Updated: Jul 3
I’ve been tossing the idea for this piece back and forth in my mind for quite some time now. Although, in light of Bernie Sanders’ campaign suspension on Wednesday (8th April), this is as good a time as any to talk about what commentators mean when they say someone is ‘unelectable’ and why it’s so often used to discredit politicians who threaten the status quo.
Before we truly begin, I want to stress that this is not a piece just about Senator Sanders’ dropping out. My colleague, Izzy, is currently writing a wonderful piece on that & I’m by no means trying to outflank her on that issue. This is a broader look at what the smear of being ‘unelectable’ is and why it’s so often used.
Two of the most prominent left-wing politicians of the last decade, Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, have over the past couple of weeks stepped down from the vanguard of left-wing movements. Both Corbyn and Sanders, throughout their tenure as Leader of the Opposition and Democratic Presidential Candidate respectively, have been labelled ‘unelectable’ by media sources, political opponents and disfavouring organisations.
The question then, is how is that so? Both Sanders and Corbyn share similar stories in that they have spent their entire adult lives campaigning for the social change they believe in, dedicating themselves not just to public service, but to bettering the lives of the public as a whole (the two are not interdependent). The two men have also been consistent throughout their careers on the issues they fight for. For example, both Corbyn and Sanders can be seen fighting for LGBT rights in the 1980s, during the height of the AIDS crisis, in which being a homosexual or other LGBT sexuality was profoundly stigmatised.
They’ve never really been a part of the zeitgeist.
Being ‘unelectable’, at least as far as I can see, is to be a somewhat dishevelled older man, whose politics upset the politically agreed-upon status quo.
Let’s take the first part of that definition; to be a “dishevelled older man”. Both Corbyn and Sanders do fit this description, but unlike in the auditoria and cinemas of the world, the political theatre does not require good looks and nice hair, nor should it.
…and let’s be honest, nor does it.
Take a look at the two men Corbyn and Sanders were running to depose; Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. Neither of these two men fit your archetypal, Westminster-Washington politician. Johnson habitually looks as though he’s just risen from a month-long slumber, while Trump acts like a snake oil merchant from an era gone by, wearing a fancy suit. Neither look, nor act, like the ‘electable’ figures they have definitively proved to be.
So ‘electability’ doesn’t come down to what you wear or how you act; it must be down to what you say.
It’s difficult to make the case that either Corbyn or Sanders are overly controversial figures in the direct quotes they make. I acknowledge, that there has been a significant cloud over Corbyn’s head surrounding the issue of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. Though, the broad consensus on that always was that Corbyn was not himself an anti-Semite, but that he was (and I agree with this shameful assessment) far too dilatory in acting against the cancer of racism within his party.
That said, when compared to the quotes from Johnson on the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, saying they had “watermelon smiles”, and his quotes surrounding Muslim women, saying that they look “like letter boxes”, nothing Corbyn has said has come close to that.
Nor does the comparison between Sanders and Trump come close. Trump’s derogatory remarks make-up a list longer than my arm, so I shan’t be going into them here.
Safe to say though, that Sanders’ history of making insensitive comments is ostensibly non-existent.
However, in my estimation, it is not whether or not the comments you make are insensitive towards races, genders or anything else, its whether your politics upsets the status quo.
Starting this time with Sanders, his platform, for an American, would be considered radical. He advocated for a single-payer healthcare system, free university education and action on the climate – all policy ideas which poll well with Americans across the board.
Similarly, with Corbyn, a barrage of comments on his unelectability came, despite his 2017 and 2019 manifestos being nothing short of a comfortably left-wing policy platform. It was by no means anti-capitalist, nor even Soviet-style socialist, merely capitalist reformist (as the Labour Party has always defined itself).
Though, what Sanders and Corbyn equally threatened to do was upset the status quo. They both had their eyes set on taxing the wealthiest to pay for underfunded or annulled public services, they both wanted to reform the economy to redistribute wealth and resource, and most importantly, they wanted to make the state honest and open – to democratise democracy.
This final point, more radical in Washington D.C. than in Westminster, could not be allowed to be. The big-money donors know that the way things are suits them just fine. The lobbyists for big pharmaceutical chains and weapons manufacturers know that if their influence is diminished, or entirely cut-off, their money dries up.
What both of these men offered was a seemingly radical shift away from a corporate influenced, top-down society, to a new mode of thinking about our social order and our economic order.
Why does ‘unelectable’ work so well?
Being branded as ‘unelectable’ is an incredibly effective tool because it seeps into the public consciousness very quickly. If you’re to take a politician and brand them as unelectable, they’re immediately put into a position where they have to prove to the electorate that they’re electable.
What’s more, each and every political setback they suffer, inevitable or not, adds fuel to the fire of the argument. Each time that another Labour MP had a disagreement with Corbyn, the right-wing papers would cover their front pages with false equivalencies: “If he can’t keep his backbenchers in order, how can he keep the country in order?”.
That seems like a very appealing argument. The only issue is that backbenchers are notorious for their inability to sit-down and shut-up. They need to make the papers every once in a while, to ensure their profile is raised.
Take Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley. She was one of Corbyn’s most vocal critics throughout his tenure as Labour leader. She often failed to vote in line with Corbyn’s whip and occasionally made noises in the press about leaving the party, should Corbyn’s reign continue (spoiler: she never did).
…And she never would. It was all a ploy to get her name recognition elevated so that when the starting pistol for leadership contest is fired, she’d be in a strong starting position.
Phillips tried to run for Labour Leader after Corbyn, but folded after 18 days because few party-affiliated unions supported her. After which, she said she might leave the party again.
Switching back over to Sanders, you find an even more curious case. As I pointed out in a previous article on Sanders, he’s never actually been elected as a Democrat, only an Independent.
Add to that, that he’s a left-wing candidate in a centre-to-centre-right party (albeit the U.S.’s left-most party). Altogether, the odds were stacked against him. Not to mention the fiasco at the Democratic Convention in 2016, in which the vote-count rules were changed to ensure victory in close states for Hilary Clinton.
Ultimately, the Sanders campaign ran an incredible race, winning several key states early in the primary process. Only after the other moderate candidates pulled out, endorsing Biden, leaving Warren in to split the vote, before her withdrawal, with a tacit endorsement of Biden, did Sanders begin losing ground.
I am of the opinion that the Democratic Party higher-ups have been pulling as many strings as possible to ensure that Biden is the nominee come the convention (whenever that may be).
I will be bringing forward a piece on ‘Scarecrow Democracy’ shortly, in which I dive more into that topic, so keep your eyes open for that.
I digress, the argument here is that both Corbyn and Sanders were labelled as ‘unelectable’, which when it comes to effectively counter, is a tough nut to crack.
There are debates to be had over whether Corbyn or Sanders were ever electorally capable of winning their respective races. What is certain in my mind, is that they were viable candidates, at least no less viable than the incumbents they sought to oust.
In an honest democracy, provided their ideology does not aim to directly hurt or discriminate, no one is ‘unelectable’ by virtue; anybody who says otherwise is merely peddling snake oil.