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Friday, February 23, 2018

The Redundant Left

Increasingly, especially at the federal level, the political discourse is becoming more and more unison on government spending. The recent budget deal, labeled a "monstrosity" even by some in Congress, is a clear example of a solidifying uniformity. Of even more concern is the growing support on the right for paid family leave, a new entitlement that could easily balloon the annual federal budget by hundreds of billions of dollars.

In this fashion, American politics is becoming more and more European. The disagreements are not about what socio-economic system our country should have: the welfare state is universally accepted, together with its heavily redistributive systems of taxation and entitlement spending. Instead, differences between Democrat and Republican party lines tend to be about tax rates and whether or not there should be work requirements for some entitlement programs. 

In the meantime, the idea of a government that redistributes income and consumption between citizens prevails as the defining force for our country's socio-economic system. The same goes for Europe, from where we have imported our egalitarianism. 

The solidifying ideological consensus between the left and the right has many consequences, some of which I have discussed previously on this blog. For example, back in December I discussed the future of the political left in the context of withering value differences between the left and the right. My discussion was based on an intriguing article for the American Affairs journal, where William Mitchell and Thomas Fazi analyze a tectonic shift in Western politics. The left, they suggest, has been marginalized as a movement by the rise of the right and an “extreme center”. Movements critical to the prevailing political and economic order are not new, but, they explain:
The novelty is that today – unlike twenty, thirty, or forty years ago – it is movements and parties of the Right and extreme Right (along with new parties of the neoliberal “extreme center”, such as the new French president Emanuel Macron’s party La Republique en Marche) that are leading the revolt.
Mitchell and Fazi suggest that these movements are more successful than the left. In Europe, social democratic parties have lost their decades-long position as a governing backbone of the continent. For example, the Greek social democrats, PASOK, have been more or less marginalized in parliament, and in Sweden the once-mighty social-democratic SAP has been permanently reduced from 40+ percent in elections, to 25-30 percent.

In the United States, the center of the Democrat party is being outflanked by its left, but as the 2016 presidential election demonstrated, they are also under pressure from the opposite side of the aisle.

Mitchell and Fazi seem to believe that the decline of the left is the result of some sort of conservative counter revolution. Their evidence is the fact that far-left movements in Europe have not filled the vacuum created as the more moderate social democratic movement has imploded. 

A similar conclusion was presented back in 2016. by Jamelle Bouie, chief political correspondent of Slate. Writing about the Bernie Sanders movement, Bouie points out that Sanders’ radical message did he reach into new layers of voters. Albeit unusually successful, he “simply reconstituted” the usual Democrat primary insurgents.

The impression that the left has lost can be backed up by global trends such as financial deregulation in the 1980s, the rise of free trade through the EU and NAFTA and jobs migration from the highly industrialized West to developing countries in Asia and Africa.

At the same time, however, the most profound victory of the left remains intact, both in Europe and in North America: the egalitarian welfare state. In addition to having institutionalized egalitarianism as both political doctrine and practice, the modern welfare state redistributes up to 40 percent of GDP. Its involvement in the economy is so profound that it largely defines life in modern Western society.

The U.S. welfare state, which was built to closely mimic the ideological foundations of the Swedish welfare state, has never been stronger and never had such universal political support as it does today. Contrary to what seems to be the prevailing wisdom, President Trump’s tax reform reinforces the egalitarian welfare state by prioritizing its funding over stimulating sustainable economic growth.

Europe’s welfare states also stand strong. Austerity episodes, from Denmark in the 1980s and Sweden in the 1990s to Spain and Greece in the 2010s, were not designed to dismantle entitlement programs, but to save them by making them more “affordable” to taxpayers in a stagnant economy.

Based on the institutional success of egalitarianism in defining our modern world, it is fair to say that the decline of the left in politics is due to the universal agreement on the welfare state across party lines. There is no challenge to its fundamental, redistributive nature from the right.The left has, for all intents and purposes, made itself redundant. 

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