Justin Trudeau’s Victory in Canada and Its Lesson for Center-Left Parties Worldwide: Win By Going Progressive, Keynesian Bold and Ditching Third Way’s Austere Fiscal Conservatism

Justin Trudeau
For much of their modern history, especially during the postwar years of the 20th century, center-left parties (whether under the political banner of social liberalism or social democracy) have confidently advocated for progressive economicsSpecifically, these parties embraced the expansionary fiscal policies of Keynesianism with its countercyclical focus on demand management through constructive deficit spending during times of economic contraction to keep the economy humming.

However, with the string of electoral defeats suffered by center-left parties during the 1980s brought about, in part, by the ascendancy of Reaganism and Thatcherism that paved the way for the neoliberal revolution, these parties during the 1990s came to reject their Keynesian tradition that led them to accept the idea—the third way (or as some call it, compassionate neoliberalism)—that to be politically viable in the age of neoliberalism they had to adjust to the new settlement and move to the economic center-right. In essence, embracing an economics of tight fiscal policy (austerity) under the rubric of “sound finance” (that’s actually, well, quite unsound), aversion to Keynesian demand management, market-centric approaches to public policy, financial deregulation, and privatization, while ameliorating some of neoliberalism’s harsh edges. This trajectory toward the economic center-right was famously embodied by the rise of New Labour in the U.K. and New Democrats in the U.S. during the 1990s, and the rise of Orange Book Liberalism (emphasizing classical liberalism) within the traditionally social liberal British Liberal Democrats, in 2004, that culminated in leading that party to become junior partners with the Conservative Party of the U.K. during Prime Minister David Cameron‘s coalitional premiership from 2010-2015.

Now, despite the 2008 global financial crisis discrediting neoliberalism, it seemed that the firm grip of third way economic thinking on center-left parties would remain unchallenged with progressive Keynesianism continually marginalized.

(It must be said, though, Keynesianism did make a comeback with some of the center-left parties immediately after the global financial crisis. However, this resurgence was short-lived as many of these parties soon reverted back to the default third way posture during 2010 and afterward where they soon administered the harsh medicine of austerity without, tragically, healing their ailing economies that unnecessarily resulted in devastating human suffering.)

But then a funny thing happened along way that finally broke the all-too-familiar narrative of center-left parties still clinging to their neoliberal ways.

That thing being Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Partys seismic landslide victory in Canada, this past Monday, over the unpopular incumbent Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. An election where the Liberals won a solid governing majority government on a platform that rejected austere, third way economics and boldly embraced pro-growth, progressive Keynesianism. This is all the more remarkable when one considers the backstory that led to Trudeau and the Liberals’ smashing victory last week.

When the dropping of the writ occurred on August 2, 2015 that dissolved Parliament by the Governor General of Canada and ushered in the longest federal election in Canadian history (78 days or 11 weeks), the electoral prospects for Trudeau (the son of the legendary Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau) and the Liberal Party were quite, well, daunting, to say the least. With a meager caucus of only 36 sitting MPs out of 308 seats in the 41st Canadian Parliament (the parliamentary session at the time of its dissolution that inaugurated the election) and coming bleakly into the race initially mired in third place, the Liberal prospects of coming into second place over the social-democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) to become the Official Opposition, let alone toppling the then-ruling Conservative Party of Canada to form a government, were dim.

But then came the bold, game-changing policy pivot in late summer championed by Gerald Butts (Trudeau’s close confident and principal adviser), and other Liberal Party advisors and MPs to isolate, at that time, the frontrunner NDP (led by Thomas Mulcair) in order to become the leading progressive party that captured the all-important anti-Harper voting bloc among center-left and left-wing voters. The Liberals—rather than succumbing to the economic conventional wisdom peddled by austerians within the Canadian business, media, and political establishment in thrall with a “balanced budget fetish”—intelligently rejected all that. Instead, Trudeau and the Liberals essentially embraced the following campaign posture: Go progressive, Keynesian bold or go home!

In one fell swoop, Trudeau and the Liberals wisely rejected almost three decades of anti-deficit hysteria that, for far too long, has plagued the Canadian political landscape (as outlined brilliantly in a piece penned by noted Toronto Star columnist Rick Salutin) by narrowing national economic debate. During much of that time, even significant segments within the major center-left parties in Canada, the Liberals and NDP, succumbed to the hysteria; most notably then-Finance Minister Paul Martin‘s austerity policies during the 1990s, under Jean Chretiens premiership, that famously reneged on some of the Liberals’ major public investment promises in their then-touted 1993 campaign manifesto, the Red Book, and then-NDP Ontario Premier Bob Rae‘s imposition of austerity measures on the civil service workforce through his widely criticized Social Contract. The anti-deficit hysteria, for almost three decades, has circumscribed the ability of Canadian center-left parties to offer a coherent progressive, pro-growth Keynesian alternative as the Overton Window—the range of acceptable discourse and ideas in the political public square—has long been dominated by elite austerian delusions.

So, on August 27, at a televised campaign event in Oakville, Ontario, Trudeau publicly shifted left, in the economic sphere, and unveiled the Liberals’ Keynesian program of much-needed, robust public investments in infrastructure to revitalize the sluggish Canadian economy. To further drive home the Liberals’ emphasis on their shift to the left, on economic policy, they strategically—and brilliantly—showcased their infrastructure program by holding its announcement at an NDP-friendly locale to win the game of optics and symbolism to favorably drive home their campaign message. Their message being that Trudeau, not Mulcair, is the true progressive change agent in this election for the important left-wing and center-left anti-Harper voting bloc split between the red Grits and the orange Dippers. John Geddes, writing in Maclean’s, perceptively noted Trudeau’s campaign trajectory to the left (emphasis added):

Trudeau made his unexpected vow to spill red ink at the headquarters of Local 793 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, located in Oakville, Ont., which bargains for thousands of heavy-equipment operators in the province’s construction industry. And the Liberal leader wasn’t there just to pose for the cameras at the controls of a Manitowoc crawler crane. By staging his campaign-disrupting announcement at a labour-run training facility, Trudeau left no doubt that he means to challenge the traditionally union-allied NDP on its left flank.

As highlighted by Martin Patriquin‘s piece in Maclean’s, the point of Trudeau and the Liberals’ pro-growth Keynesian program was to make a sharp contrast, on a substantive policy-level, between their plan’s robust focus on constructive deficit spending (that would, again, jump-start the slowing Canadian economy) and the austerity measures outlined in both economic plans offered by the Conservatives and NDP:

On Aug. 27, Trudeau pounced, announcing $125 billion in infrastructure spending [an ambitious increase; up from $65 billion (Cdn) currently spent]—“the largest infrastructure investment in Canadian history,” as the Liberal campaign put it. Of course, spending oodles of money on bridges, roads and the like is nothing new, particularly during a campaign. The main difference is that the party plans on going into deficit to fund it, a marked difference from the NDP and the Conservatives. (Emphases and italics added.)

Specifically, as pointed out by Maclean’s reporter Nick Taylor-VaiseyTrudeau’s plan called for the following:

In 2013, Conservatives claimed that their New Building Canada Plan offered the “largest and longest federal infrastructure plan in our nation’s history.” Liberals similarly claim that their infrastructure pitch would comprise the “largest new infrastructure investment in Canadian history.” The difference? The Liberal plan augments existing Building Canada funding, eventually to the tune of $9.5 billion a year. It parcels the money into three categories: public transit infrastructure, social infrastructure (e.g., affordable housing, child care and seniors’ facilities), and green infrastructure (e.g., wastewater facilities, clean energy, dams). (Emphases added.)

With their late summer pivot, Trudeau and the Liberals, with unapologetic boldness, embraced and renewed the traditional center-left progressive Keynesian economic position that, again, for the past three decades, had been (for far too long) superseded by center-right third way economic thinking among many of the world’s center-left parties. Alas, a center-left progressive party finally making a decisive break with the past.

With that embrace, the Liberals, with laser-like focus, hit home the following message to Canadian voters: We are the party of progressive liberalism who will not be tied down by the empty economic conventional wisdom of neoliberal austerity. And, as such, we will be offering Canadians a real alternative this election.

In other words, the Liberals offered a real alternative that embraced responsible economic growth through stimulative Keynesian deficit spending (running a modest deficit of less than $10 billion [Cdn] a year for three consecutive years) to make the critical, constructive public investments to get the sluggish Canadian economy “moving again” (to borrow the key words from JFK’s 1960 campaign mantra). (It is interesting to note that the Liberals’ election platform of Keynesian deficit spending in the area of public investments in infrastructure was drafted, as reported in the Toronto Star, in consultation with members of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities; individuals who, more than anyone else, are at the frontlines in knowing the direct, adverse economic impact from Canada’s crumbling national infrastructure and the harsh effects of federal cuts to public investments.)

Throughout the campaign, Trudeau and the Liberals, with tight message discipline, kept emphasizing their embrace of the tried-and-true progressive Keynesian approach of “pump priming” to stimulate the Canadian economy in the throes of an economic slowdown. In fact, the Liberals went so far as to preach their gospel of Keynesianism on major Canadian television networks, such as CBC and CTV, as well as putting out one of the election’s most memorable ads, “Escalator: Harder to get ahead,” that is, perhaps, the best explanation of Keynesian economics in 30 seconds ever produced. (In regard to the Liberals’ campaign ad, the National Post went so far as to implicitly put it on par with LBJ‘s memorable 1964 “Daisy” commercial in its impact to convey a potent metaphor that defines an election.)

To drive their policy pivot firmly into the minds of the Canadian electorate, the Liberals also kept pounding on Mulcair for his inexplicable decision to embrace the Tory narrative on economic priorities the emphasized austerity and balanced budgets over Keynesian stimulative policies that lead to economic growth.

As such, during the summer, Toronto-area star Liberal MP (and a former internationally acclaimed business journalist who’s part of Trudeau’s economic team of advisors), Chrystia Freeland, attacked Mulcair’s embrace of center-right economics by accusing him of advocating austerity: “Thomas Mulcair talks a lot about looking out for average Canadians, but his only path to a balanced budget so quickly is massive cuts and backing away from the NDP’s spending promises.”

Joining in on Freeland’s line of attack, Trudeau made the following devastating point: “Let me tell you this my friends, the choice in this election is between jobs and growth or austerity and cuts. Tom Mulcair chose the wrong side.” And during the French language leaders’ debate hosted by Quebec network TVA in early October, Trudeau honed in on his attack on Mulcair’s embrace of the austere Tory economic playbook of balanced budgets over investments by pointing out the latter’s conservative-lite posture (italics added): “Mr. Mulcair, you made bad choices. You chose to balance Mr. Harper’s budget at all cost which means you can’t invest right now in the help that Canadians and Quebecers need. We have made another choice — three modest deficits to give help to children and pull 315,000 kids out of poverty.

In fact, Mulcair’s bewildering reaction to Trudeau’s Keynesian program did more to emphasize the Liberals’ campaign argument that they, not the NDP, were the credible progressive alternative in the race. As reported in Tom Wells’ brilliant long-form Maclean’s article (a recollection of the 2015 Canadian election), Mulcair’s response to the Liberals’ progressive pivot on the economy sounded as if a Milton Friedman acolyte had handed the NDP leader a right-wing talking point:

Mulcair took a question about the Trudeau deficit plan. “Governing is about priorities, and we’ve watched the Conservatives run up eight deficits in a row,” he said. “Now the Liberals are telling us that they want to run several years of deficits.”

And? And? “I’m tired of watching governments put that debt on the backs of future generations,” Mulcair went on. “Stephen Harper’s approach has always been, ‘Live for today, let tomorrow take care of itself.’ At some point, you have to start having different priorities.”

This was the sort of reply that Liberal strategists wanted insofar as it accomplished three things. First, it isolated the NDP away from the large bloc of center-left and left-wing anti-Harper voters. Second, it blurred the distinction between Harper and Mulcair on the economy (notwithstanding the anti-progressive attacks by the former against the latter). Third, it boxed in the NDP into the right-wing, budget-cutting corner that would prevent the social-democratic party from credibly running as Canada’s progressive change agent this election.

Furthermore, as Wells’ article points out, Mulcair’s reaction to Trudeau’s pivot devastatingly undermined the NDP’s traditional political brand as being the authentic progressive conscience of Canada of the two center-left parties:

When they heard Mulcair’s answer, Liberal campaign staffers were jubilant.

“It was a huge blessing when Mulcair went on the other side,” the Liberal who had followed public opinion on the deficit question said later. Not even a competent salesman like Mulcair could sell the notion that Liberals and Conservatives were peas in a pod. Not when he was joining Harper in insisting that budgets must be balanced henceforth. “Now we had the change lane all to ourselves,” the Liberal said. (Emphases added)

Moreover, Mulcair and the NDP’s head-scratching posture, throughout the election, to campaign against the Liberals to their right on a program of sound finance made no sense from a sober economic standpoint. As pointed out by Slate‘s senior business and economics correspondent, Jordan Weissmannthe present economic climate in Canada (in particular on the monetary side) favors a fiscal expansionary policy rather than one of retrenchment:  

Last [Monday] night, the Liberals and Trudeau surged to victory, largely on the strength of their economic platform. This is good news for Canada: Given the state of the world economy, it is absolutely insane that more rich countries aren’t running larger deficits.                                   

How come? Because this is an incredibly inexpensive moment for governments to borrow money. In fact, it may be the best time in recorded history [italics in original] for sovereigns to load up on debt. Interest rates have been hovering around zero more or less since central banks cut rates during the recession, and given the many economic headwinds before us, it may be a long while before they rise much higher. At points this year, countries have issued bonds with negative interest rates—meaning investors are literally paying governments to hold their money because they can’t think of anything safer to do with it. In circumstances like that, when the global bond markets are basically shouting “treat yo’self” at just about every finance minister in the developed world, the only reasonable move for a government is to borrow and use the free or nearly free money to make investments that might help the economy grow long-term, like building or fixing up roads, bridges, and other infrastructure(Emphases and italics added.) 

Former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence H. Summers, writing in the Washington Post, perfectly summed it up in his reflection of the 2015 Canadian federal election by echoing Weissmann’s point (emphases added):

[I]n an era of extraordinarily low interest rates and slow growth, it is becoming increasingly clear that progressives do best when they reject austerity and embrace public investment. The British Labour Party and the Canadian NDP sought to demonstrate their soundness by embracing budget balancing as an objective. Their results were terrible.

(The title to a commentary, published in The Globe and Mail, penned by University of Ottawa economist, Marc Lavoie, also perfectly sums up Mulcair’s mystifying decision to go right: “The NDP goes down the ‘sound finance’ rabbit hole.”)

At the end of the day, Mulcair and the NDP committed an unforced political error by outmaneuvering themselves when they ceded their economic left flank to the center-left Liberals—and thus weakened their traditional social-democratic identity as the progressive conscience of Canada—by making one of the most stupefying decisions ever committed by a center-left political party: undermining its own progressive brand and credibility by embracing a narrative dictated by the right. In other words, in the political and cognitive linguistic sense, the NDP committed what UC Berkeley Prof. George Lakoff—in his Toronto Star piece, “How progressives can take back Canada,” published earlier this yeardescribed as the following: “When you speak your moral language, you strengthen your political frames. When you speak in the language of your opponents, regardless of what you say, you only strengthen theirs” (emphasis added).

In light of Lakoff’s shrewd cognitive linguistic analysis, it is only fitting that the dueling campaign slogans for the Liberals and NDP were a study in contrasts as to who would decisively carry the anti-Harper banner as the authentic progressive change agent in the Canadian federal election. The Liberals ran under the emphatic banner of Real Change” [emphasis added], while the NDP merely ran on “Ready for Change”—a difference with tremendous distinction that Canadian voters clearly understood when they voted for a Liberal majority government in a landslide last Monday.

Alas, that was the problem with Mulcair’s calculation. By veering right on economics to build up the NDP’s fiscal credibility that would appease austerians within the establishment commentariat (who, with unfathomable intellectual gusto, still embrace neoliberalism as if the 2008 financial crisis never happened), Mulcair and the NDP undermined another point of credibility: the credibility to be viewed by the vitally important bloc of center-left and left-wing anti-Harper voters as the progressive alternative in the best position to unseat the Tories.

Mulcair and the NDP’s tight embrace of the ideologically exhausted—and politically feckless—third way route to social democracy, in this election, is even more mystifying since they should have seen the Liberal “go left” playbook coming. Their provincial party in Ontario, the Ontario NDP, led by Andrea Horwath went down to ignominious defeat at the politically nimble hands of Premier Kathleen Wynne and the Ontario Liberal Party when the former allowed the latter to outflank them on the left during the 2014 Ontario provincial election. This defeat generated tremendous NDP grassroots backlash that manifested itself in a strongly worded public letter penned by party activists, during the provincial campaign, that excoriated Horwath for giving up on the party’s progressive base in a vain attempt to win over conservative voters in Ontario.

At the end of the day, by veering right during this year’s federal Canadian election, on a major economic policy issue, the NDP lost the all-important “progressive primary” to the Liberals that resulted in the center-left and left-wing bloc of Canadian voters to massively coalesce around the latter, during the late stages of the election, to be the standard-bearer of the progressive anti-Harper vote. A decision that proved quite decisively costly for Mulcair and the NDP such that it, alone, may have very well cost them the opportunity to become Canada’s governing party this past Monday. Theirs is a cautionary tale for center-left parties around the world: by moving to the center-right on the economy, you not only lose your credibility, you also lose your progressive brand that alienates both supporters and potential supporters on the left and center alike—that, ultimately, lead to losing elections.

On the other hand, the lesson of Trudeau and the Liberals’ victory for the center-left is this: it’s time to bury the losing, timid and uninspired ways of austere third way economics and embrace the winning path of bold, optimistic and progressive (pro-growth) Keynesianism. At their best, for center-left parties, embracing progressive economics is not just a laundry list of sound, constructive policies that will do much to economically lift up the many (rather than just the few), but it also goes to heart of the social liberal and social-democratic project: fighting for a hopeful and just vision of society where—to borrow the memorable words from the election victory speech of Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau—it means rejecting “good enough is good enough and that better just isn’t possible” and fighting for a future where the “better is always possible.”


“Victory Speech – Election Night” from the Liberal Party of Canada


“A look back at the key moments of the election campaign” from The Canadian Press

(Photo: Justin Trudeau at the Toronto Centre campaign office opening of Liberal Chrystia Freeland, October 2, 2013. Photo by Joseph Morris on Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.) 

The Transatlantic Left Moment: The Rise of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, and the Unraveling of the Washington-Westminster Neoliberal Center

Bernie Sanders-Jeremy Corbyn

One of the most remarkable transatlantic political developments this year has been the surprising rise of two unabashedly left-wing insurgent—initially longshot—campaigns that have upset the establishment sensibilities of the Washington-Westminster neoliberal center: Bernie Sanders‘s campaign in the Democratic presidential primary and Jeremy Corbyn‘s race in the Labour Party leadership election.

The reactions by the neoliberal centrist grandees in the Democratic and Labour parties toward the emergence of Sanders and Corbyn have included, among others, not-too subtle, modern-day form of soft red-baiting, and demeaning insults and over-the-top rhetoric. And in some instances the reactions have veered ingloriously into the territory of strident paroxysms, in particular in Corbyn’s case, with, among other things, outright anti-democratic maneuvering and chilling warnings about an intra-party putsch(Should Sanders be on the verge of capturing the Democratic nomination for president in 2016, his campaign would do well to wisely study the British establishment’s all-out assault against Corbyn and be ready to counter similar undermining torrents of attacks that may await the senator should the neoliberal Beltway centrist insider class become severely rattled by the political threat posed by a left-wing insurgent within reach of leading a major party.)

In light of all this, what explains the reactions toward the insurgent campaigns of Sanders and Corbyn by the neoliberal array of centrist Democratic and Labour grand party poohbahs? One word: Fear.

Specifically, they fear that their Democratic and Labour centrist theory of progressive change has lost its legitimate hold, credibility, and political luster among the vast swath of supporters in each party as the political landscape has shifted to the left, among the grassroots base, in a seismic fashion in revulsion to the many decades of unprincipled triangulation and the domination of carefully scripted politics of style over profound, progressive substance. And that such lost only does more to publicly reinforce what many astute party activists and outside progressive critics of the Democratic and Labour establishment have long known: the ideological exhaustion, failure, and ideological bankruptcy of third way neoliberal centrism that has gripped both center-left parties for more than two decades.

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During the 1980s, in the aftermath of successive defeats by Democrats and Labour to, respectively, Reaganism and Thatcherism, the centrists in each party argued—with the force of seeming credibility that arises after losing landslide elections—that the electoral shellackings were caused by one critical thing. Specifically, each party supposedly veered too unfashionable left during the decade of conservatism.

Now, in the Democratic Party, the form of this argument specifically posited that the party’s landslide defeat in the 1984 presidential election, under the helm of former Vice-President Walter Mondale (viewed by party centrists, at that time, as the paragon of out-dated Hubert Humphrey-style liberalism), resulted from the party’s self-defeating attachment to interest group liberalism and its alleged anti-business predilections. While, similarly, the Labour version of this critique went something like this: the reason for its landslide defeat by Thatcher in the 1983 general election was because the party embraced an “unelectable” left-wing manifesto (famously derided, at that time, as the longest suicide note in history) pushed jointly by the supposedly feckless leadership of Michael Foot, who coddled Labour’s hard leftists, and those, within the party leadership, content in standing resolutely with the party’s old constituencies (i.e., the working class and the trade union movement) at the expense of targeting “Middle England” and its so-called “aspirational” sensibilities. (Never mind that Foot actually came out of Labour’s long-standing soft left tradition centered around Tribune magazine that took a determined, implacable stand against hard leftism, especially entryist tactics by Trotskyists, that was indistinguishable from the anti-radical old Labour revisionist Right. And never mind that elements, within Labour leadership, for years actually supported several policies that were inimical to the interests of trade unionists as well as embracing the proto-Thatcherite turn to monetarism under the last pre-Blair Labour government under the premiership of James Callaghan during the late 1970s.)

In essence, according to centrist neoliberals in both parties, the bane of the Democratic and Labour parties’ electoral woes, during the 1980s, encompassed the old, unfashionable gospel of traditional Keynesian New Deal-Fair Deal-Great Society liberalism (progressive liberalism) and Fabian social democracy that failed to speak to the conservative mood of the 1980s and the changing rightward drift of the voting public. (In 1989, public intellectuals associated with Democratic centrism of the Progressive Policy Institute [interestingly, the Blairite pressure group, continuing the centrist knack for appropriating progressive branding, calls itself Progress], went so far as to even label—with marginalizing rhetoric—party adherents to traditional liberalism as “liberal fundamentalists.”) Essentially, the thinking that emerged during the 1980s and early 1990s among many centrists in both parties was that the only sensible conclusion that could be soundly drawn from all of this was the following: for Democrats and Labour to be electable they must hew to the “sensible center” and resist any and all attempts to veer toward the “unelectable” left.

And it was from these aforementioned arguments that sought to explain the Democratic and Labour electoral traumas of the 1980s at the hands of conservatives that provided the intellectual foundation for the theory of progressive change propounded by neoliberal centrists in both parties. According to party centrists, because the Democratic and Labour parties were electorally marginalized after subsequent defeats to conservatives during 1980s (that included landslide losses), the only alternative for the center-left parties was for them to regain the “center.” (In other words, tacking toward the political right since, for all practical purposes, conservatism during the 1980s helped shift, in a rightward direction, the political center in the U.S. and U.K.).

Without moving to the center—so argued by centrists (that required modifying the parties’ values away from their own supposedly unelectable progressive values and policies)—both center-left parties would continue to suffer electoral defeats and thus be marginalized in the political landscape. And, as such, the failure to electorally achieve victory would prevent each party from attaining power. Without power, according to the centrist argument, both the Democratic and Labour parties would be in no position to enact the necessary progressive changes that were (1) required to counter the political right and undo the damaging achievements of successive conservative governments, and (2) demanded by the parties’ grassroots to critically sustain continued support for, and interest in, the parties by their supporters.

In essence, the implicit thrust behind the centrist theory of progressive change is this: achieving political power—a critical threshold that must be first met—would inexorably take care of political principles. For without power, any focus on principles would be nothing more than a pointless exercise of political impotency. The enactment of principles, through policies, is only achievable if a party possesses the levers of power to act. And to possess the levers of power requires winning elections.

In light of this, Democratic and Labour centrists offered their parties’ more progressive base of grassroots supporters the following proposition: We, like you, want to achieve the sort of progressive change that is at the core of our party’s values. But to do so requires that our party achieves power. And we cannot achieve power so long as our party is perceived, beyond the party base, as ‘unelectable’ as the public has shifted to the right. As such, we must moderate—if not downplay—our party’s core progressive values in order to win. Although we realize that many party supporters think that this approach goes against what our party stands for, in the end, the rewarding trade-off is this—power. Once we achieve power, then we can advance our shared progressive principles through governance that leads to concrete legislation.

Sadly, for many decades, far too many among Democratic and Labour progressive supporters accepted the proposition outlined above—and acquiesced, albeit with discontented grumblings, to both parties moving more and more to the right after each election during the 1990s and early 2000s. (To be fair, such acquiescence is understandable, especially for those progressive partisans of the Democratic and Labour parties who were old enough to have lived through the political traumas of consecutive defeats at the hands of, respectively, Reaganism and Thatcherism during the 1980s.)

More disconcertingly is the fact that as the centrist proposition gained tremendous currency among the parties’ leadership class and, to a certain degree, an electorally traumatized grassroots base of each party, what started out initially, in its early manifestation, as a strategic debate over electorally strategy, later morphed into a substantive debate over the parties’ identities. Specifically, what should each party stand for? It was in this milieu that emerged the rise of organized neoliberal centrism that has, till this day, come to dominate both parties: the New Democrats who arose during the mid-1980s under the auspices of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) (superseding, in a more rightward direction, even those on the right-edge of technocratic liberalism of the early ’80s—American-style neoliberals, i.e., “Atari Democrats“) and the emergence of New Labour during the early 1990s led by the Blair-Brown-Mandelson wing of so-called “modernizers” in Labour.

Now, the most damning aspect in all of this is that the fundamental premises (i.e., the electoral lessons of the 1980s gleaned by party centrists), used to discredit progressive liberalism in the Democratic Party and social democracy in Labour, suffer from one critical defect: they are both historically problematic. Specifically, the premises are misreadings of the actual electoral histories of the 1980s in the U.S. and U.K.

In 1984, Walter Mondale, despite his political pedigree steeped in the political tradition of Hubert Humphrey-style Midwestern lunch pail liberalism, actually ran on a technocratic, mildly center-right economic program. As astutely pointed out in The American Prospect by Jeff Faux, the founder of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), Mondale ran on an budgetary program that accepted Reaganism:

In 1984 the New York Times headlined: “Democrats’ Platform Shows a Shift from Liberal Positions of 1976 and 1980.” The press lauded Walter Mondale’s acceptance speech for its break with the past. “Look at our platform,” said Mondale. “There are no defense cuts that weaken our security, no business taxes that weaken our economy. No laundry lists that raid our Treasury.”

Now, across the Atlantic, the conventional wisdom, accepted as gospel by Labour centrists to explain their party’s electoral drubbing during the 1983 election, fares no better either. As perceptively pointed out by Craig Murray, human rights activist and former British Ambassador, the “Falklands War factor” had much to do with contributing to Thatcher’s 1983 victory:

Michael Foot consistently led Margaret Thatcher in opinion polls – by a wide margin – until the Falklands War. He was defeated in a victory election by the most appalling and intensive wave of popular war jingoism and militarism. . . .  It was the most unedifying political climate imaginable. . . . Few serious commentators at the time doubted that Thatcher might have been defeated were it not for the Falklands War.

Moreover, in terms of Labour, one should also add the vote-splitting effect of the Social Democratic Party (SDP)—a then-new third party comprised of leading social-democratic centrists who bolted from Labour in 1981 under the auspices of the Limehouse Declaration—on Britain’s anti-Tory center-left vote during the 1983 election. Also, there are even some who would go so far as to argue, quite persuasively, that the SDP’s vote-splitting effect was the crucial factor in tilting the ’83 elections to Margaret Thatcher. Either way, the joint debilitating impact of the Falklands War and the SDP-Liberal Alliance‘s vote-splitting effect—rather than, squarely, Labour’s much-maligned election manifesto (one that was “timid compared with the 1974 manifesto, which put Labour in government,” as noted by the former Joint Secretary of the Labour Representation Committee, Andrew Fisher)—seriously undermined Labour’s chances to defeat Thatcher at the ballot box.

As such in light of all this, the aforementioned premises peddled by centrists lack persuasive explanatory power in understanding what happened, electorally, to the Democratic and Labour parties during the age of Reagan and Thatcher. As a result, this glaring problem calls into question the centrist theory of progressive change. If the Democrats’ and Labour’s losses, during the 1980s, resulted more from outside factors than anything related to each party’s supposed “leftist drift” during that decade, then tacking rightward to the center-right, particularly on economic policy, would have no decisive impact, alone, on the likelihood of center-left parties achieving power. Thus, the supposed intra-party tension, among Democrats and Labour, between the politics of power and the politics of principles is nothing more than an illusory choice.

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Now, even if one assumes that the basic premises in explaining the Democratic and Labour electoral traumas of the 1980s are essentially correct (which, again, they clearly are not)—the bases of which have been used to give persuasive heft to the centrist theory of progressive change—such theory, on its own merit, suffers a defect as glaringly problematic as its bases. A center-left party tacking to the right, to achieve electoral success to obtain power, does not make it more likely that progressive change will occur. Why? Because moving toward the right—and, by extension, failing to challenge the conservative framework that defines the limits of political debate—does nothing more than to further legitimize conservatism in the electoral landscape even if the center-left party gains power by vanquishing the right at the ballot box. By legitimizing right-wing politics, a center-left party who moves rightward simply reinforces the further entrenchment of conservatism as the unquestioned, default political center and thus pushes the Overton Window further to the right with the effect of severely circumscribing the ability of progressives, once in power, to pursue even mildly center-left policies, let alone those that are robustly left-wing.

Furthermore, moving rightward to capture the highly elusive, free-floating political middle in order to win (and thus achieve power) is, from a pragmatic standpoint, a dubious proposition for the center-left. Why should voters pull the lever for center-right Democratic or Labour candidates when they could just vote for the real deal, i.e., conservatives with the more stalwart commitment to right-wing policies? (Or, as George Monbiot recently wrote in The Guardian: “Why vote for the echo when you can vote for the shout?”) And, even more problematic, why should each party’s own voters bother to show up and vote when their own respective party apes the opposition’s political and policy positions that do nothing more than make these political supporters dispirited and unmotivated to vote on election day (as had happened during the 2010 mid-terms for the Democratsor to push them into the camp of third parties, even right-wing ones (as what occurred recently for Labour in last May’s British premiership election)?

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In light of all this, this is why the rise of Sanders and Corbyn is one of the most important developments to come out of the 2015 political season. Sanders and Corbyn are not only tapping into the deep, passionate and engaged energy of robust resurgent progressivism that’s resonating among large sections of the electorate disaffected by the prevailing Washington-Westminster neoliberal consensus, but these candidates are doing it by refuting, head-on, the centrist theory of progressive change in an unabashed fashion. In essence, what these candidates are offering to the public is a bold progressive alternative that’s attempting to shift the national political dialogue leftward by campaigning unequivocally on the left with clear left-wing messages and policies of which the American and British electorates have not seen since the days when Democratic and Labour politicians actually believed in the progressive liberal and social-democratic values of their parties. The neoliberal centrist days, inside the center-left parties, of downplaying progressive values and embracing the me-too (lite) politics of mimicking the right (i.e., compassionate neoliberalism) are clearly waning.

And more importantly, the receptivity to embracing the neoliberal centrist theory of progressive change has decisively lost its enduring hold among the party grassroots base, as Democratic and Labour supporters, in large numbers, are not only rejecting such politics but are doing something critically about it: they’re politically mobilizing in a progressive fashion. Specifically, they’re organizing to create sustainable progressive movements in the U.K. and U.S. that will exist beyond the conclusion of each campaign for Corbyn and Sanders, irrespective of what happens to the electoral fortunes of these two men, respectively, in 2015 and 2016. The voters of this sizable, engaged progressive electorate, in each country, are rejecting en masse the politically exhausted and bankrupt ideology of neoliberal centrism that’s been prevalent among center-left parties. In contrast, Sanders and Corbyn are the sharp antitheses to the decades-old centrist politics (and its concomitant theory of progressive change): theirs is the politics of principles over vacuity, substance over style, policies over personalities, values over triangulation, and, more importantly, robust progressivism over compassionate neoliberalism. The spin politics of poll-driven policies and triangulating accommodation has clearly run it course, while the signpost politics of conviction is clearly in the ascendency.

Now, although the final outcomes of the Sanders and Corbyn campaigns are yet to be decided—though both show tremendous possibilities and promise—what is certain is that, as a result of their political emergence this summer, politics going forward will not be the same. Politics as usual (i.e., party centrism’s slavish accommodation with the right) will not cut it anymore among supporters of America’s and Britain’s main center-left parties.

What Sanders and Corbyn have tapped into is the growing, building momentum of a resurgent political left. It is a left-wing resurgence that arose in the wake of global neoliberalism’s greatest meltdown in 2008, and the subsequent age of austerity and, many would argue, the unmet progressive potential of the Obama presidency. It is also a resurgent left that manifested itself during the past several years that included the popular, organized movements against anti-labor attacks by the GOP in Wisconsin, the upsurge of Occupy activism against rampant inequality and the 1% economy, and the meteoric rise of the progressive Warren-wing inside the Democratic Party. Though the Sanders and Corbyn campaigns cannot claim credit for being the sources behind the groundswell renaissance of the progressive left in both their parties, what they can deservedly take credit for is providing political vehicles, through their candidacies, that give voice to such energy and channeling it in a constructive democratic fashion: through engaged electoral politics. And because of this, for people in America and the British Isles who believe in a principled and thoughtful politics of compassion and inclusion, progressive reform and social justice, the political cultures in both countries are all better for it.


(Photo: Photographs of Bernie Sanders [left] and Jeremy Corbyn [right]. Sanders photo by Gage Skidmore on Flickr licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License. Corbyn photo by stopwar.uk.org on Flickr licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License. Both photos used in the post cropped by the post’s author.)