This is a followup to the post yesterday about the Piketty et al. paper on Brahmin Left/Merchant Right. Sheri Berman has an excellent essay in Foreign Policy where she builds on that analysis and clearly delineates the opportunity costs of left cultural politics as they have become increasingly central to the practices of left parties in Europe and America. She makes a strong case that these opportunity costs place a low ceiling on prospects for left advance, a problem that will not change until the left itself changes.
"However distinctive and often dismaying U.S. history may be, the defection of working-class, non-college-educated white voters from the left and the success of a nativist, xenophobic, and illiberal right are not uniquely American phenomena. Indeed, despite different histories, over the past decades similar developments have occurred in almost all European countries, indicating that some broader, cross-national factors are at least partially to blame.
One that has come in for particular attention in the United States after the 2020 election is what the Democratic strategist James Carville recently referred to as the left’s “wokeness” problem. Although simplistically and crudely put, Carville is surely on to something. Over the past several years, the relative emphasis placed by the Democratic Party as well as mainstream left-wing parties in Europe on cultural versus economic issues, and the degree to which these parties have shifted to the left on the former, has created a gap between them and working-class, non-college-educated voters....
During the postwar decades, mainstream left-wing parties in Europe consistently received the support of the vast majority of working-class votes, in some countries up to 70 percent. Indeed, although these parties always enjoyed the support of voters outside the working class, they generally presented themselves as the champions of workers and the underprivileged and advocated policies such as high levels of social spending, large public sectors, and generous unemployment support that were designed to help them....
But as in the United States, voting patterns in Europe began shifting in the 1970s, and working-class voters gradually abandoned mainstream left-wing parties. Today, labor and social democratic parties are not primarily working-class parties but rather parties of what Thomas Piketty has referred to as the “Brahmin left”—led and supported by highly educated metropolitan voters....Also mirroring the American pattern, in most European countries working-class voters now heavily support nativist, xenophobic, and illiberal right-wing parties such as the French National Rally or the Austrian Freedom Party.....
What seems to explain right-wing populist success is not increasing racism or xenophobia but rather that citizens concerned about immigration, and national identity have increasingly voted on the basis of these concerns. With regard to non-college-educated, working-class voters in particular, it is important to stress that in Europe, as in the United States, these voters have always had moderate-to-conservative views on such social and cultural issues. The significant change that has occurred over time is not in these views but rather in the importance or salience of them to their voting choices....
As they abandoned much of their distinctive economic appeal during the late 20th century, European labor and social democratic parties began paying increasing attention to noneconomic issues such as immigration and national identity and particularly during the last decade or so shifted their positions to the left on them....
Although the Democratic Party’s economic profile was never as distinctively left-wing as that of most of its European counterparts, during the late 20th century the party shifted to the center economically, with Bill Clinton presenting himself as an advocate of small government, fiscal restraint, welfare state retrenchment, globalization, and so on. (Reflecting this, former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan once called Clinton as “the best Republican president we’ve had in a while.”)
Alongside this economic shift, the Democratic Party also moved left on social and cultural issues, a shift that was particularly pronounced during the last two elections. Studies of the 2016 election found not only that Trump focused more directly on social and cultural issues, most notably immigration, than his predecessors but that his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, did as well. The result of the increasing attention paid by both candidates to immigration, for example, was that the correlation between preferences on this issue, and which candidate people chose to support, went up.
Many of the stances taken by the Democratic Party on social and cultural issues such as illegal immigration, so-called political correctness, police reform, and affirmative action are to the left of working-class, non-college-educated white voters, the party’s own partisans, and the electorate more generally. Many internal party critics, accordingly, believe that these “wildly unpopular” positions, alongside the party’s general “cultural leftism,” are a major reason why it has been hard to attract back more working-class, non-college-educated white voters as well as culturally conservative nonwhite voters....
While the two-party system in the United States protects the Democratic Party from the threat of splinter parties [as in Europe], it [is] hard to see how it can compete with the Republicans at the national, state, and local levels over the long term without winning back more working-class, non-college educated voters. Analysts of the 2020 election, for example, have argued that Biden’s modest gains with such voters, particularly in pivotal states, were more important to his win than the growth in the share of the nonwhite electorate that has occurred over the previous 30-40 years."
Berman concludes that left parties are in dire need of renewal if these electoral and coalitional obstacles are to be overcome. Current practices simply will not work.
"There are many causes of the dramatic voting realignment that has occurred across the West over the past few decades, but ignoring the role played by the mainstream parties of the left would surely be a mistake. Shifting to the center on economic issues and to the left on social and cultural ones contributed to increasing the salience of the latter while also moving left-wing parties away from the preferences of non-college-educated, working-class voters and the electorate at large. This created, in political science parlance, a “representation gap” between the left and many voters and thus an opportunity for right-wing populists to capture some of them.
None of this requires the left to abandon important goals including humane immigration policies, racial justice, and police reform. It does mean recognizing, however, that in a democracy sticking with consistently unattractive positions entails accepting permanent political disadvantage, if not impotence.
Winning elections requires either persuading voters of the desirability of your positions or reconsidering them. Concretely, this means convincing activists who generally have views far to the left of other voters on noneconomic issues that unless they are able to shift public opinion, they will have to accept some compromises on them.
It also means that left-wing parties should recalibrate the amount of time focused on economic versus noneconomic issues (with the left’s positions on the former being broadly popular among working-class and other voters), as well as the way in which they discuss the latter so as to make clear to working-class voters of all backgrounds and other sympathetic citizens that progress on these issues is a positive rather than zero-sum game."
That is the left's challenge for renewal and reform. Either accept it or accept the current low ceiling on left advance.
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