Political News

Democrats see London. Democrats see France. But which path will they follow?

Posted June 15

Out of power in Washington and decimated at the state level after nearly a decade of Democratic Party neglect, the American left is searching for answers -- and finding them, lots of them -- in the roiling political movements of Western Europe.

American interest in foreign politics comes and goes. Upheaval at home is a reliable turn-on, as activists turn to allies overseas in search of parallel struggles -- and answers. The phenomenon is not unique to the left or the right. It became an article of faith in the aftermath of the 2016 election that Donald Trump's victory signaled the arrival of a right-wing populist wave, in the spirit of Brexit, from across the Atlantic.

Now, it is the Democrats and the democratic socialist left, headlined by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who are trying to draw lessons -- and evidence to back their arguments -- from Europe. But even then, their divisions have them looking at different potential models. For the center-left, France, with its reform-minded new President Emmanuel Macron, is a more appealing model. Among the "Berniecrats," there's a blooming love affair with UK Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn, an unabashed leftist who, in the face of skepticism from the British press and his own lieutenants, led his party to within a whisper of unseating the Conservative government.

The limits of looking abroad

Trump, who called himself "Mr. Brexit" on the campaign trail (both as an ideological signal and in an effort to discredit poor poll numbers), appealed to many of the same hopes and grievances as campaigners, including his British friend and ally Nigel Farage, pushing the UK to leave the European Union. But the parallels between the US and Europe are imperfect, and right-wing candidates like Austria's Norbert Hofer and Geert Wilders in The Netherlands both fell flat in their races.

The French right has seen mixed results in the Trump era. Marine Le Pen advanced to a presidential run-off, but was summarily routed by the centrist Macron. Farage's UK Independence Party, or UKIP, was all but wiped out in last week's British elections. Though its own leaders have suggested that, with Brexit won, the party's purpose was achieved and it can expire with a smile.

Which brings us back home, to the political wilderness now occupied by the Democratic Party and its left flank. Over the past two months, they have increasingly turned their eyes toward Europe for both guidance and, especially for progressives, evidence that candidates can run and win on their preferred policies.

Trump's appeal was staked to a belief that right-wing populism is the antidote to decades-long decline of the American working class. The movement that coalesced behind Sanders began with a similar diagnosis, but it took a sharp turn from there, offering a very different treatment -- advocating for new social spending, with a particular focus on health care, and a broader emphasis on imposing new democratic control on institutions and industries drifting toward privatization.

Eyes on the UK

When Corbyn's Labour scored stunning gains in last Thursday's UK elections -- which had been called by Conservative PM Theresa May as a (horribly miscalcuated) means of padding her modest majority in parliament -- the US left rejoiced.

"If Brexit was a preview of Trump's rise, last night should show Democrats the roadmap they must follow. The only way to beat phony right-wing racialized populism is with a bold anti-corporate inclusive progressive populism," Working Families Party national director Dan Cantor said in a statement blasted to reporters the morning after the vote.

And in a Saturday night speech at the "People's Summit," a weekend convention of progressive activists in Chicago, Sanders praised Labour and told supporters, "They won those seats not by moving to the right, not by becoming more conciliatory. They won those seats by standing up to the ruling class of the UK."

"I want to tell you," he said, "that the movement for economic, social, racial and environmental justice is not just growing here in the US, it is growing worldwide. All over the world, all over the world, people are asking, 'How does it happen that, globally, the top 1% now owns more wealth than the bottom 99%?'"

At that, the hall erupted. Labour's success -- which brought the party to within shouting distance of a majority in what is now a hung parliament -- was validation, and as one participant put it, "ammo" for the movement as it clashed with Democrats seeking a more familiar, cautious path.

Eyes on Paris

Those moderates will not enter the debate unarmed. Their weapon of choice: French President Emmanuel Macron. A little more than a month earlier, the little-known former government minister who created his own party, En Marche!, won a run-off against the far right National Front's Le Pen. (En Marche!, running a slate of mostly political novices, many picked from civil society, followed up by positioning itself to win an overwhelming legislative majority after a strong performance in the first round of parliamentary elections on Sunday.)

"You have people who were lawyers, company executives, architects, journalists, anything really," Philippe Le Corre, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, told CNN. "These people would have had no chance to be elected as part of one of the traditional political parties."

Indeed, Macron represented something different -- perceived as fresh and untarred by corruption. For interested American liberals, his and the party's victories suggested another potential route to restoration.

"He's not part of a left wing league in the West," Le Corre said. "He doesn't want to be called left wing, nor right wing" and his roster of ministers suggests, "this is actually a grand coalition of the center-left and center-right. Nothing like anything we've seen before. It's not a fake socialist or a fake conservative party, it's new."

Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, sees a lesson in Macron's march to power. After he was elected in May, she co-wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post titled, "What American progressives should learn from France's Macron."

The article pointed to "Macron's vision of political reform, and his pledge to put the French back at the heart of political life" as one determining factor. In an interview, Tanden pushed back at the suggestion, prevalent on social media, that she was dismissing Labour, but warned Democrats not to dismiss the French leader.

"What I think what we should do is actually figure out what works," she said. "We should take lessons from both. I just think we shouldn't ignore lessons about Macron's victory and just think about Labour's victory. I think we should say Labour outperformed and that is a success -- that was a success, it wasn't winning -- but it is a success that they outperformed (expectations). And Macron outperformed his, and won."

Whether Macron, the neophyte with uncertain ideological bearings, can drag France out of the doldrums -- and keep his government popular enough to carry out a program that could prove unpopular with the young and working class -- remains to be seen. Corbyn's fate too is uncertain. Is this Labour's high tide -- or is Britain one election, perhaps within the next few months, away from making a proud leftist its prime minister?

We will find out soon enough. But for many in the American left, at the dawn of the Trump era, patience feels like a lost luxury.

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