Despite 7 years of stagnant economic growth in Europe, austerity in Britain and growing inequality in the US, the political left has never looked weaker. That is a problem. All good political systems require competition of ideas to help both sides refine and improve the policies which they offer their electorates. In the founding of any democracy it is widely acknowledged that a failure to create two equal political parties, who can act as counterweights to one another, is essential. Some even believe that if the Russian Communist party had split into two parties in 1990, one moderate and the other traditionalist, it would have fundamentally changed the trajectory of Russian democracy.
But why are the political left so weak? The answer is that they are focusing on all the wrong issues. LGTBQQ rights, climate change, religious tolerance and gender equality are important issues in making our world a better place. But they are not the reason why people decide to vote for one party or another at the ballot box. Hillary Clinton did not lose because every Trump voter is a climate-denier, racist, misogynistic homophobe who wishes to punishes poor people. Though there were likely many of those too. But the reality is that people vote for bread and butter issues and as Bill Clinton once famously quipped, it’s often about “the economy stupid”.
Politicians in the modern era have a tendancy to focus on issues that are at best tangental and at worst, irrelevant, to the day-to-day lives of most citizens. Climate change is a huge issue, one that I passionately seek to help fix every day. But it isn’t something you can explain or resolve in a tweet. It also is something that is extremely hard to explain to citizens that work 9am – 5pm in an office. The same is true with the rise of identity politics issues. It is morally clear that Donald Trump’s ban on transgender service in the military is wrong, but if democrats think that they will win votes over these issues then they are misguided. As sympathetic as the ordinary citizen is to the suffering of others, it takes more than the empathy that one may feel from an article or a youtube clip to vote for a political party that is also raising your taxes or restricting your social rights.
If we acknowledge that the issues championed by left wing parties are the wrong issue to win elections and political power, then intuitively one must ask why parties cover these issues. In part the answer lies in the membership base and in part it is a feature of the social media age. Political parties draw their strength from loyal members, who contribute funds as well as time to help win elections and in exchange they are granted an input into the policy making process. Today though, members are no longer content with “an input”. Grass root activists, inspired by social justice movements like Occupy Wall Street and other online anarchist strctures, are seeking to rebuild the entire political governance of their parties. In doing so, the parties are sacrificing external clarity of message for the ostensible goal of greater internal cohesion, as all factions and members feel more engaged in the policy creation process.
In the social media age, these internal struggles play out across the public sphere and muddle the waters. Moreover, the areas of greatest acrimony and therefore greatest publicity, are not issues of inequality or climate change (where agreement is much stronger) but rather the extent of engagement with identity politics issues. These topics, ranging from the appropriate use of social pronouns (if such a thing still exists), towards use of public facilities (notably toilets) and removing statues, hold no interest to the vast majority of society but they are fought though they are an existential battle, by left wing activists across social media platforms. In the maelstrom all other issues are lost. The conservatives in the US understand this well. Breitbart, Fox and other right wing activist groups are easily able to distract the political left from delivering clear messages on inequality, healthcare and the economy by effectively trolling the political left with social politic clickbait. Milo Yiannopolous andDonald Trump are experts at this.
Many could contest that the political left is stronger than it has been portrayed, but the success of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Macron in France is misleading. Macron was the ultimate example of the “lesser of many evils vote”, a product ofthe disastrous Socialist government election process, a crippling leadership scandal in the Republican party and a desperation to keep the National Front out of power. Corbyn is even stranger. A product of the anger felt by many in the UK who suffered disproportionally from the reduction of public spending in social services and a rising anger that the system is rigged which came from the financial crisis. Such anger against elites is ironically why Corbyn and Macron share so many similarities with Trump, in that they are all populists that are riding a wave of anger against the perceived liberal, effete elite. But the perceived success of these leaders is due to electoral circumstance, not the strength of their political positions.
Jeremy Corbyn persuaded young students that their debt would be removed, while sending two contrasting visions of Brexit to Labour voters in the north and labour voters in the south. Macron did even less. It is perhaps unsurprising therefore that Macron’s popularity has dropped faster than any French president in the last 20 years. Meanwhile Labour may being riding high in the polls, but Jeremy Corbyn still polls as a “less trusted to govern” leader than Theresa May. A leader that lost an election and is expected to be removed in the next 12 months.
In politics there is a disctinction between doing the right thing because its right and doing it because it looks right. The Conservative party in the UK will never outliberal the Liberal Democrats and they will never be seen as more progressive than parties whose foundations were built on championing the rights of excluded groups in society. Similarly the Labour party and Democratic party will never win over aspirational voters, who want a better quality of life by championing social issues as their primary selling point.
The obsession with social politics issues is a problem for the political systems of western liberal democracies. If we can’t move on from it and focus on the bigger picture issues that affect the day-to-day lives of millions, citizens will start to wonder what democracy is doing for them anyway. Confused onlookers from China and Sinagpore may be asking that already.