Gary Raymond draws strong comparisons between Bernie Sanders’ view of the world and the current UK General Election campaigns, reporting from Sanders’ Hobsbawm lecture at this year’s Hay Festival.
For my generation, progress was never supposed to be embodied in the figures of old white men. But here we are, in the UK and the United States, and the greatest hope for progressives who wish to stem the immediate threats to our civic insitutions and services is Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. Sanders, on the tail end of a short tour of UK lectures to promote his new book, was the headline act at this year’s Hay Festival. Hay quite rightly prides itself on its big hitters, and it has a long tradition of giving warm welcomes to world leaders. They have yet to get Obama, but for many people, ironically, it is Sanders who represents hope for the future as that other white guy sits in the loneliness of his Oval Office dismantling the legacy of America’s first African American president.
And it is with the subject of Trump that Sanders begins his Eric Hobsbawm Lecture. The vast majority of American people, he says, do not agree with Donald Trump. The evidence is in the result of the popular vote, and also in the tanking of Trump’s approval rating since taking office. Sanders goes on to offer messages of hope. There are huge swathes of the British public who are engaged enough to need such messages. He asserts the need for strong transatlantic unity. His narrative is carefully constructed, although not subtle, as he depicts Trump as a minority figure, out of touch, an anomaly not a trend. Sanders has often taken the role of the grand deliverer of the street-level truths, and for several years has spoken to packed rooms as easily as he does to single seasoned interviewers about how the media is missing the point. Trump won the election, but he is not representative – that’s the sort of thing that can happen with the electoral college system. Recent elections – it seems apart from in the UK – has supported this idea that the West is continuing to believe in progress over isolationism.
Sanders is careful to stay away from topics of British politics, apart from saying that he has paid attention to Corbyn and agrees with his standpoints and philosophies. But beyond that, Sanders continually makes points about details of US domestic policy and political fashions that are eerily appropriate for what is going on in the UK. “You cannot make policy with alternative facts,” he says, and no doubt reminds many in the audience of some of the smear tactics employed by the Tories directed at the Labour leader at the moment, particularly in regards to his relationship to the IRA. Political campaigns in the US and the UK have always been tough, and always had their fair share of lies, but the “friend of terrorists” lie is just a stone’s throw from “lock her up”.
The first half of this event is a speech, and the second half is a Q&A chaired by actor and activisit Michael Sheen. The speech segment fails to break any new ground for those familiar with Sanders, and is made up largely of what many will have heard in Sanders’ stump speech during his campaign against Hilary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2015-16. It was sturdy and crisp on the details – Sanders is interested in the big ideas of our time: climate change, healthcare, working class needs. He never strays from the parameters of the United States, and shimmies adeptly around any attempts to pull him into comments on what’s happening in the UK. But, like Corbyn, this is a man who is believable primarily because he is telling the truth.
Sanders, like the vast majority of his countryfolk, has no problem with using the word ‘liar’ when referring to his President. In the UK still it’s danced around. Although May’s lies are beginning to be so blatant and absurd some journalists are starting to call a spade a spade, it still seems that the only people who can’t be called be liars in the UK are politicians.
Of course, where America goes the UK is never far behind, from fast food to wars in the Middle East. Will Theresa May, who will claim to be emboldened even if she gains just one extra seat this Friday, prove to be the most authoritarian Prime Minister of modern times? It seems quite likely. Sanders is apprehensive of what Trump is doing to the American psyche. He does not mention that what happened last November was decades in the making, but it was, just as Brexit was here. A television debate on Thursday night saw Corbyn vilified for not promising to start a nuclear war if he wins office. This is not a quick turnaround into absurdity. It has been a slow train coming.
So often in the lecture Sanders speaks of Trump, of his attitude toward dissent, of his fondness for countries with autocratic leaders, and you might easily insert May’s name there. Her refusal to sign the letter of objection to Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement leaves no doubt where she sees future alliances, and who it is she admires most between the leader of the U.S. and the leaders of Europe.
Sanders turns back to America, saying that he is trying to fundamentally rebuild the Democratic Party, to change how it has been operating for the last 40 years. “The Democratic party must be the party prepared to take on the billionaire class and corporate interests,” Sanders says. “It is time we face some hard truths,” he goes on; “The most fundamental truth I know about the United States is that in America we are moving toward is an oligarchic form of society, a nation where a small group of billionaires control the systems of government… in America today there are millions of jobs on offer where there are no paid vacations and no paid sick leave.” This is a cultural shift the Tories are looking at with salivating tongues from across the pond. It is the main reason many campaigned to leave the EU, to unshackle from the regulations that would prevent this kind of employment culture. Make no mistake, Brexit was not about taking our country back, no more that Trump was about making America great again – it was about shifting the final scraps of wealth from the public coffers to the private offshore accounts of the richest 1%. Making this public knowledge has become Sanders’ point of crusade in the last ten years. Corbyn also talks about this consistently.
When Sanders says in his now trademark firebrand oratory that “the right tells you you’re on your own” he might have been addressing Theresa May face to face. He certainly would have done a better job than Paxman last week. “There is another belief,” he continues, “that says when your family hurts my family hurts – when my kids get sick you’re going to help me get them the care they deserve. In 1948 you said in this country [the UK] that healthcare is a right and not a privilege – and what you did here impacted not only this country but countries all over the world.” Oh, for the age when Britain was looked to in awe and with admiration, rather than in ridicule and pity. It is the right wing that has made us piteous. Sanders, like Corbyn, is talking about an alternative that is very real indeed. Trump tells the audience that FDR said, “We need and economic bill of rights – a human right to decent housing and decent education and decent healthcare.” Sanders’ speech cements what has become obvious looking at the campaigns of Corbyn and May, that the right only knows the currency of fear, whereas the left strives to offer hope.
This “revolution” that Sanders is talking about (and which forms part of the title of his book) is, ironically, about the majority, and about mobilising. Sanders won, without exception, the vote of under-forties when he ran against Clinton, in every primary, sometimes by a landslide. America, despite the coup that won Trump the White House, is progressive, and you have to wonder about the long-term prospects of the GOP. The truth is, Trump in the White House may prove yet to be the spark that really does make America great again by mobilising and restructuring the progressive movements in the United States, and perhaps they will, as it looks like, come back stronger, more focused, more angry in the decades to come. And perhaps the UK will follow America as it always does. May will win the general election this week and the UK will suffer enormously for taking that decision, but perhaps what Corbyn offers is the bright future that will eventually pull us out of the darkness May’s Tories will drive this country into. It will not be Sanders who leads America into the light, and it will almost certainly not be Corbyn who does that for the UK, but history will look back on both men favourably.
(Photo by Marsha Arnold)