Wayne O'Leary

Decline of the Left

It’s a fact of life contemporary progressives of various hues can no longer ignore: the political left, broadly constituted, is presently in retreat if not outright decline, and resurgent conservatism, despite losing innumerable battles in the recent past, is on the verge of winning the war.

This may seem counterintuitive. After all, the so-called left remains in power in the seat of the world’s last remaining superpower; conservatives tried and failed to drive Barack Obama from the presidency in 2012, and their efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and shut down the government have come up short.

Nevertheless, the incumbent chief executive is far from being a committed leftist — his policies are centrist at best — and the entire national discussion, revolving as it does around what degree of austerity we will have (not whether to have it), is on conservative terms; the conflict is being played out on the right’s turf, using its language, and over its priorities.

At the beginning of the Obama presidency, the left seemed on the march. In truth, that was an illusion, one that lasted at most for 18 months; the 2010 elections put an end to any hope of a liberal revival mirroring the New Deal or the Great Society. Ever since, the American left has been fighting a defensive, rear-guard action, with the energy and esprit all on the other side. There are multiple reasons for this, not least the personality and strategic approach of the left’s purported leader, but it’s really part of a worldwide phenomenon.

Any place you care to look throughout Europe and North America, right-wing or center-right governments predominate. Even where the right is wearing out its elective welcome, such as neighboring Canada, anticipated successors (in this case, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals) are soft-pedaling any claims to leftism and stressing their fence-straddling centrist bona fides, along with a sacred devotion to deficit reduction. In an effort to stay relevant in this milieu, Canada’s official opposition, the nominally democratic-socialist New Democratic party (NDP), went so far as to disavow its socialist roots and excise the word “socialist” from its founding charter.

The current disposition of the left to willingly surrender its former beliefs on a moment’s notice is almost palpable, and nowhere is it more stark than in France, the site of a stunning reversal of policy by Western Europe’s leading “left-wing” government. Socialist President François Hollande, whose ascension 18 months ago was supposed to usher in a long-awaited Continental antidote to conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel’s grim Germanic austerity, has performed a classic 180-degree turn and become a born-again fiscal conservative.

In a New Year’s address and subsequent press conference, Hollande, who was elected in 2012 to end austerity and expand the public sector by shifting the tax burden to the upper strata of French society, outlined a new supply-side economic agenda he laughably called “social-liberal realism;” it was straight out of the trickle-down 1980s: lower taxation (especially on France’s corporate “job creators”), less regulation of business and industry, and cuts to public spending on health, welfare, local government, and employment programs. The pièce de résistance was undoubtedly the proposed voluntary government-corporate “responsibility pact,” a perverted social contract of sorts, whereby French business would get massive tax and budget reductions in exchange for the mere promise to create some jobs.

Hollande’s turnabout, viewed by many Gallic socialists as a betrayal, is what the left has come to expect from its inconstant leaders in the modern era. Under pressure, Hollande revealed himself to be in the well-defined mold of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder, and other “third way” politicians — opportunists adept at posing as men of the left for election purposes, co-opting the left-of-center parties of their respective countries, and then turning those parties into vehicles for philosophically incoherent, infinitely adaptable corporatist policies.

In America, where identity politics on behalf of gays, women, and ethnic minorities displaced economic populism some time ago as the Democratic party’s calling card (notwithstanding the isolated murmurings of contrarians like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio), the latest “left” president is busying himself with small-bore initiatives; routine agenda items taken for granted by progressive politicians of the past, such as raising the minimum wage and retaining unemployment insurance, have become the current left’s principal answer to pervasive income inequality. And that term is rarely uttered by this president, who prefers to talk airily of “opportunity,” a less pointed and controversial aspiration.

Out in the hinterland, away from Washington, the left’s retreat is still more noticeable. The Democratic governors of the two biggest progressive states, California and New York, are fully on board with austerity. Jerry Brown, eschewing liberal spending programs as irresponsible, campaigns enthusiastically on behalf of deficit reduction. His East Coast counterpart, Andrew Cuomo, attacks union pensions, restricts public spending, and champions millions in tax cuts for banks, corporations, and the wealthy in the name of revenue reform.

Among all the international leaders of what passes for the contemporary left, only would-be prime minister Ed Miliband of Britain’s opposition Labour party — “Red Ed” to his enemies — holds much assurance of reviving a genuine left-of-center politics. His answers to “casino capitalism” — a higher top income-tax rate, a freeze on household energy prices, requisition of idle land held off the market by speculating home-builders, a break-up of monopolistic retail banks combined with establishment of competitive state banks — offer intriguing promise.

Some American progressives have staked everything on Hillary Clinton, but Hillary is, if anything, more conservative than Barack Obama. She will run a different kind of campaign this time is the retort, a campaign far different from her inevitability tour of 2008; we will see the real Hillary in 2016 goes the refrain from Clinton Land — more unabashedly liberal, more boldly experimental, more critical of the One Percent.

Dream on, if you must, but this doesn’t square with Hillary’s recent worshipful reception at investment bank Goldman Sachs, where she massaged Wall Street’s erogenous zones for a $200,000 speaking fee. Political animals rarely change their spots. The Western World’s dwindling hopes for a revival of the democratic left, if it is to happen, probably rest on the slim shoulders of one Ed Miliband.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2014


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