Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. Images: Flicker/Chris Beckett​ and Brookings Institution

Looking political reality right in the face: it’s true Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn lost. But their vanquishers — Hillary Clinton, Theresa May — seem far more hangdog. One of Canada’s great left-wing figures, Madeleine Parent, said, If we learn something from defeat, we never really lose. In that vein…

  • Truisms of the past have vapourized. Socialism is no longer a term to avoid. Bernie didn’t shrink from it and it seems to have intrigued voters, especially the young, rather than alienating them. Corbyn stuck with his antiwar position, even as terror burst out in Manchester and London, and it appears to have hurt May more than him. What’s typical of clueless left-wing parties, like our NDP, is that they ditched the term socialism at the very moment — 2013 — when it no longer would damage and would probably benefit them.
  • Age isn’t relevant. The two old guys got the biggest youth boost. They didn’t get it because they’re old. Age just didn’t matter.
  • This is my favourite: the chasm between hard-headed, pragmatic party officials and short-sighted idealistic members. The New York Times said: “The base wants it all, the party wants to win.” That’s exactly wrong. If the party (elected members and paid staff) wanted to win, they’d have backed Sanders over Clinton: he’d have creamed Trump and they knew it. In the U.K., they’d have stopped ceaselessly undermining Corbyn, and he’d almost surely have beaten May.

What the pros actually value over winning elections is keeping their jobs. The “base” wants it all only in the sense of reversing the deterioration in their lives and in the prospects of their children. They’re not into storming heaven.

  • The dread mainstream media aren’t so dread. Tony Blair won for “the left” by cravenly courting Rupert Murdoch’s editorial support. Corbyn didn’t bother and got about the same vote percentage as Blair at his best. The tussle between social and mass media seems to be tipping toward the former. Clinton was brazenly backed by all the mainstream media (MSM) and it didn’t help her against Trump. In fact, Trump may be the only politician still obsessed by what the MSM say.
  • Being yourself works, if you really are yourself and not some tortuous result of reverse political engineering. This appealing state is known as authenticity. Sanders and Corbyn have been themselves for so long they no longer have to pause and recall who they’re supposed to be. Clinton never did work it out. This relates to the much discussed theme of populism.
  • This is a populist moment, but neither Sanders nor Corbyn are seizing it as populists. They haven’t changed in order to jump on board; they’re socialists and this equips them for the populist mood, which exists because of the widening gulf between most people and the arrogant rich.

But they come by their version of populism honestly, ie., uncalculatedly. In a way the moment simply caught up to them. The sign of populists is often opportunism: they see a mood and fit themselves to it, as Huey Long did in the 1930s (and in the movie), and as Trump did: he assessed a moment and slotted himself in.

It’s why Sanders would have destroyed him — the fakery would’ve been patent. Corbyn is even less populist, he represents a somewhat bourgeois district. But he’s an honest socialist, always has been, and that puts him near enough.

  • Implications for the NDP. None of the leadership candidates has grasped either the socialist or populist lessons. Charlie Angus appears best suited, starting with his look, but he seems the most Blairite, playing the, “How you gonna pay for all that?” card, which is basically a right-wing trope.

Tommy Douglas had the answer: if it’s a real need, generally acknowledged, the government will somehow find the money; they always do. But Angus is a Jack, not a Tommy, NDPer. He loves invoking Jack Layton’s name — and Jack aspired to Blairism. He’d seen it work in the U.S. and U.K. The night he celebrated his breakthrough to official opposition leader, he spared not a word for the plight of “the people,” who’d now find themselves under a harsh right-wing majority.

  • Forget about starting new left-wing parties. You can actually work within corrupt cadavers like Labour and the Democrats, aspire to take them over, and move on to power. I’d never have believed it but the evidence is there.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Images: Flicker/Chris Beckett​ and Brookings Institution

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Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.