Bernie Sanders is making all the same mistakes as Jeremy Corbyn — and I should know

I sympathize with Bernie and his supporters, because I’m an American socialist. Not a milquetoast democratic socialist like Bernie, either, but a proper, old-school socialist

Skylar Baker-Jordan
Wednesday 12 February 2020 20:52 GMT
Sanders achieved an expected victory in New Hampshire, which borders his home state of Vermont
Sanders achieved an expected victory in New Hampshire, which borders his home state of Vermont (AFP via Getty Images)

In 2015, I crowdfunded a trip to cover the UK general election as an independent journalist. One of my first pieces was an interview with Nancy Taaffe, then the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition candidate in Walthamstow who was challenging incumbent Labour MP Stella Creasy from the left. “The Labour Party is no longer a socialist party,” she told me. I found her arguments compelling, and after Labour lost that election, I thought she had a point. So, in a column for The Gay UK Magazine, I endorsed lifelong socialist and leftwing campaigner Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership. To my delight, he won. The revolution was finally coming.

How quickly things changed. By 2017, it was clear that Jeremy Corbyn — though I agreed with him on most issues — couldn’t win a game of tic-tac-toe, let alone a general election. The party was in disarray. Corbyn was embroiled in an antisemitism scandal (which persists to this day). There were fears of entryism from radical voices who sought to remake the Labour Party as they saw fit. Accusations flew that the “hard left” was trying to purge the party of more moderate leftwing voices. Many MPs feared Corbyn and his supporters — who were known to bully fellow party members and attempt to deselect (read: primary) MPs who didn’t perfectly toe the Corbyn line — were woefully out of touch with the British public.

I led The Gay UK’s election coverage that year, and it was painfully clear to me that Labour was not going to defeat Theresa May. Given May’s unpopularity generally and the fact that the nation was weary after seven years of Conservative austerity, it should have been Corbyn’s to lose. And it was. He lost it. The party tried to spin the gains he made as a victory, but “almost winning” is also known as losing. He maintained his hold on the reins of power, though, leading Labour into the 2019 election — and to its worst electoral defeat since 1935.

Which brings us to New Hampshire. Last night, Bernie Sanders eked out a narrow victory in the popular vote over Pete Buttigieg. As I watched the results come in, I couldn’t help but feel I was living in the film Groundhog Day — I had literally experienced all of this before, only the accents were different.

Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks tweeted that “if progressives take over the party” we should “ban all the corporate Democratic consultants” (he doesn’t specify who, but anyone reading it knows he means moderates). A few days prior, when I tweeted that in order to win in November Bernie would need voters like me who support other candidates in the primary, a Bernie supporter told me “we don’t negotiate with terrorists.” Last night, another enthusiastic Bernie fan compared my candidate of choice (Pete Buttigieg) to Hitler.

I despair. Bernie Sanders and his supporters seem to doing every play in the Corbynista playbook in hopes that they’ll have a different result. They won’t. I get why it’s tempting, though. Firing up your base in the primary or the leadership campaign is all well and good. It feels nice. People are passionate. It might even make you the nominee or leader. Most of the party will fall in line, because they want to win and you are their only shot at electoral victory.

Voters, however, will not. After the that 2015 election in the UK, I wrote another essay succinctly titled “Why Labour Lost.” The gist of my analysis at the time was that leftwing ideas were enjoying unprecedented popularity, so of course if Labour presented a truly socialist manifesto then victory would be easy.

How wrong I was. Most voters saw Corbyn as woefully out of touch. They worried he was a dangerous radical who would compromise national security. Their interactions with his supporters online left a bad taste in their mouth. They felt that the party was focused more on issues affecting the cosmopolitan elite than the kitchen table issues of Middle England.

Corbyn didn’t win over swing voters, and many longtime Labour voters left the party or didn’t vote. As a result he lost to a national joke, a crass and boorish man with floppy blonde hair who has a history of saying racist things and just a few years ago no one thought would be prime minister.

Sound familiar?

AOC whips up the crowd at Bernie Sanders campaign event

Sanders and his supporters, especially, risk alienating longtime Democratic voters who maybe aren’t quite as ready for the revolution. They certainly risk alienating swing voters in crucial states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania for whom big, structural change sounds scary and disruptive — because it is scary and disruptive. Forget the nomination for a moment and play the long game. Any Democrat we nominate will need both those groups if she or he hopes to win the White House. That includes Bernie Sanders.

I sympathize with Bernie and his supporters, because I’m a socialist. Not a milquetoast democratic socialist like Bernie, but a proper, old-school socialist. I believe in open borders. I believe the people should control the means of production, not capital and not the state. I believe in a massive redistribution of wealth. But crucially, I also believe in winning.

The only point of electoral politics is to win power. In order to win power, you must meet voters where they are and work within the system as it is. That means working with Blue Dog Democrats who win in more conservative parts of the country, not purging them from your ranks.

Compromise and working within the system are anathema to the radicals who support Bernie Sanders, because the system is exactly what they want to tear down. That’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not going to happen this year. It’s not even likely to happen in our lifetimes. So we are where we are, and if we hope to make things better for anyone, we’re going to have to meet the American people where they are.

Bernie Sanders has a lot of great ideas for America, but the so-called “Bernie Bros” are an albatross around his neck. If I could give them one piece of advice, it is to cut. it. out. Like it or not, you’re going to need other Democrats, independents, and swing voters if you hope to put your man in the White House.

Right now, your ideological purity tests, bullying of those who disagree with you, and threats of purging the party of your opponents are alienating far too many of us. The most important thing right now is that we defeat Donald Trump and win. Because of that, if he’s the nominee, Bernie will have my vote. But if his acolytes continue to act like a bullying, braying mob, he will not have my support.

Jeremy Corbyn lost because of his and his followers’ arrogant refusal to accept differing views. Unless Bernie and his bros soon change course, he’ll lose too — if not at the convention, then in November.

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