The Biden victory and the future of the center-left

Postwar global progress has hinged on a transatlantic alliance of progressive parties. The election in the United States potentially opens a new chapter.

EJ Dionne Jr is a professor at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a columnist for the Washington Post and a visiting professor at Harvard University. His most recent book is Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite to Save Our Country (St Martin's Press, 2020). This article is part of a series with Social Europe on the 2020 U.S. elections.


Joe Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump in the presidential election has brought relief and a measure of hope to progressives across the globe. The celebration was especially enthusiastic in Europe, where the rise of right-wing nationalism was abetted by Trump’s presidency. If Biden could stem the tide, others had reason to believe they might join him.

Unsurprisingly, some center-left leaders were quick to draw lessons from Biden’s triumph that best suited their domestic political needs—none more so than British Labour’s Keir Starmer, who has rather quickly made his party competitive again after a disastrous defeat in 2019. He saw in the incoming president an ally for the sermon he has been preaching. The election, Starmer wrote, ‘had stark lessons for those of us who want to see progressive values triumph over the forces of division and despair’.

The Democrats’ ‘path to victory’, he said, ‘was paved by a broad coalition, including many states and communities that four years ago turned away from them’. For Starmer, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania looked a great deal like Redcar, Stoke-on-Trent, Don Valley and the other Labour bastions that had fallen to the Tories.

 ‘To win back the trust of voters takes time,’ Starmer argued. ‘It takes political leaders who listen, learn and renew. Biden spoke to the soul of the nation, with a focus on who people are and what they value: family, community and security.’ 

It was as if Biden had closely studied the thoughtful 2018 book by the Starmer adviser Claire Ainsley, The New Working Class. And, as it happened, Ainsley’s key themes—family, fairness, hard work and, especially, decency—were highlights of many of Biden’s speeches and his advertising.

Germany’s finance minister, Olaf Scholz, the SPD’s chancellor candidate in next autumn’s federal elections, not only congratulated Biden for opening the way to ‘a new and exciting chapter in transatlantic relations’ butwent out of his way to urge Trump to drop his challenges. ‘If there are elections,’ Scholz said, ‘you have to accept them.’ For him, the ability of a candidate from his progressive party’s moderate wing to consolidate support from its left was a heartening sign for 2021.

And Portugal’s Socialist prime minister, António Costa, looked forward to a Biden administration that might foster co-operation on ‘climate change, defense of democracy and international security’. Costa, who has successfully managed a coalition of his own center-left with the left, may have lessons for Biden, who needs to satisfy both the center and the left in the very big tent that is the Democratic Party.


Coalition-building opportunities

Biden’s victory has made the world safer for democracy and democratic values. It suggests there is nothing inexorable about the rise of the far right and points to coalition-building opportunities for supporters of progressive policies, on climate, equal rights and the economy.

As with the victory of the New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, and her Labour Party a few weeks before Americans voted, it also points to the thirst of electorates for basic competence in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. A new popular appreciation for the rigors of governing is good news for all democratic parties confronting divisive forces that thrive on cultural division, symbolic politics and demagogic efforts to marginalize ethnic, racial or religious minorities.

But Biden’s win also points to continuing problems for the center-left. While his margin was decisive (four percentage points and over 6 million popular votes), Trump’s ability to turn out 10 million more voters than he did in 2016 points to the enduring appeal of his polarizing themes to a large share of the electorate and his success in casting himself and the Republicans as more competent economic managers. This despite Trump’s glaring failures in managing the pandemic and the economic history since the Bill Clinton presidency, showing the Democrats’ superior record on jobs and growth.

Moreover, Biden on the whole proved more successful in converting voters in the suburban middle class than in the Democrats’ former working-class bastions. He did chip away at the Trump vote in the old industrial areas. But his relative strength in the suburbs points to a challenge confronting almost all social-democratic parties: they are increasingly dependent on the university-trained middle class, as their industrial working-class base declines and shows a propensity to turn to the right for protection against the gales of globalization.

These challenges help explain why Biden’s victory did not translate into gains for the Democrats in the House of Representatives and the Senate—which will, in turn, make his governing task more difficult.


Familiar programs

Nonetheless, the Biden opportunity should not be undervalued. His campaign managed to assemble a program which satisfied the left and center of his party. It included efforts to broaden the US welfare state with programs familiar to Europeans, for universal health coverage and access to childcare. 

Biden’s answers to the climate crisis emphasized not just a move away from fossil fuels but also large investments in the job-creating possibilities of cleaner energy. And, in keeping with Ainsley’s insights into the new, non-industrial working class, he laid heavy stress on the need to improve wages in the ‘care-giving’ sector and expand employment opportunities for the marginalized there.

A politician long comfortable in the moderate camp of progressive politics, Biden also signaled that he was not proposing a simple return to the ‘third way’ politics of the era of Clinton and Britain’s Tony Blair—or even to the relatively middle-of-the road politics of Barack Obama. 

Biden did not assail the third way (and he openly and appreciatively embraced the man who made him vice-president). But he offered a decided difference in emphasis. He pointed to his long record of support for the union movement and pledged to expand the bargaining power of workers. He criticized Trump’s approach to protectionism but did not offer a full-on endorsement of free trade, promising instead a return of supply chains to the US and a ‘buy America’ program to revive manufacturing.

Without a strong hand in Congress, it’s hard to see how Biden can enact his entire program. Still, it’s easy to see aspects of the Biden approach translating to social-democratic parties trying to navigate between a total repudiation of the third way and an acceptance of its constraints, and between the elements of an increasingly catch-all constituency that includes middle-class and working-class voters.

Biden’s success in simultaneously mobilizing black voters and the young, while maintaining sufficient support from older white voters, also bears close study from parties that need to perform similar balancing acts. And the central role of women in the Democratic voter base could point to the future for many other center-left parties.


Socialist label

For many in Europe who still embrace democratic socialism, there may be reason for skepticism that US politics has much to teach outside its borders. After all, allegations that Democrats represented dangerous forms of ‘socialism’ were central to the Republican campaign all the way down the ballot. They were deployed with considerable effect against Democratic candidates in moderate states and districts. 

It’s no accident that these attacks have escalated at the very moment when the socialist label is embraced more widely in the US than at any time since before the first world war. Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have made the case for their brand of democratic socialism by pointing to the success of socialist and social-democratic policies in Scandinavia and elsewhere in western Europe.

Their arguments have a particular draw among younger Americans, who lived through a genuine crisis of capitalism after the 2008 crash and are far less influenced than the older generation by cold-war memories of the Soviet Union. But Republicans have sought to tie Sanders and particularly Ocasio-Cortez to today’s authoritarian versions of ‘socialism’—in Cuba, Venezuela and elsewhere. This had some impact in moving Latino voters in Florida towards the Republicans, and was blamed by some moderate House Democrats for their party’s losses in more conservative districts.

Yet, paradoxically, these polemics only underscore how closely the situations of America’s Democrats and the broad European left parallel one another. The same debates, over the third way, neoliberalism, trade policy and regulation, which split the moderate left and the left in Europe—the SPD versus Die Linke in Germany, the Social Democrats v the Left Party in Sweden—define lines of division within the Democratic Party, which ranges across the entire spectrum from the center leftwards. Here, history has much to teach.


Obvious differences

It’s easy to make two, opposite, mistakes in comparing the Democratic Party and Europe’s social democrats—to overstate their similarities and to understate them.

The differences are obvious enough, related to history and the structure of American political competition. The Democratic Party was formed long before there was a socialist or social-democratic movement. While the historian Sean Wilentz has underscored the importance of pre-socialist working-class movements in Jacksonian Democracy in the 1830s, before and after the civil war the Democrats were in many ways a conservative party, particularly in the south where they were allied with slavery and white supremacy.

The shift to the economic left began with William Jennings Bryan’s populist campaign of 1896, continued with Woodrow Wilson’s progressivism—although deeply compromised by his racism—and culminated in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Roosevelt, as the historian Richard Hofstadter famously noted, gave a ‘social democratic tinge’ to American politics, and FDR drew into the Democratic Party many one-time socialists, particularly in the trade union movement that he helped empower. But the Democrats, despite what conservative businesspeople often thought, always remained a reformist capitalist party.

Moreover, the structure of the US system—a powerful presidency elected separately from Congress, a two-party rather than multi-party system, a winner-take-all rather than proportional approach to elections and a Senate that over-represents thinly-populated rural areas—created strong incentives for catch-all parties and often compromised the ability of progressive presidents to enact their full programs. Both Clinton and Obama were moderate politicians but they had little chance of enacting the more adventurous parts of their respective agendas, since they spent six of their eight years in office with one or both houses of Congress under Republican control.


Two-way traffic

Yet none of these differences should distract from a deeper history: US progressives and their counterparts in Europe—including socialists, social democrats, labor parties and the ‘New’ Liberals of Edwardian Britain—have been engaged in a two-way traffic of ideas for more than 150 years. The story of this give-and-take has been well told by the historians James Kloppenberg and Daniel T Rogers, in Uncertain Victory and Atlantic Crossings respectively. 

Since the New Deal, the Democrats have broadly represented the center-left of American opinion and often exercised enormous influence over social-democratic parties in Europe.

Roosevelt was the great hope for Europe’s democratic left, as democratic socialists and social democrats found themselves crushed by Nazism and fascism. After World War II and especially after the rise of ‘revisionism’ in the 1950s, the distinctions between the Democrats’ aspirations and those of social democrats diminished further.

 ‘From a party of the working class the Social Democratic Party has become a party of the people,’ Germany’s SPD declared in its 1959 Godesberg program. ‘It is determined to put the forces unleashed by the industrial revolution and the advance of technology in all spheres of life to the service of freedom and justice for all.’ Almost every American Democrat would be comfortable with such words.

The British Labour Party took a similar turn. ‘Collectivism, private ownership or a mixed economy were all consistent with widely varying degrees not only of equality, but also of freedom, democracy, exploitation, class feeling, elitism, industrial democracy, planning and economic growth,’ wrote Anthony Crosland, the giant of British revisionist thinking. ‘It was therefore possible to achieve the goal of greater equality and other desirable ends within the framework of the mixed economy …’


Welfare state

It’s true, of course, that the welfare state advanced further in Europe than in the US—in Sweden in the 1930s and elsewhere postwar. The continuing fight for universal health insurance in the US is a marker of these different trajectories. 

The welfare state’s victories were achievements not only of social democrats but also of Christian democrats, often influenced by Catholic social thought, and moderate conservatives such as Britain’s Harold Macmillan. While Dwight D Eisenhower could be viewed in the tradition of Macmillan and Konrad Adenauer, his moderate ‘modern Republicanism’ never fully took hold and the Republican Party took a sharp turn rightward after Eisenhower left office. 

The relative strength of unions in Europe also explains the limits to US economic egalitarianism—enduring racism and white supremacist politics playing a central role too. As Ira Katznelson has shown, the role of conservative southern segregationists in the Democratic Party limited the sweep of what Roosevelt and his successors could accomplish. The turn of the Democrats under John F Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson towards racial equality in the 1960s reorganized American politics and made the Democrats, over time, a more consistently progressive force.

Since the 1960s, the center-lefts of Europe and the US have often moved in tandem. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign, focused on modernity, energy and youthfulness, influenced the successful electoral strategies of Harold Wilson in Britain and Willy Brandt in then West Germany. 

The third-way turn of Clinton, Blair, Germany’s Gerhard Schröder and Wim Kok in the Netherlands was a genuinely transnational project and influenced parties of the center-left elsewhere. The backlash on the left against approaches seen as too accommodating to global capitalism has been equally transnational. 

So has the rebellion against austerity policies pursued, particularly by center-right governments in Europe, after the 2008 crash. It is one of the broadly positive developments during the Covid-19 crisis that even conservative parties abandoned austerity in favor of massive economic intervention, which helped prevent a far worse pandemic downturn.


Reform and renewal 

But where do we go from here? The Biden presidency, which is often described as restorationist in its objectives, could also be transformational if it uses the return to democratic norms as a starting point for a new era of reform and renewal, internationally as well as domestically.

In defeating Trump, he struck a blow against the rise of authoritarian populism—or, what might better be called ‘pluto-populism’, the apt phrase introduced by the Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf to describe the core of Trump’s approach of ‘campaigning on cultural issues while legislating for the upper 1 per cent’. The coalition Biden built modelled what the center-left could accomplish elsewhere—even as its limits also define the work Biden and like-minded politicians elsewhere need to undertake. 

As we’ve seen, the challenge to parties of the center-left within its old working-class constituencies remains. And cultural divides aggravated by economic disparities—between big, more prosperous metropolitan areas and the small city/town and rural areas—remain a challenge to Biden’s party and social-democratic movements elsewhere.

Biden’s embrace of democratic internationalism may be his most important immediate contribution. It matters that the US has a president who understands the importance of alliances with democratic nations, views strongmen abroad with suspicion rather than envy and sees foreign policy as more than disjointed transactions.

The European Union moved quickly to seize this opening, circulating a plan describing a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to revitalize the transatlantic partnership and seek agreement between the US and Europe, on climate, digital regulation and a shared approach to the ‘strategic challenge’ posed by China.

Biden won in part by seeking to move past the old debates about the third way and neoliberalism. He ran the most pro-union campaign of any Democrat since Truman, stressing the importance of workers’ rights and higher wages. His case was that their interest and the larger cause of American ‘greatness’ were best served through alliances, partnerships and ‘a foreign policy for the middle class’.

It’s important that this prove to be more than campaign rhetoric. Trumpian nationalism and its counterparts abroad gained traction because traditional foreign-policy elites (and, in the case of Europe, long-time supporters of the EU project) were seen as out of touch with the economically left-out in regions that were being defined as increasingly peripheral. A democratic internationalism which speaks to the discontent in such communities is the only kind of internationalism that can survive.

Biden’s national-security adviser, Jake Sullivan, was also a leading architect of his domestic policies during the campaign and paid particular attention to ‘the geography of opportunity so that all regions experience a middle-class revival’. Sullivan’s influence means that the economic and the diplomatic—the cause of democracy and the imperative of social reform—will not be locked into separate spheres.


Empathy and decency

To be hopeful about what Biden might achieve does not require being unrealistic about the challenges he confronts. Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the outcome of a free and fair election is symptomatic of a larger disruption in American politics. A Republican Party that was ferociously oppositional to Barack Obama, even in the face of potential economic catastrophe in 2009, shows no signs of being any more co-operative, despite Biden’s efforts at outreach.

But it is not naïve to imagine that Biden’s largest effect, on the world at large and on his own nation, may be his simple call for a revival of empathy and decency. This would entail a new engagement with the American tradition that struggled to overcome the burdens and oppressions of racism, celebrated the role of immigrants and refugees in our history and emphasized, as Obama always did, the call in the nation’s constitution for a ‘more perfect Union.’ The phrase elevates a project which always assumed more work needed to be done.

Without ever calling himself a socialist or a social democrat, Biden at his best may thus find himself operating in the tradition one of the leading US democratic-socialist thinkers, who defined himself as living on ‘the left wing of the possible’. The late Michael Harrington saw the democratic left as most effective when it followed the path of ‘visionary gradualism’. The world could use a spell of realism married to aspiration and hope.


This article originally appeared on Social Europe.

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