Sinn Féin and the Promise of Left Populism in America

While headlines in the United States have focused on our own electoral contests, with one-day attention to wins by right-wingers such as Boris Johnson in England or Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, the victory by Sinn Féin in Ireland in February has barely registered with political pundits. Sinn Féin won more votes than either of the two traditional, center-right parties of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael with 24.5% to their 22.2% and 20.9% respectively. This election marked the first time since 1937 that any party other than Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael has won a majority share of the vote. This win is a resounding victory for working-class politics and offers lessons for Bernie Sanders’s campaign as well as the Democratic Party.  

In its 2020 governing manifesto, Sinn Féin identified housing, healthcare, tax equity, the environment, retirement, and childcare as its policy targets, and decried the traditional center-right duopoly of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. With promises to fight for an increase in housing density to lower rents, reduce the costs of childcare, and confront insurance corruption, Sinn Féin voters responded to leftist populism even as their neighbors in Britain sent the Labour Party to defeat.

Sinn Féin’s success provides encouraging proof that a working-class electorate can be mobilized around material interests.  The Great Recession and Ireland’s response hit Ireland’s workers and poor particularly hard. The imposition on Ireland of a neoliberally austere regime included slashing funding for public programs equivalent to 7.5 % of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). According to a 2013 report by Oxfam, the worst effects of Irish austerity were borne by Ireland’s poorest, the unemployed, families, and minorities. Exit polling found that these same issues are what compelled their vote in 2020. 

The post-recession austerity regime imposed on  Ireland by the European troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) increased inequality and sent more working-class voters into the ranks of Sinn Féin, which was helped by the party’s evolution from its association with armed struggle in the North toward political struggle as a means to emancipation. As Daniel Finn notes in Jacobin, “In the exit poll on February 8, 2020 voters were asked if they had felt the benefits of the recovery: 63% said no.”

To be clear, the differences between Ireland and the United States are real: a population of five  million in Ireland to over three hundred million in America; greater racial and religious homogeneity in Ireland; greater economic diversity in the United States. But the continuities between the working classes in the United States and Ireland are greater than they seem: declining unionization; large numbers of independent or politically apathetic voters; a political duopoly enamored with– and policy-sponsors for– a tax-hiding business elite; a post-recession austerity regime that included rising inequality, increasing housing costs, stagnant wages for workers; and a health system in need of reforms that prioritize the needs of workers over interests of insurers. Fewer Irish workers are engaged in industry or agriculture compared to their peers in the services sector, traditional sites of working-class occupation and struggle. Similarly, fewer and fewer U.S. workers are in the industrial sector, while its services sector grows. 

Exit polling in Ireland showed that voters between 18 and 49 years old favored Sinn Féin over its rivals. Similarly, it is among the younger voters that socialism and socialist policies find the most favor in the United States. The most salient issues to these working-class Irish voters were health, housing, and poverty. As a result, Sinn Féin won in both Ireland’s poorest county (Donegal), and a majority of the districts in its wealthiest county (Dublin). Notably, every one of these issues finds a similar supporting majority in the United States today.

Sanders’s recent primary losses do not undermine the clear preference of voters for working-class issues. The electoral failure of working-class politics is instead due to the Democratic Party’s traditional strategy of demographic targeting imported from the neoliberal age. As Chantal Mouffe reminds in For A Left Populism, the contradiction of the Democratic neoliberal model that prioritizes moderate, typically older and professional class voters–the very contradiction to what propelled Sinn Féin to victory–advances the popularity of left populism today in the United States with tomorrow’s working class and non-boomer voting majority. Joe Biden’s victory over Sanders in Michigan, for example, was delivered by voters 45 years old and above, comprising 62% of all voters. Conversely, an overwhelming majority of Sanders voters were younger than 45 but only comprised approximately 38% of all voters. Looming demographic changes mean that ultimately these younger and more progressive voters will supplant the moderate older cohort.

What’s more, given the expected increase in Sanders-supporting non-white Hispanic Americans in the years to come, those voters too will flex more electoral muscle. Sinn Féin’s victory was a successful delineation between generations on behalf of working-class interests, and presages a future for Democratic political strategy.

Sinn Féin’s success shows that working-class politics work. For there is little difference between the working classes of Wexford or Wisconsin; Dublin or Detroit. The spoils of neoliberalism are universal to its beneficiaries, as are its dregs for its workers and poor: disenfranchisement, fragmentation, perpetual exploitation. Sinn Féin and working-class advocates fighting for working-class dignity in Ireland have proven viable and persuasive. It is up to us to do the same here.