‘Old’ leftism, made new?

An important part of the ‘Millennial’ appeal of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the US lies in the economic insecurity of younger generations

Stephanie MudgeIn my last SPERI Comment, I highlighted some of the new realities of the neo-gilded age: huge economic and wealth inequality, long-term wage stagnation and the mounting problem of student loan debt.  I pointed to a series of trends indicating a deepening rift in the economic prospects of older vs younger generations.  And I suggested that, if we want to see if there are glimmers of change on the horizon in the US and the UK, we should look to party politics.  Since then, the strangest thing has happened: in the US Bernie Sanders, a declared socialist, is making a decent (but, possibly, now faltering) run at the Democratic presidential nomination.  In the UK, the Labour Party now has a leader whose similarities with Sanders are almost eerie.  What is going on?

Born in 1949 and 1941 respectively, both Corbyn and Sanders are of a generation for whom (broadly speaking) ‘left’ meant being pro-union, favouring high taxes on the wealthy, expanding social services and redistributive programmes, expanding those included in the noble category of the ‘deserving’ poor, remaining suspect of corporate and financial power, and supporting national industries (and their employees).  Last but not least, ‘left’ had a yardstick: reductions in poverty, inequality and insecurity meant progress.

But, in the 1980s and 1990s, many of mainstream Western leftism’s leading lights either abandoned this version of ‘left’ wholesale, or kept the language but altered the meaning.  In the latter case, an important target was the yardstick: ‘inequality’ was about opportunities to learn and work, not whether one could buy a house or pay the rent; ‘poverty’ was an experience of exclusion and deprivation, to be addressed by forms of ‘capital’ (human, social) other than the most obvious, pecuniary sort; and ‘insecurity’ was a matter of equipping people to acquire and handle risk, not protecting them from it.

This shift wasn’t a conspiracy, and it wasn’t only driven by politicians (or voters, for that matter). Among other things, I think social science played a part.  What it also wasn’t, however, was a leftism capable of countering the long-term march toward the ever-greater economic inequality that came to characterise the final decades of the twentieth century.

The fascinating thing about Corbyn and Sanders isn’t that they resisted leftism’s transformations.  It is that their leftism – which many commentators in the 1990s derided then, as now, as ‘old’ left, a politics past its time – appears to have an affinity with the politics of ‘Millennials’ (that is, those born after about 1980).  The surge in Sanders’s campaign that took root last summer had a lot to do with his strong appeal for voters in the 18 to 29 bracket.  ‘Bernie’s’ (nowadays Democratic presidential aspirants, apparently, are to be called by their first names) disproportionate appeal to the youngest voters remains a persistent fact of the Sanders campaign, its present slippage in the competition with ‘Hillary’ notwithstanding.  Corbyn has a similar edge with younger voters, at least by some accounts.  In the recent Labour leadership contest Corbyn won a majority across all age groups, but his majority was around two-thirds among those under 40; by contrast, only about half of Labour’s 60+ voters went for Corbyn.

What, then, might explain this apparent affinity between ‘old’ lefties and the politics of young voters?

Let’s consider a hypothetical, present-day, 25 year-old US voter, born in 1990.  Already, as a voter, she’d be unusual for her age group: presidential voter turnout in the 1960s among voters aged 18-24 was around 51%, and close to 79% for those aged 25-44; in 2012 those numbers had dropped to about 38% and 50% respectively.  Until just recently, our voter would have had no experience of a world in which Corbyn’s and Sanders’s leftism was anywhere close to the political mainstream.  If the family in which she grew up was in any income category other than the highest, then between the ages of 10 and 17 her economic world was being redefined by a long trend of stagnating incomes and rapidly accelerating rates of household indebtedness.  In just the seven years from 2000 to 2007, US household debt doubled.  By the time she was 19, the US household-to-GDP debt ratio was at a historical peak, having grown fivefold over the course of the postwar period, most of which happened during her lifetime (on these trends in US household debt, see Zinman 2015).

During our American voter’s first year in college, as she most likely joined the ranks of the indebted herself, the financial crisis set in.  Until then she might have been told, and believed, that college debt was a smart investment: it was ‘good’ debt.  In the wake of the crisis, our young voter might of course find herself wondering if there is any such thing.  But now she is caught: she has ‘invested’ in a product that she can only get a return on by, first, accumulating more debt.  In 2012, she’d carry that debt into a job market in which job-seekers in her age bracket were unemployed at a rate of 17.1%.  If she can’t get a job, she can’t pay her loans – and then she has only two choices.  Get some kind of forbearance, and let her debts grow further; or default, and be financially ruined.  This is not how the American Dream is supposed to work.

Across the pond, meanwhile, her British counterpart’s situation would have been different – but not entirely.  His interest in politics would place him in a distinct minority among his peers, too: voter turnout in the 18-to-24 age bracket in 2010 was 44%.  UK households were more indebted than their American counterparts by the time he was university-age, but university fees – first introduced in England when he was eight years old – were lower.  By the time he was 15, maximum fees had risen from £1,000 to £3,000.  Still, he would have been lucky to finish university in 2011: the fee limit was raised to £9,000 in 2012 (about US$14,400).  Since loan repayment only kicks in as a percentage (9%) of earnings above a certain threshold (£1,444 per month), our young British voter’s situation is less dire than his American counterpart’s.  But it’s not great, either: by the time he entered the job market, youth unemployment in Britain was at a 17-year high of almost 22%.

There’s more to Sanders’s and Corbyn’s ‘Millennial’ appeal than just economic experience.  But surely this is part of the story.  And, to the extent that it is, one could argue that the world that 1990s leftism helped to usher in – or, at least, didn’t stop – is breathing new life into the very politics that it once claimed was over.