In France, Italy, Spain, Britain, Austria and now the United States, center-left parties have been losing elections repeatedly and are now in shambles. Stuck between far-right and far-left groups, the center left needs to galvanize new support. The center-left parties across the world need to find ways to reconsolidate and establish clearer policy lines to connect with new supporters.
In the 1960s, blue-collar workers, who made up roughly half of the population in Europe and America, supported parties that advocated for platforms of progress, union and strong governmental institution. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, with the falling population of blue-collar workers, social-democrats and leftist political groups, from Democrats in the U.S. to the Labour Party in Great Britain, had to adapt to attract other voters.
By the ‘90s, social-democrats such as Tony Blair in the United Kingdom and Gerard Schröder in Germany were competing with the right for economic credibility. Competing economic theories from Maynard Keynes to Friedrich Hayek were adopted by left and right political parties, respectively, but the left began weakening. There was an increasing trouble among the Labour Party and Democrats to balance their support for unions and institutions, but also enact fiscal policies that were the norm of the era, leaving blue-collar workers disgruntled.
In the 21st century, those who lead center-left parties are struggling to maintain support because they have a problem holding onto core principles. French President François Hollande won his last campaign by promising that “finance is [his] enemy,” but then went on to cut taxes on corporations.
Hollande’s intention was to win new voters in the center, while doing just enough for the left’s traditional electorate to stay on board. This meant promising to save working class jobs, while telling centrists he was pro-business — a perilous exercise that cost his center-left party seats in elections that followed.
Because the left was so ambiguous on its economic policy, it felt safer fighting on social issues. Marriage equality or abortion rights united deeply divided parties. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, despite profound disagreements on economic policies, could agree on these issues. The only major law that François Hollande passed in France that did not divide the Socialist Party was the 2013 marriage equality law.
When the far right challenges free-trade, leftist politicians reluctantly abandon economic treaties they previously supported, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. When the far-right says immigration is a threat for native workers, all governments, left and right, become deeply skeptical of welcoming too many Syrian refugees.
In this current political climate, the left has lost the capacity to set the battlefield. New ideas now come from the far right before becoming mainstream, and center-left groups are beginning to feel the consequences of their victory in electoral losses.
Lacking a clear ideological position for the last few decades, center-left politicians are paying for their ambiguity by losing votes left, right and center. Sanders
wants the left to defend the working classes, others believe Republican voters can be won with business-friendly measures. Both are viable options, but whatever center-left parties decide, they must stick to it and abandon ambiguity.
Francois Valentin is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. This is the final installment of Fault Lines.
Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.