|There were progressives who didn't know how to spell in the Progressive Era too. Nasty, but let's live with it. Undated William Jennings Bryan campaign print, via The American Yawp.|
Zack Beauchamp for Vox criticizing Bernie Sanders and others:
Sanders had a simple answer. Democrats, he said, needed to field candidates who would unapologetically promise that they would be willing “to stand up with the working class of this country and ... take on big-money interests.”
Democrats, in other words, would only be able to defeat Trump and others like him if they adopted an anti-corporate, unabashedly left-wing policy agenda. The answer to Trump’s right-wing populism, Sanders argued, was for the left to develop a populism of its own.I think Sanders was being (and continues to be) pretty simple-minded too, not least because he tested the hypothesis out so thoroughly last year, and as we know he couldn't even capture the Democratic party.
But Beauchamp is trying to draw a moral out of this that is completely wrong, when he goes on to say,
a lot of data suggests that countries with more robust welfare states tend to have stronger far-right movements. Providing white voters with higher levels of economic security does not tamp down their anxieties about race and immigration — or, more precisely, it doesn’t do it powerfully enough. For some, it frees them to worry less about what it’s in their wallet and more about who may be moving into their neighborhoods or competing with them for jobs."A lot of data" sounds like a lot of time watching serious-looking talking heads who write for Foreign Policy and The New Republic shaking their heads on TV over Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen and the horrible possibility that they might win in the Dutch parliamentary election on Wednesday and the French presidential runoff on May 7 (actually Beauchamp has a bunch of data for us to look at, I just think he's overinterpreting it along those lines).
The strongest far-right movements in countries today with relatively free elections are certainly not in countries with generous welfare systems (except for Israel, where the generosity is so targeted to particular special interests, like the Haredim community where unemployment among men is 65% because they feel they're better off studying Torah than working, or Russian immigrants or Jews settling illegally in the West Bank, and against others, like Christian and Muslim Arabs, that it's less a state than an institutionalized economic gang war).
They're in the former orbit of the Warsaw Pact, especially the Russian Federation and Hungary, where the welfare state such as it was under "communism" was systematically dismantled more than 25 years ago, and governments with very wide popular support push agendas that are really identifiably fascist by all the noted criteria. I don't see how you can compare that with the situation in the Netherlands, where there is a real possibility that a fascist might become prime minister for a bit, but no possibility whatever that he will be able to carry through his xenophobe program.
Indeed, I can imagine (without "a lot of data") a good argument that the extreme right thrives especially where there used to be an adequate welfare system of any kind, communist or social democratic, as in Greece, where the rise of the fascist Golden Dawn goes along with the destruction of government by EMS austerity—it seemed quite recently to have far more of a chance of taking parliamentary power than the equivalent movements in Germany or Sweden or the Netherlands or France. The same might be said of the UK, where a powerful far-right attitude, if not a powerful far-right party, has grown as the socialism of 1945 has weakened, ever since Thatcher started working to destroy it.
The reason the Leave campaign in Britain last year unexpectedly won and Britain is now stuck with the inexorable need, which nobody really feels, to divorce itself from the European Union is not that British people are turning conservative in reaction to an oppressive welfare state. The UK welfare state has been chipped away and worn down over decades of Tory and Blairite government until it's nothing like what the revolution of 1945 aimed at any more.
Brexit won, if anything, because the English left took such a "White Working Class" approach to it, refusing to defend the EU with any enthusiasm because they believe their base is as racist as the far right (I say the "English left" because I mean to exclude Scotland, where the kind of left I approve of rules, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has just announced she will be trying to put together another independence referendum with the hope of keeping her country in the EU and allowing a rump Less United Kingdom to limp on in its own direction). Beauchamp says, like all those very serious TV people, that the Labour Party has lost by "tacking left", but I think they've been heard as tacking nativist, and young urban voters have been put off while the middle-aged white racists have other places they prefer to go.
Meanwhile in countries where the social democracy isn't so grudging, aiming more at reducing inequality—I'm thinking Norway or Canada, or for that matter Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Ecuador—neofascism doesn't get a foothold.
There is a problem with politics in well-developed welfare states, I think, and Beauchamp's data suggests he wouldn't really disagree: that they're very hard to mobilize, because the internal problems aren't very severe; conservative parties don't dare threaten the existing programs (as when the Merkel government tried to impose university tuition on German students—it didn't go at all well and she had to back down eventually), and the leftist ones can't think of a lot of things to do (François Hollande's pathetic belief that the 35-hour week would transform French society), which leaves voters exposed to passionate demagoguery over imaginary issues like the horror of immigration. Beauchamp offers a chart to show how social democratic parties suffer from their success:
But it's not the ultras and fascists, the Front National and Alternativ für Deutschland, who benefit from it, it's the center-right parties that promise not to fundamentally change anything in the revolution that's already taken place. Annoying, but not making anyone's life radically worse. It would be nice to imagine some truly new leftist move beyond there, but until we have one, there's lots of stuff to do, like ending poverty in the rest of the world and halting global warming and making more art. And there really aren't enough jobs in most of those countries, they could try doing something different about that.
In the US, the welfare state grew only very hesitantly and slowly from 1932 through 1968 and then finally more or less froze amid the timidity of Democrats until 1994, until the far-right party of Newt Gingrich finally seized the parliamentary power it has kept pretty much ever since (except for the brilliant prime ministership of Nancy Pelosi in 2006-10). That, and the pickle we now find ourselves in, is also not because we have such a great welfare state, because we don't, as Beauchamp understands very clearly, but something different. Did everybody forget about inequality and the 1%?
I don't think the Sanders approach offers a politics that will get us out of it—I don't think Democrats should be giving so much face to the nativism that accompanies the tradition he works out of, too often a mask for racism and fantasies of trade isolation. But the apparent Beauchamp corollary, that Democrats should not be "tacking left" at all, doesn't follow. If we can't be left, if we can't be talking about free college and universal medical care and ending racism and saving the Earth, we aren't going to be fighting for anything in particular, and that wouldn't win either, even if there was a point in doing it.