In a packed-out Brixton venue, Sanders showed why his progressive vision remains so popular—not least with Jeremy Corbyn's young supportersby David McGowan / June 5, 2017 / Leave a comment
While we will never know if Sanders would have beaten Trump, the legacy of that campaign remains strong. Photo:PA He came into the packed hall to a rock star’s reception. The speech at the O2 Academy in Brixton on Friday evening was the latest stop on a European swing which has included speeches in Germany before three engagements in the UK. Bernie Sanders’ trip has been part book tour, part political rally, and part mop-up campaign after the US President’s dust-up with Angela Merkel during the recent G7 conference—and the latest Trumpian travesty on climate change. “Unbelievably, and stupidly, and destructively, Trump just announced yesterday that the United States was withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement,” Sanders said, to loud boos from the hall. “My sentiments exactly,” he quipped—one of the few laugh lines of the evening. If Bernie Sanders, the self-proclaimed democratic socialist senator from the small state of Vermont (population: 626,000—about the same as Oxfordshire) and failed Democratic Party candidate seems an unlikely standard bearer for the Americans who voted against Trump, it is worth considering whether there is anyone who might better fulfil that role. With Obama all but publicly silent on matters relating to his successor, and Hillary Clinton still nursing her wounds, there are only a handful of US leaders with the stature and national following to lead the charge (Elizabeth Warren? Chuck Schumer?). And Bernie, despite his seventy-five years and considerable mileage, sure seems up for the fight: “What kind of President is Trump showing himself to be in terms of the needs of working families in the United States of America?”, he asked. “One of the reasons Trump won is because he said ‘I Donald Trump am going to defend the working class of the United States of America. That’s what he said, but like many other things, it turns out, sadly, that he lied.” “In Donald Trump, we have someone who has proven himself to be a pathological liar. This gives me no joy, and it is not a blanket criticism of conservatives. Many conservatives are as honest as the day is long. But Trump lies a whole lot.” The Brixton crowd, young and hungry for more, ate it all up with roaring approval, embracing Sanders not only as an anti-Trump messenger, but also as a perceived brother-in-arms to their own improbable candidate, Jeremy Corbyn. Much has been made of the pair’s similarities, particularly of them having both performed above expectations in their respective campaigns. Sanders barely mentioned Corbyn on Friday night, saying only that he “would be more than delighted to see him as Prime Minister,” but he has embraced the Labour leader’s efforts to change his own party from within and to take on the challenges of income inequality. The big applause lines of the evening echoed some of the broad themes of Labour’s campaign: “It is time for the people of this world to stand up and say that a handful of greedy people cannot have unlimited wealth, cannot make it all while so many families in my country, your country, and around the world are struggling just to survive. Yes, we can create a much better, fairer, economic system.” Ex-Sanders campaign staffers have been reportedly been working with Momentum in the UK on canvassing techniques and tactics. While the Sanders campaign ultimately failed in its bid for the Democratic nomination, there may indeed be a lot to learn from him and his team. It is easy now to forget just how far Sanders got, and from where he came. Viewed as a fringe candidate with no hope of winning the nomination, Sanders went completely unsupported by his Democratic colleagues in Congress when he announced his candidacy in 2015. Until he emerged with a virtual tie in Iowa and won the New Hampshire primary his campaign went all but uncovered by the national new media. He did not form a Political Action Committee (PAC), arguably the fatal flaw in American campaign finance rules, famously allowed under the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizen’s United case. “We have a ruling class internationally which is deeply into greed and selfishness.” —Bernie Sanders Yet fueled by huge turnouts to his rallies in city after city, he built a massive online fundraising machine and succeeded in raising $232 million from 8 million donations—an average of $27 per donor. He won twenty-two state primaries and had both the largest and most enthusiastic crowds of the campaign, speaking directly to more than 1.4 million people in much the same way he did in Brixton. It’s not a flashy show. More than any candidate in recent memory Sanders proved that there are a lot of people—and young people especially—who want to hear a serious person address the issues that confront us. But there is also a darker, attacking side to the pitch. Sanders said on Friday: “We have a ruling class internationally which is deeply into greed and selfishness. They want it all… In my view, we have got to tell these billionaires that their addiction to greed is a sickness.” Rhetoric that demonises the “billionaire class” for their greed and selfishness is crowd-pleasing, but it may also be counter-productive outside of the hall. As Thomas Edsall pointed out in the New York Times on Friday, attacking the wealthy can no longer be counted on as a way of generating Democratic support. As recently as 1976, the top of the income ladder voted overwhelmingly Republican. In the 2016 election, those in the top ten percent of income distribution in the U.S. favoured Clinton by 47 per cent-46 per cent. While many well-off people are prepared to vote against their own short-term economic interests in support of broader societal goals which they believe will benefit everyone (including themselves) in the longer run, fewer voters will be prepared to support candidates who they feel simply don’t like them or the choices they have made. Those who want a level playing field and share many of the progressives’ goals on issues like climate change, health care, and even taxation may view the more progressive crop of tech-generated wealth—Gates, Zuckerberg, Musk, etc—through a different lens than they use to assess the actions of the Koch brothers or the Waltons, families who Sanders identifies as the targets of his remarks. And the divisiveness of the language is often used as motivation to disparage the candidates’ apparent lack of “leadership qualities” or the plausibility of their ideas, problems shared by both Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. Whether Sanders would have beaten Trump in a head-to-head contest is one of the unanswerable questions in modern American politics. (Polls showed him beating Trump by a wider margin than Clinton while he was still a candidate, but it seems wise to treat any sampling done six months prior to the election with scepticism). Yet it is undeniable that his progressive vision for America, and by extension the world, remains far more popular than most people would have guessed just a short time ago, in spite of recent “populist” victories. The packed house in Brixton will vote overwhelmingly for Labour on Thursday, and whether that energy is harnessed to fuel a victory or—as almost everyone predicts—a narrower-than-originally expected defeat, a (small) silver lining of a Trump presidency may well be the enduring influence of Bernie Sanders.