“When you study successful transformational movements, you see that the key to success is to establish a certain identity between your analysis and what the majority feels.” — Pablo Iglesias, General Secretary of the Spanish Podemos Party
It took most American news media many months to realize that there was an actual contest shaping up in the Democratic primaries. The preferred candidate of party elites, Hillary Clinton, faced a strong challenge from the left in the form of long serving Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders. In fairness, the lack of coverage was in part due to the ever more bizarre clown show being led by Donald Trump on the Republican side. But it also points to built-in biases in the way the corporate media covers leftwing movements and ideas.
From The New York Times to Fox News, mainstream outlets ignored Sanders’s candidacy until his near victory in Iowa and landslide in New Hampshire made it all but impossible to ignore it any longer. They and others have since spent much of the time downplaying the senator’s increasing momentum on the road to the Democratic Convention this summer in Philadelphia. On March 26, Bernie won the states of Hawaii, Washington and Alaska by large margins in primary contests that, judging by the lack of coverage, were somehow not newsworthy.
In North America, austerity in all but name has been the economic policy of governments since at least the 1980s. In the U.S. specifically, Democrats and Republicans alike have worked to dismantle the safety nets put in place by Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program of the 1960s.
Most of Europe avoided the trap of what has come to be called neo-liberalism until the member states “gave up control over their most important macroeconomic policies: monetary policy (including interest rates), exchange rate policy (by adopting the euro) and… fiscal policy (taxing and spending)” to the European Central Bank at the end of the last century. The monetary union has created what could be called vassal states, mostly in southern Europe, whose power to make their own economic decisions has been curtailed by their richer northern neighbors. Austerity programs in Greece and elsewhere have caused a kind of despair not seen on the continent since the 1930s, mirroring the rising anger in the United States.
The Birth of New Left Movements
In many ways, the Bernie Sanders campaign and the candidate’s calls for a “political revolution” are comparable to the earlier rise of the Podemos Party in Spain. Podemos – whose name translates to “We can” – under the leadership of the charismatic academic Pablo Iglesias, seemed to come out of nowhere in early 2014, and quickly become the second largest party in the country by membership. Although the political systems are different, Spain, like the U.S., had been under what has amounted to two-party rule since the 1970s.
This Spanish duopoly had the Partido Popular (PP, a party of the right) and the Partido Socialista Obrero Espanol (PSOE, nominally a party of the left) switching roles every few years while pursuing what amounted to the same neo-liberal policies, regardless of who held the levers of power in Madrid.
An outpouring of citizen fury, directed not only at Spain’s political establishment but also at the austerity being forced on southern European countries by northern European countries through the EU, led to widespread protests by citizens calling themselves “Indignados” (the indignant ones). This movement, which has since been called 15-M after the date of the first protests on May 15, provided the impetus that led to the creation of Podemos.
But this wasn’t the only longterm accomplishment of the the 15-M movement. The Indignados were also a major influence on those who came together four months later under the banner of Occupy Wall Street in New York on Sept. 17, 2011. What began in Zuccotti Park and then spread across North America was a major contributor to the Bernie Sanders phenomenon that has forced leftwing ideas into the political conversation in the U.S. for the first time in decades.
The jury is still out on Podemos, who had a good showing in the Spanish elections held last December. Although they garnered the most support, it wasn’t enough for a congressional majority and they’ve been trying ever since to form a coalition with other parties, including the PSOE. If they fail to do this by May 2, new elections must be held. Regardless, the 15-M activists will continue to organize on the local level.
Although there are many similarities between the rise of Podemos in Spain and Sander’s calls for a grassroots political revolution in the United States, there are also major differences. For one thing, Senator Sanders chose to run for the Democratic nomination instead of trying to create a third party. By doing so, he was able to get on the debate stage and bring his message to the American public on a scale that is practically impossible outside of the two major American political parties.
Digging for Dirt
Almost simultaneously, another principled man of the left, Jeremy Corbyn, became the leader of the Labor Party in the UK. Just as Bill Clinton and the “New Democrats” turned the Democratic Party into a pro-corporate, neo-liberal party in the U.S., Tony Blair had done the same to Labor, taking it away from its roots as the party of Britain’s working people.
The novel idea of opening up the leadership process to all party members (while lowering the membership fee to three pounds) gave actual citizens rather than party elites the power to decide who would lead them. They overwhelmingly chose Corbyn, a long standing backbencher committed to the party’s socialist principles rather than the other candidates for the job, who represented a continuation of the “Blairism” that had made the party almost indistinguishable from its opposition Conservatives, led by David Cameron.
As all three leaders likely expected, mainstream media outlets in the UK, Spain and the United States have been busy mining their past statements for ammunition with which to discredit them. Iglesias has been taken to task for his past work in support of Hugo Chavez and his democratic “Bolivarian Revolution” in Venezuela. But it’s Corbyn who has faced the worst attacks, including veiled accusations of anti-Semitism.
Even before he’d been chosen to lead the Labor Party, the UK Telegraph ran a long story trying to tie Corbyn to the government of Iran and portraying him as sympathetic to Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The paper attacked his character by anecdote and association rather than by quoting his actual statements over the years as one might expect.
Thus, humanitarian trips to Gaza sponsored by a group called the Palestinian Return Center (PRC) are suspect because the right-wing government of Israel [claims](http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/labour/11749043/Andrew-Gilligan… extremists.html) that the PRC is “Hama’s organizational branch in Europe” whose membership is “senior Hamas leaders who promote the movement’s agenda in Europe.” The view of Israel’s Likud government, offered without a shred of evidence to back up the assertions, is enough to imply that Corbyn sympathizes with “terrorists.”
Near the end of the article, a spokesperson for Corbyn is finally allowed to reply to the spurious allegations peddled by the paper: “Jeremy has spoken to groups reflecting the full range of political opinion in both Israel and Palestine. This does not entail support for the organizations with whom he has spoken in the interests of bringing an end to the humanitarian disaster and suffering caused by the conflict.” This is called diplomacy, a tool that seems to have fallen out of favor in most western democracies, especially when it comes to the complicated conflicts of the Middle East.
Even Sanders, who has concentrated almost exclusively on domestic issues, was questioned about comments he made in 1985 about Cuba and Nicaragua. The setting was a debate held in Florida and sponsored by the Spanish language network Univison and simulcast by CNN. Sanders was shown to have defended Fidel Castro and the Nicaraguan Sandinistas (currently the elected government of one of the few stable countries in Central America) and was grilled by both the moderators and his opponent Hillary Clinton on whether he wished to rescind these more than 30-year-old endorsements.
Clinton’s line of attack on the issue of this old video was interesting, coming from someone who long supported both Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and still defends the brutally sexist, monarchist tyranny of Saudi Arabia (also a prominent donor to the Clinton Foundation), among many other governments that make Cuba under the Castro brothers seem like a beacon of freedom in the world.
Discussing the “values” of the Cuban revolution defended by a much younger Bernie Sanders, she said, “If the values are that you oppress people, you disappear people, imprison people or even kill people for expressing their opinions, for expressing freedom of speech, that is not the kind of revolution of values that I ever want to see anywhere.”
Sanders replied to the former Secretary of State’s overblown Cold War rhetoric with the kind of common sense answer that has contributed to his growing popularity with American voters. While acknowledging it’s important to criticize the authoritarian tendencies of the Cuban government, it’s also important to give them some credit for the great strides the country has made in healthcare and education since the revolution.
He also used the opportunity to state his unequivocal support for the Obama Administration’s opening up to the island: “I think by restoring full diplomatic relations with Cuba, it will result in significant improvements to the lives of Cubans and it will help the United States,” the Senator said.
The fact that all three of these politicians – Sanders, Corbyn and Iglesias – are willing to take the sensible position of talking to perceived enemies like Cuba or Iran should be all that’s needed to recommend them to citizens fed up with the saber rattling we get from hawkish candidates like Hillary Clinton (let alone Donald Trump’s casually uninformed bluster). To paraphrase another former U.S. Secretary of State, western democracies should not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, it costs too much money and usually creates even worse monsters in the process.
Concurrent with the rise of the populist right in Western democracies, another permutation of the same anger is fueling a revitalized left, which is expressing the ideals of equality and economic justice. But in Europe and North America alike, movements battling neo-liberalism and authoritarian xenophobia will need to become more than the sum of their leaders.
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