If, like me, you are some combination of English, American and left-wing you may be noticing a strange phenomenon. It manifests itself in think pieces from trendy blogs and news websites alike expressing a bemused interest in an aging white dude, first elected to office in the middle of neoliberalism’s rise to power from a constituency renowned for its population of gay communist radical marxist etc, surging forward into the polls ahead of his nearest rival:the clearly more competent half of a married couple that spent the 1990s pushing the idea that the only way for the political left to go was the middle. Whilst yes the British side of this equation is in the latter stages with leadership voting for the Labour party starting tomorrow, I do think the fact that these two ostensibly fringe candidates are in the running to lead their parties speaks to something broader; to wit, the breakdown of ‘the third way.’
A Quick aside: The phrase, ‘The Third Way’, was coined in the mid 1990s to describe the political re-orientation of the Democratic and Labour parties’ leadership to the political right at the end of the 1980s in response to being politically broken by forces of Reaganomics and Thatcherism. It’s generally characterized by viewing a deregulated, hedge-fund dominated, financially lopsided market as the natural state of industrialized societies; the two-generation-long post-war consensus in the western world about tripartite social democracy being an aberration brought on by feelings of comradery during the 1940s and amphetamines in the 1960s.
Because Social-Darwinism is the apparent natural state of society the best thing lefties can do is make sure as many poor people as possible get to be predatory with the hopes that they will rise. To this end, rather than improving workplaces or giving workers more power, social democrats should push to make this unfair world at least meritocratic. To achieve this New Labourites/Democrats have pushed for better education so more kinds of people can get into the economic and social elite, (this is why Tony Blair’s priorities where famously “education, education, education“) all this whilst subsidizing the inevitable underclass this creates until they adjust…. somehow.
This is why the rise of Sanders and Corbyn is seen as a confusing aberration. As societies, the UK and US have drifted so far to the political right that Bernie and Jez managed to get to the positions they’re in because a series of political operators viewed their politics as simply impossible. Jeremy Corbyn made it into the leadership race, in part, by Blairites nominating him to be a left-wing foil for Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham to prove how sensible and electable they are. Bernie Sanders has never been seen as a political threat by anyone in D.C. so there is no serious anti-Sanders narrative; if he is talked of in a negative light, that light focuses on the fact that he’s an irrelevant curmudgeon. The liberal left along with the conservative right have spent so much time thinking of ‘Socialism’ as something aging miners sing about whilst actual, sensible political actors warn the rest of us about with poorly thought out signs.
I don’t seriously think that Jeremy or Bernie will win their upcoming battles for leadership of the party. Even if Corbyn was to win this month, I doubt the popular power of the social democratic left would be enough to have red flags flying over both the White house and Downing Street by 2020. I do however think that the fact that these two figures are drawing huge crowds at the same time in similar political cultures does suggest if not a seismic change then the turning of a corner. My generation have spent our entire adult lives being beaten over the head with the negative consequences of neoliberalism and lopsided economics. My hope is not that President Sanders or Prime minister Corbyn will change the tax code a little bit to bring forth full communism. Rather, by fighting these elections and denting the twenty-first century consensus about the end of history and the natural state of unfettered capitalism these two survivors of the post-war consensus could remind us that one doesn’t necessarily have to be cynical to be successful.