Progressives are progressing toward what, exactly?
Liberals and leftists all over the democratic world have often called themselves progressives, because it seems, in a word, to put you on the tide of a better future. (Also because in some countries, the United States most of all, to call yourself any kind of socialist was a route to permanent marginalization.) Progress doesn’t just mean going forward: It means going forward to a better place.
But a better place isn’t currently available, not for the right, and not for the left.
In the past two decades, progressives hitched their wagons to several charismatic individuals who were generally successful, both in gaining and retaining power. Luiz da Silva (Lula) in Brazil; Gerhard Schroeder in Germany; Tony Blair in the UK; and Bill Clinton in the U.S. They improved the lot of the poor somewhat, and, social liberals all, worked to bring in women, gays and ethnic minorities from the cold of discrimination and inequality.
Their personal popularity buoyed them, but success came at a cost. All of them betrayed progressivism in some way, adopting or adapting ideas and programs of their competitors on the right.
Tony Blair’s alliance with George W. Bush in the invasion of Iraq saw him branded as a warmonger by much of his own party – though he won his third victory after it. Lula’s adoption of a moderate economic policy caused the left wing of his Workers’ Party to split in several directions (but it still won after him, and still rules Brazil). Gerhard Schroeder, who developed a program of radical modernization called Agenda 2010, was excoriated by his party for adopting what many of the social democrats thought were right-wing, neo-liberal policies – such as making it easier for employers to fire workers. He called a snap election to show who was boss – and lost, to the center-right coalition led by current German Chancellor Angela Merkel (who must now sometimes wish Schroeder had won).
At gloomy meetings of UK and U.S. progressives in Oxford and London earlier this month, the former Blair adviser Roger Liddle admitted that British Labourites hadn’t anticipated the huge growth of inequality and the rising popular anger that now attends it. The left could not now promise a growth in living standards. Instead, the strategy should be to propose a “social investment” model, one in which consumption was foregone in favor of state investment in infrastructure, both physical and human.
The Harvard economist Jeff Frieden (co-author of a 2011 book, with Menzie Chinn, called Lost Decades) said that the first decade of the new millennium was already “lost,” and the second was in danger of following. The vast imbalances between the indebted countries – with the U.S. in the lead and the UK and the southern European states close behind – and their creditor countries has to be addressed now, or disaster awaits. His cure: inflation of some 5 percent a year, to inflate away the debt. That is tough on savers and pensioners, but someone has to suffer. Government’s main task, he said, was to choose who suffered most, and attempt to equalize it, making the rich pay a proportionate share.
But how is that going to happen? In Europe there is a growing disenchantment with the market and a greater faith in the state to address problems, but there is no centralized European body of sufficient power to tackle an issue with ramifications for all of Europe, and maybe the world. In the U.S. there are competent, centralized, federal institutions, but a large part of the electorate (we will see how large come Nov. 6) think, like Ronald Reagan, that the state is not the solution, but the problem. Even if the right doesn’t win in November, its lock on the House and Senate stymies initiatives that involve state spending and threatens others like wider health coverage – even after the Obama health insurance plan narrowly won a judgment that it was constitutional from the Supreme Court last month.
It’s not all terrible for progressives, on either side of the Atlantic. Obama is ahead in the swing states, if narrowly; and in the European Union, President Hollande has formed a new axis with (technocratic) Prime Minister Mario Monti of Italy and (center-right) Mariano Rajoy of Spain to produce some softening from the Iron Chancellor Merkel earlier this month, at least in the matter of financing troubled banks and spending a bit more on growth. David Cameron trails the Labour opposition in the British polls, and the German social democrats are on a roll, with Hannelore Kraft taking her Social Democrats to a clear victory in the biggest state, North Rhine-Westphalia, in May.
But the question hangs heavy over the Western center-left. When and if power is won, in what way can it make progress? And if, as the growing consensus suggests, progress won’t be made in living standards, how is some equality to be obtained in retreat?
Democratic politics in the second decade of the millennium will mean – if it is not to be wasted – shaping up a citizenry used to growth and relative ease to accept stagnant, if not falling, incomes, longer and more productive work, and higher taxes. To shape a narrative of progress round these policies will task a center-left whose demand has always been, boiled down to a word: more. How do you fire up the sinews of a movement by calling for less? Tough, but that’s the current job description for progressives.
PHOTO: French President François Hollande (R) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel smile after kissing each other during the 50th anniversary ceremony of the reconciliation meeting between former French President Charles de Gaulle and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer after World War Two, in Reims, July 8, 2012. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen