Faith in the power of public opinion

Written By: Carl Rollyson
Published: September 28, 2015 Last modified: October 25, 2016

What is it about Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn? One opinion poll has the socialist Sanders ahead of Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, and the hard left Corbyn has won a landslide victory as the new Labour Party leader. Neither man was given much of a chance at the outset. Sanders was elected as an independent, to the US Senate, although their precarious standing persuaded the Democratic Party leadership to include him in their caucus. Corbyn, as his opponents endlessly repeat, has defied his party’s whip 500 times. How can Corbyn, who does not adhere to parliamentary party discipline, possibly think he can lead a fractured party with a significant number of his MPs and the likes of Tony Blair predicting that he would be an electoral disaster for Labour – like Michael Foot’s devastating loss to Margaret Thatcher in 1983 kept Labour out of power until y Blair’s election in 1997? Sanders, a staple of MSNBC political talk shows, hardly seemed to have the heft that Al Gore or Joe Biden would bring to a contest with Clinton.

And yet both Sanders and Corbyn are drawing huge crowds and have raised the necessary funding to mount impressive campaigns. Both men talk policy, not personalities, and that seems to be a large part of their appeal. They are plain speaking and do not seem to blow dry their hair. The disgruntled Democratic Party masses envision a world of single payer healthcare and a higher minimum wage; Labour Party activists, and a growing contingent of younger voters, picture themselves riding re-nationalised railroads and benefiting from a revitalised National Health Service.

Corbyn and Sanders are not the traditional outsiders who can rail against Washington and Westminster, to be sure, but it seems their perch on the outskirts of power has served them well – at least in the current political climate. They are lawmakers without a leash – unbeholden to big money, although, in truth, Corbyn has big trade union backing and Sanders supports big industry, especially if it is located in Vermont.

But beyond what these two socialists say and do, I think their draw has to do with what William Hazlitt said was the great invention of the French Revolution: a faith in the power of public opinion, in the pressure the populace can exert on those in power.

Neither Sanders nor Corbyn seem as remote from their constituencies as do most politicians who are so careful about not offending anyone. Corbyn’s and Sanders seem like local guys and chaps who don’t have to put on that Barack Obama persona of talking to folks. And no one expects Corbyn or Sanders to go bowling to demonstrate their bona fides to the working class. These politicians, to paraphrase Archibald Macleish, do not have to mean but just be. They don’t need a slogan like “hope and change”. Their politics are not about banners.

Of course, the Sanders-Corbyn ticket is decried as naive and unelectable, but that worry hardly seems to deflect their supporters, who see these two politicians as moving public debate into more democratic territory. The revolutionary spirit does not await the latest poll or seek compromise positions. Mass rallies may not win elections – not to begin with. But for the true believer – already primed for the break-up of the big banks, the advent of universal healthcare, and the end of costly interventions abroad – their candidates have seized centre stage by saying that the next election is not about them but about you. This is the citizen-activist call of Ralph Nader, the one per cent – not the ruling class, oh no – the one per cent that are the lever of change, the one per cent whose hard work and enthusiasm will mobilise a majority that demands a more equitable world.

To the cynics, this cohort of one-percenters will in due course disintegrate as their candidates fail to win nominations and elections. Even so, Sanders supporters see him driving Hillary Clinton to the left as she adopts positions she will have to carry into a general election.

And a recent poll reported in The Guardian shows that Corbyn has as much appeal to voters outside Labour as any of the other Labour leadership rivals. So perhaps there is still time to impress an image of the new Labour leader that does not make him look simply like the second coming of Michael Foot.

Will the Sanders supporters take heart from a Corbyn victory and work even harder for their American revolution? So long as Sanders attracts those crowds, he is likely to persist, becoming in spirit, if not in fact, Hillary Clinton’s running mate.

Carl Rollyson is the author of To Be a Woman: The Life of Jill Craigie and A Private Life of Michael Foot, published by University of Plymouth Press