For many Democrats, defeating President Donald Trump in 2020 and returning to “normal” is enough. For a growing number of voters and contenders, however, the question is not simply getting rid of Trump but also gaining a mandate for fundamental change.
The latter mission was explored this week in a windowless Longworth House Office Building meeting room where two British economists—Mathew Lawrence and James Meadway—met with a gaggle of Democratic congressional aides to outline the elements of British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s evolving economic policy. The gathering, co-sponsored by the Congressional Progressive Caucus Center and the Democracy Collaborative, a Washington-based research institute, is one of many exchanges across the Atlantic among progressive thinkers, legislators, and activists who are sharing ideas and strategies about forging an era of reform.
In the United Kingdom, Jeremy Corbyn—a British version of Bernie Sanders, in that he was dismissed for years as a cranky radical while acting as a consistent critic of New Labour’s move to the right—could well lead the party to victory in the next elections. The ruling Conservative Party is disintegrating in the face of Brexit. In the United States, Sanders’s stunning primary run in 2016 and his current momentum, along with Senator Elizabeth Warren’s imprint on the early Democratic ideas primary, have driven the Democratic debate to the left. The coming British and US elections could mark not simply a change of the party in power but the end of the 40-year conservative era and the beginning of a reform era.
The historic potential of this transformation can be seen by looking at history. In 1979 and ’80, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan—two movement conservatives deemed far too extreme by the established consensus—were elected within a year of each another. Both consciously set out to end the postwar liberal era and launched their countries into decades of conservative dominance.
In the 1990s, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair came into power within a few years of each other. Clinton’s New Democrats and Blair’s New Labour pushed their parties to tack to prevailing conservative winds. Both proclaimed a new Third Way (ignoring the reality that social democracy was the original third way between communism and capitalism). Both helped consolidate a global economic order designed by, for, and of the multinationals.
Now a fundamental reordering could again be the result of parallel elections on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. The UK and the United States suffer many of the same maladies—savage inequality, a political economy that does not work for most people, devastation of manufacturing sectors, and a stark contrast between the financial center and the provinces. There is also a corporate culture in both countries dominated by finance and shareholder interests and characterized by short-term, predatory plunder. Both countries have a young generation likely to fare far worse than its parents. Both suffer an establishment that is demoralized and bereft of ideas. Rising popular discontent has taken perverse expressions: Brexit in Britain, Trump in the United States.
Hence the left is on the rise, driven by ideas, grassroots energy, and authenticity. Corbyn was lifted to leadership in the Labour Party by an unprecedented mobilization and expansion in party membership. Sanders came from idiosyncratic obscurity to front-runner in the 2020 race largely because of his 2016 primary run, which was fueled significantly by a surge of energy from young voters.
For both, bold and explicit reform ideas were central to their rise. Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto—“For the Many Not the Few”—was leaked by those certain that its radical ideas would torpedo his candidacy. Britain’s conservative media described it as a suicide note and gave it widespread attention. The result, ironically, was that Labour soared in public-opinion polls and made stunning election gains. Similarly, Sanders’s rise came not because of a slick campaign or a telegenic personality but because of the force of his ideas and the authenticity with which he championed them.
The core agendas of the rising movements have striking similarities. Both call for a revival of public investment and social provision. Both commit to a large public-infrastructure investment. The Labour manifesto calls for national and regional investment banks. The Green New Deal here has sparked parallel thinking in the UK. Both movements highlight direct material benefits such as tuition-free college, free child care, Medicare for All in the United States, and bolstering the popular National Health Service in Britain. Both call for large hikes in the minimum wage and reforms empowering workers to organize and bargain collectively, and both would rely on tax hikes on the rich and on corporations to address inequality and to pay for programs.
Both are beginning to focus on structural corporate reforms to redress market failures. Among Democrats, Warren has led the call for a revived anti-trust agenda, corporate-profit taxes, and giving workers seats on the boards of large corporations.
The debate is more advanced in Britain, as Corbyn and aides revise the manifesto for the next elections. Corbyn’s manifesto calls for reversing Thatcher’s disastrous privatization of railroads and utilities like water, energy, and the mail. It places significant emphasis on seeding cooperatives and worker-controlled firms, as well as supporting small businesses. Its effort to transform corporate governance features what are called inclusive ownership funds. Each large corporation—over 250 employees—would be required to distribute 1 percent of its stock per year for 10 years into a company-specific trust that would be governed by a board elected by workers. As a shareholder, the trust would receive dividends to be distributed among the workers. It would also, as a major shareholder, have significant influence on corporate governance, strategy, and executive-pay decisions.
Last week, news reports highlighted Barack Obama’s warning, to young leaders in Berlin, against making the perfect the enemy of the good: that “rigidity” too often could lead to a “circular firing squad” that ends up weakening the entire movement. The press treated this as a caution to progressives driving the debate in the Democratic Party and as a criticism of centrist candidates. In fact, his comments were Organizing 101: Know the core principles that you won’t compromise, push hard for what you want, and if forced to compromise, take what gains you can get and keep on pushing. That is a far remove from what has been too often the signature of New Democrats—including Obama—of preemptive compromise before engaging in the debate and then compromising even further to get something done. Democrats have suffered less from a circular firing squad than from an establishment that has dismissed fundamental reform out of hand.
It will take dramatic structural changes to transform a political economy that does not work for working people. In the UK, the Labour Party is committed: The next elections won’t simply be about getting rid of Prime Minister Theresa May and the Tories. Labour will seek a mandate for sweeping change.
In the United States, voters in the Democratic Party will have a choice. Some, like former vice president Joe Biden and Senator Amy Klobuchar, will argue essentially that the basic issue is getting rid of Trump and returning to decency, while others, like Sanders and Warren, assert that committing to a bold agenda not only is vital for the country but also is the best strategy to move Trump out of the way. That will happen only if progressives continue to push hard to drive the debate.