The Sanders campaign, and reactions to it, continue to remind me of our similar experience in the UK. As I have already suggested, the common root of the support for Corbyn and Sanders comes from the anachronism of how a crisis created by the financial sector became transformed into the need to reduce the role of the state. Once you see this, and note the reluctance of many on the centre left to recognise or talk about it, the popularity of neither candidate is surprising. There are big differences between the two politicians and countries of course, but enough similarities to make what happened during the Corbyn campaign of some interest to those in the US.
Both the Corbyn and Sanders campaigns seem more receptive to certain types of heterodox economics rather than mainstream economics. It pains me as much as the next mainstream economist to hear those on the left claim that our present situation is due to the adoption of conventional economic theory, particularly given how the economics of austerity is so unconventional, but we cannot be surprised that many have drawn that (incorrect) conclusion.
The particular example from the Corbyn campaign that I wrote about was the idea that Quantitative Easing should be used to finance a new National Investment Bank. It was a bad idea, because it implied that the independence of the Bank of England would end. But it was not a stupid notion. The idea of a National Investment Bank and the idea that central banks can do better with the money they create than invest it in government debt are both sensible: it was their combination in the current situation that was problematic.
The good news was that once this idea was subjected to reasoned critique, it was quietly dropped. The lesson for mainstream economists who dislike aspects of the Sanders economic programme is that they should argue the case, rather than pull rank or experience.
The Corbyn campaign also had its ‘surprising’ fiscal numbers. I am the last person to endorse heroic fiscal projections: I believe strongly that any political candidate should plan for the ordinary even if they hope for the extraordinary. Of course this should be pointed out, as they were during the Corbyn campaign, but again it is important to argue that case rather than assume it, or impugn the motives of those behind the numbers. I also doubt doing this will change many minds: Corbyn still won. The attraction of Corbyn and Sanders is not in the coherence of their policy plans, but in the appeal they make to basic values unencumbered by conventions about what can be changed and what cannot.
I think the primary reason those standing against Corbyn lost is that they seemed trapped in a conventional discourse which was designed to appease a Westminster bubble, and of course they had the misfortune to be associated with a strategy where that appeasement had failed. When Labour lost the 2010 election they seemed to take a deliberate decision not to talk up their past achievements or dispute falsehoods about their failures, and that hurt Corbyn’s opponents both individually and collectively. Clinton does not suffer these disadvantages. Her fate may depend on whether she is seen as part of the establishment (which critically includes the power of the banks), or is the right person to take on this establishment.
There is one final warning that Corbyn’s victory may have for US Democrats. Many members and supporters of the Labour Party convinced themselves so strongly that he would be a calamity if elected that they have continued the campaign long after the result was announced. Some of them have convinced themselves that Corbyn is such a disaster that it is best to sabotage Labour at every turn so that his electoral defeat is emphatic and certain. That is tragic for the UK, but it would be even more tragic if the same thing happened in the US, given what the consequences of division of the anti-Republican vote might be. The lesson for those supporting Clinton and Sanders is do not burn bridges.