The defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s left-wing Labour party in the UK may inform the current race to become the Democrats’ nomination for US President in the 2020 election against Donald Trump, writes Henry McLeish.
Jeremy Corbyn’s catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Conservatives is likely to weigh heavily on the Democratic Party now in the process of selecting a candidate for the US presidential election in November 2020. A party that is increasingly left-leaning, lacking any obvious front-runner, so far, and contending with a fractious debate on its political direction is agonising on how to defeat Donald Trump in a contest now less than a year away.
US politics, its two major parties and the clash of political identities and ideology, within and between parties, differ significantly from the UK. There is now a fierce debate among Democrats on how to deal with Trump and his populist nationalism and to what extent a much more aggressively left-wing agenda should be pursued.
Since the entry of Bernie Sanders into the 2016 presidential campaign, a great deal has changed. Despite suffering a heart attack, he is leading the charge on a “socialist” programme, although it is mild, of course, in comparison to Corbyn’s failed hard-left agenda in the UK.
In terms of British politics, the Democrats could not even be described as a left-of-centre party. But, in the aftermath of Labour’s catastrophic defeat, there will be a new debate on its future direction and positioning on the political spectrum.
The Democrats are wary of doing anything that smacks of left-wing populism, and the economic nationalism that has so galvanised Trump’s base. Caught between the surprising defeat of Clinton in 2016 and the remarkably solid fan base of the Trump cult, the Democratic contenders are wary of rocking a very fragile political boat. Democratic House Representative Jeff Van Drew is considering defecting to the Republican Party over the impeachment of Trump.
Democrats becoming more ‘liberal’
There is interest in what lessons could be learned from Labour’s demise at the hands of Boris Johnson. From the other side of the Atlantic, there is some anxiety that something similar might happen in the US.
The New York Times said “in the leftward shift of the Democratic Party, a streak of Corbynism might implant itself”. In a more cynical perspective, Shan Wang in the Atlantic magazine, described Sanders and Corbyn as “two resurgent relics of the ’70s left having ascended in tandem and their ascents exposing subtle moral and ideological distractions”.
The debate among Democratic hopefuls does reflect the changing views of its supporters. In 2018, a majority of Democrats – 51 per cent – identified as “liberal” for the first time.
This is in sharp contrast to the Bill Clinton era in the early 1990s, when 50 per cent identified as moderates, 25 per cent liberal and 25 per cent conservative! Max Boot, writing in the Washington Post, said the US needed a leader who, unlike Johnson and Trump, would rise above “simplistic sloganising and spell-binding showmanship”. Pressure will be exerted on the Democratic party to avoid a candidate who is too far left from mainstream America.
Where does this leave the Democratic party in finding a candidate who is “unifying rather than terrifying”? The process of selection is long, complex and challenging. For the 2020 election, there appears to be no obvious or convincing front-runner. The Democratic National Convention does not take place until July 2020, so there is time for a great deal of internal strife and political conflict before a candidate is selected: in the meantime Trump, sticking by his Twitter account as the Democratic hopefuls search for the soul of the party, will deride and abuse each candidate month after month.
Two billionaires to go head-to-head?
The selection timetable is exhausting. From the original 27 candidates entering the race, 15 remain. Another 12 candidates considered running but for a variety of reasons did not officially register their interest. This list of nearly 40 possible contenders was a record for the Democrats.
Michael Bloomberg, billionaire and former mayor of New York is the newest candidate, and believes Joe Biden is failing and that Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are too far to the left.
A race between two billionaires seems to be Bloomberg’s favoured solution to America’s political crisis. But it should be noted that Bloomberg has shot from nowhere to four per cent in the polls in a matter of weeks.
In Los Angeles on Thursday, the fourth in a series of 12 televised debates will take place involving the seven candidates who have qualified for this stage of the marathon selection process. The candidates – Biden, Sanders, Tom Steyer, Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Andrew Yang – qualified as a result of three tests: polling averages; the number of individual financial contributions raised; and their weekly media scores. Eight hopefuls did not meet the criteria and a move to scrap the current qualifying rules for future debates is underway.
The Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary in mid-February will be the first real tests for the candidates and, as the race expands to every state before the July convention, more candidates will drop out. Biden is currently in the lead on 27 per cent. Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg – on 16, 17, and 10 per cent respectively – are well ahead of the rest of the field. But it would be no surprise if a candidate came from behind or from nowhere to win the nomination, as Jimmy Carter did in 1976.
This is the first presidential race in the past 50 years that two obviously left-wing candidates, Sanders and Warren, could win the Democratic nomination, especially if Biden, the centrist, continues to be gaffe-prone and inconsistent: recent polls suggest Biden has steadied and consolidated his lead. The Democrats are uneasy. Trump is a known product with a base that seems to be solid. Johnson’s victory in the UK will inspire the Republican Party. Politics in the US remains poisonous. The Democrats could ease back on the search for new and radical policies or concentrate on the best candidate to beat Trump. There is no middle ground.
Labour’s catastrophic defeat is a sobering reminder of volatile electorates in western democracies. For Europeans, Trump may be a lousy President, but to his base he is now a towering figure, and – despite the lack of a conscience – a unique campaigner.