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.