No Easy Answers, Just Bad History

A Vox writer sets out to prove social-democratic policies aided the far right. He fails.

National Front leader Marine Le Pen at a party rally in 2012. Blandine Le Cain / Flickr

Several weeks before Hillary Clinton’s bitter defeat at the hands of Donald Trump, Vox’s Zack Beauchamp waded into the simplistic debate about whether ”economic anxiety” or racism was to blame for Trump’s political success with a salvo on behalf of the racism explanation. Although that effort made some worthwhile points, it ultimately failed to explain why long-existing latent racism manifested in the sudden increase in xenophobia in formal politics.

This week Beauchamp returned to the breach, which has only grown wider since Trump’s victory. Now the battle is about whether economic populism offers a way to stop Trump and the international march of the far right, rather than whether economic dislocation caused that march in the first place.

Beauchamp doesn’t think Bernie Sanders–style economic populism can foil the far right. But his argument is much more ambitious: he sets out to prove that economically populist policies stoke, rather than ameliorate, far-right political tendencies. To do that, he deploys the following claims:

  • European countries that adopted more generous redistributive policies in the post–World War II era were more vulnerable to far-right politics than those that adopted less generous ones.
  • The far right’s rise occurred over the past several decades and continues despite the Left’s efforts to buy its supporters off with socialism. The reason why is that continuous immigration has run up against an electorate that is irredeemably racist and only becomes more so as it perceives immigrants to be the beneficiaries of the welfare state.
  • Recent cases in which once-center-left parties swung decisively to the left — notably, the UK Labour Party — have proved politically disastrous and only further exacerbated the loss of political ground to the far right.
  • American history is replete with white supremacy, and that fact is probably the major reason why politics in the US has consistently been several notches to the right of our European counterparts.

Of these claims, only the last one resembles reality. All the others are blatant misreadings of recent and not-so-recent history.

According to Beauchamp’s stylized view of European politics, social democracy exists along a one-dimensional continuum, with variation in the degree to which it was enacted into policy in different countries after 1945. Combining the rising tide of immigration since the 1970s with the ex-ante degree of social generosity, Beauchamp concludes that redistribution is perceived as a giveaway to outsiders, and hence motivates backlash politics.

What’s missing here is an understanding of what actually happened to European social democracy along the way. So let me supply a hopefully slightly better potted history.

During the inflationary crisis of the 1970s, elite policymakers in Western Europe came to the conclusion that it was no longer possible for the welfare state to operate as it had since 1945. Their project thereafter has been twofold: to convince the public that their diagnosis is right, and to enact (what they consider) necessary neoliberal reforms by any means necessary.

The first task proved difficult with certain reforms (notably liberalizing labor markets) and easier with others (implementing a fixed exchange rate regime, effectively blocking full employment macroeconomic policy, though not explicitly described as such by its proponents).

Gradually, elites shifted their emphasis toward the second strategy. Their primary means of forcing through reform has been the non-democratic policymaking machinery that the European Union put in place in the 1980s and ’90s to straitjacket national political actors. (A policymaking machinery that national actors have largely gone along with, since they too are convinced that their domestic policies need a heavy dose of neoliberal reform.)

This hollowing out of national politics has had a profound effect on European social democracy. As power shifted from democratically accountable to democratically unaccountable institutions through privatization and European integration, the state’s capacity to do anything about popular (as opposed to elite) grievances eroded and discontent exploded.

The ideal end goal of contemporary European social democratic parties is perhaps best embodied by Germany’s Hartz Reforms. Enacted by a Social Democratic government in the early to mid 2000s over the objections of the country’s labor unions, the labor market reforms occasioned a split in the party that has not been bridged since. According to the consensus narrative, the measures left Germany in better shape than ever, allowing it to weather the Great Recession and become a haven for economic and political refugees.

Beauchamp buys this assessment, endorsing — without evidence — the view that too much redistribution and regulation causes economic problems. Yet the Hartz Reforms are not responsible for Germany’s relative macroeconomic success. In fact, they’ve worsened its labor market outcomes.

Beauchamp’s point is not to conduct a policy evaluation, of course, but to presuppose that such an evaluation has already been conducted. And that serves his real rhetorical aim: to discredit the notion that social-democratic policies offer a solution to an emboldened far right. That it might be exactly the failure of these neoliberal reforms and the disrepute they’ve brought the leaders and factions who spearheaded them that caused social democracy’s parlous state is nowhere entertained. The sea change in social democracy goes entirely unmentioned in Beauchamp’s piece.

Which brings us to the parallel potted history of the European far right. Beauchamp’s method is to recount a series of dates and country names: Jen-Marie Le Pen’s creation of the Front National in France in 1972; its electoral breakthrough in the 1984 European elections (which Beauchamp doesn’t note immediately followed a round of fiscal austerity inflicted by a Socialist government); Jorg Haider’s takeover of the Freedom Party in Austria in 1986; Pim Fortuyn’s 2002 assassination on the cusp of winning an outsized share of the vote in a Dutch parliamentary election; and Le Pen’s success at reaching the French presidential election’s second round that year. The narrative here is of a transnational, steady rise to power.

That telling is almost wholly false. The European far right has existed continuously since World War II, with outbreaks in different countries at different times, each of which is an interesting political phenomenon in its own right.

Beauchamp doesn’t mention, for instance, Le Pen’s first appearance on the French political scene: the 1956 general election, when Le Pen was elected as part of a wave of followers of the lower-middle-class, xenophobic, populist tax-revolter Pierre Poujade. Why omit that election? Because it would hinder Beauchamp’s claim, pointing as it does to a social movement that has long existed on the fringes of politics and society and comes closest to power only when the political establishment is most discredited in the public mind. And that is exactly where we are now.

The reason the European political establishment, particularly of the center-left variety, is held in contempt is not because it tried making the welfare state more generous, only to have the electorate turn against them out of the racist belief that foreigners were vacuuming up all the benefits. The center-left establishment is disdained because it tried to bypass national politics and become the high priest-caste of a regressive European order.

Which brings us to the UK Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn’s election as its leader. Beauchamp’s move here is to conflate Corbyn with his hapless predecessor, Ed Miliband, and thereby link Labour’s poor performance since 2010 to one big move to the left. In truth, Miliband inherited a party burned by its association with the financial crisis and its willingness to go along with the Iraq War, and steered it through treacherous waters with a mix of Blairite and more populist rhetoric (his greatest success being a proposal to regulate power companies).

Although Beauchamp paints the 2015 general election result as a disaster for Labour, the incumbent Tory-led coalition government came very close to losing, and the current Tory government enjoys the slimmest parliamentary majority since the 1970s. Labour netted seats at Conservative and Liberal Democrat expense in England; its total count suffered because the Scottish electorate deserted the party in favor of the Scottish National Party — a move driven by Scotland’s overwhelming disgust for the incumbent government and hostility to the Westminster Labour faction’s record under Blair and Brown. Far from being a failure of the left, these results were further evidence of the establishment’s tarnished legitimacy.

This is the environment that propelled Corbyn to the top of Labour. His candidacy in the leadership election later that year was given a crucial boost by the parliamentary party’s failure to oppose the reelected Tory government’s cuts to social welfare early in the parliament’s term — feeding the perception of a hapless, ideologically adrift party leadership in need of a drastic shake up.

Notably, the name “David Cameron” appears not once in Beauchamp’s account of recent British political history. Yet the reason Cameron won the 2015 election was the big giveaway he made to shore up his right flank: the Brexit referendum. When Brexit ended up passing — despite the opposition of every major party — it was a gigantic slap in the face to the incumbent establishment. (Oddly, Beauchamp portrays Brexit as discrediting Corbyn — mirroring the way that Corbyn’s intraparty opponents blamed his leadership for the vote, even though the Labour electorate overwhelmingly opposed Brexit and its winning margin was drawn from the English middle class, long the Tories’ electoral backbone.)

The reason this political moment feels different — the threat of the far right more threatening, the wan protection offered by the political establishment least reassuring — has nothing to do with the far right itself, nor with the failure of traditional social-democratic policies. Indeed, since Beauchamp assumes that social democracy has been static since 1945, it cannot possibly have caused a political phenomenon that only thrust itself upon us in the last few years.

The difference — the critical break — lies in the behavior of the establishment near-right in the aftermath of the financial crisis. It perceived, far sooner than the hapless social democrats of the European mainstream, that the consensus economic policies of the post-1970s era were doomed in the public mind. Having no other acceptable economic program to fall back on, they moved to assimilate xenophobia and use it as both an offensive and defensive weapon for the coming populist onslaught. That is what Cameron did when he acceded to a Brexit referendum, and that is what the Republican Party did when it nominated Donald Trump for the presidency.

Which brings us, finally, back home. The last section of Beauchamp’s article draws upon the great work of Eric Foner and his many disciples. American democracy and American government, Foner argues, have been stained by white supremacy from the country’s founding right up through the present. The disenfranchisement of a large segment of what would have been a core constituency for an American social-democratic party — southern blacks — helps explain twentieth- and twenty-first century political and policy outcomes, well beyond the dire consequences for disenfranchised blacks themselves. This is a basic, ineluctable fact of American politics.

That’s not where Beauchamp ends up, however. Instead he blames the victim for social democracy’s failure in the US: by advocating economic egalitarianism in hostile political territory, he argues, economic populists brought defeat upon themselves as a racist electorate interpreted that agenda as a bid to overturn the racial hierarchy.

As Matt Bruenig has written, the unspoken implication of Beauchamp’s narrative is that any left economic agenda must first make it clear that the racial hierarchy will under no circumstances be threatened. “You can have diversity or you can have economic justice, but you can’t have both,” to use Bruenig’s characterization. The acceptance of that false dichotomy, of course, is what gave us “super-predators,” “the end of welfare as we know it,” and the Obama administration’s absolute prohibition on uttering the word “poverty” in public prior to its 2012 reelection.

Yet if Beauchamp’s interpretation is correct, then the US should never have seen anything other than reactionary economic policy. And that’s obviously not the case.

Interracial, interethnic social movements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century won major reforms in the face of implacable hostility from both white supremacists and capitalist interests. And insofar as Progressive Era politicians betrayed the integrated coalitions that brought them to power, the sellout took place behind the closed doors of the statehouses and the United States Capitol. They most certainly did not reflect the impossibility of forming a class-based, multiracial political coalition.

Then there was the period from 1940 to 1970, which witnessed the greatest progress in closing the racial wealth and earnings gaps since Reconstruction, thanks to the strength of the New Deal coalition and the labor movement, which integrated the federal government’s military-industrial supply chain (as well as the military itself, following the war), and the Civil Rights Movement, which successfully pressed the federal government to intervene in the South on behalf of equal rights. That advance was eventually turned back the same way it was during Reconstruction: through an alliance of white supremacy and implicitly racialized “free market” ideology, the latter of which came to dominate both major political parties.

In short, Trump cannot simply have been caused by white supremacy, because we have always had white supremacy. What we haven’t always had is the breakdown of elite consensus and the center-left’s veneration of procedural norms and reliance on “non-partisan” third-party validators to fight what is in fact an ideological power struggle.

Insofar as Beauchamp has a rhetorical opponent rather than a straw man, it is the Left’s backlash against this retrograde, apologetic politics, which comes at a time when the latter has finally and abjectly failed to win or hold power at the federal, state, or local level. And that failure has occurred because centrist apologetics are up against the real thing: far-right xenophobia, shoulder to shoulder with plutocracy, dominating our national politics and threatening the lives and wellbeing of millions of our American and immigrant brethren.

Winning justice for those oppressed groups, if it is to happen, will owe nothing to the politics for which Beauchamp fights his rearguard action.