Pope Francis, a Jewish senator who could become the next president of the United States and the new leader of the UK’s opposition Labour Party walk into a bar … only to find they have far too much in common to make a meta-joke of their fictional congregation.
At least in the field of economics, Jeremy Corbyn, who took over the British opposition party this weekend, and Bernard Sanders, the Vermont senator leading some polls for the Democratic presidential nomination, are more closely aligned to the 266th head of the Roman Catholic Church’s encyclical than to prevailing capitalist orthodoxies.
On the eve of Francis’s first visit to the United States next week, the surging popularity of these two unlikely political figures from the two crucibles of global capitalism bears considering. Were it not for the exposed flaws of the current system, which the pope has laid bare in his homilies, it’s hard to imagine that barely reformed socialists like Sanders and Corbyn would merit their turns in the high pulpits of political power.
Though this odd trinity disagrees on all manner of social questions – such as abortion, contraception and divorce – they are singing from the same hymnal on matters of great fiscal import: chiefly the role of banking, income inequality and climate change.
These themes are likely to feature prominently when the leader of the Vatican lands in Washington, where he will address a joint session of Congress, travels to Philadelphia, and gives a speech to the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
The pontiff’s positions on these and other financial and climate issues were laid out in May, when he published his “Laudato Si” encyclical letter, “On Care for Our Common Home,” that is, Mother Earth. But with his high-profile American trip, they will dominate the airwaves again, giving greater moral cover to the current practitioners of economic populism.
The pope’s view is that “economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment.”
While these are themes that Sanders has long espoused, their wider embrace since the release of the pope’s position has coincided with the independent senator’s surge among potential voters. Over the weekend – while Corbyn celebrated his victory singing “The Red Flag” at a pub in the UK – a YouGov/CBS News Battleground Tracker poll showed Sanders leading Hillary Clinton 43 percent to 33 percent in Iowa, and 52 percent to 30 percent in New Hampshire.
All three have tapped into rising concerns over wealth inequality. Here Francis argued that to “claim economic freedom while real conditions bar many people from actual access to it, and while possibilities for employment continue to shrink, is to practice a doublespeak which brings politics into disrepute.”
It’s a similar spirit that has allowed Sanders to raise millions of dollars despite an average donation size of just around $33. As he said in welcoming Corbyn’s appointment: “We need leadership in every country in the world which tells the billionaire class that they cannot have it all.”
On banking, the three are also spiritually aligned. The pope, who prefers the slightly less exalted title of bishop of Rome, wrote in “Laudato Si” that “saving banks at any cost, making the public pay the price, forgoing a firm commitment to reviewing and reforming the entire system, only reaffirms the absolute power of a financial system, a power which has no future and will only give rise to new crises after a slow, costly and only apparent recovery.” The pope also launched a root-and-branch reform of the Vatican’s bank.
Sadly, he concluded, the aftermath of the 2008 crisis provided a new opportunity to impose a regulatory regime, guided by ethical principles, that was not seized. As a result, there was no rethinking of “the outdated criteria which continue to rule the world.”
That hasn’t stopped Sanders from trying. In May, just weeks before throwing his beret into the ring, he submitted a bill to Congress called the “Too Big to Fail, Too Big to Exist Act” which would have given regulators 90 days to identify financial firms whose failure would have a catastrophic effect on the stability of either the financial system or the U.S. economy without substantial government assistance.
Corbyn’s camp preaches a similar sermon. John McDonnell, who was named shadow chancellor of the exchequer on Monday, has promised that Corbyn’s elevation would usher in “a full-blown Glass-Steagall system to separate day-to-day and investment banking; legislation to replace short-term shareholder value with long-term sustainable economic and social responsibilities” and other left-wing goodies.
Sanders and Corbyn have long preached the benefits of sound environmental stewardship, taxing the rich and banker class and helping the poor. Sanders identified “war, starvation, the degradation of our environment” as his chief enemies in 1987, when I first wrote about him as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont. Around the same time, Corbyn would have been praising the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
Really, this is their great attraction – they are seen as authentic, longtime true believers in the fight. The addition of a divine blessing only enhances their appeal to the masses.