Another election for UK Labour, another (close) loss. Sigh. But wait! There’s France’s Macron! Can’t he be the leftie anti-Trump? He now has as big a majority in his government as Trump’s Republicans do.
So what if the left had an authoritarian populist in power and got some stuff done?
Why can’t the left generate candidates like Donald Trump who upset diplomatic orders, dominate public discourse, and set out an alternative view for an advanced rule-based democracy?
With climate change, environmental degradation, property crises, poverty crises, and decades of vision-free national policy, isn’t real force necessary? Can the left yearn for executive authority?
Or is this just wrong to imagine? Jeremy Corbyn, for example, appears to be a Labour leader without demagogic capacity, preferring detailed policy prescriptions retold in his trademark grey-whiskered scruffy style for public consumption.
Part of the answer is in the history of the left over the previous century. It’s been really easy to tar the left as being on a continuum that supported spectacularly bloodthirsty revolutions in Russia, China, eastern Europe, central Asia, central Africa, south-east Asia, and beyond. We don’t need another Stalin. Too few of the left foreswore revolution, so that tarring has been easy. So why does a leftie Trump seem so hard to imagine, so off-putting? Isn’t this the kind of scale of disruption that the world needs, from the left?
The first answer is, of course, no-one needs a leader as rude or ignorant. Successful politics is about more than making omelettes with eggs. It’s possible to achieve really useful stuff diplomatically, and it’s hard.
The second, is that every country is different. National leadership matters because countries still matter. Each historical and social context demands a different response, within its own democratic framework.
But it’s easy to feel frustration. With the comprehensive economic and societal restructures that New Zealand has gone through, there’s a real question about why we have not seen the rise of more radicalised populist parties. Moderate policies over 6 elections here have generated very moderate results here. What we are seeing across many developed economies is a politics responding to sluggish or declining growth, resistant high real underemployment, no wage and salary growth, declining regions, and whole manufacturing economic bases of social life simply shipped out. Worse than here.
What is being observed through much of Europe, the UK, and the USA are manifestations of a rising tide of right-wing populist politics that really is taking power. And the left, to be honest, is being left behind in every country I can think of.
In little old New Zealand, rather than observing New Zealand First rise to pre-eminence here, they remain between 9-12% and have never been a challenge to the largest two parties. Why?
Let’s look at a couple of comparators.
Singapore is about the same size in population, and is like us a very young nation with a sensitive local population significantly displaced by immigrants. Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party won the country’s general elections, but earned its lowest percentage of the popular vote since coming into power more than half a century ago.
Lee Kuan Yew, father of modern Singapore, could be seen as a populist authoritarian leftie. His policies about media influence, housing ownership, state ownership, and highly prescriptive economic policies have formed a different kind of society than that which we could imagine or countenance here, but it is strong, dynamic, and filled with public ownership.
But their elections are getting more competitive. There are signs of political liberalisation and maturity. Their context for elections is a paternalistic and technically rational administrative state, reasonably credited with the republic’s remarkable success and largely insulated from political pressures, united by one leader with immense charisma and drive who determined to stay the course, crush opposition, and embed his political successor and his policies. So “populism” in that sense really means a much stronger democracy than they have yet had.
Singapore – clean, meritocratic, pragmatic – has had its origins set down a particular form of democracy and state that is different to the liberal democratic trajectory.
And then there’s France. Macron is no hard leftie. He wants a harder, stronger, more self-reliant Europe. So does Trump. But Macron once taught philosophy and can cite Moliere from memory – doesn’t that make him at least bourgoisie-sympathetic? Hmmm. He’s certainly supportive of climate change: “Lets Make The Planet Great Again”. But that’s comparing him to Trump’s refusal to deal in facts. Macron’s economic policies on employment would fit pretty well with those of Prime Minister Bill English – although that’s comparing to the still highly regulated labour conditions found in France. Macron’s first bill will be aimed at “moralising” French politics by imposing term limits and barring MPs from hiring family members or working as consultants. You could almost describe it as … draining the swamp. I also suspect that the United States and United Kingdom will no longer be able to effectively outsource foreign policy to Merkel’s Germany with a more assertive Gaullist in France.
There’s still some small hankering for a Trump of the left: a great roaring charismatic figure rising up the unwashed and downtrodden, dominating and reviving the fortunes of the left. That is, do what the right have done better. I still hear assumptions that the hard left will rise again as leftist party machines get their ideological mojo back on track. Instead the world is demonstrating that there will be more countries who are run by centrist pragmatists with strong personalities and outsider status parties.
Since 1990, our own Prime Ministers have been exceedingly well mannered and only mildly clever even when pushed on the international stage, and also very careful to implement societal change through technocratic means not force, supported by MMP coalitions that widen their social mandate.
The historical memory of the left is more sensitive to charges of authoritarianism than the right. Maybe that’s just for old people. I also have a sneaking suspicion that the left needs its leaders to always obey the system they have created: the rules-based order of the state must function more perfectly for the left than the right, because they need the restraining force of the state’s legal instruments against the market a whole bunch more than the right does. Because the left needs the system more, the leftie leader must always defer to the system more. Perpetual taming.
But there are looming crises that the left cares about that are particularly hard to solve without really discomfiting paradigm-smashers like Donald Trump. If Trump succeeded as Lee Kuan Yew did by bluntly smashing norms to sweep aside the paralysis of ideological and political deadlock, and installed a technocratic government focused on performance and results, upon which actual legitimacy of popular support are staked, then that question of “the leftie version of Trump” will arise again.