The once-proud political project known as “centrism” is collapsing around the globe, despite increasingly desperate attempts by billionaire backers to revive it.
The center-right’s implosion can be seen in the weakened state of Theresa May’s Conservatives in Great Britain, the recent setback for Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and the withering of the GOP’s Mitt Romney wing.
But what about the center-left, the “New Labour”/”New Democrat” phenomenon that once seemed to offer so much hope? Can it survive? More importantly, should it?
The Decline of the Center-Left
Political scientist Sheri Berman recently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times that made the case for Western Europe’s failing social democrats. “Across Europe, social democratic or center-left parties are in decline,” Professor Berman writes, adding:
“In elections this year in France and the Netherlands, the socialist and labor parties did so poorly that many question their future existence… Even if you don’t support the left, this should be cause for concern. Social democratic parties were crucial to rebuilding democracy in Western Europe after 1945. They remain essential to democracy on the Continent today.”
Professor Berman correctly diagnoses one aspect of what ails these parties, noting that center-left politicians like Britain’s Tony Blair and Germany’s Gerhard Schröder “celebrated the (free) market’s upsides while ignoring its downsides.”
It’s worth lingering for a moment on those downsides: Economic inequality continued to skyrocket under Blair in Great Britain and Schröder in Germany, and Bill Clinton in the United States. The global economy was gravely damaged by the financial crisis of 2008, as Professor Berman notes, but that near-catastrophe wasn’t caused by impersonal forces. It was the result of widespread banker fraud, made possible by the active collaboration of politicians from both parties.
The center-left rarely even chastised, much less prosecuted, bankers for their criminality in the runup to the economic crisis, whose devastation is still felt around the globe. Instead, it left them in charge of their institutions and in possession of their freedom and their ill-gotten gains.
When faced with the global economic disaster these bankers caused, Blair didn’t name names. Instead he said things like this: “Look upon this crisis not as an occasion to regress in policy or attitude of mind; but as a chance to renew, as an opportunity to open a new chapter in humanity’s progress to a better future for all.”
The political program Professor Berman eulogizes didn’t just fail to “offer a fundamental critique of capitalism.” It provided capitalism’s worst excesses with ideological cover. Instead of hewing to well-understood professions of left-leaning values like “equality,” it offered cliches about “equality of opportunity” that were indistinguishable from those of its center-right opponents.
Worse, when confronted with the economic damage that bankers caused, the European center-left turned against its supposed constituency by bailing out the banks and imposing strict austerity measures on working people.
The U.K. Labour Party, like its European and American counterparts, became obsessed with proving its “fiscal responsibility” — so much so that it was considered a major gaffe when party leader Ed Miliband failed to mention the deficit in an address. “No one should doubt our seriousness about tackling the deficit,” he said by way of apology.
Democrats under Clinton and Obama shared the European center-left’s deficit obsession, but were forced to back away from it somewhat under political pressure. European social democrats stuck to the austerity program and lost even more support than Democrats did from their core voters.
Then there’s foreign policy. Blair misled his country into war in Iraq — a deception which most Britons still find literally unforgivable, according to a 2016 poll — while centrist Democrats largely voted to support it here in the United States. That hurt both parties. One study showed that Donald Trump, who cynically ran as an anti-war candidate, gained a statistically significant level of additional support from communities with high military casualties.
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The study shows that, without those votes, the election might have gone the other way.
The Left Nobody Knows
Professor Berman’s characterization of left leaders like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn and the movement they represent will be unrecognizable to anyone familiar with them.
Her characterization of them as “an anti-globalization far left,” without defining that label, repeats a canard that’s been articulated many times by figures like Blair and Clinton. In a 2009 speech, in the wake of the global financial crisis, Blair put it this way (in a speech that, oddly, recently disappeared from his foundation’s website):
“There is a myth that globalization is the result of a policy driven by Governments; and can be altered or even reversed by Governments. It isn’t. It is driven by people. Globalization is not just an economic fact. It is about the internet, its power to communicate, influence and shape a world whose frontiers are coming down. It’s about mass travel, migration, modern media. It is not simply an economic fact; it is in part an attitude of mind. It is where young people choose to be.”
Strip away the Soylent Green-esque language – “It’s people! Globalization is people!” — and this is nothing but airy-fairy gibberish. After all, who on the left is against migration, media, or some vaguely defined “attitude of mind”?
Barring an extraterrestrial electromagnetic pulse of unprecedented scale, the internet and modern media will carry on. The question Blair and his colleagues elide is this: The global trade deals they promoted have increased inequality, weakened labor rights, and ceded sovereign authority to an arbitration system that is heavily stacked in favor of the enormously wealthy.
People aren’t against globalization as Blair defines it. They’re against trade deals that hurt them economically in order to benefit powerful interests. The “globalization” the left opposes is something altogether different: the domination of multilateral decision-making by powerful financial interests. That’s worth opposing.
Berman continues says the parties of the newly-risen left “generally offer an impractical mishmash of attacks on the wealthy, protectionism, increased welfare spending and high taxes.” Impractical? Those “attacks on the wealthy” and “high taxes” propose taxation rates that fall well below 1950s and 1960s-era levels.
Their “protectionism” would replace bad trade deals with better ones. These leaders are, if anything, overly conciliatory toward the “deficit” crowd, because they insist on offering “pay-fors” for their increased welfare spending.
“These policies may appeal to the angry and frustrated,” Berman writes, “but they turn off voters looking for viable policy and a progressive, rather than utopian, view of the future.” Leaving aside the question of viability, I would like to see some numbers to support that claim. There is growing support for bigger government and an improved social safety net in the US, while Corbyn’s proposals poll very well in Britain.
As for “the angry and frustrated” — yes, voters are both of those things. Why shouldn’t they be? For too long, the center-left ignored their needs in order to pursue the notion that government could be run by insiders from both parties, through that quiet process of back-room negotiation known as “bipartisanship.” Kenan Malik, also writing in the New York Times, accurately characterized the British and European center-left of recent decades:
“With the dismantling of the postwar political system has gone, too, the old division between social democracy and conservatism. The new fault line — not just in British politics but throughout Europe — is between an elite, technocratic managerialism, governing through structures that often bypass democratic processes, and a growing mass of people who feel alienated and politically voiceless.”
The same could be said of its counterpart in the United States. The consensus rule of political insiders across the globe, from center-left to center-right, has not responded to voters’ needs or wishes. As a result, it is falling. That’s not tragedy; it’s democracy. Europe’s center-left became complacent and complicit: complacent in its power, and complicit in its relationship to corporate power.
Professor Berman worries that, without, “populism will flourish and democracy will decay.” But the left’s populism is answering the unmet needs of people in Western Europe and the United States. That’s not decay; it’s progress.