With their successes this week in the California primaries, Democrats are increasingly optimistic about their prospects for the midterm elections. But they should take note of the bigger picture when it comes to left-right politics these days. Over the past decade, the center-left has been devastated electorally across the West. Unless Democrats face up to this reality and devise a strategy to reverse this tidal wave of defeat, they might find themselves surprised one more time this November.
When you tally their representation in Congress, state legislatures and governorships, the Democrats are nearly at their lowest point in 100 years. But they are not alone. David Miliband, Britain’s former foreign secretary, observed in 2011 that the year before, the Labour Party had received its second-worst electoral result in nearly a century. In Sweden during the same year, Miliband noted, the Social Democrats fared worse than they had since 1911 . In Germany, in 2009, the once-dominant Social Democrats had their worst showing since the Federal Republic was created in 1949. In France, for the establishment left, recent results had been worse than any time since 1969. Things have changed a bit since 2011, though mostly for the worse.
The situation is even more puzzling when you consider the backdrop. Ten years after the beginning of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression — a global financial crisis caused in large part by the recklessness of the private sector — the parties that have been punished are largely on the left, and those rewarded are largely on the right. Why?
To answer this question, a group of scholars published an excellent book last fall titled, “Why the Left Loses: The Decline of the Centre-Left in Comparative Perspective.” In her foreword, Sheri Berman, a professor at Barnard College, points out that the answers cluster around three factors.
The first is leaders. Personalities matter in politics. Think of the differences between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in their abilities to inspire followers and communicate effectively. Tony Blair , the former British prime minister, recently pointed out to me that the only center-left leader of a major Western country is Canada’s Justin Trudeau. It’s not an accident that Trudeau is charismatic and stirred voters with his “sunny ways” message. French President Emmanuel Macron, who might be considered center-left, has demonstrated similar talents. Consider, by contrast, Britain’s Labour Party, which has been led now for two cycles by men utterly unappealing to mainstream Britons.
But leadership cannot be the main explanation, because the phenomenon of left-wing defeat is too widespread. It can’t be that the left everywhere simultaneously found itself led by bad politicians. Berman’s second factor is the nature of the economic systems of the post-World War II era, with large unionized workforces, manufacturing sectors, regulated economies and safety nets. This social market economy — prevalent even in the United States — was largely created by the left. (The right went along with programs like Social Security and Medicare, but only grudgingly and after the fact.) Thus, Berman argues, when this whole system found itself threatened by globalization and information technology, and then cracked by the financial crisis, it was the left that found itself most at a loss as to how to respond politically. (In the United States, at least the right could disingenuously and somewhat illogically claim that if only pure free markets had been in place, the crisis would never have happened.) Leftists damaged themselves further, in my view, by immediately turning on themselves, with many claiming they should never have embraced markets in the first place. It is worth noting that the so-called neoliberals — free traders such as Bill Clinton, Blair and Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder — actually won election after election, and it is their left-wing successors who keep losing.
Berman’s third factor is more directly ideological. And here, I think, the left confronts its greatest challenge. Throughout the world, politics has shifted from core issues of economics to those of identity. Perhaps this is because of the rise of a mass middle class. Perhaps it is because the left and right do not have dramatically different programs — certainly compared with 50 years ago, when many on the left wanted to nationalize industry and many on the right wanted no social safety net at all. But for whatever reason, people today are moved by issues of race, religion, ethnicity, gender and identity. And on those issues, the left faces a dilemma. It cannot celebrate identity and diversity without triggering a backlash among the older, whiter population.
Berman summed up the challenge to me in a conversation. “The left has always been about a hopeful vision of the future, one in which everyone prospers.” But when a large part of the public is fearful and pessimistic — and nostalgic for a world gone by — offering hope becomes a hard sell.