Bernie Sanders is currently beating Hillary Clinton in polls in both Iowa and New Hampshire. By conventional standards, he still probably won't win. Then again, it certainly seemed at the start of the recent UK Labour Party leadership campaign that it was extraordinarily unlikely Jeremy Corbyn would win. And yet he did. Meanwhile, up in Canada the social democratic New Democratic Party — perennial third-place finisher in Canada's two-and-a-half-party system — has opened up a small but persistent lead in the polls.
There is also enough sharing of ideas across national boundaries — especially in the modern age where global social media is more important than nationally segmented television franchises — that it's hard not to see something of a trend across the English-speaking world, in which a generation too young to be swayed by the traumas of the 1980s is driving forward a resurgent and increasingly self-confident left.
And whatever happens to these individual candidates, the social and intellectual forces that have driven them forward by demanding a more robust alternative to neoliberalism will keep shaping Anglophone politics in years to come. From the late 1970s through to the Great Recession, left-of-center parties were consistently led by figures chastened by the perceived excesses of midcentury liberalism and impressed by the free market reforms of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. But a large younger generation of progressive voters are demanding a less apologetic approach that does more to hold to account the cross-party conventional wisdom that led the world into economic disaster early in the 21st century.
The crisis of the 1970s provoked generation-long change
In the mid- to late 1970s, the world economy ground into a rough patch. Productivity growth slowed sharply in the United States and several other rich countries, while geopolitical turmoil in the Middle East sent oil prices surging. These factors pushed the unemployment rate up, which made central banks hesitant to implement tighter monetary policy conditions. But rather than a return to prosperity, the world got a hefty dose of inflation.
In response, new politicians swept into office promising to fix the economy with "supply-side" reforms — weaker labor unions and lower tax rates on the wealthy — paired initially with much higher interest rates to choke off inflation.
The tight money worked, and while the supply-side reforms didn't return productivity to its pre-1973 trend, economies did start growing again, and oil prices fell. Inequality rose, and then the Soviet Union's empire in Eastern Europe collapsed in 1989 through 1991, further bolstering the prestige of free market thinking. In the 1990s, center-left parties returned to power under Bill Clinton, Jean Chrétien, and Tony Blair but they did so by promising "third way" approaches to the welfare state and establishing "credibility" on economic management with balanced budgets and respect for independent central banks.
The financial crisis of 2008 did not change much
By contrast, the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath did not produce much in the way of big conceptual change. It led to important election results in the US and UK, of course, and those elections have had significant (and opposite) consequences for distribution of income in those two countries. But the Obama administration has never sought to displace Wall Street from its position in the commanding heights of the economy.
In the UK, Ed Miliband retired Tony Blair's "New Labour" branding and was generally perceived as shifting the party to the left. At the same time, Labour leaders bought into a story in which inadequate fiscal discipline by the government rather than anything fundamentally wrong with the financial system was at the center of the economic crisis.
And while left-of-center parties were chastened by the economic failures of the 1970s, there is no sign that right-of-center parties have had their faith in the power of tax cuts and deregulation shaken by anything they've seen in the 21st century. Instead, when Anglophone conservative parties have repositioned toward the center — whether under David Cameron a few years ago in the UK or under Malcolm Turnbull in Australia this week — they've done so on cultural issues rather than on the fundamental underpinnings of the economy.
A post–Cold War generation
To most pundits, the idea that Democrats would even consider nominating a self-described socialist is obviously ridiculous and counterproductive, just as it's obvious to the bulk of the UK establishment that Corbyn's selection as Labour Party leader is an act of political suicide.
But to the youngest cohorts of voters, raised outside the shadow of the Cold War but under the storm clouds of the Great Recession, things look different. As "capitalism" has come to mean something bleaker and meaner than it did during the heyday of the mixed economy, and "socialism" something kinder and gentler than it did during the heyday of the Soviet Union, the valences of these terms have shifted.
Over in the UK, Corbyn's supporters, too, are disproportionately young people who simply lack experience with the political events of the 1970s and '80s that were so central to the New Labour project.
The search for a clean break
Establishment politicians are not blind to this trend.
Hillary Clinton is campaigning on a platform that is significantly more left-wing — in terms of both its policy content and its themes — than her 2008 campaign or her husband's administration in its 1990s heyday. She's cagily declined to endorse the Trans-Pacific Partnership and is promising zero-debt college tuition, a new treatment-first approach to drug abuse, universal preschool, a 700 percent increase in installed solar capacity, and a constitutional amendment on campaign finance reform.
There's no "the era of big government is over" here.
But while it's true that Clinton is attuned to the spirit of the times, the converse is that Sanders and Corbyn were preaching from this book when it wasn't in keeping with the spirit of the times to do so. It means they offer a clean break with the neoliberal third-way past in a way no close associate of Blair or Bill Clinton possibly could. Establishment figures may start singing a somewhat different melody, but they're never going to disavow a 1990s-vintage centrist turn that they sincerely believe saved progressive politics.
In a slightly different universe, new leaders (Elizabeth Warren?) might have stepped up to fill that void. Instead we got veterans of the losing side of old intraparty clashes. But whether or not this particular cohort of leaders succeeds, their ability to garner support from younger voters speaks to a deep craving by a younger generation forged in the Great Recession for a less apologetic form of left-wing politics.