Lind: Why center-left parties are collapsing
Source Dave Anderson
Date 10/11/02/20:58
Why center-left parties are collapsing
Democrats sacrificed the working class to woo bankers and
professionals - and now they're paying a steep price
By Michael Lind

The setbacks Democrats are poised to suffer in the midterm election
have to be viewed in a trans-Atlantic context. The backlash against
Barack Obama and the contemporary Democratic Party is part of a global
wave of popular disapproval of social democratic parties that
abandoned their traditional working-class constituents in order to woo
bankers and professionals.

Parties or coalitions of the left hang on to control in Norway, Spain
and Austria. But every major country in Europe -- Britain, France,
Germany and Italy -- is now ruled by the center-right. From the Baltic
to the Mediterranean, social democratic parties are crumbling.

For most of the 20th century, Sweden's ruling Social Democrats were
the model for center-left parties elsewhere. In September's election,
the Swedish Social Democrats received only 30.9 percent of the vote,
their worst showing since 1914. Earlier in 2009, Germany's Social
Democratic Party suffered its worst electoral defeat since World War
II, winning only 23 percent of the vote. In Sweden, Germany and
elsewhere, Social Democrats are losing voters to populist parties of
the right, Greens and hard-left parties.

It would be a mistake to believe that the voters, in rejecting social
democrats, are rejecting the middle-class welfare state that social
democratic parties built in the 20th century. On the contrary,
center-right parties like David Cameron's Conservatives and the ruling
Moderate party in Sweden have been forced to limit their
libertarianism in order to win office.

The truth is that voters have not turned against the old-fashioned
social democracy of the mid-20th century. In Europe as in the U.S.,
universal social insurance programs for the middle class, as opposed
to means-tested welfare programs for the poor, remain popular among
voters on the right as well as the left. Voters in Europe are not
voting against public pensions and universal healthcare. Instead, they
are tossing out a more recent generation of social democrats who went
too far in their embrace of markets.

The greatest assault on traditional social democracy in the last
generation has come from "Third Way" leaders of center-left parties
like Tony Blair, and their continental European counterparts. Like the
Clinton Democrats, these "modernizing" social democrats embraced free
markets with a convert's zeal, celebrating globalization and
deregulating finance, while seeking to privatize or dismantle parts of
the older welfare state. The politicians of the Third Way were far
more libertarian than the voters in their own parties and their
actions helped to make possible the global economic crisis.

Having given up traditional social democratic economics for a
watered-down version of libertarian conservatism, the Third Way social
democrats in Europe, like the Clinton and Obama Democrats in the U.S.,
sought to replace the traditional bread-and-butter concerns of
working-class voters with idealistic campaigns about multiculturalism,
climate change and obesity that appealed to more affluent,
college-educated voters.

The immigration issue is particularly damaging to the center-left,
because it illustrates the growing divide between the populist working
class and the professional-class elites who control the machinery of
center-left parties. The conflicts associated with Muslim immigration
in Europe are different from those associated with Latino immigration
in the U.S., but on both sides of the Atlantic parties of the
center-left have treated any concern about the effects of high
immigration on wages, the welfare state, or national cultural
community as deplorable racism. While the mainstream conservative
parties of Europe officially denounce far-right nativist parties like
the Sweden Democrats, the Dutch Freedom Party and the French National
Front, they have moved to the right to co-opt the issue. In France,
Nicolas Sarkozy was catapulted to the presidency after he called
Muslim rioters "scum" and supervised a crackdown in his previous post
as interior minister. Angela Merkel, the conservative chancellor of
Germany, recently declared that multiculturalism in Germany had
"utterly failed," and Horst Seehofer, leader of a conservative
Bavarian party allied with the ruling Christian Democrats, declared:
"Multikulti is dead."

During the recent British electoral campaign, David Cameron's Tories
criticized non-EU immigration, a code word for Muslim immigration.
Meanwhile, New Labour prime minister Gordon Brown harmed his chances
for reelection in what the tabloids called "bigotgate." Gordon Brown's
demise was accelerated by a similar gaffe during the recent British
election campaign. After a 65-year-old widow named Gillian Duffy asked
him about "all those eastern Europeans coming in," an open microphone
caught Brown telling an aide that "she was just a sort of bigoted
woman who said she used to be Labour." Brown's dismissive attitude was
strikingly similar to that of then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008. In
the infamous leaked speech to a group of rich donors in San Francisco,
Obama attributed the preference of white working-class voters for
Hillary Clinton in terms of their alleged pathology: "It's not
surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or
antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment
or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustration." It is
hardly surprising that working-class voters in Europe and America
should reject center-left politicians who treat them as annoying
yokels whom they must humor on the way to their coronations.

In general the parallels between the U.S. and Europe are striking. In
the U.S., as in Europe, the right is divided between a pro-business
right promoting policies of austerity and a populist, nativist right
energized by opposition to immigration and multiculturalism,
particularly where Muslims are involved. In the U.S., as in Europe,
the upper-middle-class activists and intellectuals of the center-left
devote far less energy to traditional social democratic issues like
social insurance and the minimum wage than to non-economic causes like
renewable energy, mass transit, the new urbanism, gay marriage,
identity politics and promotion of amnesty for illegal immigrants. On
both continents, conservatism is becoming more downscale while
progressives are increasingly upmarket.

* Michael Lind is Policy Director of the Economic Growth Program at
the New America Foundation and is the author of "The Next American
Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution."

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