Sanders & Corbyn May Create Revolution
Robert L. Borosage
For many Democrats, defeating President Donald Trump in 2020 and returning to “normal” is enough. For a growing number of voters and contenders, however, the question is not simply getting rid of Trump, but gaining a mandate for fundamental change.
The latter mission was explored this week in a windowless Longworth House Office Building meeting room, where two British economists — Mathew Lawrence and James Meadway — met with a gaggle of Democratic congressional aides to outline the elements of British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s evolving economic policy. The gathering, co-sponsored by the Congressional Progressive Caucus Centre and the Democracy Collaborative, a Washington-based research institute, is one of many exchanges across the Atlantic between progressive thinkers, legislators, and activists who are sharing ideas and strategies about forging a new era of reform.
New reform era
In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn - a British version of Bernie Sanders, in that he was dismissed for years as a cranky radical while acting as a consistent critic of New Labour’s move to the right - could well lead the party to victory in the next election. The ruling Tory Party is disintegrating in the face of Brexit. In the United States, Bernie Sanders’s stunning primary run in 2016 and his current momentum, along with Senator Elizabeth Warren’s imprint on the early Democratic “ideas primary,” have driven the Democratic debate to the left. The coming British and US elections could mark not simply a change of the party in power, but the end of the 40-year conservative era and the launch of a new reform era.
The historic potential of this transformation can be seen by looking at history. In 1979–80, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan—two movement conservatives deemed far too extreme by the established consensus - were elected within a year of each another. Both consciously set out to end the post-war liberal era and launched their countries into four decades of conservative dominance.
In the 1990s, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair came into power within a few years of one another. Clinton’s New Democrats and Blair’s New Labour both pushed their parties to tack to prevailing conservative winds. Both proclaimed a new “Third Way” (ignoring the reality that social democracy was the original third way between communism and capitalism). Both helped consolidate a global economic order designed by, for, and of the multinationals.
Now, a fundamental reordering could again be the result of parallel elections on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. Britain and the United States suffer many of the same maladies: savage inequality, a political economy that does not work for most people, devastation of manufacturing sectors, and a stark contrast between the financial centre and the provinces. There is also a corporate culture in both countries dominated by finance, shareholder interests, and characterised by short-term, predatory plunder. Both countries have a young generation likely to fare far worse than their parents. Both suffer an establishment that is both demoralised and bereft of ideas. Rising popular discontent has taken perverse expressions—Brexit in Britain, Trump in the United States.
Hence, the left is on the rise—driven by ideas, grassroots energy, and authenticity. Corbyn was lifted to leadership in Labour Party by an unprecedented mobilisation and expansion in party membership. Sanders came from idiosyncratic obscurity to front-runner in the 2020 race largely by his 2016 primary run, which was fuelled significantly by the surge of energy from young voters.
For both, bold and explicit reform ideas were central to their rise. Corbyn’s 2017 Manifesto—“For the Many Not the Few”—was leaked by those certain that its radical ideas would torpedo his candidacy. Britain’s conservative media described it as a “suicide note” and gave it widespread attention. The result, ironically, was that Labour soared in public-opinion polls and made stunning election gains. Similarly, Sanders’s rise came not because of a slick campaign or a telegenic personality, but because of the force of his ideas, and the authenticity with which he championed them.
The core agendas of the rising movements have striking similarities. Both call for a revival of public investment and social provision. Both commit to a large public-infrastructure investment. The Labour Manifesto calls for both a national and regional investment banks. The Green New Deal here has sparked parallel thinking in Britain. Both highlight direct material benefits such as tuition-free college, free childcare, Medicare for All in the United States, and bolstering the popular National Health Service in Britain. Both call for large hikes in the minimum wage and reforms empowering workers to organise and bargain collectively, and both movements rely on tax hikes for the rich and on corporations both to address inequality and to pay for their programme.
Both are now beginning to focus on structural corporate reforms to redress market failures. Among Democrats, Senator Elizabeth Warren has led the call for a revived anti-trust agenda against monopoly, corporate profits taxes, and giving workers seats on the boards of large corporations.
The debate is more advanced in Britain, as Corbyn and aides revise the manifesto for the next election. Corbyn’s manifesto calls for reversing Thatcher’s disastrous privatisation of railroads, and utilities like water, energy, and the mail. It places significant emphasis on seeding cooperatives and worker-controlled firms, as well as supporting small businesses.
Its effort to transform corporate governance features what is called Inclusive Ownership Funds. Each large corporation—over 250 employees—would be required to distribute 1 per cent of its stock a year for 10 years into a company specific trust that would be governed by a board elected by workers. As a shareholder, the trust would receive dividends to be divided among the workers. It would also, as the major single shareholder, have significant influence on corporate governance, strategy, and executive-pay decisions.
In Britain, the Labour Party is committed: The next election won’t simply be about getting rid of Theresa May and the Tories. Labour will seek a mandate for sweeping change. In the United States, voters in the Democratic Party will have a choice. Some, like former vice president Joe Biden and Senator Amy Klobuchar, will argue essentially that the basic issue is getting rid of Trump and returning to decency, while others, like Sanders and Warren, assert that committing to a bold agenda is both vital for the country, and the best strategy to move Trump out of the way. That will happen only if progressives continue to push hard to drive the debate.
(Borosage is a leading progressive writer and activist.)