POLITICS

How Jeremy Corbyn Is Inspiring The American Left

HuffPost UK on the 'absolute boy' going stateside.

16/07/2017 17:10
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Jeremy Corbyn the morning after his unexpected performance in the general election, which US socialists are hailing as “proof of concept” that the left can succeed.

If the British and the Americans are two people still separated by a common language, one unlikely phrase appears to have crossed the divide. The ‘absolute boy’, the meme-fuelled nickname given to Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, during the election campaign.

“We’re popping bottles to celebrate the absolute top boy, Jezza,” begins the popular and irreverent American leftist podcast, Chapo Trap House, in its “victory lap” episode celebrating Labour’s against-all-odds surge in the recent general election. To hammer home the point, the ode to Jez podcast begins to the strains of Deniece Williams’ 1980s smash hit, ‘Let’s Hear It For The Boy’.

Avowedly socialist, ‘Chapo’ is at the vanguard of the “dirtbag left”, a movement that is damning of Republicans and Donald Trump but is arguably most scathing about the centre-ground liberal thinking that dominates the media and Democrat politics. ‘Chapo’ came to prominence as left-wing senator Bernie Sanders challenged Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, and highlighted the same split on the left that has marked Corbyn’s two years as Labour Party leader.

Sanders’ defeat to Clinton helps explain why the US left has such a soft spot for a 68-year-old British collector of manhole covers. Corbyn’s success - not victory, but 40% of the vote and preventing Theresa May and the Conservative Party from winning a majority that she was expected to enlarge - is celebrated because his unashamedly left-wing manifesto was supposed to return Labour to the wilderness of the 1980s. It was the same accusation levelled at Sanders, that the Democrats could expect oblivion with the Vermont senator as their would-be President.

As ‘Chapo’ put it, Corbyn was “proof of concept” that a candidate offering uncompromising policies, and faced with a hostile media, would not sound the death knell for a political party.  Labour now riding high in the polls, and Sanders becoming the most popular politician in the US, has only added weight to their argument. 

Corbyn’s US invasion may be more Oasis-like than on the scale of The Beatles, but there are signs he is cutting through. The Democratic Socialists of America, one of the fastest growing groups on the American left, has seen its membership triple in size over the last year, fuelled principally by anti-Trump activism. Last month, its New York branch held one of its regular social events with a photoshopped Jeremy Corbyn raising a mottled pint glass deployed to entice newcomers.

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While not necessarily a benchmark of what leftists think, a photograph of Corbyn appeared on the front page of the The New York Times in the aftermath of the Finsbury Park terror attack in the MP’s constituency. A thumping at the polls is unlikely to have brought about such prominence.  

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On Friday, at a Bastille Day party hosted by Jacobin magazine in New York, a single mention of Corbyn prompted the entire crowd to break out into the ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ chant, to the tune of The White Stripes’ 7 Nation Army, proving it’s not just a UK phenomena.

Virgil Texas, a ‘Chapo’ co-host and writer, told HuffPost UK that Corbyn’s success has “thoroughly invigorated the American left”.

“We have a paucity of politicians in America with his level of sheer integrity and authenticity, and many leftists are openly pining for a figure like Jez,” he said.

“Just look at Jez at Glastonbury and compare him with Hillary Clinton or (Chair of the Democratic National Committee) Tom Perez or (Senate Minority Leader) Chuck Schumer. He speaks with the belief that politics are real, that it is a matter of the many rising like lions from their slumber to demand their birthright. By contrast, in 2016 voters were offered the Hillary Fight Song and Lena Dunham Pantsuit Anthem.”

Corbyn’s surge adds to the “mountain of evidence” that Sanders would have beaten Trump, he says.

“Jez proved that an uncompromising left platform can inspire non-voters and young people to come out to the polls; Bernie supporters have long argued that if he were the nominee he would have done the same,” says Texas.

“The level of turnout among young voters in the UK was frankly unprecedented. Compare that with the rate at which Millennials turned out for Hillary.”

It’s estimated turnout in the June 8 vote in the UK among 18-24 year olds was 64 per cent, a 16 per cent increase on the 2015 general election. While the Millennial vote was slightly up in the US in 2016, Clinton was five points down compared to Barack Obama four years earlier. 

If Corbyn has shown socialism in Britain is not the dirty word it is thought to be by those who said he’d get hammered, it perhaps faces a longer period of rehabilitation in the US. For instance, the UK’s National Health Service, described by its founder Nye Bevan as “pure socialism”, is embraced by British conservatives. In the US, Republicans despise it.

Texas argues this is changing: “Millennials in particular are gravitating towards socialism as they enter a shaky job market in the shadow of the financial collapse while saddled with an unprecedented amount of student loan debt.

“Overall increasing numbers of people are suffering in this economy due to automation, declining wages, and class warfare. The Republican Party’s evisceration of the social safety net and gutting of healthcare and labour rights will accelerate their discontent.

“Increasingly Americans are openly questioning the basic principles of capitalism, much like how Grenfell caused Brits to openly question property rights and the inequalities in their society, spurred on by Jez.”

Some in the Labour Party have argued that the general election was actually a failure given May’s terrible campaign. That Labour should really have won. It’s a point essayed on ‘Chapo’, that Corbyn’s rise has been “downplayed and explained away” by “centrist pragmatic assholes in this country and across the Atlantic”.

Texas accepts the argument but only to a point: “Maybe a slicker Tory could have won, but it would not have been on the basis of their policies, which I take it are regressive and unpopular.”

He argues, instead, that Corbyn shows Democrats should be challenging Republicans on their assumptions on small government, the welfare state and low taxes. “Corbyn shows how a candidate can effectively defy the conventional wisdom of what is politically possible and inspire the majority to come out to vote in their class interest.

“For instance, we don’t have a universal single payer health care system in this country, but a majority of people want it. If we had a politician like Bernie leading a national movement for that policy it would be popular and it would win irrespective of what the media and the pundits say.”

Jacob Plitman, a union organiser and self-described leftist, was at the Bastille Day Party where ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ rang out at the packed event he described as “hot, steamy, socialism”.

He, too, makes the argument that Corbyn’s surprise surge indicates that “if you run candidates that are unabashedly left and populist, you can win big gains”. “Watching the centrist naysayers hoist themselves was delightful,” he told HuffPost UK. “Most of us here feel so betrayed by the Democrats, who shamed us for supporting Bernie and then failed to beat Trump.”

But more than that, he takes heart from Corbyn’s apparent ability to reach across the Brexit divide. He says: “The fact that Corbyn’s platform brought together Stay and Leavers is another signal to us that Trump voters, motivated by a similar frustration as many in the Leave crowd, might be united by a Corbyn-esque platform: free healthcare, housing solutions, and more - paid for by the 1%.”

But it’s very far from a sure thing that a Jez/Bernie-like candidate will win the Democratic Party nomination in 2020. Centrists will point to the success of Emmanuel Macron in France as evidence of the “third way” still working. While Texas believes whoever is picked will have to embrace several of Sander’s positions “simply out of a reluctance to repeat Clinton’s mistakes”, he’s not convinced that will result in someone “truly committed to governing like a leftist”.

Jeff Hauser, a longtime Democratic operative and director of the Revolving Door Project, a corruption watchdog, thinks the situation in the party is “fluid”. Divided since the election, the Democrats are currently united in defence of Republican attempts to repeal Obamacare. Hauser says while the progressive wing of the Democratic Party has been “hardened by Corbyn’s success”, he cautions against the prospect of a leftist takeover - not least given that US political parties are “amorphous concepts”.

“It’s so much harder for a party faction or bloc to take over in a thorough, complete sense,” he told HuffPost UK.

“The Democratic Party is much less of an actual institution with actual leadership than the Labour Party. It’s not a membership-based party. There’s much more of a history of individual voting in legislative bodies in the Amercan system than in the UK system, so the process of identifying candidates plays out pretty differently in the US.

“So it’s harder for anyone to achieve a permanent victory. I don’t think Corbyn has completely won but the locus of where the disputes are, and what are the institutions, is a lot cleaner to identify in the UK.”

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Jeremy Corbyn addresses the crowd from the stage at LeftField at Glastonbury Festival.

He thinks that Corbyn’s rise shows that “sincerity works”. More than that, though, he thinks Labour’s resurgence demonstrates how dividing voters into either left or right tribes no longer explains voting habits.

“Corbyn’s success has further dislodged the notion - which is a pervasive assumption of many, many political observers - that politics is on this very neat left-to-right spectrum, and that voters vote ideologically.

“There’s been an assumption that swing voters are conspicuously moderate on all issues rather than an odd hodge-podge of some ideas that are associated with the left, and some that are associated with the right.”

He senses leftist candidates have had the better of it in the US during the recent run of special elections, the closest US equivalent to UK by-elections. Despite $30 million being spent on his campaign, Jon Ossoff falling short of taking a congressional seat in Georgia from the Republicans represented a “relative failure of the Clinton wing candidate”.

Hauser says: “That was the race where the Democratic Party was better funded and had the most national institutional support, whereas in Kansas and Montana the more Bernie wing candidates were both significantly outspent yet they made greater relative gains in those races. People are debating what implications to derive. So it’s all very fluid right now.”

Corbyn’s rise has been boosted by the Momentum campaign group, which supports the “values” espoused by the MP. There’s no equivalent in the sprawling US, but Hauser points to the Sanders-inspired Our Revolution, which sets out to elect progressive candidates, and is run by former Ohio state senator Nina Turner, who could be one of the left’s rising stars. Pennsylvania mayor John Fetterman, “a tattooed giant”, is another one to watch, he says.

Hauser thinks Corbyn’s result is another “evidence piece”, along with Ossoff, that candidates at all levels will have to “say what you mean, don’t compromise, be forthright”. He says: “If you think a single payer health system is the right way to go on healthcare just say you are for single health payer. That approach is possibly gaining but I don’t think it’s gaining in a final, all-settled kind of a way.”

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