Nicely-Suited, Self-Effacing Demagogues
If you’re a left-wing party and want to win an election, occupy the center ground. Since at least the 1980s, this theory has been a mantra to the political pundits and dogma to the electorate at large. That’s the rule. Excluding Al Gore, John Kerry, Gordon Brown, Ed Milliband, and Hillary Clinton, of course.
When the left-leaning Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn took his party to a blistering election defeat in late 2019, Britain’s commentariat was keen to remind their readers of this golden rule. Conveniently forgetting that, in 2017, Corbyn almost won the general election standing on roughly the same platform of nationalization and economic redistribution. On the other side of the Atlantic, Bernie Sanders has also suffered from these politically-centrist mental acrobatics. In 2016, he constantly polled better against Trump than Hillary Clinton but was paradoxically seen as the less electable candidate. Maybe, just maybe, this old rule doesn’t apply anymore.
Keir Starmer, nascent leader of the British Labour party, and Joe Biden, Democratic candidate for president of the United States, may just break the rule for good. Starmer has promised to maintain all of the most radical components of his predecessors 2019 manifesto, while the former vice president is standing on the most radical Democratic party platform ever. But under the guise of boring, pasty, male normalcy, people are enjoying the show. Last week, Starmer clocked the highest approval rating for any leader of the opposition since Tony Blair (who went on to win one of the largest parliamentary majorities in British history). The same day, a CNN poll had Joe Biden leading Donald Trump by eight points nationwide. Biden and Starmer may have found a new winning formula: a dignified presence to comfort critics of their radical ideas.
Former Labour leader Ed Milliband, whose half-hearted radicalism was popular with the U.K. at large, could never overcome his bumbling, boyish demeanor. As one defining moment of the 2015 campaign revealed. The BBC presenter Jeremy Paxman asked Milliband “Are you tough enough?” To which Milliband tried to say “Hell yes, I’m tough enough,” but instead came out with “Uh uh am I tuffy nufs… tough enough, hell yes I’m tough enough.” The crowd audibly cringed. It became a defining moment of the campaign. His defeat to the well-spoken, nicely-suited David Cameron only a few weeks later showed that people want their leaders to have grandeur, no matter how desirable the policies.
When Michael Foot, another body in the heap of failed Labour candidates, lost the election to Margaret Thatcher in 1983, the party’s manifesto was dubbed the “longest suicide note in history.” Against the well-oiled, corporate efficiency of the Tory propaganda machine, Foot’s folksy charm seemed laughable. Thick-rimmed glasses, messy long hair, and a brown suit made Foot look more like a substitute history teacher in a back-end secondary school than a viable candidate for prime minister. The country was hesitant to trust someone who couldn’t do up their own tie. “Eat to please thyself,” Benjamin Franklin once said, “but dress to please others.” The Conservative party had its greatest result since 1924.
Last year, Corbyn’s manifesto was far longer and led to a more bitter defeat. Nevertheless, the socialist policies contained within it were extremely popular. The best analysis of this disconnect came from the Former Labour Home Secretary Alan Johnson, who said on the night of the defeat: “Corbyn was a disaster on the doorstep; everyone knew that he couldn’t lead the working class out of a paper bag.” His style, more than any of his political beliefs, was his Achilles’ heel. His Footsian dress style had dogged him since the earliest days of his leadership. In an early exchange, David Cameron told Corbyn to “Put on a proper suit and do up your tie”—he would have been a more successful leader had he heeded this advice. Journalists and politicians decried the “Corbyn project” for lurching to the left and failing the party. But it was a more quixotic goal to believe the electorate would vote for a man incapable of acting like a statesman.
By the time Biden clinched the nomination in early April, he was already the most progressive major-party candidate in history. From the early campaign, he supported proposals for two years of affordable public college and the implementation of a public healthcare option. In the time since, Biden has bucked the trend of previous party nominees and veered leftward, keen to not alienate the left-leaning voters who bailed on Hillary Clinton four years ago. Now, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, reducing the eligibility age for Medicare, and forgiving huge amounts of college loan debt are all ready for eating on Biden’s policy table.
Even from the desolate aftermath of the 2019 election, Keir Starmer was keen to warn the party against overcorrecting and steering to the right. His campaign defended the need for nationalization of key industries, stronger union protections, and free university tuition for Britain’s youth.
With the Democratic party convention coming up and the Labour party settling into opposition, both leaders must avoid the temptation to fall back on the centrist policies that won elections in the past. Not just because the parties should be radical, but because they can’t afford not to be. Alistair Campbell, the former spin doctor to Tony Blair, said recently “the nationalist-populist right will be very difficult to beat. They will not be beaten by aping them, by meeting them halfway; they must be beaten by a bigger, bolder, more optimistic vision of what Britain can be.” That starts with Keir Starmer and a radical Corbynist vision. And where Starmer meets Corbyn, so does Biden meet Sanders. Populists will not be beaten in half measures.
In our current political era, which was already tumultuous before the COVID-19 pandemic, old solutions cannot counter modern problems. Biden and Starmer must put on their suits, do up their ties, and be the quiet radicals their countries need.