The magnitude of the win of Angela Merkel’s coalition, coming on the heels of a center-right romp in the recent European Parliament elections and the ouster of several socialist-leaning governments in recent months, has spawned much hand-wringing about the decline of Europe’s Left.
Stefan Theil, writing on Newsweek‘s Wealth of Nations blog, proclaimed, The left has already splintered or self-destructed in Italy and France. This weekend it was Germany’s turn.” He sees this as “continuing the steady dissolution of the European Left — those great labor and social democratic parties that dominated European politics for so many decades.” There’s not much short-term prospect for reversal, either: “That leaves only two left-of-center parties hanging onto power in major European countries, for now. Britain’s Labour government under Gordon Brown may soon follow the SPD into opposition. That would leave Spain’s Socialist Prime Minister, Jose Luis Zapatero, as the last great leftist standing.”
Yoshi Shain and Peter Berkowitz were ahead of the curve with their July Haaretz essay “The end of the European left?” At least they had the kindness of the interrogative form.
While it seems that conservative and neo-conservative ideology is losing strength in the U.S., these approaches are gaining ground in Western Europe.
At the basis of the change are the victories of European leaders with conservative, pro-American world views. Thus in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi declared in his first speech to parliament after reelection that he sees Italy as a “major player in strengthening the friendship between Europe and the United States.” Like him, French President Nicolas Sarkozy generated a quick change in relations between Paris and Washington. Sarkozy is the most pro-American president in the history of France. He argues that America is the center of the world, and is “the model and the vision to which France aspires.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel is adopting a conservative approach in German domestic and foreign policy. She broadly backs the U.S., and is not concerned what America’s enemies in Iran or even the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, will say. The conservatives are on the rise in England as well. In fact, we are seeing the development of a new European politics, in which European leaders are showing increasing sympathy for the U.S.
The new conservatism in Europe is guided by a number of significant internal factors: It seeks to strengthen the private sector and restrain the bureaucratic state; it wants to shore up expressions of identity and national honor; it rejects perceptions of radical “multi-culturalism” that have taken over the continent; it promotes the conservative idea that the most important foundation for the development of a productive individual is the nuclear family; it stresses the importance of slowing down immigration and the need to advance assimilation, particularly in the face of the wave of Muslim immigration.
In a piece for the magazine, Newsweek‘s Theil has a less ideological explanation.
If politics, like the economy, moves in slow but inexorable cycles, then the center-left that has for so long defined European politics seems to be in a deep and protracted recession. No matter what they call themselves—Social Democrats, Socialists or Labour—rarely have they simultaneously appeared so troubled. In Britain, Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s popularity has hit rock bottom. Germany’s Social Democrats are a dwindling party, squeezed between conservatives in the center and populist extremists on the left. In France and Italy, telegenic new-style rightists have managed to reduce the left-wing opposition to tatters. Even Spain’s José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the last unchallenged mainstream-left ruler of a major European power, looks increasingly besieged as the Spanish economic miracle crashes all around him.
To be sure, each party’s troubles are shaped by personnel and circumstance—from British voters’ ennui with Brown after 11 years of Labour rule to Italy’s venerated tradition of a fractious, self-destructive left. Yet they are also struggling with a common clutch of problems. Among them, they are facing a center-right that is increasingly adept at cherry-picking policies that used to be considered “left”—like education, environmentalism and social justice. The current economic downturn also tends to favor conservatives, whom voters generally see as more prudent on issues affecting the economy. But the biggest dilemma is that most parties on the left have not figured out how to adapt their old welfare-statist ideologies to modern economic realities—while appealing to voters who see modern reform as a betrayal of their parties’ traditional socialist ideals, and who often have more-extreme left-wing parties to turn to.
According to this view, politics is cyclical and Europe’s center-left parties are being cherry-picked from the Right while having their base eaten away from the hard Left.
As for the UK, a banner headline in today’s edition of The Sun announces “Labour’s Lost It.” The contends that,
Blair took office with bulging coffers, an invincible majority and weak opposition, and he and Gordon Brown could have worked miracles.
But they FAILED on law and order, their mantra “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” becoming a national joke. Knife murders are soaring. Smirking criminals routinely walk free in the name of political correctness, while decent people live in a virtual police state of snooping cameras and petty officials empowered to spy and to punish.
It continues with a long litany of complaints, each punctuated with a bold, all caps FAILED. But the fact of the matter is that Labour has been in office since 1997. That means they’ve long since enacted their most pressing initiatives and become stale in the eyes of the voters.
Even the most moribund opposition parties will eventually find a charismatic leader to capitalize on the public’s fatigue with the governing party. Republicans have dominated the presidency during my lifetime, winning 7 of 11 elections going back to Nixon’s landslide in 1968. But, every time it looks like the Democrats are a permanent minority party, they either come up with a particularly dynamic leader (see Clinton, Bill and Obama, Barack) or they capitalize on Republican hubris (see, Carter, Jimmy and Obama, Barack).
Moreover, as The Atlantic‘s Andrew Sullivan points out, the terms “Left” and “Right” have lost much of their meaning, especially in the transatlantic context:
[T]he idea that European socialism has been alive and well these past couple of decades is absurd. The last real attempts at socialism in Europe were in the 1980. Meanwhile, Sarkozy, Merkel and Cameron are conservatives who reflexively support a welfare state that American Republicans believe is “communism”. The three Euro-Tories are also dedicated to a secular politics, are neutral on abortion and strong supporters of gay equality. Cameron has championed socialized medicine and gay marriage as a core tenet of his One Nation Toryism. […] In that sense, the notion of a trans-Atlantic right is pretty much dead. Cameron was comfortable with McCain. But with Limbaugh or Beck or Palin? They’re enough to make a Tory shudder.
Again, though, this is the nature of Western party politics. Just when the American Democratic Party seemed to be too left-leaning and out-of-touch on the issues, Clinton and company rebranded them as “New Democrats.” Margaret Thatcher and John Major and the British Tories held the reins of power for 18 years before Tony Blair and “New Labour” won a landslide victory; they’ve now held power a dozen years and are running aground.
It’s a virtual certainty that Europe’s center-left parties and America’s Republicans will, in the not-too-distant future, win back control of their respective governments. And it’s an absolute certainty that, when they do, they’ll do so on decidedly different platforms than the last time they did so.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.