Since the start of the Bernie revolution in 2016, a factional divide has intensified in Washington between the old Democratic guard and a growing class of far-left populist candidates inspired, and in most cases directly mentored, by Bernie Sanders himself. The election of the so-called “Squad” in 2018 was perceived as an extension of Bernie’s revolution. Since then, Democratic Socialists have openly expressed their goal to oust Democratic candidates that do not share their worldview, and to the likely dismay of Nancy Pelosi, they’ve been successful in doing just that on multiple occasions.
After the 2020 election, the internal tension reached a boiling point and spilled out into public view. Despite winning the presidency, the Democrats lost seats in the House of Representatives and in all likelihood will remain a minority in the Senate. A profanity-laced phone call between Democratic party members revealed what many in the public had suspected: Democratic Socialist talking points and politics might be losing important seats for the Democrats. This is the opinion of at least one member of the party, Abigail Spanberger, who on the leaked phone call was perplexed and angry that campaigns were being derailed over voter fears of “socialism” rather than actual policies. She warned of more losses for Democrats in 2022 if they continue promoting extreme and vastly unpopular positions like defunding police departments. Democratic kingmaker Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina Democrat that played a major role in Joe Biden’s primary victory, lamented that “defund the police” played a significant role in Jaime Harrison’s loss to Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham. Harrison had outfunded Graham and was tied or winning in election polls before ultimately losing the election.
Members of the Squad went on the defensive against these public attacks, dismissing the criticisms and slinging the mud right back. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez boasted of her record, “I have been defeating Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee-run campaigns for two years. That’s how I got to Congress.” Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib of Michigan accused Democrats of trying to silence progressive voices and rejected any intimation of toning down the rhetoric, saying, “We are not interested in unity that asks people to sacrifice their freedom and rights any longer.” According to Politico, progressive groups circulated a memo online about lessons from election night. The memo takes an indirect but obvious swing at Speaker Pelosi: “When Democratic leaders make unforced errors like showing off two sub-zero freezers full of ice cream on national television or cozy up with Wall Street executives and corporate lobbyists while Trump tells voters we are the party of the swamp, it is not surprising that we lose.”
British Labour’s experiment with leftist populism may be similar to the Democratic Party’s current confrontation with a new surge of Democratic Socialist candidates.
Generally, the old guard strategy from party members like Spanberger and Clyburn is a pragmatic approach focused on reforms that appeal to their base but also are intended to sway independent voters and possibly attract Republicans. The Squad and progressive activists oppose this as a lazy and failed strategy intended to placate the ruling class. Their strategy focuses on strict adherence to a revolutionary agenda, an agenda that appeals to a subset of Democratic voters and, they surmise, segments of the electorate that don’t typically vote. Both factions think the other is a burden to the party’s success, but only one can be right. So which is it?
We may be able to glean something from our friends and allies across the Atlantic, in the United Kingdom.
Some have speculated that the “Reagan Revolution” of the 1980s actually started with the victory of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Similarly, when Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, pundits and activists on both sides of the pond and the political spectrum immediately made comparisons to the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum, which took place earlier that year.
Political trends across the West aren’t absolute. There are of course many differences in the details of the Trump and Brexit campaigns. But with an increasingly globalized and interlocked economic structure, as well as shared political histories and criticisms of government, it’s not a surprise that populist movements and widespread sentiments among democracies are sometimes mirrored across national borders. Much of our intelligentsia has analyzed the causes of and links between the right-wing populist campaigns spearheaded by Nigel Farage and Trump, but they have said little about their populist and progressive opposition. If, as many have suggested, Brexit’s surprise success was a predictor of Trump’s electoral victory, then it’s certainly possible that British Labour’s experiment with leftist populism won’t be dissimilar from the Democratic Party’s current confrontation with a new surge of Democratic Socialist candidates.
British Labour’s confrontation with the radical Left started in 2015, when Jeremy Corbyn, a far-left outsider who spent most of his political career as a parliamentary backbencher, was elected as the leader of the party. Four weeks after his election, a new Labour political faction was formed, called “Momentum.” Momentum grew out of Corbyn’s election campaign and was established to ensure that “Corbynism” wasn’t just a passing fad that pulled off one leadership election, but instead a permanent staple of a new and transformed Labour party. Labour MPs at the time expressed concern that Momentum was trying to infiltrate the party to replace MPs with “Corbynist” candidates who sought to cement a Socialist Labour party. Momentum leadership denied these suspicions, but Labour MPs were right to be concerned.
Labour MP Angela Eagle challenged Corbyn in the Labour leadership election. She was targeted with homophobic abuse, death threats, and a brick thrown through her office window. Labour MP Baroness Tessa Jowell remarked, “Under the influence of Momentum, activists, members of Parliament and their staff are facing day in, day out harrassment and in some cases intimidation.” Deputy Leader of the Labour Party Tom Watson dismissed Momentum as irrelevant — until they attempted to pass a surprise motion that would axe the position of deputy leader altogether, thus disposing of Watson. Though the motion failed, the surprise attack on Watson left its mark on the party. Reflecting on the failed plot to have him removed, Watson remarked, “It’s a straight sectarian attack on a broad church party and it’s moving us into a different kind of institution, where pluralism isn’t tolerated, where factional observance has to be adhered to completely.”
In addition to unnerving the political establishment and other members of the Labour party, the rise of Corbyn and Momentum and the mainstreaming of their far-left politics raised some serious concerns for the British Jewish community. In the 70s and 80s, left-wing activists in the West, like Corbyn and Sanders, started embracing the Eastern Bloc’s revisionist history and deep resentment of the state of Israel. The story behind the Soviet Union’s harsh rhetoric against the Jewish state requires more space than available here, but succinctly put, Israel was an ally of the United States, and therefore Israel was an enemy of the Soviet Union and the rest of “progressive humanity” (in Soviet jargon). To promote its interests in the Middle East, the Soviet Union deployed a vicious anti-Semitic propaganda campaign that recycled anti-Semitic stereotypes and tropes about Jews to be used as ammunition to attack the Jewish state. Soviet propagandists redirected anti-Semitic conspiracy theories promoted by the Nazis towards Israel, not-so-cleverly changing the language and the target of the vitriol from Jews to the “Zionists.” In doing so, the Soviet Union, while spreading anti-Semitic ideas and persecuting Soviet Jews, could deny ever being anti-Semitic, instead claiming it was “anti-Zionist.” Soviet anti-Zionist propaganda was spread at international forums, dispersed throughout the Soviet Union and her client states, and continues to inspire young radicals at universities across the world. Jeremy Corbyn has openly espoused anti-Zionism throughout his entire political career. Like established Labour MPs, British Jews were also right to be concerned.
A Luton Labour councillor was suspended from the party after praising Hitler on social media and claiming Jews have too much power in the United States. Labour member Alan Bull apologized after sharing an article online that claimed the Holocaust was a hoax. Bull denied being a Holocaust denier or an anti-Semite, saying, “I support equal rights for Palestinian people.” UK council candidate Alan Myers was expelled from Labour for claiming “Zionists” are responsible for every act of terrorism and are controlled by the Rothschilds, a centuries-old anti-Semitic myth. Lord Ahmed resigned from the party after blaming a stint in prison on a “Jewish conspiracy.” A Labour candidate in Birmingham claimed ISIS was controlled by Israel. Labour Councillor Andrew Slack published a cartoon of a Jewish caricature soaked in blood and claimed Israel was a Rothschild project that wanted to control the world. Alex Nunns, one of Corbyn’s speechwriters, made a Facebook post accusing Israel of exploiting the Holocaust and blamed Israel for anti-Semitic attacks.
Baroness Tessa Jowel, who was previously quoted, sadly passed away from brain cancer at the age of 70. A moment of silence held in her memory was disrupted by Momentum hecklers. A source who witnessed the heckling stated that the Momentum activists claimed they’d rather “hold a minute’s silence for Gaza.”
British Labour’s experience with Corbyn and his radical base of support was dogged by infighting, radical policy prescriptions, and an anti-Semitic problem so bad that it prompted an investigation from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). In the 2019 general election, the Conservative party managed to expand its base in new areas while Labour fumbled and failed to mobilize support. The Conservatives dominated and won a landslide victory, while Labour suffered an embarrassing loss that Labour candidate Chris Bryant called a “catastrophe” and the “worst night for Labour since 1935.” After the poor showing, Corbyn had little choice but to resign as leader of the party, putting an end to the Corbyn era. After the EHRC released its report on anti-Semitism in the Labour party under Corbyn’s leadership, Corbyn was suspended from the Labour party, adding a final insult to injury.
A year after Labour’s general election defeat, the Democrats were dealt their 2020 electoral blow in the U.S. elections, prompting members like Spanberger and Clyburn to publicly protest the new wave of radical politics.
To be fair and to reiterate, drawing a parallel between these two movements isn’t an exact science. Corbyn and Momentum made a play for the leadership of Labour, while Bernie’s revolutionaries occupy few seats in the House and Senate, and even those are Democratic strongholds. The odds of populists ascending to leadership roles in the Democratic party seem slim in the present moment, but based on their rhetoric it seems like that’s exactly what they’d like to do. In that disturbing and remote scenario, an American remake of Labour’s disastrous confrontation with left-wing populism would seem plausible. Left-wing populists in the U.S. share a common ideology with Corbyn and Momentum, use the same aggressive rhetoric, openly communicate with each other, and even actively coordinate campaigns. In the 2017 general election, when Labour actually gained seats under Corbyn, Labour was aided by comrades from the United States. Members of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign traveled to the UK to help their fellow populists utilize new outreach initiatives on social media. One Sanders organizer said Corbyn and Sanders share “similar kinds of politics” and that the two movements had “a lot of shared goals.” In the two long years since the incarnation of the Squad, we’ve already seen hints of Corbyn and Momentum in the Democratic Party. Squad members have targeted the Jewish community; have publicly sparred with other party members; and, unlike Momentum, have no scruples about stating their intention to challenge and unseat their Democratic colleagues.
When long-time Democratic strategist James Carville was asked if he’d support a Bernie Sanders candidacy after the disastrous Democratic primary in Iowa, a frustrated and exasperated Carville responded, “Of course I would vote for him, but I don’t want the Democratic party of the United States to be [Corbyn’s] Labour party of the United Kingdom.”
Whether Democrat or Republican, all Americans could and should agree with Carville’s sentiment. A Democratic party overrun by populist radicals would be a nightmare for the DNC and equally bad for the country. The British experiment with Corbyn and Momentum is a cautionary tale for the Democrats in America. Will they take note?