The rise of left-wing populism

Much has been made the rise of right-wing populism in Europe and the Americas, from Donald Trump and Brexit to AfD, Fidesz, and Bolsonaro — but there is an opposing, equally compelling narrative unfolding at the same time.

Image courtesy of Nick Solari via Wikimedia, © 2015, some rights reserved.

When an independent Senator from Vermont calling himself a “democratic socialist” declared his intention to defeat Hillary Clinton, the heir to a political dynasty and one of the most well-known and well-funded politicians in recent memory, he was dismissed without a thought. His official campaign announcement was held on a cold and windy day in Washington, D.C., was attended by very few reporters, and was buried somewhere in the middle section of the New York Times. They laughed off his calls for a “political revolution” and proclaimed that serious candidates needed to appeal to the “centre”.

Now, four years later, everyone’s phone is buzzing with a “BREAKING NEWS” alert informing us that he is running in 2020. The democratic socialist from Vermont is now perhaps equally as recognizable as his former primary challenger and inarguably far more politically relevant. Nearly every major Democratic contender for the presidency has embraced the core of Sanders’ 2016 platform, including universal healthcare, a $15 (£11.50) minimum wage, and a strengthening of the social safety net. It is quite likely that the next American president — or at least the next Democratic one — will either be a democratic socialist or one in all but name.

In addition to his effect on his fellow presidential candidates, Sanders’ 2016 “political revolution” has spawned a generation of young new democratic socialists. Perhaps the most famous (or infamous, depending on your political leanings) is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (or “AOC”), the newly-elected Representative of NY-14. She managed to defeat Joe Crowley, a long-serving and extremely powerful Democratic politician who was widely seen as the successor to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. She did so while campaigning to the left of Sanders, going so far as to call for the abolition of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the government agency responsible for deporting undocumented persons living in the United States. She, too, has seen success in moving her ideas into the mainstream — “abolish ICE” and “abolish billionaires” are two examples of once-fanciful positions now endorsed by an increasing number of leftist Democrats.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia, © 2018, some rights reserved.

Here in Britain, an equally momentous change was taking place at the same time. Jeremy Corbyn, another democratic socialist with a track record of opposing the establishment within his own party and without, was elected leader of the Labour Party in 2015 with a massive majority over the other, more centrist candidates, Corbyn has set about reshaping Labour into a staunchly anti-austerity party, much to the horror of moderates and Blairites. Indeed, it is rather shocking, in many ways, how similar politics are beginning to look in Britain and America, at least on the left side of the political spectrum: establishment Blairites / Clintonites vs. anti-establishment democratic socialists. As if to underline this point we have the much-publicised phone call between AOC and Corbyn in which they proclaimed a “movement across borders” to champion leftist aims.

While many react in shock at the “extreme” right and left and yearn for a return to a more centrist ‘Obama vs. Romney / Miliband vs. Cameron’ sort of politics, I would argue that it is surprising that this hasn’t happened sooner. Prospects for young people today are, for the first time since the end of the Second World War, looking worse than they were for their parents. The youth in Western democracies like Britain, France, and America are generally disdainful of establishment politics and half-baked centrism. The old and the marginalized are also equally skeptical of more of the same; the hardcore pro-Brexit crowd are as opposed to May and Cameron as Trump supporters are to ‘the mainstream media’. With longstanding trends of wage stagnation, wealth inequality, legalised political corruption, and the effects of the Great Depression it is shocking to me that the ‘extreme’ left and right haven’t been a major factor until recently.

Rather than blaming ‘populism’, pundits and politicians of the day might start by acknowledging the very real material and psychological circumstances driving people to embrace the ‘revolutionary’ politics of AOC, Sanders, and Corbyn and to reject the careful moderation of Clinton, Obama, and Blair. When Michael Gove famously told an interviewer that Britain had “had enough of experts” most people scoffed; but (and I am mindful of the irony in an analyst at the Foreign Affairs Review saying this) he was pretty much right: young people tend to want bold, rapid action and older voters want an end to political cliques and a broader return to traditional ideas. Bernie Sanders stumped for $15 an hour minimum wage, Hillary Clinton argued for a cost-of-living-adjusted wage ($15 in New York and San Francisco, maybe, and something like $12 in Kansas City or Iowa City). While Clinton’s position may have made more sense, all things considered, people generally were not in the mood for a wonkish policy discussion. They wanted something bold, radical, “revolutionary”.

This isn’t like to change in the near future. If anything, and for better or worse, the “movement across borders” looks like it’s only just beginning.

Banner image: Image courtesy of Wikimedia, © 2017, some rights reserved.