Progressive movements are not populism, instead providing an antidote with inclusive policymaking that makes life less precarious.
By Alphan Telek and Seren Selvin Korkmaz*
he world is in a systemic stalemate reflected in increasing populism in politics, social polarization and racism in the social sphere, and economic precarity. These combine to add injustices and inequalities in people’s daily lives, prompting vulnerability, stress and bitterness. In the absence of strong progressive movements and ideas in the political sphere, people may direct anger toward society’s weakest members. Such a pragmatist and utilitarian approach,using and victimizing minorities for majority interests, nurtures populism as a style of politics to elicit citizen support and guarantee the ruling government’s political survival. These challenges associated with populism, polarization and precariousness are intertwined – change in any one element influences the others. Only vigorous and progressive opposition can confront populist and exclusionary currents.
Media pundits often refer to the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and the alternative politics of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders in the United States as “populist,” but this is a mistake either due to sloppiness or attempts to assign false equivalency with populist movements like the UK Independence Party or the National Front in France. The two progressive counter-movements instead offer an antidote to populism by pursuing policymaking, social solidarity and anti-austerity to make life less precarious. Such left-transformation movements are centered on “justice”-based politics and the political sentiment of “hope.” Such movements, gravitating to social and political justice, promise an alternative future.
The movements’ demands for social and political justice indicate a changing pattern in their language and framework for thinking – combining class and identity perspectives. Since 1980, identity-related issues have dominated progressive movements. Rising inequality with no end in sight has forced counter-movements to reconsider the roles of class and social justice, prompting a shift to support of empowerment and economic rights by limiting the role of capitalism while eradicating conditions adding to uncertainty. Political justice promises full implementation of basic rights and empowerment of the people in local, national and global decision-making. In that sense, the progressive movements – including those led by Sanders, Corbyn as well as La France Insoumise, the Five Star Movement in Italy, Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece – adopt these promises in their political programs. The demands of left-transformation are not confined to the global north, and protesters in Iran and Tunisia have voiced similar demands recently.
The movements led by Corbyn and Sanders are notable in two ways: Both emerged in countries with consolidated democracies and wealth, and both organized within existing parties rather than forming as new parties like Podemos or Syriza. In both the United States and the United Kingdom, two parties dominate the political spectrum. Sanders, as an independent senator from Vermont, offered his transformative policies to become the Democratic presidential candidate. He lost to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, but his campaign still influences debate and political races. Corbyn has led the Labour Party since 2015 and could become Britain’s prime minister in the next elections.
From the start of their political careers, Sanders and Corbyn embraced progressive policies without hesitation, adding dynamism to existing political structures and drawing increasing support within their respective parties. Sanders embraced the Occupy Wall Street movement that emerged in 2011 and included some of the group’s demands in his agenda. Corbyn’s candidacy for Labour’s leadership pushed the emergence of “Momentum” – a grassroots movement inspired by organizations and ideas that gave birth to Syriza and Podemos. Conservative, progressive and social movements around the globe increasingly connect and adopt one another’s policies, and for progressives these include reducing inequality and increasing citizen participation in decision-making processes. Such relationships increase political profiles, dynamism and sustainability, reinforcing ideas and political agendas in ways that prevent the movements and ideas from fading.
Sanders’ and Corbyn’s programs focus on social justice to strengthen people economically, and both accept this ideal as a sine qua non of their progressive agendas. Sanders argues that the US political system is corrupt and unjust and in need of strong reform. For him, freedom in the country is a myth without equality, economic security and just distribution. He defines the system as Robin Hood-in-reverse, with policies transferring increasing amounts of wealth and power to the rich and income inequality reaching its highest level since the 1920s. Recent reports support this argument by pointing out that the richest 1 percent control more than 40 percent of US wealth. Sanders frequently refers to the observation by civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. on the structural dilemma: “This country has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.”
Corbyn also emphasizes inequality in the United Kingdom, arguing wealth and opportunities should be shared by citizens and not limited to billionaires. Growing numbers of citizens work in low-paid insecure jobs with little opportunity for advancement. He urges reforms in the financial system for the public benefit and creation of secure employment opportunities. He also questions privatization and profit-taking from public goods and recommends state control for the production and redistribution of basic needs such as energy, water and transportation. His agenda encompasses housing support and no-tuition higher education. Sanders likewise supports social security and housing benefits as well as programs to combat youth unemployment, high-cost education loans, rising health expenditures – all linked to US inequality. Both Sanders and Corbyn address the necessity of tax reform to eliminate society’s inequalities.
Both leaders also seek political justice to eliminate the bogus-democracy. By bogus-democracy, we refer to a political system where democracy is equated to ballot boxes, with mechanisms for checks and balances undermined and political and economic power remaining in the hands of the establishment. In the existing system, elected representatives and decision-making can serve the interests of plutocrats rather than society as a whole. Hence, Sanders and Corbyn seek to strengthen individual and collective participation in political and public spheres. Sanders’s program suggests transparency of funding for political campaigns to inhibit concentration of political power among a few. Corbyn stresses the value of more powerful local governance with citizens participating in local decision-making processes. He also stresses elimination of rent-seeking urbanization at the local level.
By appealing to society as a whole, the programs of both men are antidotes to populism. Both reject policies that target opponents or deepen polarization in society. Instead, they embrace differences in society, supporting rights of minority groups as diverse as the LGBTQ community and migrants while standing against racism, Islamophobia and anti-semitism. They do not want to destroy institutions and instead participate – Corbyn in the British Parliament and Sanders in the US Senate – tirelessly working from within to improve policies and processes. They encourage hope for transformation in societies where plutocrats and populist leaders spread anger and fear, insisting there are no alternatives or solutions.
As left-transformative movements, the political agendas of Sander and Corbyn have many similarities. That is why progress of one lifts the other. For instance, Corbyn’s good performance in the UK elections inspired and motivated Sanders’ supporters to revive promotion of his ideas. Also increasing support for Corbyn’s program in the UK motivates other left-transformative movements by de-legitimizing notions that the left cannot win elections in the neoliberal era.
Progressive left-transformative movements aim to transform society by pursuing justice, eliminating inequalities and ensuring solidarity in the society. Left-transformation is a global phenomenon and can reach its ultimate aims with national and international solidarity.
*Alphan Telek is a PhD candidate at Science Po Paris and Boğaziçi University, Istanbul. Seren Selvin Korkmaz is a Fox International Fellow in MacMillian Center for International and Area Studies at Yale.