I was going to post something about Obama’s apparent decision to endorse a “compromise” semi-surge in Afghanistan, but then it occurred to me that there is nothing new to talk about; it is the same old, same old. He is continuing his own pattern of leading-by-following, and in this he is representative of the global center-left, which has been slowly putting itself to sleep since the 1980s. This is worth a few words, perhaps.
In a sense, it all goes back to the return of the hard right as a potent political force in the 1980s. This was more pronounced in the English-speaking world than elsewhere, but a parallel pattern can be seen in societies that had stronger social-democratic traditions. For various reasons, the leading parties—the Democrats in the US, Labor in England, the Social Democrats in Germany, the Socialists in France, the party-of-the-month in Italy (currently the Democrats)—came to redefine themselves as the non-right. Vote for us, they said, and prevent the right from undoing our former hard-won victories.
In part, this transformation reflected a misreading of the new political climate. The problem was defined as “appealing to the voters” and assembling a governing majority, but this was the symptom, not the cause. As a mass of polling data largely confirms, there has been no seismic shift in public opinion; this is not why the roll-back right has gained the initiative.
In a capitalist society, where prosperity depends on business investment and politicking itself is a capital-intensive enterprise, governing majorities are always assembled from the top. First there must be a sufficiently large segment of business and financial interests willing to mobilize behind a political project, and then this project must be sold to the electorate. The rise of the right is based in large part on the coalescing of such a mosaic of elites behind their program. Sometimes they win and sometimes they lose in their pursuit of an electoral majority, but they are always a force, and each win further institutionalizes their objectives.
The core problem of the center-left is that they do not have a base in the business/financial upper tier, except as a brake on the ambitions of the right. In other words, they do not have a program that can attract the support of enough of these interests, which they can then take to the voters. But without a program they become progressively less effective as political mobilizers, and they achieve little to nothing in their terms in office.
In Europe the crisis of the center-left has reached its Wiley Coyote moment. In most of these countries the political system is organized to permit a number of minority parties, and voters who still believe that parties should have programs have abandoned the center-left dinosaurs for these alternatives. In no country, however, is there any prospect that one of the newcomers, or even a coalition of them, will succeed in governing. The triumph of the right, in the context of one of capitalism’s worst traumas, is mainly a matter of filling a vacuum.
In the US the Democrats stumble on as the party of the non-neocons. The Bush legacy elected Obama, just as Clinton survived thanks to the willingness of Newt Gingrich to periodically scare the bejesus out of everyone with a modicum of reality contact. But there has been and is no program. Obama’s “program” in health care is to get a bill passed, whatever its content. His “program” on climate change is to get a bill passed, eventually, of some sort. His “program” on finance is to prevent a collapse and hope that the system will reform itself. His “program” on Afghanistan is to identify the minimum number of additional troops that will protect Democrats from the accusation that they are soft and unpatriotic. In short, he is likely to further hollow out the Democratic Party as a political enterprise and leave little legacy of social progress. The only reason the Democrats will not implode as their European counterparts have is that our system effectively excludes minority parties, and the Republicans are scarier than ever.
We need a dramatically different direction in politics.