The 2008-09 financial crisis. Climate change. The coronavirus pandemic. Rising inequality in the United States. Stagnant middle wages.
It shouldn’t be difficult for left-wing parties to make the case for bigger government, and yet they are out of power in most Western countries.
Ruy Teixeira, who argued in 2002 that demographic changes would give Democrats in the United States an “emerging majority”, and who later criticized those same Democrats for forgetting about working-class white voters, believes there are five reasons the left has been unable to build durable mass support.
His perspective is American, but the European left has committed some of the same what he calls five “deadly sins”.
- Identity politics: The obsession with grouping voters into a hierarchy of oppression based on innate characteristics, which casts low-income, low-information white voters — once the backbone of the social democratic coalition — in the role of oppressors and berates them when they are not up-to-date with the latest social-justice lingo. (Example: Amy Coney Barrett’s use of the phrase “sexual preference” rather than “sexual orientation” is taken as proof that the conservative Supreme Court justice candidate is secretly anti-gay.)
- Retro-socialism: Mistaking the public’s discontent with the outcomes of the prevailing economic order for a desire to abandon capitalism entirely. This sets the bar high for public embrace of what would otherwise be popular policy ideas, from public health insurance to free college to a job guarantee.
- Catastrophism: Extending systemic critiques of capitalism and climate policy to claims that the end is nigh and only a sharp turn to the left can save the world. Voters don’t respond well to threats.
- Growthphobia: Tied to climate change, but also the left’s obsession with inequality. Voters don’t object to growth. They object to the benefits of growth accumulating at the top. Voters want abundance, not societally-mandated scarcity. High growth makes people more generous and tolerant and would ease the transition to a green economy.
- Technopessimism: The left used to argue for appliances, a car and a television set for every family. Now it is more likely to see technology as the destroyer of jobs and the enabler of misinformation.
The unifying thread is moral certitude or purism: my way or the highway. The left is not alone in thinking in black-and-white terms. So does the far right. This doesn’t persuade voters in the middle and makes it harder for parties and politicians to compromise.
If Teixeira is right, inverting his five “deadly sins” should give the left a template for success.
- Identity politics: The two most successful candidates in the Democratic Party’s presidential primaries paid the least attention to identity politics: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. The Socialists in Spain did win two elections on an explicitly feminist platform, but identity politics has otherwise been the preserve of the right in Europe.
- Retro-socialism: In Denmark, Finland, Portugal and Spain, social democrats won back power when they campaigned against the austerity of the right and promised to raise spending on education, housing and pensions. A public health insurance option is popular in the United States. Eliminating private health insurance is not.
- Catastrophism: Joe Biden markets his proposed $2 trillion in investments over four years in electric vehicles, universal broadband and zero-emissions public transportation in every big American city as an economic recovery, rather than a climate change, plan. The European Green Deal, which aims to make the EU climate-neutral by 2050 and could cost €2.6 trillion over ten years, has been denounced by climate activists and green parties as not ambitious enough, but it has broad support from the center-left and the center-right.
- Growthphobia: Emmanuel Macron is not a leftist, but he won the 2016 presidential election in France on a promise to break down barriers to growth, including inflexible labor laws, overregulation of small and medium-sized businesses and trade-union privileges — and he has. Scandinavian social democrats make it easy for entrepreneurs to start and run a business, and then they tax them at a high rate if they are successful.
- Technopessimism: Teixeira himself would point to California as an example, where Democrats are “tech-savvy and understand the transformative power of new technologies and the vibrancy of an economy built around them.” I think that’s too generous. There are cracks in California’s progressive model. I’m not sure if there are center-left parties in Europe that qualify as techno-optimistic.