Last month, the United Kingdom’s Labour party — led by an old-school socialist well to the left of almost all his own members of Parliament — suffered a comprehensive defeat at the hands of a hard-right buffoon with a long record of being completely unable to govern. The defeat was particularly chastening because it saw Labour collapse in many of its traditional “heartlands” — deprived, traditionally working-class seats in the post-industrial north of England. Since the 1980s, they were the places harmed the most by the economic policies pursued by the conservative Tory party.
Since he became leader of the Labour party in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn helped revitalize the grassroots of the party, following its perhaps equally disastrous defeat in the general election that year (in which the party lost almost all their seats in one of their other traditional heartlands, lowland Scotland). Nevertheless, there remains a very plausible argument to be made that given the sorts of seats Labour lost — and given how much Corbyn had been damaged by a media and political establishment determined to avoid him becoming Prime Minister at all costs — the party would have done much better if they'd replaced him with someone a bit more “moderate.” Of course, if they had, I personally wouldn't have been anywhere like as enthusiastic about voting Labour — but I personally am not the majority of British voters, who think things like “we should bring back hanging” and “the Queen is sending me special messages with her brooch.”
But if all this is right then how come, in the United States, many Democrats seemed determined to repeat Britain’s mistake? Recent polls from Iowa and New Hampshire show Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders leading on the back of a recent surge. This is despite the fact that, if these trends continue, Sanders (and his supporters) are likely to face an ever-more delirious stream of shit from other Democrats, and that — like Labour — he also needs to win in deprived, post-industrial areas of the country also (apparently) inclined to vote for manifestly incompetent, nativist clowns.
In the wake of Labour’s defeat, commentators like Jonathan Chait and Andrew Sullivan of New York magazine tweeted that the Democrats should now be even more wary of a Sanders-led “hard-left slide.” Meanwhile, in a recent interview with The Guardian, former Republican strategist Rick Wilson described Sanders as “the opponent of Trump’s dreams”:
“The easiest person in the world to turn into the comic opera villain Republicans love to hate, the Castro sympathizer, the socialist, the Marxist, the guy who wants to put the aristos in the tumbril as they cart them off to the guillotine.”
Of course, we must be wary of this argument — precisely because it makes sense to people like Chait, Sullivan, or former Republican strategist Rick Wilson. People who hate the idea that socialism might win for reasons completely detached from electability, and would be loath to see it succeed even if it could.
The fact is that the redistributive economic policies Labour ran on in December’s general election were actually very popular. So there's no problem for socialism there. The real issue is that over the course of his leadership, Corbyn — especially after the 2017 general election where his party came unexpectedly close to being able to form a government — was comprehensively, well, Corbyned. After a long career of being a basically very decent, conscientious constituency member of Parliament — with a record of anti-racist and anti-war activism that puts most of his parliamentary colleagues to shame — Corbyn fell victim to a media campaign that saw his reputation destroyed to the point that he was widely perceived to be a committed anti-Semite, an IRA sympathizer, and — in the words of The Sun — “the most dangerous man ever to stand for high office in Britain”.
Unsurprisingly, Corbyn’s personal popularity ratings were persistently dire. Many voters appear to have considered the prospect of Corbyn becoming the prime minister to be the biggest threat the country was facing (this when he was running against a government so bad they have literally been described as “systematically immiserating” their people by the UN).
The media will try to “Corbyn” Sanders — no doubt about that. But Sanders is much more difficult to Corbyn. And there is in fact a very simple reason for this. Sanders cannot be Corbyned because he is a Pointy, and Jeremy Corbyn is a Round.
In a 2016 article for The Hairpin, the South African writer Rosa Lyster (who has also written some excellent articles for this publication) taught us the distinction between Pointies and Rounds: in Lyster’s vision, all human beings can be so distinguished.
“Rounds are self-contained. Pointies are whatever the opposite of self-contained is. Rounds are generally lovely and kind, but deep down they do not give a fuck what anyone thinks. Pointies give a hard fuck about what literally everyone who was ever born thinks. Rounds are able to tolerate an uncomfortable silence at a dinner party. Pointies get woozy and frantic at the very idea. Pointies come back from a night out going Did you see that weird conversation those guys were having. Were they having a fight? Why did that woman have such shiny shoes on? Rounds come back from a party going JESUS that was fun.
Rounds are experts at being in the moment. Pointies are essentially incapable of it. Pointies can be very cool, but there is nothing to beat a very cool Round. Pointies quite often wish that they were Rounds. Rounds never want to be anything but themselves.”
Thus, to illustrate the point: Anne Boleyn was a Pointy, Jane Seymour a Round; John Lennon was Pointy, Ringo Starr Round. There can of course be degrees of Pointiness and Roundness, but in essence: Rounds are nice, chill, and zen; Pointies are intense and always a bit on-edge. Rounds let you get away with stuff, Pointies do not.
So here is how the distinction maps on to Sanders and Corbyn. Corbyn is a really nice, gentle guy. He has an allotment, and is proud of his marrows; he likes to spend time making his own jam. Once, in an interview with the New Statesman, he brought up the fact that he sent them some poetry to publish more than 40 years ago, which they never did. He doesn't seem to have ever particularly wanted to be Labour leader, and only stood in 2015 because the other two senior members of the party's Socialist Campaign Group faction, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, already had. Shortly after becoming leader, Corbyn declared that he wanted a “kinder, gentler politics” — a line that was of course constantly used against his supporters whenever they did anything even remotely impolite.
As leader of the opposition, Corbyn always came off best in informal, chance, or low-key interactions, making sly turns to camera like a hip uncle who you and he both know are the only family member to really “get” you. By contrast, he could often spend more officially “important” media appearances seeming basically quite disinterested — during the 2019 campaign, Corbyn was widely criticized following a prime time BBC interview with Andrew Neil in which he had spent 30 minutes flatly refusing to engage with any of Neil’s aggressive bullshit.
In short, then, Corbyn is a classic Round. This Roundness is part of his appeal, but it has had serious detrimental effects. Throughout his leadership, Corbyn endured some horrific sniping from his party's right. But he hardly did anything about it, even after an attempted coup on his leadership following the Brexit referendum in 2016. Shortly before the general election, Labour’s annual conference kicked off with the party’s National Executive Committee attempting to abolish the position of deputy leader in order to force out its then-occupant, the committed and persistent wrecker Tom Watson. But a day's worth of bad headlines was followed by Corbyn overruling the move. By contrast, shortly after becoming Prime Minister Boris Johnson took decisive action to exclude his own rebellious “moderates”.
Sanders is irascible and sarcastic — he even seems capable of being genuinely mean. And this is good, because it means Sanders is willing to openly show up reporters as idiots.
Despite existing in a media environment that is furiously, perhaps unsalvageably irrational, in which good-faith engagement often seems completely impossible, Corbyn genuinely seems to believe that the best way of getting people on-side is with polite, considered dialogue, like some sort of dogmatic Habermasian. See, for instance this recent exchange with a Sky News journalist, in which Corbyn is patient to a fault with an openly stupid line of questioning over whether or not Qasem Soleimani should or should not be considered a “terrorist”. Similarly, Corbyn often allowed himself to go against his own political instincts in an attempt to build the party unity his detractors were clearly never interested in contributing to. His own Corbyning at the hands of the press aside, another major factor in Labour's loss was his party's support for a second referendum on European Union membership, which lost it support in Leave-voting areas that swung Tory. Corbyn endorsed the plan for a second referendum after a long period of lobbying from his party’s right and center — he himself comes from a wing of the Labour party that has historically been pretty Eurosceptic (although for left-wing, anti-free market reasons rather than right-wing, nativist ones).
Corbyn’s leadership exists in marked contrast with that of his predecessor, the “soft left” Ed Miliband — but actually they were in some ways very similar. Miliband is probably even Rounder than Corbyn: despite his own instincts leaning mostly the other way, he allowed his advisers to convince him to run on a pro-austerity, anti-immigration platform which inspired basically no one.
But luckily (for the left, for humanity in general), this is where Sanders is nothing like Corbyn. Sanders is irascible and sarcastic — he even seems capable of being genuinely mean. And this is good, because it means Sanders is willing to openly show up reporters as idiots. See, for instance this exchange in which he responds to an impossibly facile series of questions from a New York Times reporter about “anti-American sentiment” at a rally for Nicaragua in the 1980s with the line: “I think, with all due respect, you don't understand a word that I'm saying.” Or this fantastically good response to the suggestion by his interview on Face the Nation that a bombing Trump had undertaken in Iran was “just a limited strike”:
“Oh just a limited strike, wow I'm sor-ree. I just didn't know that it was OK to simply attack another country with bombs, 'just a limited strike', that's an act of warfare.”
Bombing another country is an act of warfare. Period.— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) June 23, 2019
We must do everything possible to stop Donald Trump from escalating the crisis he helped create with Iran. pic.twitter.com/xue0FUMOCq
This sort of thing plays well with supporters , and it is also a way of combating press hostility and disingenuousness that, given what happened with Corbyn, seems increasingly vital. Crucially, it also suggests that Sanders will be able to hand Trump’s ass to him whenever they go head-to-head. Trump is, first and foremost, a bully — and Sanders, in all his Pointiness, has exactly the right mix of commanding moralism and unflappable wit to make him ideally suited for dunking on bullies. Republican strategists might try and smear Sanders as a “Marxist” or “Castro sympathizer” or whatever — but they must take seriously the risk that this will only further convince a generation of voters that Karl Marx and Fidel Castro are in fact really, really cool.
As for Labour? I love Corbyn, but it's time the British left were led by a Pointy. It remains unclear who the next Labour leader will be — they may well not even really be “of the left” (as it stands the clear leftist frontrunner is Rebecca Long-Bailey, who was behind many of Corbyn’s best policies). But if they are, the attempt to Corbyn them will immediately step up in overdrive. To combat this, it will be incumbent on Corbyn’s successor to make themselves as sharp and edgy as they possibly can.