Barry Goldwater’s 1964 nomination as the Republican presidential candidate was a defining moment in American politics, but not for the reasons that anyone thought at the time. Goldwater was crushed by Lyndon B. Johnson in the general election, a result, everyone agreed, that proved the type of radical conservatism Goldwater represented was dead. Everyone was wrong. Four years later, Richard Nixon was elected president, beginning a prolonged period of Republican political dominance that would culminate in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory. “Here is one time, at least,” the historian Rick Perlstein wrote, “in which history was written by the losers.”
The Goldwater experience—that electoral defeat does not mark the end of a movement—has implications today, and not only for the conservative right.
Even before the coronavirus outbreak, many on the “populist,” or “radical,” left insisted that globalization, climate change, automation, and inequality were creating the conditions for their own political resurgence, despite their leaders—Bernie Sanders in the United States, Jeremy Corbyn in Britain—being rejected at the ballot box. Now, in a world where governments are nationalizing wages and public services just to keep their economies afloat, such claims no longer seem far-fetched. Indeed, Corbyn, who will be replaced as Labour leader today, said the emergency economic measures being taken in Britain have proved him “absolutely right” in his demand for higher state spending, even though he badly lost an election just a few months ago after campaigning on that pledge. Is history repeating itself, accelerated by the severity of the social and economic crisis ripping through Western societies as a result of the pandemic?
The trouble with arguments claiming long-term inevitability is that they cannot be disproved. “The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs,” the economist John Maynard Keynes observed. “In the long run we are all dead.” So let me first say that the resurrection of the left is not inevitable, despite mounting claims to the contrary. Just because extreme measures have been taken to tackle the pandemic does not mean voters will want lighter versions of such policies in the long term. One example should stand as a warning in this regard: After the Second World War, Labour’s failure to end food rationing and price controls quickly enough cost the party at the ballot box in 1951, when Winston Churchill was reelected as prime minister. History can surprise: Perhaps the coronavirus will push people to the right, and voters will rally for tougher borders and more restrictive social policies. We are already seeing this in Hungary. Perhaps the concepts of left and right will not adequately contain the political demands that will follow this crisis. We don’t know.
But much as Johnson biographer Robert Caro wrote that power reveals, so too does a crisis. Crises reveal the nature of power, the fault lines that run through societies, and the characters of leaders. They reveal the underlying realities of life: in the case of this pandemic, for example, that a functioning economy rests on a functioning society; that “key workers” and “wealth creators” are not so different after all; and that national borders have not been abolished, even in Europe. This pandemic has also revealed that governing during an outbreak is not simply a question of listening to experts, because experts can disagree. Instead, governing is fundamentally about judgment, the ability to communicate, to resolve, to show compassion and instinct.
The ideas of the left are likely to stick around this time, then, not because of the pandemic itself and the measures taken to contain its impact, but because of what the pandemic has revealed. The sudden, crippling economic downturn caused by the coronavirus outbreak has shone a light on systemic weaknesses that few fully understood, such as those of global-health control. But the crisis has also illuminated problems that we could already see but did not appreciate—and that were central to the left’s pitch for power under Corbyn and Sanders. Have we prized economic efficiency too much over national resilience? If a healthy economy is possible only in a healthy society, do we not need to devote more time (and funding) to the latter? How do we remove the corrupting influence of money from our politics? How do we protect living standards in the age of automation, global supply chains, and pandemics?
Like mold on a bedroom wall, the left is fed by the intrinsic damp in the system: politicians selling off shares while reassuring the public that everything will be okay; health systems too frail to cope with pandemics despite years of preparation; governments powerless to protect their citizens from events caused beyond their borders. None of this is to say that the left is correct in its analysis or solutions, but merely to state the obvious: The system isn’t working.
In 2008, the taxpayers of the United States, Britain, and most other Western countries were forced to take on new collective debts to bail out financial sectors that were about to collapse. After assuming these debts, voters in places such as Britain elected governments that imposed years of austerity, while incomes barely increased (if at all). At the same time, climate change continued largely unchecked, and the pay of those who caused the crisis in the financial sector remained astronomical.
Will voters really endure cuts to public services again, having taken on a whole new round of debt to soften the economic blow of the coronavirus shutdown? Boris Johnson’s landslide victory over Corbyn in December was fueled by a pitch to voters to end both the Brexit chaos and the previous decade of austerity. He promised more money for health care and the police, and no tax raises. Without austerity, how will Johnson balance the books? Think tanks in Britain are already debating the answer, and one called for a new “social contract” between business and the state centered on tax. But after such a sudden economic implosion, will voters seek only moderate tweaks to the system, or will they consider more radical reform? The former British Conservative cabinet minister David Gauke told me that a move toward more communitarian politics and a bigger state is inevitable.
This is not an argument for Corbyn, Corbynism, Sanders, or the Bernie Bros. While in the U.S. Sanders is technically still in the running for the Democratic nomination, here in Britain, today is the day the curtain finally falls on Corbyn’s stewardship of the Labour Party. His record is bleak. In 2015, he inherited a party that, in the same year, had suffered its largest defeat since 1983. Today, he hands it over in markedly weaker condition, having led Labour last year to its worst result since 1935. His tenure, forever tainted by the revival of anti-Semitism that happened on his watch, lasted longer than most thought possible, because of the surprise general-election result that came in 2017 when he oversaw a late surge in the poll to rob the Conservative Party of a majority. Three years on, however, the reality is that the result blinded Labour to its overall loss in the election. Celebration of the 2017 result distracted from the party’s ongoing existential crisis, its voters largely found in urban England, and its working-class and Scottish base quickly vanishing. The narrow margin of the 2017 loss, it emerged, owed more to specific circumstances than to momentous trends moving the party’s way. Unable to see its own faults, and convinced of its own righteousness, Labour condemned itself to the crushing defeat that followed two years later.
Corbyn and Sanders were—and are—flawed politicians (Corbyn more obviously so than Sanders). Their historic baggage, ideological obsessions, inability to build a genuinely broad coalition of support, and, in the case of the Labour leader, failure to adequately tackle racism in his party (the kindest possible description of Corbyn’s behavior) made the pair in some ways uniquely unsuitable to stand for the leadership of their respective parties and countries.
Yet they captured a moment, representing an incorruptibility and steadfastness, a perception of moral righteousness, that many felt were needed to take on a rotten system. Sanders and Corbyn fancied themselves to be the new Reagans (or Margaret Thatchers) in terms of the imprint they would leave on their countries, but were not up to the task. The question to haunt the conservative right is, what happens if these two historically peculiar leaders aren’t the Reagans of their movements, but the Goldwaters? And what happens if—or when—the left finally finds its Reagan?