The Center Left Is on Life Support

As the populism embraced by globalism’s losers flourishes, in Europe as in America.

There was once a time when the center Left appeared like the natural governing philosophy and coalition in the West after the Cold War. The details were different in each country, but the general outline held. Having made permanent peace with capitalism, the center Left could capture upwardly mobile social liberals while expanding its coalition with new immigrant groups. Where could the old constituencies of workers go? To the right? Hardly. The electoral potency of Gerhard Schröder, the influence of the center-left Olive Tree coalition in Italy, and the runaway success of New Labour’s Tony Blair and New Democrat Bill Clinton made this liberal technocratic view appear unstoppable. The Cold War politics that favored the Right were gone. The politics of a globalizing world were those of a soft Left that was also getting rich.

And the center Right responded by eagerly making rhetorical and political concessions to this philosophy: George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism, David Cameron’s modernization project in the Tory party. Angela Merkel is another center-right figure whose political success came in delivering stability while triangulating to the left.

And now it’s just about all gone. In the U.S., young Democrats long to get away from the compromises of the Clinton era and wish for a new intersectionalist politics, or a socialist future. Tony Blair is one of the most unpopular political figures in modern British life, his party now run by one of the very few socialist holdouts against his New Labour renovation. In Germany, the once powerful Social Democrats saw their popularity decline by the day while in their “grand coalition” with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. This past weekend, they have renewed that coalition, but you could hardly call it grand now. The Social Democrats are, as Peter Franklin noted, a minor party in Germany after Sunday’s election. Italy too has seen the center Left dramatically reduced, with the rise of the populist Five Star Movement, now the biggest party in Italy.

A thoroughgoing Marxist might look at the decline of the center-left parties in a certain way. Mindful of the decline of political power in organized labor — a decline that they could not or would not reverse — center-left parties tapped into the fundraising to be had in upwardly mobile “wine track” constituencies in urban areas and among the young, seeking out voters who were turned off by social traditionalism of right and center-right parties. In many countries, they also also turned to immigrant communities to build rainbow coalitions.

As liberals backed away from the hard politics of material redistribution, they found themselves trying to redistribute the honorific resources of society. Instead of dramatically expanding day care, you could talk about single mothers as heroes. Instead of integrating recent migrant communities in Europe, you could preach the end of the old national cultures as a liberation. Instead of building an economy that provided the material basis for family formation, you could praise nontraditional households and identities. Decades ago, it was the greedy plutocrat or boss who was the enemy. Now the enemy was the stultifying old culture that honored men who “worked hard and played by the rules.”

The results are everywhere to see. Almost anywhere that there is economic stagnation or deindustrialization — East Germany, Northern industrial towns in Britain, southern Italy, Appalachia — there is a populist politics that wants to reverse, slow down, or at least tame the economic and social consequences of globalism. Will there even be a center Left in five years?

Almost anywhere there is economic stagnation or deindustrialization, there is a populist politics that wants to reverse, slow down, or at least tame the economic and social consequences of globalism.

Perhaps only in media institutions, the last places where the center-left sensibility continues to reign almost unimpeded. And that figures. Many people go into media precisely because they want to redistribute the honorific resources of society. They want to declare the heroes, villains, and victims of each social trend and political development.

A few liberal commentators such as Ed Luce have identified the problems besetting the center Left in the West. But as it lies in its sickbed, the center Left has tended to jibber nonsensically and self-pityingly about Russia. Even the Italian election results have been partly attributed to “bots.” I can think of nothing more cheering to Vladimir Putin than having a phalanx of Western liberals daily spreading the news that he is the source of all their miseries and defeats. You cannot pay a troll factory for that kind of publicity.

Perhaps it is possible that the politics of the center Left, the politics of cheering globalization, created economic and honorific losers. And these losers, lacking sufficient representation in the normal mainstream media, turn to whatever content reflects their anxieties and aspirations. Maybe it is not Russian bots that are enhancing the power of populism. Maybe it’s the populist publics that are driving the electoral outcomes, and maybe some of the side effects are the retweets and social shares that make Putin’s intel and media operations look like a work of genius.

Most Popular

White House

Trump and the ‘Racist Tweets’

What does “racist” even mean anymore? Racism is the headline on President Trump’s Sunday tweets -- the media-Democrat complex assiduously describes them as “racist tweets” as if that were a fact rather than a trope. I don’t think they were racist; I think they were abjectly stupid. Like many ... Read More
White House

The Trump Steamroller

As we settle into high summer and the period of maximum difficulty in finding anything to fill in hours of television news, especially 24/7 news television, two well-established political trends are emerging in this pre-electoral period: The president’s opponents continue to dig themselves into foxholes that ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Ilhan Omar Is Completely Assimilated

Beto O’Rourke, the losing Texas Senate candidate who bootstrapped his way into becoming a losing presidential candidate, had a message for refugees who had come to America: Your new country is a hellhole. The former congressman told a roundtable of refugees and immigrants in Nashville, Tenn., last week: ... Read More

We All Wanted to Love the Women’s Soccer Team

For the first time in my life, I did not root for an American team. Whatever the sport, I have always rooted American. And if those who called in to my radio show were representative of my audience, many millions of Americans made the same sad choice. It takes a lot for people like me not to root for an ... Read More

Men Literally Died for That Flag, You Idiots

The American flag’s place in our culture is beginning to look less unassailable. The symbol itself is under attack, as we’ve seen with Nike dumping a shoe design featuring an early American flag, Megan Rapinoe defending her national-anthem protests (she says she will never sing the song again), and ... Read More

The ‘Squad’ Gives a Gift to Donald Trump

On Sunday, Donald Trump gave the Democrats a gift -- comments that indicate he thinks native-born congresswomen he detests should “go back” to the countries of their ancestors. On Monday, the four congresswomen handed Trump a gift in return, managing to respond to the president’s insults in some of the most ... Read More
White House

On Gratitude and Immigration

Like both Rich and David, I consider it flatly inappropriate for the president of the United States to be telling Americans -- rhetorically or otherwise -- to “go back where you came from.” In consequence, you will find no defense of the president from me, either. What Trump tweeted over the weekend was ... Read More