As Bernie Sanders edges ever closer to the Democratic nomination, journalists and politicians have begun the inevitable comparisons to Jeremy Corbyn and the ill-fated 2019 General Election. A piece for the Independent suggests that Sanders is taking lessons straight out of the Corbynista playbook. And a New York piece claims that the closer you look, the more parallels you find between the two, and given that Corbyn did not even win in 2017, Sanders may stand little chance as well. Even the BBC could not escape this comparison, with its Americast podcast frequently discussing the similarities.
On the surface these comparisons seem sound – both Sanders and Corbyn are older politicians who have spent the majority of their careers in the background. ‘Troublemakers’ to some and ‘principled’ to others, they both hold the mantle of ‘progressive’ whilst relying more heavily on the youth vote and a similar coalition of support. Indeed, this is the comparison often made by those on the right of the Democratic Party, and they use this comparison as an explanation for why they refuse to back him. However, what sets these two apart is far more important than what they have in common.
Whilst both men are often perceived as having strong beliefs they have always stuck to; Brexit was a real stumbling block for this perception of Corbyn. A staunch Eurosceptic from the backbenches, Corbyn often criticised the EU for example saying the Maastricht Treaty will “endanger the cause of socialism in the United Kingdom”, but once he became party leader he was forced by the membership to take a more Europhile approach. However it was always clear that this was not where his heart lay. His lacklustre referendum campaigning, and decision to remain neutral in the event of a second one betrayed his true beliefs. This was an easy attack line for his political opponents who could paint him as a wavering leader. This is then the first issue where Sanders-Corbyn comparisons fall apart – Sanders has no such ambiguity about a divisive national issue and can therefore maintain his image as a man of conviction, willing to take decisive action on important issues.
The fundamental difference between the two though, comes down to character and personality. Corbyn was mired throughout his leadership with attacks on his character, which painted him as anti-British. Sympathising with the IRA and Palestinian terrorists, a failure to deal with anti-Semitism, a refusal to push the nuclear red button and more along this line, did serious damage to the idea Corbyn could be a strong British leader. This was especially bad with social conservatives, a good chunk of Labour’s working-class vote, who came to see Corbyn as anti-patriotic.
There is no such issue for Sanders. Given his personal identification as Jewish, and his long-standing position in support of the Civil Rights Movement, it would be hard for any political opponent to label him as racist, and as of yet no links to terrorist groups operating on his own soil have come to light. Although he could certainly be portrayed as the most ‘anti-American’ candidate, the criticisms Sanders has tend to be more rational, and it therefore is not difficult to find a moderate who agrees. For example, his recent comments on Cuba which are similar to the ones Obama made in 2016. The patriotic vote is of even more significance in the US and Sanders has succeeded in maintaining the perception that his principles and policies are compatible with American values. A lack of character attacks also allows Sanders to get across his policies – and how they would be implemented – far more effectively than Corbyn could ever hope to.
If talk of his character is not convincing, all one has to do is look at the polling to see the statistical argument. Sanders is far more popular than Corbyn ever was, with recent polls putting Sanders ahead of Trump in key states which went red in 2016: Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan to name a few. For comparison, Labour has been ahead in a single poll (by 1%) since Boris Johnson became Conservative Party leader. This shows that nationwide Sanders does not have the toxic image that Corbyn carried with him into the 2019 election.
There are comparisons to be made between the two men, their core support comes from similar demographics and their policy ideas are radical within their countries political climate. But it is reductive to use Corbyn as an excuse to reject Sanders as Democratic nominee, since that comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of what made Corbyn so unpopular, and a failure to realise that they share little in this respect. The Sanders campaign has its own issues that need addressing, but the solution does not lie with Jeremy Corbyn.