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Looking Back on a Year of Eclipse for the Left

From South America to the EU, left-wing parties are in a state of crisis. Will next year only continue the damage?

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The end of 2012 was a heady time for the American left, full of self-flattering eschatology and pronouncements of political manifest destiny. Mitt Romney had just lost and spirits were high. The Republican Party is dead, declared endless pundits, done in by changing demographics and its decision following the Bush administration to radicalize rather than moderate. From here on out it would be all sunny uplands for Democrats, as the incandescent Barack Obama ascended to his second term and the fractious Republican Congress numbered its days.

The mistake there was an old one, hubris, and the political gods soon exacted their punishment. Two years later, Republicans were returned to Congress, and four years later, Donald Trump, a walking amalgamation of liberal nightmares, was elected president of the United States. Warnings that a younger and browner electorate would doom the GOP dissolved into the ether. Not only had the right won, they’d done so by becoming more populist rather than less; not only was their populism successful in America, it was submerging governments across the globe, as Britain voted to leave the European Union and third-party nationalists gained unprecedented ground across continental Europe. Far from those bright peaks, the left awoke to a 2017 more hostile to its values than at any time since at least the 1980s. Now, as the year draws to an end, it’s worth taking stock of the ongoing damage.

First over to Chile, of all places, long a source of anti-right-wing foment thanks to lingering memories of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. There, the conservative billionaire Sebastián Piñera has just won a presidential runoff, spoiling 26 years of, except for one previous Piñera term, uninterrupted left-wing rule. Also ascendant are Michael Temer and Mauricio Macri of Brazil and Argentina respectively, two regional power centers that until recently were governed by socialists. As the New York Times points out, the only prominent left-wing regimes still standing in South America are in Bolivia and Venezuela, both of which have had to use autocratic methods to cement their authority. Latin America, once an iron stronghold of socialism thanks to economic inequality and irritation over United States meddling, has seen its erstwhile reformers grow fat, enervated, and corrupt, to the right’s benefit.

Over now to Austria where the center-right People’s Party has just forged a new governing coalition with the populist Freedom Party, which secured a third of the Austrian vote in October’s elections. Head northwards to Poland and you find the ruling Law and Justice party, whose purported affronts to liberalism have invoked the wrath of the European Union. Also earning the EU’s reproach has been Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who has openly declared his support for an “illiberal state.” And even in Germany, supposedly the neoliberal anode to Russia’s authoritarian cathode, elections this year saw the Social Democrats throttled, Angela Merkel returned to power, and the populist Alternative for Germany introduced into the Bundestag as the third-largest party in German federal politics.

In the Netherlands, populist and aspiring Lannister Geert Wilders is calling for a Trump-style Muslim travel ban in Europe; his is, numerically at least, the voice of opposition in the Dutch parliament after the socialists were wiped out in elections earlier this year. In France, Marine Le Pen has been vanquished for now, but only after a similar anti-socialist culling that cleared the decks for Emmanuel Macron, a modernizer and economic liberalizer vastly removed from France’s dirigisme tradition. In Spain, the ruling conservative People’s Party recently squashed progressive idealism over a potentially independent Catalonia (though December’s elections show the Catalans remain defiant). And in Britain, despite a recent groundswell under far-left Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, power is still divided between Conservatives intent on leaving the European Union with a trade deal and Conservatives okay absconding without one.

That’s a very inexact whirlwind tour, one that omits some other center-right electoral successes (Australia) as well as some admitted center-left ones (Canada, New Zealand, Sweden). It also applies the term “right” rather broadly to include parties that are united more in their anti-leftism than anything else: nationalists, populists, traditionalists, capitalists, ideologues, pragmatists, and so on. Also true is that the new right’s successes have coincided with it thieving from the left, as with Donald Trump who adopted more traditionally Democratic positions on health care and trade, and Angela Merkel who at times makes noises that are indistinguishable from her socialist counterparts. This ideological messiness has led to plenty of right-wing family feuds. In Europe, that’s meant insurgent populist parties divorced from established center-right ones; in the United States it’s meant Republican governance that sometimes seems like an endless exercise in fraternal cannibalism.

Still, it’s remarkable how hard declared left-wing parties have cratered—and during a recession, of all times, when their haves-versus-have-nots rhetoric and exuberance for the welfare state should be resonating. What’s gone wrong here? At least two things, I think, both of them acts of severance. The first has been the bifurcation of “Liberal Democracy” (as opposed to “liberal democracy,” which is a perfectly good political science term). In today’s world, and especially in the droning speeches of sallow-faced European Union MEPs, Liberal Democracy has come to include certain very modern values not necessarily associated with the original doctrines of liberalism, including mass immigration, sprawling free trade agreements, the consolidation of power into supranational institutions, and activist foreign policies. The unspoken assumption is that the Liberal plank and the Democracy plank are yin and yang complements: the downtrodden many will outvote the gilded few and then enact the Liberal program. But why should they? And what happens when voters use their democratic rights in pursuit of ends that elites regard as illiberal? That’s what’s happening today especially in Europe, and the left doesn’t seem to know how to react.

The second reason has to do with those aforementioned demographics. Among interest-group liberalism’s many delegations—feminists, African Americans, environmentalists—are metropolitan elites and blue-collar workers. Seemingly unalike, the tether that stretches between them is economics, with metropolitan elites designing welfare schemes and workers benefitting from them. The problem is that, contra its devotees, economics can’t explain everything, and the American labor force is a bit more than just a cluster of points on a GDP graph. Workers have values, beliefs, conceptions of what their nation should look like, that often radically diverge from those held by Washingtonians and New Yorkers. These more cultural concerns have engendered a deep distrust of the elite left, which, combined with the perception that economic interventions by the state haven’t done much good lately, have sent much of the white working class into the arms of right-wing populists who promise to fight for their nations and values. This severing of the left’s blue collars and white collars may be survivable in the long run, as America’s industrial heyday fades into mist. But it was the Rust Belt going red that lost Democrats the last election, and that trend could continue to tip the balance against them.

These are large problems that aren’t going to be worked out even by repeatedly screaming “RUSSIA!” at passing cars. There are other, more local factors at work here, too, from an economy in need of unshackling in France to the growing staleness of once-iconoclastic Latin American socialism. But this is nonetheless a worldwide phenomenon, and a wake-up call to a left that’s smugly assumed modernity and its own dominance would be synonymous. Voters will eventually check the right, too, as polls here in America portend an anti-GOP mood ahead of the 2018 midterms. But the left’s state of continuing crisis is too fundamental and complex to be resolved by a single election, a single policy manifesto, even a single former vice president-turned-political savior.

Matt Purple is the managing editor of The American Conservative.

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