More Welfare Won’t Mend Europe’s Blue-Red Divide

The gap between cosmopolitans and populists is not just about the economy. It is a question of identity.

Swedish parliament Stockholm
Parliament House in Stockholm, Sweden (iStock/Roland Lundgren)

Simon Reich, a Rutgers University Newark professor, writes at The Conversation about the “blue-red” divide that is now defining European politics.

For the uninitiated: I am borrowing the term from Andrew Sullivan, who argued in 2014 that there is a “blue Europe” — internationalist, metrosexual, multicultural, secular — and a “red” Europe” — noninterventionist, more traditional, more comfortable in a homogenous society, more sympathetic to faith — and the two are at odds over everything from the European Union and trade to changing gender roles and immigration.

Reich sees a similar division.

“On the one hand are the cosmopolitans,” he writes. “They favor economic globalization, multiculturalism and integration, and a world with diminished borders.”

“Red Europe” he calls “the populists. They favor local rule, managed trade and a greater regulation of those flows — of money and of people.” They reject much of what cosmopolitanism stands for.

These differences transcend the left-right divide. There are cosmopolitans on the liberal right and protectionists on the far left.

Different people

“Blue” cosmopolitans tend to be well-educated and physically as well as socially mobile. They probably live in an historical city center or suburb and have a job in services.

“Red” populists are less educated and less worldly. They live in the less trendy parts of the city or in the country and are anxious about maintaining their living standards in an era of rapid economic and social change.

In short: “blue” Europe is comfortable about the world we live in, “red” Europe is not.

It’s not (just) the economy

Reich believes this divide has come out of the global financial crisis, which — to his mind — exposed the failures of market-friendly policies that had been embraced by the left and the right.

Left-wing parties now “need to eschew austerity programs,” he writes, “and introduce expanded redistributive programs that reward those who have been shut out from life chances.”

Andrea Mammone, an historian at the University of London, has argued something similar in The Washington Post.

There’s something to this argument. The crisis did bring home the problem. But Reich is too quick to blame globalization and argue for old-school socialist policies he supports anyway. (Same with Mammone, who seemed to suggest “red” voters could be bought off with more welfare.)

The blue-red divide precedes the crisis. Pim Fortuyn was arguing against EU overreach and multiculturalism in the Netherlands twenty years ago. Jörg Haider brought Austria’s nationalist Freedom Party into government around the same time. The Danish People’s Party joined a coalition in 2001. Jean-Marie Le Pen entered the second round of France’s presidential election in 2002.

All appealed to a sense of betrayal by the elites, which manifested itself in the EU, liberal economic policies that left old industries behind, liberal social policies that upended gender norms and a generous immigration policy that uprooted working-class neighborhoods.

Expanding the welfare state, as Reich suggests, may address one of those grievances. But it wouldn’t make the EU any less divisive. It wouldn’t help make “red” Europe more comfortable about gays, foreigners and different religions. Those are identity issues that I don’t think can be “fixed”. They require persuasion and time.