Michael Lind insists that “the setbacks Democrats are poised to suffer in the midterm election have to be viewed in a trans-Atlantic context.” He doesn’t make a very convincing case — or, really, any case — for this claim. Left-wing parties have fared poorly in Europe lately, but how does that explain the Democrats’ plight in the U.S.? As Lind would have it, voters are punishing Third Way, pro-business liberals like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. That assertion would only have a chance of standing up if Obama, or the Gordon Brown of 2010, were much like the Clinton or Blair of the 1990s. But it isn’t so: since the onset of the Great Recession, liberals like Obama and Brown have been pushing traditionally center-left Keynesian policies, and Obama went so far as to expand the very welfare state that Lind contends voters still love.
Rather than confront the reality that the Left’s economic agenda is deeply unpopular in the U.S. (and increasingly problematic in Europe as well), Lind offers a red herring:
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.
No doubt the Left’s social agenda is also a political loser. But come on — voters are not flocking to the polls to cast their ballots against Democrats because they’re incensed over Obama’s views on homosexuality. If voters demanded more social democracy, as Lind insists they do, wouldn’t they reward Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid for passing a universal healthcare mandate?
If Lind wanted to spare the welfare-state Left the humiliation that’s in store for Obama’s party, he could have argued that popular outrage against the bailouts derives from the fact that they are seen as a rescue for the rich. But that would require that Lind’s populism extend to repudiating Keynesianism, which is farther than he or most other liberals are willing to go. So he resorts to asserting, in the face of all evidence, that voters in the U.S. and Europe still want precisely what leaders like Obama have tried to give them — a wider and cozier, and vastly more expensive, safety net.
It’s true that voters don’t want to scrap the welfare state, but they no longer trust it to deliver the good life. They evidently believe it has already achieved all that it can achieve, and while they might like to preserve that (and doing so, they seem to acknowledge, will require a dose of austerity), they are no longer motivated to march to the polls by dreams of pensions and free eyeglasses. Even in Europe, voters’ attitude toward the welfare state has become “conservative,” in the raw sense that they want to keep what they have but no longer imagine getting much more.