By William Moore '23 Art by Doug Chayka of The Economist
For decades a neoliberal consensus has dominated global politics. On the political right, the disciples of Thatcher and Reagan have gone about trimming back the frontiers of the state and helping markets become more globalized. Those on the left, the historical champions of the regulatory state and expanding welfare, have increasingly bowed to this policy agenda as well. The Third Way-ism of Blair and Clinton brought the global center-left closer in line with their counterparts on the right. In America, it was a great irony that even as politics seemed to get more vitriolic and polarized, the two parties actually began to behave more and more similarly in office. Consider the passage of the ACA: the landmark healthcare law was passed by Obama and was virtually identical to a plan implemented under Governor Romney in the 1990s, and yet it has been attacked relentlessly by Republicans to this day. The uncanny unity behind the political curtain has been most clearly seen by critics outside the center, whether it be by Tucker Carlson (who calls it ‘the Convergence’), conservative intellectual Patrick Deneen, or the far-left publication Jacobin Magazine.
This policy consensus did not come without cost, however. As the center-left compromised in favor of tax cuts, spending reductions, bailouts, and financial globalization, wealth inequality soared, social mobility evaporated, and hubristic, Fukuyamaian triumphalism reigned. Nevertheless, even as the march of history reached new heights of progress, the rot underneath festered. This rot came in the form of an industrial working-class facing obsolescence at the hands of automation, offshoring, and de-industrialization and plagued with poverty, the opioid epidemic, and cultural angst. Though the working-class remained the traditional constituency of center-left parties, center-left politicians had precious little help to give them. In America, Clinton preached national revival and reduced welfare in tandem with Gingrich; Obama spoke of a new politics of hope and proceeded to bail out the big banks during the Great Recession. This kind of behavior abounded across liberal democratic countries: consider the center-left support for austerity measures within the EU after the financial crisis.
The collapse of center-left ideological leadership and the resultant social consequences has caused the working-class to flee on mass to new political parties of the far-right. Counting amongst their ranks the American GOP, the British Tories, the German AfD, the Indian BJP, the French National Rally, the Spanish Vox, the Sweden Democrats, and many more, these movements have claimed the international spotlight in recent years as they overtake their establishment rivals in the polls. They are universally opposed to increased immigration and champion the nation as the last bastion against a globalized society. They also express a newfound skepticism of neoliberal economics and an openness to state intervention in the economy, especially in trade policy. Their recent growing popularity is partly explicable by what Maria Snegovaya refers to as the “proletarization” of the radical right, the aforementioned trend of working-class voters becoming “the core support group” of modern far-right movements.
While many studies pin the blame on cultural chauvinism, Snegovaya’s analysis points to the pro-market positions of center-left parties as the primary explanation for this seismic realignment: former Obama supporters who voted for Trump in 2016 shifted the “rustbelt” states of the Midwest firmly to the Republicans; the sweeping Tory victory in 2019 was possible because of the defection of Labour voters in the country’s former industrial north; etc. In all of these cases, the center-left (and to a smaller extent the center-right) has paid the metaphorical electoral piper. Support for the center-left German SPD fell from an 40.9% in 1998 to 20.5% in 2017, while in France the combined left went from capturing 35.8% of the vote in 1993 to a mere 7.5% in 2017. The list goes on. In point of fact, at present only six of the forty-four countries in Europe have left-wing governments. Exactly what the Fates have in store for the far-right remains unclear, but what is clear is that their rise has resolutely shattered the global neoliberal consensus, driving the right to nationalism and leaving the left temporarily adrift.
To counteract this electoral cataclysm, center-left parties have tried a variety of political responses to claw back support. The most basic impulse has been simply to move back to the left and abandon the pro-market politics that lost them the working-class. Portugal and Spain both kept the far-right at a distance by carrying on ‘lefting’ – with the center-left leading coalitions of other, further-left parties in government (although whether this approach can keep Vox from capitalizing on the Catalan secession crisis remains to be seen). The case of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party suggests tacking back to the left may prove unlikely to succeed: in 2019 Corbyn embraced a series of far-left positions, such as nationalizing education, and proceeded to hand the Tories an 87-seat working-majority before he resigned. Once radicalized, a far-right working class seems resistant to returning home. Scandinavian countries have tried the different tact of turning an eye towards limiting immigration. The Danish Social Democrats took back 26 seats from the far-right People’s Party with just such a platform in their 2019 election, embracing a draconian approach that rivaled that of their opponents. The Social Democratic parties of Sweden and Finland have also advocated for a more moderate drawdown on immigration. Whether this approach would could be used to increase the legitimacy of the center-left outside of Scandinavia is hard to say.
Depending on the outcome of the 2020 election, Joe Biden’s Democratic party may become a new model for a kind of center-left “soft nationalism.” Under Biden, the Democratic Party, according to an analysis by The Economist, has begun pairing traditional center-left objectives with “petty protectionism” (such as new rules that only American ships be used to carry goods and his promise to “ensure that the future is made in…America”). On the cultural front, Joe Biden’s call to “reclaim American values,” sounds like a gentler version of “make America great again.” In pandering to the working-class, his message has essentially been to point out the discrepancy between Trump’s populism and his actual policies in office, which re-enforces populist principles instead of discrediting them. As Biden says, “This election is Scranton vs. Park Avenue” – a simplification that ignores the way Trump has dramatically overhauled Republican Party policy. Both parties seem to be trying to claim the same working-class mantle, and their talking past one another obscures the numerous ways in which a new bipartisan “nationalist consensus” has already taken hold. Kier Stammer, Labour’s new leader, has embraced a similar kind of messaging in Britain, saying they are “a country in which we put family first,” and bringing his economic agenda closer in line with that of the Tories. Both he and Biden seem to share a more conservative disposition and attitude towards institutions of government than their flamboyant and irreverent opposition, a curious reversal. This kind of conservative demeanor and messaging spliced with economic populism seems more like a moderated ‘Trumpism’ than a progressive leftism.
Although it remains too early to know, this newly combined center-left stance, which is a more rule-abiding and integrated version of a right-wing populist party, may win the party back their typical voters, but they should be wary of this approach in the long-term. Just as Third Way-ism was pitched as a more moderate version of neoliberalism, so too will this ‘soft nationalism’ affirm the essential logic of the radical right. The center-left may very well end up on the ideological coattails of a right-wing movement with no more philosophical leadership coming from them than before. Exactly how far the center-left would be willing to turn towards nationalism to keep the working-class happy is a disturbingly unanswered question as well. A “build back better” Democratic party, focused on protectionism and working-class revival, seems woefully unprepared to defend free trade, internationalism, or globalism. Furthermore, tethering their political future to a dwindling working class seems politically unsound at best, disastrous at worst. Given the highly volatile nature of the present moment these predictions remain necessarily imprecise. But that should not make them any less worrying.