Centre-left politics: dead, in crisis, or in transition?


New Labor leader Anthony Albanese will need to negotiate the centre-left ‘crisis’ if he hopes to win office.
AAP/Bianca de Marchi

Rob Manwaring, Flinders University

The ALP’s defeat at the 2019 federal election was a surprise. Shorten’s Labor fell short, against both wider commentariat predictions and unrepresentative polls. Yet, if we take a step back, the result is less surprising if we locate Labor’s defeat in the wider “crisis” of social democracy.

Across the advanced industrial world, the centre-left largely remains in opposition, with poor prospects for immediate future government. In the UK, Corbyn-led Labour has been unable to capitalise on the Brexit result, and the chaos that enveloped Theresa May’s Conservatives. A likely “Boris bounce” (or “Hunt honeymoon”) may only make the gap wider.

In Germany, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) was once a colossus of European social democracy. But it has failed to dent Angela Merkel’s long dominance of German politics, and critically, is now being pushed even behind the German Greens as the main left challenger.

Elsewhere, the results are poor. Last year, Matteo Renzi’s centre-left coalition lost out at the Italian elections, and the extraordinary populist government of the Five Star Movement and far-right League hold office. In France, the Socialist Party (PS) has seemingly not recovered from the Macron win at the French Presidential election. The Dutch Labour Party (PvDA) is also still licking its wounds from a humiliating defeat in 2017.




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The picture is not consistently bleak, though. In Portugal, Antonio Costa’s left coalition (an unwieldy group of left parties dubbed “the contraption”) has proved remarkably resilient. Moreover, the Swedish Social Democratic Party is governing in coalition in that traditional bastion of social democracy. The recent win of Mette Frederiksen in Denmark has also given optimism for the centre-left parties. And of course, the impact and leadership of Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand was another positive result for the left.

Yet, there are wider structural problems for the centre-left, which mean that even these more recent positive electoral results may conceal ongoing identity issues. If we return to Australia, we can see what is underpinning these results – the structural decline of the vote for the centre left.

As the table below shows, the primary vote of the ALP has consistently fallen, and certainly stagnated over the past three elections. Indeed, the ALP has not won an election outright for over a decade.


Author supplied

If we put this into a comparative view, we can see more starkly the wider trend and decline in the structural vote of the left. The following table aggregates the main centre-left party’s vote share for each decade, and is grouped by region. Here, the Australian story of decline parallels the fortunes of its sister parties.

Generally, the left vote is falling in the Nordic countries and Western Europe – the mainstay of social democracy. In the Mediterranean countries, the centre-left parties have been electorally devastated by the GFC and, critically, the Euro debt crisis. Even in countries where the centre left has not been dominant (Ireland, Japan, Canada – in the “other” category), the story is of decline.


Author supplied

If it is a story of decline, what might be driving it? Two key factors help capture, but not necessarily explain, the problem. First, the centre left is losing its traditional vote base in many countries, in some measure because citizens are far less likely to have a strong partisan identity.

The second part of the story is the decline of the major parties as dominant forces, and increasingly the rise of far right, populist, and other party challengers. The recent election in Finland is a striking case where, for the first time, neither major party achieved over 20% of the vote. Social democratic parties face more challengers and, as in France, are squeezed by left and right.




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Is this a crisis of social democracy? Perhaps. The bleakest view, offered by writers like Ashley Lavelle is that the parties are actually already “dead”. In this view, social democracy was a specific egalitarian model – especially in the 1970s – and since the parties have capitulated to neoliberal orthodoxy they are bereft of meaning (Hawke-Keating era is the Australian exemplar).

A different approach is to understand the problems facing the centre-left as an electoral “crisis”, particularly the European parties. Much of this literature focuses on what has happened to these parties since the heyday of the “third way” in the 1990s. In sum, it is unclear that the parties have yet to sufficiently recover their core mission and aims.

A third view sees this less as a crisis and more a “transition” – epitomised by a writer like Herbert Kitschelt. In this view, the parties are in a process of change as they reconcile with left libertarian agendas. That central dilemma – environment concerns vs “traditional” jobs – played out starkly in Queensland for the ALP, over the Adani mine.

Moreover, as Carol Johnson writes in her excellent new book, the centre left parties have expanded their idea of equality, and this has brought new dilemmas.

As Anthony Albanese, freshly minted among a whole crop of centre-left leaders, is discovering, these issues will not be resolved quickly. Given the wider diversity of the centre-left, it remains unclear what the next, “fourth” wave of social democracy might entail.The Conversation

Rob Manwaring, Senior Lecturer, Politics and Public Policy, Flinders University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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John McCain, dead at 81, helped build a country that no longer reflects his values


Elizabeth Sherman, American University School of Public Affairs

Arizona Sen. John McCain – scion of Navy brass, flyboy turned Vietnam war hero and tireless defender of American global leadership – has died after a year of treatment for terminal brain cancer.

“With the Senator when he passed were his wife Cindy and their family. At his death, he had served the United States of America faithfully for sixty years,” McCain’s office said in a statement.

I am a scholar of American politics. And I believe that, regardless of his storied biography and personal charm, three powerful trends in American politics thwarted McCain’s lifelong ambition to be president. They were the rise of the Christian right, partisan polarization and declining public support for foreign wars.

Republican McCain was a champion of bipartisan legislating, an approach that served him and the Senate well. But as political divides have grown, bipartisanship has fallen out of favor.

Most recently, McCain opposed Gina Haspel as CIA director for “her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality” and her role in it. Having survived brutal torture for five years as a prisoner of war, McCain maintained a resolute voice against U.S. policies permitting so-called “enhanced interrogations.” Nevertheless, his appeals failed to rally sufficient support to slow, much less derail, her appointment.

Days later, a White House aide said McCain’s opposition to Haspel didn’t matter because “he’s dying anyway.” That disparaging remark and the refusal of the White House to condemn it revealed how deeply the president’s hostile attitude toward McCain and everything he stands for had permeated the executive office.

McCain ended his career honorably and bravely, but with hostility from the White House, marginal influence in the Republican-controlled Senate, and a public less receptive to the positions he has long embodied.

The outlier

McCain’s first run for the presidency in 2000 captured the imagination of the public and the press, whom he wryly referred to as “my base.” His self-confident “maverick” persona appealed to a more secular, moderate constituency who like him, might be constitutionally opposed to the growing political alignment between the religious right and the Republican Party.

McCain enthusiastically bucked his party and steered his “Straight Talk Express” through the GOP primaries with a no-holds-barred attack on Pat Robertson and Rev. Jerry Falwell. The two were conservative icons and leaders of the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority.

McCain branded Robertson and Falwell “agents of intolerance” and “empire builders.” He charged that they used religion to subordinate the interests of working people. He said their religion served a business goal and accused them of shaming “our faith, our party, and our country.” That message earned McCain a primary victory in New Hampshire but his campaign capsized in South Carolina, where Republican voters launched George W. Bush, the stalwart evangelical, on his path to a presidential victory in 2000 against Democratic nominee, Vice President Al Gore.

By 2008, McCain saw the political clout of white, born-again, evangelical Christians. By then, they comprised 26 percent of the electorate. Bowing to political winds, he adopted a more conciliatory approach.

McCain’s willingness to defend America as a “Christian nation” and his controversial choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, an enthusiastic standard bearer for the Christian right, as his running mate, signaled the electoral power of a less tolerant, more absolutist “values-based” politics.

McCain’s about-face revealed a political pragmatist willing to make peace with the Christian right and accept their ability to make or break his last attempt at the presidency.

His strategy reflected his tendency to abandon principles if they threatened his quest for the presidency. Having railed eight years prior against the hypocrisy of the right-wing religious leadership, McCain may have felt some personal discomfort kowtowing to the dictates of self-appointed moral authorities. But the electorate had changed since then, and McCain showed he was willing to shift his position to accommodate their beliefs.

The primary that year also required an outright appeal to independents and even crossover Democrats. That would potentially provide enough votes to boost him past George W. Bush, whose campaign had already expressed allegiance to the conservative religious agenda.

In 2008, Mitt Romney, a devout Mormon considered religiously suspect by many evangelicals, emerged as McCain’s main rival for the nomination.

Sensing an opportunity to establish a winning coalition, McCain jettisoned his former objections to the political influence of the religious right, shifting from antagonism to accommodation. In doing so, McCain revealed his flexibility again on principles that might fatally undermine his overriding ambition – winning the presidency.

In fact, the incorporation of the religious right into the Republican Party represented but one facet of a more consequential development. That was the fiercely ideological partisan polarization that has come to dominate the political system.

The lonely Republican

Rough parity between the parties since 2000 has intensified the electoral battles for Congress and the presidency. It has supercharged the fundraising machines on both sides. And it has nullified the “regular order” of congressional hearings, debates and compromise, as party leaders scheme for policy wins.

Fueled by highly engaged activists, interest groups and donors known as “policy demanders,” partisan polarization has overwhelmed moderates in our political system. McCain was a bipartisan problem-solver and was willing to compromise with Democrats to pass campaign finance reform in 2002. He worked with the other side to normalize relations with Vietnam in 1995. And he joined with Democrats to pass immigration reform in 2017.

But he was also one of those moderates who ultimately found himself on the outside of his party.

McCain’s dramatic Senate floor thumbs-down repudiation of the Republican effort to repeal and replace Obamacare turned less on his antipathy to Trump and more on his disgust with a broken party-line legislative process.

On an issue as monumental as health care, he insisted on a return to “extensive hearings, debate, and amendment.” He endorsed the efforts of Sens. Lamar Alexander, a Republican, and Patty Murray, a Democrat, to craft a bipartisan solution.

Foreign and defense policy was McCain’s signature issue. He wanted a more robust posture for American global leadership, backed by a well-funded, war-ready military. But that stance lost support a decade ago following the Iraq War disaster.

McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign slogan of “Country First” signified not only the model of his personal commitment and sacrifice. It also telegraphed his belief in the need to persevere in the war on terror in general and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in particular.

But by then, 55 percent of registered independents, McCain’s electoral base, had lost confidence in the prospects for a military victory. They favored bringing the troops home.

Over the course of six months that year, independent support for the Iraq war fell from 54 percent to 40 percent. Overall opposition to the troop “surge” was at 63 percent. Barack Obama’s promise to wind down America’s military commitment and do “nation-building at home” resonated with an electorate wearied by the conflict and buffeted by their own economic woes.

Advocate for global leadership

McCain continued to assert the primacy of American power. He decried the country’s retreat from a rules-based global order premised on American leadership and based on freedom, capitalism, human rights and democracy.

Donald Trump stands in contrast. Trump, like Obama, promises to terminate costly commitments abroad, revoke defense and trade agreements that fail to put
“America First,” and rebuild the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

In his run for the presidency, Trump asserted that American might and treasure had been squandered defending the world. Other countries, he said, took advantage of U.S. magnanimity.

In Congress, Republicans have become cautious about U.S. military interventions, counterinsurgency operations and nation-building. They find scant public support for intervention in Syria’s civil war.

Seeing Russia as America’s implacable foe, McCain sponsored sanctions legislation and prodded the administration to implement them more vigorously.

Accepting the Liberty Medal in Philadelphia, McCain repudiated Trump’s approach to global leadership.

He declared, “To abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.”

McCain spent his life committed to principles that, tragically – at least for him – have fallen from favor, and the country’s repudiation of the principles he championed may put the nation at risk.

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The Conversation

Editor’s note: This is an updated version of an article originally published on on June 12, 2018.

Elizabeth Sherman, Assistant Professor Department of Government, American University School of Public Affairs

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Paris Police Say 12 Dead After Shooting at Charlie Hebdo


TIME

Twelve people were confirmed dead after a shooting at the office of a French satirical weekly in Paris, police said on Wednesday.

A police spokesman told reporters the dead included ten journalists and two police officers, adding that five people were seriously injured. Earlier, Luc Poignard, a police union official, said two attackers escaped in two vehicles after opening fire at Charlie Hebdo. Witnesses said the gunmen headed to the Porte de Pantin, one of the exits of the city center, with the police in pursuit.

The magazine was attacked with petrol bombs in 2011, a day after saying that the Prophet Muhammed would be its “editor-in-chief” for its next issue.

“About a half an hour ago two black-hooded men entered the building with Kalashnikovs (guns),” Benoit Bringer told France Info radio. “A few minutes later we heard lots of shots,”

This tweet by a French journalist appears…

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