The party structures on both sides of the Atlantic have their origins in the Industrial Revolution and the debates engendered by that epoch about socialism and capitalism, the market and the state. These parties have endured because the roots they put down were very strong. But now, there are different distinctions than those simply of traditional right and left.
When I was growing up, people like my dad were conservative; and that meant economically and socially. Today, many such voters don’t fit that old stereotype. They may be pro-private enterprise and conservative on economics in traditional terms, but they’re also socially liberal — in favor, for instance, of gay rights. And there are those who used to vote left, but who are culturally illiberal and now don’t mind voting for parties of the wealthy.
Today, a distinction that often matters more than traditional right and left is open vs. closed. The open-minded see globalization as an opportunity but one with challenges that should be mitigated; the closed-minded see the outside world as a threat. This distinction crosses traditional party lines and thus has no organizing base, no natural channel for representation in electoral politics.
Politics in most European countries, and certainly in the United States, is still dominated by the traditional parties of right and left. Under pressure from radical populism, though, it’s shifting more to the extremes, as we’re seeing with the British Labour Party and the French Socialists.
So this leaves a big space in the center. For the progressive wing of politics, the correct strategy is to make the case for building a new coalition out from the center. To do so, progressives need to acknowledge the genuine cultural anxieties of those voters who have deserted the cause of social progress: on immigration, the threat of radical Islamism and the difference between being progressive and appearing obsessive on issues like gender identity.
The center needs to develop a new policy agenda that shows people they will get support to help them through the change that’s happening around them. At the heart of this has to be an alliance between those driving the technological revolution, in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, and those responsible for public policy in government. At present, there is a chasm of understanding between the two. There will inevitably continue to be a negative impact on jobs from artificial intelligence and big data, but the opportunities to change lives for the better through technology are enormous.
Any new agenda has to focus on these opportunities for radical change in the way that government and services like health care serve people. This must include how we educate, skill and equip our work forces for the future; how we reform tax and welfare systems to encourage more fair distribution of wealth; and how we replenish our nations’ infrastructures and invest in the communities most harmed by trade and technology.
Tony Blair, “How to Stop Populism’s Carnage”, The New York Times (4 March 2017), A19.