Wayne O'Leary

Donkey in the Doldrums and Other Tales

All over the Western world, there is a prevailing sense of drift and lack of direction pervading the political Left. This disorientation has been produced by the sudden breakdown of the post-World War II order, with its long-accepted assumptions regarding the relationship between business, labor, and government — assumptions growing out of institutions and governing approaches developed by left-leaning parties in the first place, but allowed to decay over time through endless compromise with, and co-option by, international corporate interests.

Adding to the confusion and unease is the dawning realization that market fundamentalism (that is, unregulated capitalism), combined with economic globalization and accelerated technology, has not been all it was cracked up to be by its boosters; indeed, rather than the world’s salvation, it’s been largely responsible for the present economic and political chaos afflicting the First World democracies.

Because they’re unburdened by any sense of loyalty to the postwar past, having opposed most of its liberal creations (the regulatory and welfare states, the United Nations, the Bretton Woods financial system, etc.), the forces of the Right have responded to the current environment of rapid and disruptive change more effectively than the ambivalent Left. If not in terms of constructive problem-solving, this is at least true with respect to political organizing, short-term electoral gains, and control of the debate.

In Europe, conservative hard-liners have driven Great Britain out of the European Union through their Brexit campaign, and driven the EU to its knees in the process. Right-wing “populist” parties have dislodged Italy’s center-left government, won in Denmark and Poland, and came close to assuming power in France, Austria, and the Netherlands.

In the US, a radical-right Republican Party has run the table, capturing the presidency, the Congress, and most state offices across the country. As a result, the social-democratic legacy of the Democratic Party is now in jeopardy, the longstanding consensus supporting the remaining New Deal and Great Society programs undermined to the point that their survival is in question.

The political reaction of establishment center-left parties to rampant instability, both here and abroad, has been tepid and muted, creating a vacuum the Right has energetically filled with false populism and crude nativist appeals. The real needs are fairly obvious. For Europeans, these include reforming the EU to end heavy-handed fiscal diktats that oppress poorer member states and prevent budgetary responses to hard times, as well as revamping the corporate-inspired open-borders policy aimed at labor “flexibility” (while not destroying in the process the good done by European integration through such things as aid programs and regional subsidies).

For Americans, the waiting agenda entails undertaking a broad attack on economic inequality, reforming health care in the direction of guaranteed universal coverage, reregulating an increasingly casino-style economy, and instituting a fair and rational immigration system.

So far, the outlook for implementing any of this is not promising. The major parties of the Left can’t seem to make a clean break with the recent past; their centrist wings remain wedded to market-oriented incrementalism and at war with their populist or progressive wings. Senior members of Britain’s Labour party have expended more effort trying to undermine the party’s popularly elected leader Jeremy Corbin, whom they deride as a leftist pariah, than combating Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May. Corbin, running an unabashed anti-austerity campaign, fooled prognosticators by nearly unseating May in June’s snap election, but his party remains split, its unreconstructed Blairites at odds with Labour’s left-leaning base.

Centrists have had more luck selling their “pragmatic” brand of pseudo-leftist reform in France. Mixing the politics of personality with a generational appeal, 39-year-old independent Emmanuel Macron, a wealthy former investment banker armed with an endorsement from Barack Obama, barely outpolled a genuine left-populist, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, to reach the final round of France’s presidential election. He then became Europe’s designated “savior” by defeating hard-right eurosceptic Marine Le Pen in June’s runoff.

Centrist Macron got his political start in 2014 as new economy minister when François Hollande’s Socialist government turned to the right; he replaced the fiery Arnaud Montebourg, a Bernie Sanders type, who had resisted Hollande’s faithless adoption of conservative austerity. The nonideological Macron proceeded to eagerly implement the French president’s pro-corporate, pro-globalization, anti-union program of business socialism, but upon Hollande’s subsequent collapse in popularity, he slipped out of government and opportunistically formed his own party, En Marche. Yet, despite prevailing easily over Le Pen, Macron won a contest in which over half the disillusioned electorate (51%) declined to vote. Centrism triumphant clearly lacks a mandate in France.

But that won’t deter America’s Democratic centrists as they gear up to fight off the Sanders revolution. There is little in our own national politics more dispiriting than the Democratic establishment’s stubborn unwillingness to learn anything from its failure in 2016, the latest example being its all-out commitment to the fence-straddling Ossoff campaign in Georgia.

Familiar interests are again positioning themselves to oppose intra-party change. Lurking Clintonistas, who would apparently love to run Hillary again in 2020 (or a reasonable ideological facsimile — say New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand), are banking on Trump’s self-destruction; then, it can be back to DNC-led centrist politics as usual. In the meantime, Sanders’ pet issues, such as the single-payer, are once more being disparaged in the pages of the establishmentarian New York Times.

Nothing highlights the continuing futility of Democratic centrism more than the postures of the party’s last two presidential nominees. There’s poor Hillary, in the midst of her post-election self-pity tour, going on ad infinitum about the reasons for her unfair loss: Comey, Putin, Wikileaks, misogyny, unrepentant Bernie Bros — anything but her Wall Street ties and classically incompetent campaign. And then there’s the ex-president, his political tin ear oblivious to the damaging symbolism of his $8 million home purchase in D.C. and his $400,000 speech to investment firm Cantor Fitzgerald.

Where are these titular party leaders in the face of Trumpian outrages and Republican legislative barbarism? It’s been left to Bernie Sanders, not even (strictly speaking) a Democrat, to carry the tattered progressive flag. He’s in the trenches; the centrists are missing in action. Sanders has the message and the troops; the centrists have their sense of entitlement and belief in realpolitik. Right now, there’s a fatal chasm between them.

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

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2017


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