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Same Difference
Wednesday 7th October 2015


The same phenomenon? Donald Trump (left), who is running for the Republican Presidential nomination, and Jeremy Corbyn, Labour's new leader (Trump: Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 3.0, Corbyn: Public Domain)

Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn are, in obvious ways, opposites: in the over-used terminology we learned from France's revolutionary National Assembly in the 1790s, one is at the extreme "left" of orthodox politics in the Anglophone world, and the other at a version of the extreme "right". But they also have similarities. They have both sprung surprises, one by becoming the leader of a major party and the other by threatening to. In each case they are hostile to something seen as an establishment and stand in sharp contrast to the centrist, professional politicians whom they oppose. But I think the similarities go considerably deeper than that and are best understood in terms of the sort of typology developed by Maurice Duverger, in his Les Partis Politiques, first published in 1951, although the version expounded here will be my own, rather than that of Duverger, who died last year. (Is lasting 63 years after the publication of your best known work some kind of record?)

All parties contain or relate to a number of distinguishable categories of person: these include leaders, aspiring leaders, follower-members, devotee-members, loyal voters and marginal voters. A Tory MP, for example, might be either an aspiring leader or just a follower member or both or fall into several other categories. But the relationship between these elements differs markedly between different parties and determines the nature of the party. What the Labour Party and the Republican Party have in common is that devotees are far more important than they are in other parties, though I am going to call them fundamentalists as I think that word suggests some of their more important characteristics. Therefore the central dilemma of democratic politics — compromise and win, or maintain your principles and lose — is far more central than it is in other parties. They are, of course, more or less opposite principles: egalitarian, collectivist and neo-pacifist as against individualist, nationalistic and puritanical.

This makes these two parties different in kind from their major opponents. The Democratic Party has regarded itself since the New Deal as essentially a coalition of interests; though it is not the same coalition that it used to be, the essence of the party, the definitive strategy of Democrats, is to build a coalition big enough to win elections without losing credibility or over-extending. Whereas I have always argued that the Tory Party is essentially negative, that it exists to oppose foolish projects. It is far easier, therefore, for Tories to remain loyal without having to agree as success can be defined simply as winning and therefore excluding everyone else from power. Thus American and English "conservatives" are opposites in important respects because the former are essentially idealists and the latter are equally essentially anti-idealists.

Jeremy Corbyn is a genuine fundamentalist who has always seemed as if the integrity of his beliefs is his prime motivation and power is barely a temptation. Donald Trump is surely not, but he has acquired the tricks to appeal to fundamentalists and has acquired some of their characteristics during his campaign. One of the important normal characteristics of fundamentalists is that they lose. That is, when the fundamentalists run the party they lose to the parties run by coalition-builders and negativists. Jeremy Corbyn's two fundamentalist predecessors as leader of the Labour Party, George Lansbury and Michael Foot, both lost heavily, in 1935 and 1983 respectively. This has to be modified by the proviso that they lose in normal times. If a crisis is so severe that the status quo is not an option, as they say in the business schools, then the fundamentalists may be on the winning side, such as Britain in 1945 and Greece in 2015.

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