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Sanders’ surge is part of a growing global movement

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Sen. Bernie Sanders waved to supporters during a campaign rally on Tuesday in St. Paul, Minn.
Sen. Bernie Sanders waved to supporters during a campaign rally on Tuesday in St. Paul, Minn.(John Autey)

The rebellious energy of Bernie Sanders's campaign for the presidency in the United States, coupled with some good timing, has fueled global hopes that the left could be poised to make a comeback in Western democracies after decades of retreat.

The coincidence of the soaring popularity of Sanders, the 74-year-old self-described democratic socialist, with the surprise election of avowed socialist Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the British Labour Party, has leftists drawing parallels in other countries, as well. Syriza, an alliance of left-wing groups in Greece, won an emphatic victory last fall, and the leftist Spanish Podemos party made impressive inroads in the December general elections, finishing in third place. In November 2015, an alliance of left-wing parties in Portugal ousted the country's center-right government in a strong backlash against austerity measures.

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Taken together, these examples show a notable shift toward more progressive policies in these countries. But the political context is different in each case – and has more to do with the local conditions, the struggles of the electorate, and domestic movements.

All the same, there are some commonalities that are hard to miss. According to Vivek Chibber, professor of sociology at New York University, key among them is a profound sense of disillusionment with the political establishment and the leadership of political parties – even those considered to be on the left.

Chibber argues that the Democrats in the United States and the Labour Party in Britain have both led the way in the last three decades in aligning themselves ever more closely with the corporate community and with the wealthy, even though they are traditionally considered to be parties of working people and the poor. "For 30 years now voters have tried in various ways to express their resentment through these parties and now what you are seeing is a kind of a rebellion of the parties' own base against the direction that they have taken. I think the Corbyn and the Sanders phenomenon in this sense have very common roots."

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In the US and the UK alike, leaders with an alternative political vision are posing a powerful challenge to well-entrenched parties that are seen as favoring the rich and powerful.

"If you are somebody who thinks a shift away from the politics of the past 30 years or so which we broadly call neoliberal politics is a positive thing – and I do think that is a positive thing – then there is very much a reason for optimism," says Chibber.

Just as significantly, Sanders has helped make the issue of income inequality a mainstream cause in the United States – so much so that the conventional narratives of conservatives and neo-liberals appear challenged, says Professor Richard Parker, lecturer in public policy and a senior fellow at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center. "They are on the defensive now," he says. "The GOP presidential field is one example. The resignation of [House Speaker John] Boehner, the ability of [US Rep. Kevin] McCarthy to succeed him, the very tentative negotiations that led to [US Rep. Paul] Ryan taking over – these speak to a deep disarray among conservative and neoliberal forces in the current moment."

The movement begain to take shape in 2011, when protesters of the Occupy movement stormed Wall Street with their message, "We are the 99 per cent." Soon after, French economist Thomas Piketty made a strong case about widening inequalities of wealth in the US in hist 2013 bestseller, "Capital in the 21st Century." Based on historical evidence and rigorous analysis, Piketty argued that the gap between the rich and the poor in the US has reached the highest level in a century.

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And now Sanders has virtually translated that fact into a movement in the run-up to the presidential election. That is a significant gain for a politics of the excluded and the marginalized. Whatever the outcome of Sanders's candidacy, he has made a valuable contribution in channelling the discontent of unrepresented sections of American society and in making it possible to talk about the glaring contradiction of extreme wealth amidst mass poverty.

This [US election] could be a key moment not just for US electoral politics, but for left-wing politics in general, according to Parker. Over the last few decades, there have been important gains within the realm of identity politics – be it gay marriage or women's rights. Now, he says, "There are going to be struggles over the next 10 years about the balance between economic inequality and identity inequality."

In order not to squander the promise of this moment, the left has to fashion a strategy to sustain the momentum, irrespective of electoral outcomes. "Now that we have got inequality on the table we can certainly mobilize the identity questions and weave them into the inequality questions – but what do you [the left] want to do?" Parker asks.

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Meera Srinivasan is the IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow for 2015-'16