The Democrats and the Euro-Left

In Europe, the year 1968 has always meant only half of what it's meant here in the United States. On both sides of the Atlantic, 1968 was the year of the great youth uprising, of the emergence of a distinct New Left. The protesters who took to the streets from Chicago to Paris weren't simply opposing the war in Vietnam but the Cold War liberalism of their nations' parties of the center-left. And their goal wasn't simply to repudiate Cold War policies but to confront the New Deal-cum-social democratic politics of those parties with a host of new concerns: civil rights, individual liberties, feminism, environmentalism, and what might be termed lifestyle liberalism.

But in the United States, 1968 has long had a different and far darker significance, even aside from the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. It was also the year when the white backlash became a dominant force in American politics, when all the convulsions of the 1960s engendered a more-than-opposite reaction that pushed the nation rightward for decades to come. With Lyndon Johnson's Great Society targeting tax dollars to the poor and nonwhite, at the same time that inner-city crime was skyrocketing and riots shook African-American ghettos across the land, the moment was ripe for a southern demagogue to come north. Alabama Governor George Wallace -- railing against blacks, hippies, liberal judges, and "pointy head bureaucrats" -- waged a third-party campaign for president that ate into the traditional Democratic base and helped elect Richard Nixon. And Nixon himself borrowed Wallace's themes on the campaign trail and as president, inaugurating a quarter-century in which Republicans campaigned on issues of race, crime, and taxes -- and usually won. Swept away in this torrent of fear and racial resentment was the New Deal coalition -- that multiracial hodgepodge of constituencies that had stuck with the Democrats when politics, and life, chiefly concerned bread-and-butter issues.

That was the other half of 1968 in the United States. And now, 34 years later, the backlash has finally crossed the Atlantic.

From France and Austria to the Netherlands and Denmark [Sasha Polakow-Suransky, "Fortress Denmark?".], a virulent anti-immigrant right -- campaigning on that hitherto American trinity of race, crime, and taxes -- is becoming an electoral and social powerhouse. To any student of the causes and effects of the great sixties-to-eighties backlash in U.S. politics, Europe today looks alarmingly familiar. Like the black ghettos of the 1960s, the Arab and African immigrant communities in Europe's cities today are socially and economically isolated and home to soaring crime rates. Not surprisingly, the white working-class neighborhoods that abut those immigrant enclaves are careening rightward. Like Jersey City in the 1960s, or metro Detroit's Macomb County in the 1980s (New Deal bastions that abandoned the Democrats), it's the old Communist Party strongholds in the industrial towns and neighborhoods of France that have turned to Jean-Marie Le Pen.

It took decades for the Democrats to develop politically and economically workable responses to these problems -- here championing more support for policing, there more for affirmative-action programs. In Europe's center-left today, only Tony Blair has even endeavored to address rising crime as such. And when it comes to policies that would bring immigrants more into the mainstream of society -- at a time of economic stagnations and rising nationalisms -- it's hard to find a center-left party that's even begun that discussion.

Nor is it only the far right that's profiting from the European backlash. Just as Nixon began aping Wallace, European parties of the mainstream right are sounding tougher on immigrants. With or without extreme-right parties, in fact, most major Western European nations have turned rightward over the past couple of years -- from Silvio Berlusconi's Italy to the Benelux nations, and from France to Germany, where Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrats are staggering toward this summer's contest with the newly conservatized Christian Democrats. Just 18 months ago every major Western European nation had a center-left government; soon the only one left standing may well be Blair's (which is really the Anglicized version of the Democratic Leadership Council).

In short, the Euro-Left is in crisis. Nor is this crisis confined to issues of immigration, crime, and national identity. It's broader, more pernicious, and goes to the very purpose of parties of the center-left. And our very own Democrats are prey to it, too.

The Democrats and the Euro-Left are adrift in the same boat: They're the parties of government -- of mitigating markets -- in an age where markets are everywhere undermining government. To a greater or lesser degree, they are all of them -- Swedish socialists and Chicago machine hacks -- at sea.

To begin with, all these parties suffer budgetary constraints that handicap them in coming up with solutions to the key problems of their nations. In Europe that problem is chronic high unemployment; in the United States it's the glaringly inadequate levels of social insurance and income maintenance.

On the whole, the nations of the European Union (EU) have passed through the 1990s with their welfare states intact. Decent unemployment benefits, universal health coverage, child allowances, and the like haven't diminished. Neither, though, has high unemployment, which for EU nations now stands at 7.7 percent and for France and Germany at 9 percent and 8.1 percent, respectively.

Which means the electoral base of many social-democratic parties consists increasingly of nervous workers. In France, socialist presidential candidate Lionel Jospin faced an electorate that had the lowest level of consumer confidence in years. In Germany, Schröder is having trouble rallying support from unions, which complain of high unemployment and stagnating incomes. In fact, rising joblessness and the fact that once-national corporations now build their factories abroad have suppressed wages on the continent, and reduced union clout and membership significantly. And lest a Jospin or Schröder contemplate a public-sector jobs program, both the governing charter of the EU and the daily diktats of the European Central Bank require that nations run a balanced budget by 2004.

The United States has the reverse problem: plenty of jobs, no protections. And just as the Euro-Left no longer knows how to generate more jobs, our Democrats no longer know how to extend security to their key constituencies. While no EU charter or Central Bank ties the Democrats' hands, the cult of balanced budgets -- to which many Democratic lawmakers belong -- makes it almost impossible for them to create universal health coverage, or even a decent prescription-drug plan.

In a sense, the parties of the center-left languish in a prison of their own devising. It was the governments of Europe that, by signing the Maastricht Treaty a decade ago, created a European financial government free from democratic control and dedicated to right-wing economics. It was the Democrats -- certainly not the current GOP -- who raided Calvin Coolidge's tomb and returned with the balanced-budget scrolls. Like their American counterparts, the Europeans gave away much of their power -- and raison d'être -- to financial markets and institutions. But the Europeans went the Americans one worse: By vesting much of that power in a visible but unaccountable continental government, they paved the way for nationalist backlashes. The Democrats here vested that power in invisible bond and capital markets, which makes for a fuzzier target. The left attacks globalization and the right the United Nations, but neither is remotely as concrete as the EU. Sovereignty has been diminished in America, but not national sovereignty as such.

Thus the transatlantic problem: The domain of the market expands, the sphere of democratic choice and government (and of parties of government) contracts. No wonder that the Democrats have no national leaders (Ted Kennedy excepted) in the mold of FDR or LBJ, or the Euro-Left in the mold of Willy Brandt or Olof Palme. No wonder that two years after Gore's campaign, and two weeks after Jospin's, no one can remember their platforms or summarize their causes.

That said, Democrats have one distinct advantage over their European counterparts: an electorate increasingly inclined toward government activism. This is due chiefly to the explosion in Latino-immigrant (and nonimmigrant) voting. While fairly conservative on cultural questions, Latinos have emerged as the staunchest supporters of school construction, expanded health coverage, higher minimum wages, and union rights. Alone among the parties of the left, then, the Democrats don't have an immigrant problem. They have an immigrant opportunity.

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