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The Trouble With Trends

Zakaria’s column on U.S. domestic politics and international trends seems weakest in this section:

Imagine you had been told five years ago that a huge economic crisis would erupt, prominently featuring irresponsible financiers, and that governments would come to the rescue of firms and families. You would probably have predicted that, politically, the right (the party of bankers) would do badly and the left (the party of bureaucrats) would do well. You would have been wrong. It’s not just the Republicans who came out ahead. Last month a conservative coalition swept into power in Germany. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy’s party has considerable public support. In Britain, conservatives are poised to win their first national election in 17 years. Even in Denmark and Sweden, where social democrats usually win, the right is in power. In fact, across continental Europe, only one major country, Spain, has a left-wing ruling party.

Just as we need to look at local conditions to understand last week’s off-year elections, we should be careful not to make claims about international trends without heavily qualifying them with the specific reasons for electoral outcomes in all of these countries. The European elections earlier this year were supposed to be “surprising” for the same reason, when these results were heavily driven by anti-incumbency feeling regardless of the leanings of the national government. The fact is that center-left coalitions in Germany and France have been remarkably weak for much of the last decade (remember the ’02 French presidential election in which the Socialist failed to make the run-off?), and the SPD in Germany has been a shambles since Schroeder left office. Had it not been for Merkel’s uninspired campaigning last time around, the election of a Union-Free Democrat coalition would scarcely be news.

On the other hand, fatigue with Labour’s long tenure in power and disgust with Tony Blair’s foreign policy have only very recently translated into serious electoral problems for the ruling party in Britain. It took the devastation of the financial crisis, and the indictment of Brownian economic mismanagement that came with it, to make it possible to imagine an end to Labour dominance. That period of dominance had not been defined by its old-time socialist roots, but was instead defined as a very cozy pro-business regime. Were we to look at Indian and Japanese elections, we would find counter-examples in which the center-left coalitions either expanded their hold on power or dramatically ousted the long-serving center-right ruling party. Of course, we could explain the Japanese result as being driven by recession-caused anti-incumbency and see the Indian result simply as the rallying of the public around the governing party in the wake of the Mumbai attacks, but these elections in rising Asian democratic powers seem to tell us a different story than what has been happening in Europe.

Zakaria is right to stress competence as the deciding factor in much of this, but this is hardly encouraging for the GOP, which has yet to recognize, much less correct, the errors of its previous turn in national government. In this way, despite state-level successes, the national party continues to resemble the confused post-1997 Tories.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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