Since Super Tuesday, the Democratic primary has become a two-man race. Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders are in a fight for the future of the Democratic Party and the country itself. The ideological battle in the party has reached its final stage as Democratic voters are faced with a clear choice: a center-left Democrat whose central claim is that he can restore the soul of our nation, or a progressive who has aggressively advocated for a program of transformative policies.
Many claim Biden is the only “electable” choice, and that progressives must sacrifice their principles in order to defeat President Donald Trump. I find this claim unpersuasive. Trump won voters by convincing them he could give them jobs. If the Democrats counteroffer is a candidate who will lecture Americans on Trump’s racism and sexism, they will lose. To demonstrate this point, I will highlight an interesting parallel.
On December 12, 2019, the United Kingdom held its General Election. Labour, the main UK left-wing party, suffered a vicious defeat. They lost fifty-nine seats—a crushing failure of historic proportions—primarily to Conservative leader and current Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The crucial constituency they lost resides in the North and Midlands, composed of working-class voters who defected to the Conservatives, the main right-wing party. Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn has vowed he will not lead Labour as a prime minister candidate in another general election. Examining the major causes for the left’s defeat in the United Kingdom, offers important insight for the American Left as we approach the 2020 election. We must critically reflect on their substance and tactics if we are to defeat Trump’s white supremacist movement.
Just as the 2016 election saw the collapse of the Democrats’ “Blue Wall” in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, the 2019 election saw the collapse of Labour’s “Red Wall” in the North and Midlands. In the 2016 Brexit referendum, voters in the North and Midlands, who had been a bastion of Labour support for decades, decided to vote in favor of the referendum. Working-class voters decided that their faith in Brexit outweighed their faith in Labour. In this way, the North and Midlands were lost on cultural, not economic, issues. Johnson made central to his campaign that a Conservative government would “Get Brexit Done,” a claim that strongly resonated with the North and Midlands.
Brexit is fundamentally a cultural question. Politicians inundated working-class voters with claims that European elites in Brussels were making important decisions that were not in the interest of the United Kingdom. Brexiteers deployed anti-immigrant rhetoric, Islamophobia, and blood-and-soil nationalism. While there are certainly economic components to Brexit—indeed, much of the international debate is focused on its economic implications—the driving force for older Labour voters was the perception of a cultural crisis.
Corbyn’s Labour movement had no coherent response to Brexit. Labour promised to “Get Brexit Sorted,” an approach that would have entailed negotiating a final deal with Brussels and then holding a second referendum to give the people a final say. Corbyn hoped to bridge a fundamentally irreconcilable gap between the different parts of his coalition. On the pro-Brexit side, North and Midland voters saw no benefit in holding a second referendum when Brexit was a guarantee under a Johnson Conservative government. And on the anti-Brexit side, the Scottish National Party was able to siphon off Scottish Labour voters by appealing to Scotland’s disgust with Brexit, taking another group away from Labour. Additionally, Corbyn’s base of well-educated, urban voters in London, although deeply opposed to Brexit, were dissatisfied with the unclear stance of the Labour platform.
In contrast to its ambiguous approach to Brexit, Corbyn’s campaign actually centered on aggressive socialist reforms. Labour’s manifesto highlighted some of these major reforms: nationalizing air, rail, water and most utilities; a green industrial revolution; a massive reinvestment in the National Health Service; expansion of taxes on the wealthy; democratizing corporate boards by increasing worker representation; and many others. Such a platform was not a vulnerability for Labour. In fact, this radically progressive set of policies was overwhelmingly popular with the British people.
This indicates that when running against deeply xenophobic political forces, the left cannot and should not focus on its vision of a multicultural future for the nation. An agenda of radical economic reform in the interest of working Americans must be at the core of the election instead. American Democrats who claim the 2020 election should be “a referendum on Donald Trump” are simply wrong. White working-class voters in the Rust Belt who held their noses and voted for Trump will not be convinced by moral grandstanding. They must be convinced that a leftist agenda is to their economic benefit.
Biden is not a “safe” or “electable” choice, a fact indicated by Corbyn’s defeat in an election primarily focused on the cultural question of Brexit. Democrats have the freedom to decide how they will make their case to the American people. We do not have to spend our time discussing cultural issues the way Corbyn had to. Yet if Biden becomes the Democratic nominee, the national debate will shift towards the question of what constitutes “the soul of our nation,” a deeply cultural issue. If Sanders is our nominee, the national debate will center on whether poor Americans deserve healthcare, whether all Americans deserve a college education, and whether there ought to be a federal jobs guarantee. Only one candidate has a winning political strategy.