Is the Left in Trouble?

There are some interesting signs that the Biden victory and the Democratic Party’s current lunge to the far left may be an outlier among Western democracies, where leftist parties continue to lose ground. Progressive writers Ruy Teixeira and Brian Kaltis (both with the lefty Center for American Progress) note the unhappy (for them) results of elections earlier this week in the Netherlands:

Look at the results from yesterday’s national elections in the Netherlands. The traditional parties of the left continued to lose ground—the Green Left, the Socialist Party and the historically important social democratic Party of Labour. The latter is but a shadow of its former self, barely clearing 5 percent of the vote and only a nose ahead of the Party for the Animals, which is just what it says it is. The big winner was the social-liberal party D66, which favors the environmental and cultural concerns of urbanized professionals, but even there D66’s seat total is no better than the seat total held by the right wing populist parties Party for Freedom (PVV) and Forum for Democracy and lags far behind the traditional conservative party, Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). . .

The collapse in support for Third Way-style parties on the center-left is global: beyond the UK, the Netherlands, and Israel, historic parties like Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) and France’s Socialist Party have seen their previously large shares of the national vote dwindle. The SPD’s share of the vote in Germany’s national elections, for instance, collapsed from 38.5 percent in 2002 – when Third Way SPD leader Gerhard Schroeder was re-elected chancellor – to just 20.5 percent in 2017.

Why has this happened? The explanation sounds like something Steve Bannon might say:

As more culturally liberal and outsider constituencies increased their influence on the left, working class concerns became ever less central to the left’s program. Working class voters across the western world started to see established center-left parties as more for “them” than “us,” a cultural alienation that was enhanced by the tendency of professionals and activists in these parties to treat the traditional working class as foes of modernity and progress who were unaccountably standing in the way of better and more open societies. This had a toxic interaction with a very strong sense among many of these voters that their communities and indeed entire way of life was being shunted aside by globalization and galloping economic change that appeared to benefit mostly those in higher class positions.

The message received by wide swathes of working class voters was, to put it bluntly “we don’t care”. If you’re not progressive and with the program and adhering to the new values embraced by the left, we don’t need you. Go somewhere else. So they did.

The net result is that gains from the rise of new constituencies have been more than counterbalanced by hemorrhaging votes from the traditional working class. In retrospect, this is the Great Lesson for the left in the early 21st century. It is simply not possible to build sustainable progressive majorities while continuing to bleed working class votes. The numbers just aren’t there. Just look at the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the 2020 presidential primary as just two recent examples of this flawed political strategy.

So what is to be done, from this old-line progressive perspective:

The further implication is that the rise of these new, culturally liberal constituencies is not free money. There is a cost for allowing these constituencies to hegemonize the left and define its values. Until and unless the left tacks back to the center on cultural issues and promulgates a unifying, patriotic, economically uplifting message that working class voters find serious and not condescending, it seems likely the working class will continue to keep its distance from the left. . .

What are the odds the left in America will heed the boldfaced advice here? Zero. Poor Ruy (who is a very nice man, by the way. . .)

Keep your eyes on the Israeli election next week.

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