Why are today’s progressive political heroes still old white men?

Another world is possible. Reuters/Brian Snyder

On both sides of the Atlantic, a reawakening of progressive politics is underway. In countries where until recently socialism was considered a “dirty word”, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn are inspiring a growing number of American and British citizens with a message of economic equality and social justice. And both have concrete achievements to show for it: Corbyn swept to victory with a huge margin in the Labour leadership contest, while Sanders achieved a 22-point victory over Hillary Clinton in the recent New Hampshire primary.

To their supporters, both represent the possibility of a different kind of politics, one that offers to convert grassroots energy into electoral success and genuine progressive change. As Sanders declared in 2014:

The major political, strategic difference I have with Obama is it’s too late to do anything inside the beltway. You gotta take your case to the American people, mobilise them, and organise them at the grassroots level in a way that we have never done before.

Both men’s appeal also rests on their unconventional images, their ruffled styles and candidness standing out in an age of polished, professionalised politics. “The problem isn’t Bernie Sanders is a crazy-pants cuckoo bird,” according to former Daily Show anchor Jon Stewart, “it’s that we’ve all become so accustomed to stage-managed, focus-driven candidates that authenticity comes across as lunacy”.

Yet in one way, Corbyn and Sanders are actually utterly conventional: they’re both older white men.

A new generation of progress?

The West’s progressives are speaking to as wide a sector of the population as they can and preaching solidarity across the lines of race, gender, and age, but they are still being led by rather familiar-looking figures.

One of the most interesting aspects of the 2010s' progressive resurgence is its mass appeal among young people. It is not surprising that this new generation of voters would be drawn to idealistic visions of radical social change, especially in a world of economic stagnation and a political class that has protected the needs of the top 1% instead of effectively dealing with climate change or inequality.

And yet even as contemporary politics is becoming increasingly dominated by youth-driven social media and viral campaigning, the young people involved are embracing candidates old enough to be their grandfathers – and in Sanders’s case, one with a distinctly 20th-century message of social democracy (or in his preferred phrase, “democratic socialism”).

The next generation … and its icon. Gareth Fuller/PA

More awkwardly still, Corbyn and Sanders have respectively defeated or are threatening to defeat female opponents, albeit more moderate and centrist ones.

Corbyn’s mainstream opponents Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall were both broadly committed to the style, tactics and ideals of New Labour. Sanders, meanwhile, is running very strongly against the supposedly “inevitable” frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton. He stands in opposition not only to to her pragmatism and arguably very centrist record, but her closeness with Wall Street, her hawkishness and her position with the political establishment.

So far, his appeal has proved broad and deep – and in the New Hampshire primary, women chose Sanders over Clinton in a “landslide”. All the while, the Clinton campaign’s efforts to court younger female voters have seriously backfired.

Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright did Clinton no favours with her reiteration that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other”; Clinton backer and second-wave feminist icon Gloria Steinem did even worse with her tone-deaf pronouncement that young women only support Sanders because “the boys are with Bernie”.

And so the two old white men are not only riding high, but assembling some of the most diverse ranks of supporters that top-tier political campaigning have ever seen.

So in both the UK and the US, citizens are increasingly faced with a choice between the genuinely progressive white male candidate or the mainstream centrist candidate who offers some alternative to the standard cast list.

Speaking up

This has hardly gone unnoticed. Various progressive voices from marginalised groups are demanding more than just a politics of representation: already Sanders has inspired an “army” of new political candidates that combine this commitment to progressive principles with a commitment to improving diversity within government.

Spot the face of change. Reuters/Chris Keane

Both have also had to confront serious questions about the inclusiveness of their “revolutions”. Corbyn’s laudable effort to make sure his shadow cabinet was gender-balanced was greeted with scepticism when it became clear that most of its powerful figures would be men.

Meanwhile, early in Sanders’s campaign, he was loudly protested by the civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter, prompting him to put more work into voicing the group’s concerns.

But that hasn’t ended the scepticism of his passion for racial issues. Noted writer Ta-Nehisi Coates decried Sanders’s rejection of the idea that the US should issue some form of reparations for slavery. And the leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus have not only endorsed Clinton over Sanders, but described the Vermont senator as “missing in action” on core civil rights campaigns. Polls still show black Americans and Latinos support Clinton over Sanders by a huge margin (though that may yet change).

The progressives organising for Sanders and Corbyn want a clear vision of radical change that will take back a democracy held hostage by economic and political elites. Still, these nascent democratic revolutions must not be content with calls for class solidarity or broad appeals to racial justice and gender equality: they must be just as committed to changing the familiar white male face of progress.