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US Democrats can study from the errors of the European left

An expert's point of view on a current event.

June 4, 2021, 11:39 a.m.

Despite the corruption of the Trump administration, incompetent handling of the pandemic and racial politics, the Democratic Party fared less well in the 2020 elections than many expected. Joe Biden won the presidency, but by a smaller margin than predicted, and the Democrats' performance at the congressional, state and local levels has been disappointing. These results re-drawn attention to the political challenges facing the Democratic Party, particularly the long-term loss of uneducated white working-class voters, who make up 42 percent of the electorate and were Donald Trump's main constituency.

Many view the behavior of white voters through the prism of the particular history of the United States. From this perspective, the resignation of white voters from the Democratic Party and the embrace of Trump, as Vann R. Newkirk II put it, can best be understood as "the embodiment of half a century of backlash" against the policies advocated by Martin Luther King fought. But, as Lawrence Glickman argues, the recent backlash is part of "a reactionary tradition deeply woven into American political culture, reaching back at least to the Reconstruction era."

As characteristic and often terrifying as US history may be, the defection of the left by white, uneducated working class voters and the success of a nativist, xenophobic, and illiberal right are not a single American phenomenon. In fact, despite different histories, similar developments have occurred in almost all European countries over the past few decades, suggesting that some broader, cross-border factors are at least partially responsible.

One that has attracted particular attention in the United States after the 2020 election is what Democratic strategist James Carville recently referred to as the left's "wakefulness problem". Although simplified and roughly worded, Carville is certainly something on the trail. In recent years, the relative emphasis the Democratic Party, as well as the established left parties in Europe, have placed on cultural versus economic issues, and the extent to which these parties have shifted primarily to the left, has created a gap between them and the voters of the uneducated working class.

It is difficult to explain the problems that mainstream left parties on both sides of the Atlantic are currently facing without examining their profiles, which have changed over the past few decades.

In the post-war decades, mainstream left parties in Europe consistently received the vast majority of the working class vote, in some countries as much as 70 percent. While these parties have always enjoyed the support of non-working class voters, they generally presented themselves as advocates of the workers and the underprivileged, advocating policies such as high social spending, large public sectors and generous unemployment benefits designed to help them.

But, like the United States, electoral patterns in Europe began to change in the 1970s, with working-class voters gradually leaving the mainstream left parties. Today workers 'parties and social democratic parties are not primarily workers' parties, but parties of the party Thomas Piketty calls the “Brahmin Left” – led and supported by highly educated voters in the metropolises.

This, of course, is similar to the contemporary American case: although the Democrats have lost the support of a majority of white working-class voters, the party currently enjoys the support of a majority of metropolitan college graduates. (Biden won this group with 55 percent versus Trump's 42 percent.) Also in line with the American pattern, working class voters in most European countries now support heavily nativist, xenophobic and illiberal right-wing parties such as the French National Assembly or the Austrian Freedom Party.

In their research in support of these parties, European political scientists repeatedly identify views on immigration, national identity and related issues as the almost “perfect predictor” for right-wing populist elections. This is not because racism and xenophobia directly or inexorably determine voting decisions. In fact, there is little cross-country or temporal correlation between such feelings and populist success. Some European countries that score low on racism and xenophobia, such as Sweden, have very successful right-wing populist parties, while others that score relatively high on such measures, such as Spain and Ireland, have less successful parties of this type. In addition, support for right-wing populism has increased over time, but surveys show that racist and anti-immigrant sentiments have decreased in Europe over the same period.

What seems to explain the right-wing populist success is not increasing racism or xenophobia, but rather that citizens who are concerned about immigration and have increasingly chosen national identity on the basis of these concerns. With regard to the uneducated working class voters in particular, it is important to emphasize that in Europe, as in the United States, these voters have always had a moderate to conservative attitude towards such social and cultural issues. The main change that has occurred over time is not in these views, but rather in their significance or importance to their voting decisions.

Dramatic events such as terrorist attacks or the wave of Syrian refugees who came to Europe in 2015 and the intense media attention that focused on such things certainly played a role. But certainly just as, if not more importantly, the actions of politicians and political parties influence salience.

Realizing that they do well when the importance of immigration and its related issues is high, right-wing populists in Europe have worked hard to draw voters' attention by demonizing immigrants, demonizing them for the rise in crime, the erosion of national values ​​and. blame soon. But it is not only right-wing populists who have increased the importance of these issues; The established left parties also played a role.

In the post-war decades, political competition in Europe revolved mainly around economic issues, with labor and social democratic parties advocating the welfare state, state regulation of the market, full employment policy, and so on. That changed in the late 20th century, however, as these parties moved towards the center economically and the differences between them and their center-right competitors narrowed accordingly.

Tony Blair's Labor Party in the UK was the avatar of this trend, but it was performing across Western Europe. The result, according to a study, was that left mainstream parties in the 1990s had “more in common” economically with their “main competitors” than with (their) own positions about three decades earlier.

As they surrendered much of their characteristic economic appeal in the late 20th century, European labor and social democratic parties began to pay increasing attention to non-economic issues such as immigration and national identity, and especially over the last decade or so they shifted their positions to the left. (Some, like Denmark's Social Democrats, have recently moved back to the center to win back their old voters.)

This, along with the economic convergence between the left and right mainstream, helped increase the importance of non-economic issues in the political debate. It has also diverted mainstream left parties from working class preferences, particularly the uneducated voters and the electorate in general.

A recent study by the political scientists David W. Brady, John A. Ferejohn and Aldo Paparo, for example, found that in Europe "(un) fearful immigration fears have risen sharply in recent years", but mainstream parties have increasingly established themselves "from their partisans are perceived as more hospitable to immigrants than their own partisans. ”The further a partisan perceives the distance between herself and her party on immigration, the greater the likelihood that she will leave her party in a future election.

Here, too, there are of course similarities with developments in the USA.

Although the Democratic Party's economic profile has never been as left-wing as that of most of its European counterparts, in the late twentieth the party advanced welfare state cuts, globalization, and so on. (With this in mind, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan once referred to Clinton as "the best Republican president we've had in a while.")

Alongside this economic shift, the Democratic Party also moved to the left on social and cultural issues, a shift that was particularly pronounced in the last two elections. Studies of the 2016 election found not only that Trump was more directly focused on social and cultural issues, especially immigration, than his predecessors, but also his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. The result of the increased attention both candidates paid to immigration, for example, was that the correlation between preferences on this issue and the choice of candidates who supported the people increased.

Many of the positions the Democratic Party takes on social and cultural issues such as illegal immigration, so-called political correctness, police reform, and affirmative action are to the left of white, uneducated working class voters, their own partisans, and voters in general. Accordingly, many internal party critics believe that these “wildly unpopular” positions, along with the party's general “cultural left”, are a major reason why it has been difficult to win back more white, uneducated and culturally conservative non-white voters.

During the late 20th and early 21st centuries, left-wing parties across the West lost the support of white, uneducated working-class voters. In Europe, the decline in the elections of the workers 'and social democratic parties – many of these parties have lost 30 percent or more of their previous voter share in the last few decades, and some, like the French Socialist and Dutch Workers' Parties, have essentially disappeared in the last few decades Elections – cannot be separated from their loss of uneducated working class voters.

While the two-party system in the United States protects the Democratic Party from the threat of splinter parties, it's hard to imagine how it can compete with Republicans at the national, state, and local levels in the long term without reclaiming more work-class, uneducated voters. For example, analysts for the 2020 election have argued that Biden's modest gains in such voters, especially in key states, were more important to his victory than the growth in the proportion of non-white voters over the past 30 to 40 years.

And in the United States, where observers began to joke morbidly that Republicans form "the multiracial workers coalition the left has always dreamed of," Trump managed to recapture the percentage of minority voters his Republican predecessors had previously received , and he improved significantly on his 2016 performance with such voters. Many right-wing populist parties in Europe also currently enjoy the support of a majority of the working class. It is difficult to see how the left – and much less liberal democracy – in the West can be revitalized without reversing this trend.

There are many reasons for the dramatic reorientation of votes that has taken place in the West over the past few decades, but ignoring the role of mainstream left parties would certainly be a mistake. The shift to the center on economic and to the left on social and cultural issues helped to elevate the importance of the latter while removing left parties from the preferences of the non-academically educated working class voters and electorate. This created a “representation gap” in political science usage between the left and many voters and thus a chance for right-wing populists to conquer some of them.

None of this requires the left to abandon important goals such as humane immigration policies, racial justice and police reform. However, it means recognizing that holding on to consistently unattractive positions in a democracy entails accepting permanent political disadvantages, if not powerlessness.

To win elections, you must either convince or reconsider the desirability of your positions. Specifically, this means convincing activists, who are generally far to the left of other voters on non-economic issues, that if they are unable to change public opinion, they will have to accept some compromises.

It also means that left parties are redesigning the periods that focus on economic and non-economic issues (with the left's positions on the former being popular with the working class and other voters in general), as well as the way in which they discuss the issue should calibrate the latter to make it clear to working class voters of all backgrounds and other sympathetic citizens that progress on these issues is a positive rather than a zero-sum game.

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