The Rorschach election: how the US narrates UK politics

Dr Victor Pickard

Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, where he co-directs the Media, Inequality & Change (MIC) Center. Currently he is a visiting fellow at Goldsmiths and LSE. He is the co-author of After Net Neutrality: A New Deal for the Digital Age and the author of Democracy without Journalism? Confronting the Misinformation Society.


Section 5: Policy and Strategy

As Brits went to the polls, Americans watched anxiously from overseas, divining harbingers of their own pivotal elections nearly eleven months out. Ballots were barely tallied when the ideological work of projecting preferred narratives onto election results launched into full gear.

Unsurprisingly, one of the most prominent analyses to emerge—especially among mainstream media pundits and right-leaning democrats—was that the Corbyn-led Labour Party had received its due comeuppance for moving too far left. Spelling bad news for Sanders, Warren, and their supporters, such analyses suggest that Americans should heed the obvious lessons of this cautionary tale and move quickly to the center—or otherwise assure four more years of Trump’s disastrous presidency.

Seen as a boon for Biden and like-minded centrists, this story warms the hearts of status quo-defenders. According to their construction, wildly utopian aims like universal healthcare and free college is the height of folly. But alas, this analysis crumbles under scrutiny, with precious little evidence backing it up.

First of all, the Labour Manifesto’s socialist proposals—from nationalizing broadband to renationalizing the railways—were clearly popular and not the main reason for Corbyn’s defeat. Polling data has consistently shown a strong British majority supporting plans such as nationalizing gas, water, and transportation services. Indeed, support for public ownership of major utilities, postal services, and buses actually increased since 2017. Likewise, protecting nationalized healthcare, taxing the wealthy, and advancing a Green New Deal remained decidedly popular goals—precisely the kind of political program advocated by Sanders and fellow leftists.

Furthermore, it must be said, Sanders is no Corbyn. Although specious charges of anti-Semitism have begun in earnest, it is difficult to imagine that any candidate, no matter how much character smearing they receive, will plummet to such low approval in a contest with Trump. Indeed, Sanders has consistently polled as one of the most popular politicians in America.

But perhaps the biggest reason why this parallel does not hold up is simply because America lacks the comet-like spectacle of Brexit, which dominated the UK political landscape and transfixed public attention for months, forcing Labour into a hopelessly compromised position. Nothing like Brexit exists in the US, and this idiosyncrasy alone confounds most parallels.

Where there are parallels between the two countries is a vibrant youth activism among a new generation that is no longer in thrall to market fundamentalism, a failed neoliberal project in desperate need of economic policy interventions, and a media establishment that is generally hostile toward significant structural change. For these reasons and more, the new American Left should not be deterred by the UK election, but there are still lessons to be learned.

In particular, Sanders and Warren supporters should prepare for an onslaught of negative coverage as major media (and threatened corporate interests) align against them. As documented by scholars and analysts, systemic media bias was a mainstay leading up to the UK election. In reflecting on his defeat, Corbyn warned: “Anyone who stands up for real change will be met by the full force of media opposition.” In combating such bias—as well as the mis/disinformation originating elsewhere but amplified by mainstream media institutions—he recommended a “more robust strategy to meet this billionaire-owned and influenced hostility head-on.”

While communication scholars have long quibbled over the nature of media effects, it is generally accepted that major news institutions play an important role in setting discursive agendas and framing political debates, especially during election seasons. Therefore media discourse is a crucial terrain of struggle, and one for which American leftists must be ready despite the extreme commercialism and ideological paradigms working against them. Strong media opposition to Sanders is already evident in the US (as it was in the 2016 election), but will likely get much worse.

Ultimately, while Americans are right to closely examine the contours of the recent UK elections and recognize significant similarities and lessons, Corbyn’s loss by no means dampens the prospects of a rising progressivism within the American polity. Successful progressive campaigns in the US someday might even help boost those in the UK.