“Hindsight is always 20:20, isn’t it?”, asks Stephy Burnett rhetorically in her inimitable American-Australian accent. She is responding to my provocative question about whether Bernie Sanders would have beaten Donald Trump to the US presidency.
“It’s hard to say. I think it would have been closer”, she offers. “He would have had more of a chance of picking up Pennsylvania and Michigan, but he might have lost Virgina. He probably would have got fewer popular votes than Hillary”. I sense she’s being kind to one or other of the protagonists in question…
Stephy, the former editor of Storyful in Australia, is a highly regarded international journalist with a growing reputation. So it was a real honour to be able to throw some of my ill-informed questions at her. Stephy grew up in the American Deep South, and her earliest political allegiances were to the Republicans. In more recent years, though, she has become rather more enlightened (as far as I’m concerned).
The Sanders ‘what if?’ was one question I’d been eager to ask her, because I sensed that she shared my disappointment with the campaign Hillary Clinton had run. I wasn’t wrong. Like me, Stephy believes that Clinton lost principally because she was unable to communicate an inspiring vision to the American people, particularly in the parts of the nation that had been pounded by job losses, recession and wage stagnation in the last decade.
Having covered the presidential election closely last year, Stephy says Clinton did have some visionary ideas – like a huge push on climate change and greater women’s rights – but she failed to communicate these ideas in simple language. In the end, says Stephy, Clinton and the Democrats resorted to telling voters “not to vote for the other guy.” Ultimately, “Clinton needs to take more responsibility for what happened.”
I confess two things to Stephy. One – I think social democrats across the West have a shared inability to communicate in clear, easily understood language, about how we would tackle the huge challenges of globalisation differently. And two – people like me are very good at pointing out this common problem, but are typically unable to offer a coherent solution. Stephy laughs at this admission – though whether it’s out of sympathy or schadenfreude, I cannot suss.
So I ask Stephy what the Democrats should do next. Again she laughs, because it is, quite frankly, a massive question, and one which I’ve yet to hear anyone give a believable, inspiring answer to. Stephy suggests two things. “A: the Democrats could offer someone who is not part of the status quo for President. B: address the issues without worrying about offending people.”
She goes on: “I’m a politically correct person, but things could be addressed more straightforwardly from a Democrat perspective and in a way which would resonate with people. People need simple answers in order to get behind you. What did ‘Love Trumps hate’ mean, for example? Swing voters need a bit more.”
Turning to how we on the Left might respond to right-wing populism, I ask how we on the Left should answer the politics of Trump et al. Should we respond with left-wing populism, or by ballasting to the centre? “A lot of the blue-collar workers who voted for Trump were very pro-Sanders”, notes Stephy. “Remember also that, although Clinton lacked clear policies, there is a strong hatred towards the woman. A lot of people were simply saying: ‘Anyone but Hillary.’”
Stephy is incredibly well-travelled, so I have to ask her about whether she thinks European politics is as in as much of a quandry as US politics. She says the situation in Western politics is “twofold” at present. “Populism is becoming more exciting and acceptable”, she tells me. “The second thing”, she continues, “is that immigration, and governments seeking to control borders, are becoming much hotter topics.”
Stephy refuses to be drawn on whether such developments should be welcomed or not, understandably citing journalistic impartiality. Few can deny, though, that the phenomena she describes are global in scope.
As she continues her tour around the polities of the Western world, I’m sure Stephy will gain an even greater insight into the politics of populism. So, make sure you follow her on Twitter at @Stephy_Burnett . Just don’t expect her to show any sympathy for your political party’s plight!