South Carolina debate, he became aggressive, shouty, and angry. His visceral hatred of actual billionaires like Mike Bloomberg — and not just the system that creates billionaires — was striking to me. He’s all but incapable of nuance. I remember my own interaction with him on the Bill Maher show, where I begged him to consider at least that there might be a middle ground between clobbering the pharmaceutical companies’ profits and encouraging research and development in the private sector. He wouldn’t. The profit motive in health care was evil, even if it had saved and extended countless lives.
And competitive polls nine months before a general election are one thing. Turnout on the day is quite another. What Sanders needs, just as Corbyn did, is a massive show by the young and previous nonvoters to counteract the populist right’s strong support among boomers and retirees. But in Iowa and New Hampshire, no such surge was visible. Corbyn too promised victory by a huge youth turnout, and much of his success in 2017 was initially attributed to a big surge in young voting. The trouble is, it didn’t happen. The best voter survey eventually found youth turnout in 2017 was roughly where it had always been. In 2019, the same happened: No youthquake emerged to save the left. Instead, older voters, many scared by Corbyn, showed up in droves to back the Tories, and nonvoters were closer to the Tories than to Labour. Among the under-24s, the turnout was 47 percent; among the over-65s, it was 74 percent. Yes, the left won the young by a margin of 43 percent, and the right won the old by a margin of 47 percent. But many, many more oldies showed up.
Corbyn was also crippled by cultural issues. Labour supported — or refused to oppose — the same mass immigration policies that had been rejected in the Brexit referendum. Upscale, pro-E.U. liberal urbanites therefore came more fully into Labour’s orbit, and gave the party a distinctly globalist appearance, even as socially conservative and nationalist members of the working class fled to the right. Corbyn tried to stop this realignment, or arrest it a little, but couldn’t. He had once been a classic old-school, left-wing immigration skeptic, just like Sanders. Yet he ran for office on a platform of relitigating the Brexit issue, toying with a second referendum, and demonizing hostility to mass immigration as a function of racism. For many white working-class voters, this was disqualifying.
And this is uncannily similar to Bernie’s trajectory. Sanders was, until quite recently, against open borders — “a Koch brothers’ proposal” — and an advocate of controlling immigration to strengthen wages for domestic workers. But check out his platform now: more liberal than any of the other Democratic candidates. He’s in favor of decriminalizing border crossing, a moratorium on all deportations, no more spending on the border wall, the abolition of ICE, federal health benefits for illegal immigrants, and no mandatory E-Verify. It’s a Koch brothers’ agenda — just woker — and all but an invitation for a new surge in illegal newcomers.
He’s also promising to ban, yes ban, private health insurance that could compete with Medicare for All — something that even socialized medicine in Britain doesn’t do. And behind him is an army of young, woke zealots, eager to fight “whiteness” and the patriarchy and erase any biological distinction between men and women — an army Bernie seems incapable of managing or resisting, and who are not exactly restrained in their tactics either online or off. Corbynistas also became a troll army, and his close retinue were derided as “brocialists”; the parallel with Sanders’s young fanatics is unnerving.
The Sanders gamble, of course, is that left populism will beat right populism, and that this is a time for boldness. I get that. There really is something there — as capitalism is obviously in crisis and failing to tangibly improve the lives of most people in developed countries. I see the failure of the Democratic centrists to light a fire under their campaigns in the grassroots; and grassroots enthusiasm will be vital in November. But we’ve learned in the past couple of years that a real left revival — one that could win power and govern effectively — is often more a mirage than a reality. And it is much easier for the right to move left economically in these populist times than it is for the left to move right culturally.
Maybe the unique personal toxicity of Trump and his threat to turn the federal government and the entire justice system into a strongman cult will prove much less popular than Boris Johnson’s shameless opportunism. Maybe Sanders will prove that Corbyn’s extremism and unpopularity was a unique combination. But we can’t know that yet, because the primaries and caucuses and debates have not exposed Bernie to the kinds of attack the GOP will soon level. What we do know is that socialism is a far more mainstream position in British politics than in America, where the label remains toxic to many — but even there, it wasn’t mainstream enough.
So yes, I worry, given the huge stakes in November. I much prefer Bernie to Corbyn, but the closer you look, the more parallels you can see. What has happened to the Labour Party these past few years has a striking resemblance to what has happened to the Democrats. And in Britain, even when left populism really did strike a chord, as it did in 2017, and even when it faced a far less impressive politician than Trump in Theresa May, it was never enough to actually, you know, win.
Pete Buttigieg and the Death of the Gay-Rights Movement
One of the many problems with the concept of intersectionality is that it largely precludes activism on behalf of any single minority. Any particular identity is immediately overwhelmed by a variety of additional identities that supplant, complicate, or qualify it. And all these identities have their own hierarchy of oppressors and the oppressed, splintering them still further.
And so it is with what was once the gay-rights movement. A simple defense of the rights and freedom of homosexuals — people, biologically male and female, who are attracted to their own sex — has become impossible in an intersectional framework.
First off, critical queer theory deconstructed the old category of homosexual, which once rested on an apparently natural or innate attraction to members of the same sex. Homosexuality, they argued in contrast, is essentially a political act, a social construction, and the goal of queer politics is to subvert all such constructions, to advance wider and wider liberation. So there are homosexuals and then there are “queers.” The former are largely what queer theorists once lamented as “hetero-normative” (gays who can pass as straights) and are now called “homo-normative” (a person who looks and lives like most integrated gay men). The queer category tends to be defined by a desire to deconstruct the whole idea of nature, gender, and sex, embracing subversive alternatives to the family or the couple, and defining themselves by their performance of masculine or feminine roles, which they choose, in a bid to undermine the determinative role of biological sex. Then critical gender theory places women above men in the general hierarchy of oppression (oppression being correlated with status), deconstructing the classic coalition of gay men and lesbians as equals in pursuing homosexual rights.
Gender identity theory adds “trans” and “cis” to the categories of both men and women, straight and gay, with trans people, by and large, being the object of oppression by cis people. And then critical race theory adds a racial hierarchy as well, so that white gays are split from and subordinate to black gays, Jews become oppressors (because they have adopted “whiteness”), and Latinos climb up the intersectional ladder, as long as they identify as nonwhite. You can also add a host of other marginalized aspects of the human condition: the disabled, or poor, or undocumented, or HIV-positive … and on and on. When you buy into this vision of our society as defined entirely by oppression of people’s identity and with oppression having a near-infinite number of complicating hierarchies, the idea of a simple “gay rights” movement comes completely unraveled. As it was intended to be.
And this is key, it seems to me, in understanding why “LGBTQ” activists have revealed such hostility to a figure like Pete Buttigieg. He does not deserve their support because he is white, male, cis, Christian, and has managed to be extraordinarily successful in life as well as politics. That places him quite high up on the oppressor matrix, his gayness notwithstanding. Here’s an award-winning ACLU lawyer, Chase Strangio, explaining this position on Twitter:
We aren’t saying Pete is the wrong kind of gay just that his gayness doesn’t represent the kind of progress for queer survival that feels worth celebrating to some of us.
The first serious, openly gay candidate for the presidency does not represent “progress,” because he actually threatens “queer survival” — whatever that latter term actually means. In fact, Pete is, in their eyes, a regression — not because of his politics (which are very liberal), but simply because of his whiteness, maleness, cis-ness, and extraordinary talent. Queers should support a woman, a racial minority, a trans person, a disabled person, before they should support a white cis gay man.
Here is Strangio elaborating this week on his point:
To all the white LGBTQ people celebrating the ‘milestone’ or ‘history-making’ of Pete, I strongly disagree. Nothing about white people who align with white supremacy to take power represents progress in my view. Whiteness always will find a home with power & we have the privilege of subordinating our other identities in the service of that alignment. Pete is a perfect example of this as are so many white cis and trans women. Don’t be lulled into a narrative that serves existing supremacies.
Yes, Pete Buttigieg is in “alignment” with “white supremacy.” And that is a far more important thing to know about him than his homosexuality. What Pete has revealed, in other words, is that the gay-rights movement is dead. There are simply too many intersectional identities within the category of being gay to contain them in a movement simply for “gay rights.” What that means is that no gay organization can simply be about gays anymore. It has to be about race, class, gender, ability, immigration status, HIV status, and gender identity. Which means that it has to be indistinguishable from every other intersectional movement.
At some point, well-meaning but naïve white, cis, gay men will come to understand that the movement they are largely funding is dedicated to their demonization and marginalization. And maybe, those not wedded to intersectional ideology will eventually decide to stop cutting the checks that makes this possible.
Ashes to Ashes
One of the paradoxes of Ash Wednesday is that it reveals to the entire world, with ashes on your forehead, that you are a believer. And this, of course, was the opposite of Jesus’ teaching — even in the Gospel that was read at Mass that day: “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. Truly I tell you, they already have their full reward. But when you pray, go into your inner room, shut your door, and pray to our Father, who is unseen. And your Father, who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”
It’s a hard teaching. We all want validation from society. But Jesus is adamant that we should do without it — because it mixes the motives of good deeds, and turns faith into a kind of vainglorious showiness. The same with what we Catholics are supposed to do in Lent: We are asked to sacrifice in some way — by refraining from what gives us pleasure, or by adding new ways to reflect obey God’s will — but not to tell anyone. There is almost nothing in our culture today that is more alien to us. It’s a kind of reverse social media, where you are always trying to hide who you are and what you do, rather than constantly parade it for attention and likes. It is not exactly a very 21st-century discipline.
For me, Ash Wednesday is about remembering my mortality, focusing more intently on what doesn’t pass away, with a deepening understanding that my body one day will. In early modern Europe, people would have constant memori morti around them — skulls on desks, amulets, paintings with images of death and decay in them. Today, in far more comfortable, death-denying times, we have close to none. I was shaken out of this early in my adult life by the death of so many friends and acquaintances in the AIDS epidemic, by a seemingly endless procession of funerals and memorial services for those in their 20s and 30s, and by my own diagnosis when there were no treatments. But mortality is as easy to forget as it is painful to remember.
In Wednesday’s New York Times opinion pages, a Buddhist monk explained: “We fear death because we love life, but a little too much, and often look at just the preferred side of it. That is, we cling to a fantasized life, seeing it with colors brighter than it has … Reality contradicts this belief.”
It sure does. In December, visiting Britain, I spent the best part of one day with my dad. Within a couple of months, he was dead. My father was simply going to bed one night earlier this month and slipped on the carpet at the top of the stairs, fell backward down a full flight, broke his neck and his spinal cord, and lay there completely paralyzed for 14 hours before my siblings found him in the morning. He died a day and a half later, before I could get to see him. But, according to my brother and sister, he was not in panic or anguish as he languished in hospital. He preferred to die than to live as a paraplegic. He wanted to get on with his own death. And this was not out of step with his usual unflappability. I asked him last year how he dealt with the looming specter of mortality at the age of 83. He said the most it impinged on him was when passing the meat aisle in the supermarket. “I pick the sirloin now,” he said.
I haven’t been consumed by grief since, although I suppose that might change when I return soon for the memorial service. I’ve been reminded rather of the fragility of all our lives, and it has even given me some comfort. The ashes on my forehead this week reassured in a way. This is indeed the dust to which I will return and my father just did — and reconciliation to that fact is the key to wisdom and serenity. “Most things may never happen: this one will,” as Philip Larkin brutally pointed out. His atheism made this unbearable:
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
In contrast, T.S. Eliot’s Christianity offered a more serene option:
Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessèd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice
And pray to God to have mercy upon us.
See you next Friday.