Donald Trump will be back for another go at the Presidency in 2024. Donald Trump has the mightiest and most powerful political brand in the United States, and he has gained the total fealty of the Republican Party. As he did in 2016 he will continue to crush all before him.
Unless the remaining centre-left generates strategies that are executed so well that people feel the difference good politics makes, the elements of populism arising again will stay ready like the elements of a bomb.
There was no overwhelming voter-revolution against the policies and practices of the Republican Party. There was therefore no clarity provided that would solve the debate about how the Democratic Party or indeed other centre-left parties should position themselves on cultural and economic issues to maximise their electoral appeal and gain stronger majorities.
There are very few countries in Europe in which the radical right is not ascendant. The stronger left are in freefall, and the Green parties are providing no more than token replacement and within limited realms.
So the challenges that are faced in the United States, in Europe and the UK, and in Australasia, haven’t changed. Political leaders on the left need to fashion both a less elitist identity and a more credible economic policy. They can’t rely on an alternative populism to the hard right – because among other things social democrats assert that policy instruments sustain the institutional trust that suppresses populism in the first place.
As Thomas Piketty among others has noted, parties of the left have become increasingly the parties of educated, metropolitan elites. The most important signal of this in New Zealand’s recent elections was the win by the Greens in central Auckland. The unions that sustained the left for so long have now at least in New Zealand been reduced to serving the public service (which they do really well). But with their influence in sustained decline, the rise in influence of the finance and banking industry, and corporate interests has been massive.
The cultural gap between the elite identity of centre-left leaders and party affiliates, and those most vulnerable, can be easily illustrated by how the cultural elites dismiss the 70-plus million Americans who backed Trump in this election by portraying them as thick fools who vote against their own interests. Turn on MSNBC, or CNN, or hundreds of the youtube satirical sites and fill yer boots.
The question of why leftie righteousness prevailed only narrowly needs to be faced squarely by the Democratic Party – and that is the same question that the left more broadly in Europe hasn’t answered either in their massive losses since 1989.
On economics, the left – including our own Labour government – still lacks a good answer to the burning question of our time: Where will good jobs come from? New Zealand has a government that is facing an economy quickly burning off tens of thousands of cheap and weak jobs: seasonal fruit pickers, café and hospitality staff, English language education, and retail workers.
Centre-left governments starting up in 2020 have, if it is possible, even more to contend with than ever before: they are some of the last holdouts of a set of movements that peaked nearly a century ago. But they face a world rocked by chaos and with few other centre-left governments to cooperate with anymore.
So the Democrats in the United States, and Labour in New Zealand, face similar quandaries: reinvent progressive taxation but only if it shows the public sector can take the extra money and execute well; invest more in education and infrastructure but only if it delivers attainable futures we can all see are really going to happen for our lives; and invest more in healthcare to prepare for the next wave of public health crisis. Even all of those done well is no longer sufficient.
The policy instinct of our Provincial Growth Fund was right: communities where good jobs disappear pay a price that goes beyond economics. Drug addiction, family breakdown, and crime rise within them. People become more attached to traditional values, less tolerant of outsiders, and more willing to support authoritarian strongmen.
Unless the remaining centre-left generates strategies that are executed so well that people seel the difference good politics makes, the elements of populism will stay ready like the elements of a bomb.
An alternative – the path of our current government – is to support business to the maximum and essentially remain left in name only insofar as it makes existing public institutions stronger. That is, to forget the idea of being “left” altogether. Their first two major moves of government were to provide massive loans to business, and to sign another trade deal which may or may not benefit citizens, and whenever it is ratified.
What saves New Zealand from U.S. populism isn’t the popularity of our political leaders – because our leaders since 1999 have been amazingly popular as well as effective. What saves us from populist instincts is our basic sense that we are heading in the right direction (check out the series starting over five years ago) and that we have strong trust in our public institutions, which is in turn reflected in the strength of our democratic participation at around 80%.
This social and cultural cohesion despite rapidly worsening inequality and poverty is what gives the New Zealand Labour government more breathing space in three years than the U..S Democratic Party has in four years. Yet we know where an unrealistic political high goes: down and down fast.
It remains up to the parties of the left to develop solutions that go beyond redistributive instruments and into addressing the hard question about where the really good jobs are going to come from. Because that’s where people get on top of their bills, start saving, and start giving us the capacity to see that the left delivers more for us and our family than the political right does.
We must stop dismissing the supporters of populists as essentially morons. Or else we and the Democrats could be in for another rude awakening in just a few years from now.
The weaker of us are not morons. In fact, they might just be right.