Arvanitakis on American Politics: What now for the centre-left?

| March 14, 2020

The challenge facing centre-left parties

It is a cliché to say that a week is a long time in politics – and a month can prove to be an eternity. Just over a month ago, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg were riding a wave of support and former Vice President Joe Biden was all but written off. Michael Bloomberg was on his way to spending US$500 million on his campaign and being discussed as the Democrat candidate to defeat Trump.

The Biden campaign was looking directionless and tired, Elizabeth Warren was pitching herself as a ‘unity candidate’ and the Trump Administration was enjoying the spectacle of bickering Democrat Party debates, a booming economy and proclaiming the failure of the impeachment as confirming proof that he is the victim of an ongoing witch hunt.

A month later, Buttigieg, Warren, Bloomberg and Amy Klobuchar have all dropped out with all but Warren endorsing Biden. Biden convincingly defeated in Sanders on Super Tuesday and this week took four states including Michigan and is now most likely to be the Democratic candidate.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 has seen the economy stutter, Wall Street tumble and an inadequate response from Trump Administration. In fact, while the President was delivering his speech from the White House, markets began to dive because the Administration seems both ill prepared and the announcement that all flights from Europe would be suspended for 30 days: at 400 flights a day, that is about 12,000 flights. While November is still a long way away, 2020 could well be remembered as the Coronavirus election.

Joe Biden is on a roll with the Democratic Party united behind him and, in contrast to the Trump Administration, is promising to ‘return things to normal.’

Though ‘returning to normal’ may not seem like the most inspiring promise, the fact that ‘Any Functioning Adult for 2020’ political paraphernalia can be seen everywhere across the USA means that the Biden campaign might be on to something.

While many Trump and Sanders supporters want change, the ‘exhausted majority’ seem to be demanding stability.

So what?

As I said, November is a long way away but if Biden does lead the Democratic Party to an election victory, it will be riding on a combination of the economic downturn and the American public growing tired of the Trump Administration’s chaotic tendencies.

If this does happen, we should ask ‘so what?’ That is, what has changed for centre-left (social democratic) parties that across the liberal democratic world are in retreat.

The election losses of British Labour and the Australian Labor Party highlight the political fragility of centre left parties and has brought into question their political platform.

While there will no doubt be celebrations across the world that the Trump experiment has failed, the underlying factors that brought Trump to power will still be there. More so, it would appear that the centre left parties continue to fail to respond to these challenges. As such, any victory may well be short lived because, as I have explained before, the Trump revolution does not need Donald Trump.

The challenge for the centre-left

In an insightful article leading up to the UK elections, The Economist reported on the town of Grimsby in Northern England. Grimsby was held by Labour for 74 years but a combination of economic hardship, feeling left behind and a sense of being taken for granted saw the region become pro-Brexit and elect a Conservative Member of Parliament. Formally union heartland, this should be Labour a stronghold.

This story reflects what happened in the 2016 American election. Donald Trump turned traditional Democratic heartland states including Wisconsin (Republican), Pennsylvania (Republican), Michigan (Republican) and Minnesota (Purple – that is, still Democratic but now considered a swing state).

Looking beyond the poor campaign run by Hilary Clinton, there is a need to understand why centre left parties are in retreat. I would like to present four core reasons.

The first is that the interests of their many traditional voters are increasingly coming into conflict. As major urban centres grow and smaller regional cities decline, many priorities are not in sync. In rural settings, employment opportunities are a priority – and these are not any opportunities, but about well-paying jobs.

In fact, figures highlight the growth of the ‘working poor’ in rural America. The promise of a new coal or uranium mine (or other extractive industry) may well be a concern for many in urban areas that are concerned about the effects of human-induced climate change, but for rural communities, it offers much needed economic stimulus.

The second is that trade deals and economic globalisation embraced by the centre-left promised much but often failed to deliver economic benefits for many. As globalisation accelerated, social democrats attempted to compete with right-leaning governments to attract capital and opened the state to competition.

This undercut organised labour and placed the institutions of the welfare state in a fragile position. Without a vibrant welfare-state, the very platform for social democrats ceases to exist.

Thirdly, these two trends have combined to create a sense of vulnerability for both the middle and working classes across the United States and elsewhere. This hollowing out has been well documented and has created a reactionary drive towards protectionism. For many urban social democratic leaning voters – particularly those in well-paying global industries – such a reactionary response moves against their cosmopolitan tendencies.

This takes us to a fourth and somewhat uncomfortable truth: this has given rise to a sense of anti-immigration. Mass immigration places the welfare state under pressure and when combined with a sense of scarcity, then the abovementioned reactionary forces take deeper hold.

This does not mean that all those raising concerns about immigration are racist – though there are no doubt racists elements – but centre left parties have failed to make an argument for immigration.

In the USA, the Democrats have particularly been caught in what has been described as an ‘open borders trap’: arguing for more open borders while not explaining the benefits beyond vague ‘diversity adds strength’ platitudes.

For such reasons, the challenge for Biden and the Democrats is not just winning the election but, working out a platform that will repel the appeal of the populist far right. Without such a platform, any victory is likely to be temporary at best.