One of the most powerful and disheartening global trends in recent years has been the collapse of the center-left and the rise of the populist right. Germany’s Social Democratic Party has seen its share of the vote decline from 41 percent in 1998 to 21 percent in 2018, France’s Socialist Party from 24 percent to 7 percent, and the Dutch Labor Party from 29 percent to 6 percent. While the moderate left has been falling, the extremist right has been rising, with the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany now the third-largest party in the German Bundestag and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally leading polls in France’s European Parliament election. Autocratic populists rule outright in Poland, Hungary, Serbia, Brazil, the Philippines — and the United States.
The rise of the far left and far right is likely to continue for years to come, but there are welcome, if modest, signs of the center fighting back. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has given up the leadership of the Christian Democratic Union and announced she will not seek reelection in 2021. But she managed to hand the party mantle to a moderate mini-me, and she was in fine form at the Munich Security Conference this weekend, fighting back against Trumpism.
French President Emmanuel Macron, a pro-business centrist who ran against both the far left and the far right, had appeared to be on the ropes at the end of last year. He was facing record-low approval ratings and mass protests from the populist “yellow vests.” But the yellow-vests movement is fizzling as its nihilism, violence and extremism have become evident; a video went viral this weekend showing yellow vests calling a prominent French Jewish intellectual a “dirty Zionist.” Macron’s political fortunes have been recovering since he launched a national conversation to show that he is listening to the people.
And now, in the United Kingdom, there is a burgeoning centrist revolt led by seven Labour members of Parliament who have left their party, complaining that it has been “hijacked by the machine politics of the hard left” and has turned “institutionally anti-Semitic.” Their concerns are warranted given that party leader Jeremy Corbyn promises to nationalize large chunks of the economy and said just five years ago that NATO should “close down.”
Anti-Semitism has become virulent in its ranks: Labour investigated 673 cases of anti-Semitism and expelled 12 party members in the past year. Not under investigation, sadly, is Corbyn himself, even though he has referred to Hamas and Hezbollah as his “friends,” consorted with Holocaust deniers and laid a wreath to commemorate the Palestinian Black September terrorists.
On the most important issue in British politics — the exit from the European Union, which is scheduled to occur March 29 in spite of Parliament’s failure to approve a Brexit plan — Corbyn has been a study in incoherence. He did the bare minimum to oppose the Brexit referendum and now opposes a second referendum (“the people’s vote”) that could overturn that 52 percent-to-48 percent victory for the “leave” faction.
That seven members of Parliament are breaking away from Corbyn’s loony left party is welcome — and more may follow. They could well be joined by pro-European Conservatives who are increasingly frustrated that their party has been taken over by Brexiteers, even though their promises that Britain would find it easy to leave the E.U. have been as discredited as President Trump’s promises that Mexico would pay for his border wall. Prime Minister Theresa May is moderate but lacks the courage of her convictions: She is promising to take the United Kingdom out of the E.U. instead of endorsing a second referendum.
The same struggle between the center and the extreme is evident in the United States. Even more than the Tories, the Republicans have been hijacked by the far right. Witness how few Republicans have said they will vote to overturn Trump’s bogus “state of emergency.” The good news is that former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld has announced he will challenge Trump in the primaries; more challengers (paging Larry Hogan and John Kasich!) may follow. That Starbucks founder Howard Schultz wants to seek the presidency on a centrist platform is not, however, cause for cheer; by running as an independent, he could help to reelect Trump.
The most important battle between extremism and moderation is happening now in the Democratic Party. Uber-progressives, led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), just drove Amazon and its 25,000 jobs out of New York City, much to the chagrin of New York’s liberal mayor, Bill de Blasio. De Blasio has to govern; he can’t just tweet.
So, too, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), who have actual power, have been a study in moderation: They have conspicuously failed to endorse the Green New Deal, a leftist exercise in wish fulfillment masquerading as a policy proposal. But four of the leading Democratic presidential contenders have signed up for the Green New Deal.
The choice of a 2020 nominee is crucial: It will determine whether the Democrats will go the way of the Labour Party or whether they will once again become a Clinton-Blair centrist party. Alas, even with the slight centrist surge of recent months, the extremists still have most of the momentum, both here and abroad.