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Common values

October 14, 2015

The sudden emergence of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn as national political forces in the United States and the United Kingdom, respectively, has resulted in both journalistic and political unease. The British press, with the qualified exception of the Guardian, has responded to Corbyn’s rise with forms of disapproval ranging from caricature to contempt. Sanders has faced a gentler but equally lethal obstacle: silencing. The American press has disproportionately ignored him, an approach which culminated last night when CNN headlined his rival Hillary Clinton in its coverage of the first Democratic debate – after its own poll found that 82% of viewers considered Sanders to have won the debate.

The political backlash against Corbyn from members of his party has been nothing short of overwhelming, with everyone from former prime minister Blair to his fellow backbenchers condemning his policies and approaches. By comparison, Sanders has faced much less ire from other Democrats. His widespread support among individual voters has caused the party to tread carefully, lest it alienate that goodwill before the primaries are over.

This critical response to Corbyn and Sanders is no doubt caused in part by the fact that both men are avowed socialists. It has been decades since socialist candidates were visible, let alone viable, in a national election in Britain and America. But labeling alone doesn’t account for British hostility towards Corbyn and the American resolve to pretend that Sanders doesn’t exist.

The root of this hostility is that both men have violated an unwritten, unspoken, implicit gentleman’s agreement that has emerged in recent years. Without formal consultations, the two main parties in each country have drawn closer together with the passage of time. In Britain, Blair created New Labour; in the US, the Obama administration followed closely in the footsteps of the Bush administration, and the same would be expected of a prospective Clinton administration. Labourites and Conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, now generally support a basic suite of similar policies: continued foreign military intervention, varying degrees of public welfare, unquestioning support for state surveillance, a privately-owned but state-directed economy, delayed action on immigration and the environment in the hope that those problems will solve themselves, and an expanded role for the state or community in private life. All four parties have come to accept these and other related planks as essential to the continued functioning of the state. Their platforms are all basically fascist, though dressed up in various traditional trappings. As a result, they can coexist and exchange roles in government as required by the vagaries of the electorate.

But Corbyn and Sanders have broken with this consensus by demanding sweeping reforms. While their policies would eventually result in a significant expansion of state authority, this would come at the expense of the issues and careers of an entire generation of politicians and journalists on both sides of the aisle. It would create a massive amount of dissonance within their ranks, forcing them to engage with new ideas and adjust to a new social order. No professional pundit, comfortable in the position to which he’s accustomed, wants to see that happen. So all of them unite in disapproving of the newcomers from their various perspectives. Just like their intellectual counterparts in the civil service, they believe that the best of all possible worlds is the world that already exists. Right and left have finally fixed upon a set of shared values; why disturb such a consistent program?

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