The most surprising event of this political era is what hasn’t happened. The world has not turned left. Given the financial crisis, widening inequality, the unpopularity of the right’s stances on social issues and immigration, you would have thought that progressive parties would be cruising from win to win.
But, instead, right-leaning parties are doing well. In the United States, Republicans control both houses of Congress. In Israel, the Likud Party led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pulled off a surprising win in an election that was at least partly about economic policy. In Britain, the Conservative Party led by Prime Minister David Cameron won a parliamentary majority.
What’s going on here?
Well, there are some issues in each election specific to that country, but there are a few broader trends to be observed. The first is that the cutting-edge, progressive economic arguments do not seem to be swaying voters.
Over the past few years, left-of-center economic policy has moved from opportunity progressivism to redistributionist progressivism. Opportunity progressivism is associated with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in the 1990s and Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago today. This tendency actively uses government power to give people access to markets, through support for community colleges, infrastructure and training programs and the like, but it doesn’t interfere that much in the market, and it hesitates before raising taxes.
This tendency has been politically successful. Clinton and Blair had long terms. This year, Emanuel won by 12 percentage points against the more progressive candidate, Chuy Garcia, even in a city with a disproportionate number of union households.
Redistributionist progressivism more aggressively raises taxes to shift money down the income scale, opposes trade treaties and meddles more in the marketplace. This tendency has won elections in Massachusetts (Elizabeth Warren) and New York City (Bill de Blasio) but not in many other places. Ed Balls, the No. 2 figure in the Labour Party in Britain, co-led the group from the Center for American Progress that wrote the most influential statement of modern progressivism, a report on “inclusive prosperity.” Balls could not even retain his own parliamentary seat in the last election.
The conservative victories probably have more to do with the public’s skepticism about the left than with any positive enthusiasm toward the right. Still, there are a few things that center-right parties have done successfully.
First, they have loudly (and sometimes offensively) championed national identity. In this era of globalization, voters are rewarding candidates who believe in their country’s exceptionalism.
Second, they have been basically sensible on fiscal policy. After the financial crisis, there was a big debate over how much governments should go into debt to stimulate growth. The two nations most associated with the “austerity” school – those who were suspicious of debt-based stimulus – were Germany and Britain. This will not settle the debate, but these two nations now have some of the strongest economies in Europe and their political leaders are in good shape.
Third, these leaders did not overread their mandate. Cameron in Britain promised to cut the size of government, and he did, from 45.7 percent of GDP in 2010 to 40.7 percent today, according to The Economist. The number of public-sector jobs there has gone down by 1 million.
But he made these cuts without going overboard. Public satisfaction with government services has gone up. And there have been some sensible efforts to boost those at the bottom. As The Economist pointed out, “The richest 10 percent have borne the greatest burden of extra taxes. Full-time workers earning the minimum wage pay a third as much income tax as in 2010. Overall, inequality has not widened – in contrast to America.”
The British electorate and the U.S. electorate sometimes mirror each other. Trans-Atlantic voters went for Reagan and Thatcher together and Clinton and Blair together. In policy terms, Cameron is a more conservative version of President Barack Obama.
Cameron’s win suggests the kind of candidate that would probably do well in a general election in this country. He is liberal on social policy, green on global warming and pragmatically conservative on economic policy. If he’s faulted for anything, it is for not being particularly ideological, although he has let his ministers try some pretty bold institutional reforms to modernize the welfare state.
Globally, voters are disillusioned with large public institutions. They seem to want to reassert local control and their own particular nationalism (Scottish or anything else). But they also seem to want a slightly smaller public sector, strong welfare state reform and more open and vibrant labor markets as a path to prosperity.
For some reason, U.S. politicians are fleeing from this profile, Hillary Clinton to the further left and Republicans to the right.