The Political Center Is Shifting to the Left
The traditional center-left is in retreat in Europe, and to a somewhat lesser extent in the U.S. This could be seen as a failure of the centrist-socialist establishment, though it might make sense to see it from a different perspective: An attractive, modern alternative has presented itself.
In France, President Francois Hollande's erratic policies may have rendered the Socialist Party too weak to win much in the next electoral cycle. According to recent polls, if Hollande runs again, he is likely to be eliminated in the first round. In Germany, the Social Democrats, part of the governing coalition, are polling at less than 20 percent for the first time since the 2013 general election. In Spain, the Socialists can't find allies to form a government after an inconclusive election late last year, and another vote may be needed to break the deadlock. In Italy, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is technically of the center-left, but he shies away from leftist rhetoric, and his reform plans, including labor market liberalization and privatization, are far from standard socialist fare. In Denmark, the Social Democrats were swept from power last year, and in the U.K., Labour almost sank to its all-time nadir. In Greece, the mainstream socialist party, PASOK, is all but dead. The list goes on.
Bernie Sanders' spirited run against Hillary Clinton in the U.S. fits this picture. Sanders may not win, but his campaign is the most credible challenge to Democratic Party centrism in decades.
His approach is similar to that of the Spanish hard-left party Podemos, which is denying the Socialists their chance to govern by refusing to join a coalition; or in Greece, Alexis Tsipras's somewhat discredited, but still popular Syriza; the Left Bloc and the Communists -- yes, the Communists -- in Portugal, without whom the Socialist Antonio Costa couldn't have become prime minister; and the left-leaning Green Party in Germany, with its increasing poll numbers and the recent electoral triumph in the state of Baden-Wuertemberg.
The lively new left wing that is rising on both sides of the Atlantic is not a consequence of the center-left's decline. It's probably one of its biggest causes. Voters who believe that the government should be more vigorous in curbing capitalism and redistributing wealth have been turning on traditional socialist parties. They didn't see Tony Blair as one of their own, nor do they approve of the efforts of Renzi, Hollande and Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the German Social Democrats, to consort with the center-right and adopt its economic recipes. Yet they have voted for these leaders for lack of better options, just as many U.S. Democrats back Clinton.
Now there are other options. Sanders is a prime example: Instead of making vague promises of incremental progress toward greater social justice, he sweeps the traditional "can't afford more right now" argument aside, saying the U.S. is wealthy enough to be much more fair and humane.
This is not exactly demagoguery: Central banks have released enormous amounts of money into the major economies -- and most of it benefited the wealthy or big banks and corporations. The sense that the flows could be redirected to benefit the poor and the middle class has been reinforced by the writings of mainstream economists such as Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty. Suddenly, parties offering radical solutions to inequality, injustice, the precariousness of the middle-class were being taken seriously. So many of the left-leaning voters saw no point anymore in backing parties that hesitated to adopt the advances in progressive economic thought.
On the surface, the ideology of establishment socialist parties is very similar to that of the more radical upstarts, but mainstream politicians refrain from voicing many of the ideas. Clinton makes this point when describing herself as a "progressive who makes progress," not revolutions. Sanders' voters counter by saying that they can get more by demanding more. That logic works in Europe, too.
Unlike the populist right, whose appeal is limited by extreme positions such as xenophobia, the new left can offer a big tent. Its ideology is not universally identified with the failed Soviet experiment, which is seen, correctly, as more totalitarian than socialist. The younger generation sees the left as excitingly modern and intellectually advanced.
Socialism is undergoing a revolution. Although Labour in the U.K. appears doomed under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, it may emerge stronger from the turmoil. The same is true of the U.S. Democrats post-Sanders. These ideological shifts are probably not a deadly virus, as Trump's brand of nativism is to the Republicans: They may well be a much-needed inoculation.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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