Here’s What the Democrats Should Learn from Corbyn’s Failure
There has been a tide sweeping elections since 2016. Concerned moderates and liberal onlookers have decried the rise of populism, xenophobia and racism. But if they want to turn this tide, they need to focus on the point.
Instead they are being drawn in by a countervailing call from the left that entirely misses the concerns of the voters that brought these results about.
It bears remembering that in each of these elections — Trump 2016, the Brexit referendum and Thursday’s general election in the UK, among many others — that in order to win the vote, many so-called moderates, or even people originally on the political left, must have voted for the victor. Think about what that means for a moment: people who voted twice for Barack Obama, then voted for Donald Trump. What then, were they voting for?
Had they all become, bigots, xenophobes and racists? Or were they duped? Or, none of the above?
Let’s get one thing clear. It is entirely possible to vote for a party that ran xenophobic or misleading advertising campaigns whilst having not been swayed or misled by them. In the UK, huge numbers of people saw Boris Johnson’s flaws, saw his record of dishonesty for what it was, and voted for him anyway. In America, people saw that Donald Trump was unreliable, insincere and racist, and still voted for him. What was he offering?
The Main Issue — Voter Expression
Voters in all these elections felt that they were no longer represented by the political class, and they certainly didn’t feel served by them. Participating in a democracy is an active process. When the electorate have pressing concerns, the democratic process should express them.
The victorious sides in recent elections have recognised that. They can get away with the most egregious lies because the sweeping tide in these elections is the sense that voters aren’t being listened to. That the political system is anti-democratic. Political chameleons like Messrs Trump and Johnson are changeable enough to adapt to this. Mr Johnson, leader of the Leave campaign in the UK, even wrote two articles — one ‘for’ leaving the EU, and one ‘against’.
The political left however has been too shackled by ideology to adapt their sail to the changing political winds. The fact that this ideology is repudiated by the majority of voters is what will lose the Democrats the vote in 2020. They imagine if only they keep calling out racists, transphobes, homophobes, if only they create a few more viral Trump put-downs, then all will fall into place. When the result doesn’t go their way the only conclusion they can draw is that the other side must have been too ignorant — or else they would have voted correctly. The following graph illustrates this partisan hostility:
To say that Corbyn was a complete failure is perhaps too revisionist. He led the largest grass-roots Labour movement in modern history. Labour membership increased massively under his leadership. And that is direct political participation. But without policies that would work for the country, the Labour movement became a leadership cult whose orthodoxy was enforced by a viscous sect within the party, called Momentum. Anyone caught straying from party line was vilified and ostricised.
Compare this to the American ideological left where scoring points with identity politics is viewed as political capital. Where victimhood is a political goal. Just look at Elizabeth Warren’s claim to Indian ancestral heritage. If there was any consistency on the left that should have brought about the heaviest accusations of cultural appropriation. But it was left for Trump to do. Time and again there are issues or critiques which are so blindingly obvious to the general public, but so bindingly unspeakable in Democratic circles, that it’s easy pickings for Trump and co.
Just as in the UK, voters across America want to be assured that they are in safe hands, that the economy and jobs are being looked after, and their country and culture are not going to change beyond recognition. Yet they are told that America and her allies are the enemy, that socialism is the way forward, and that there are no downsides to immigration.
There is valid critique to be had of American foreign policy, of the excesses of capitalism and of isolationism. But it is being drowned out by a cacophony of ideologically-driven hysteria, and it does not address voting concerns. In the UK election Labour did not find a way to talk rationally about Brexit, just as the Democrats are yet to find a way of talking rationally about immigration. Immigration is a net-positive, and the argument is sound. But even a recognition that the pace of societal change is a valid voter concern seems to much to ask. Fighting racism and arguing for the humane treatment of vulnerable immigrants should be the cause of the left. However, it should be based not on identity, but on humanity and shared American values.
Have a look at the two graphs below. The first shows what is concerning voters, the second shows who’s talking about it. Have a look at the bars on the left.
Labour attacked big business and made success a dirty word, and said nothing on the benefits of a thriving economy. Democrats should recognise that capitalism has been responsible globally for lifting two billion people out of poverty, while still being able to deplore crony-capitalism and rooting out its worst excesses.
And finally, instead of being viewed as taking a principled stance against the worst foreign policy failures of the UK and her allies, Jeremy Corbyn was viewed as being unsafe, anti-semitic and even terrorist sympathising. The Democrats have a huge opportunity here, with Trump’s alienation of traditional US allies, his standing at the world stage and his appalling treatment of the Kurds. But they risk being seen as taking on impeachment not from a moral standpoint, but for political gain. They must regain the narrative.
This is not a call for less opposition, or even of capitulation; politics is difference and there are real fights to be fought from the left. Voters want to find the best outlet for their political concerns, and this can override the negative personal concerns they have of people they vote for. To become that outlet, the Democrats need the moral courage to take a hard look at the ideological cult of Corbyn, and see their own reflection.