Dems are Doing Pretty Well- Or At Least Better than Peers in Europe and Around the World
Dems have fought two major recessions better than Europe- and the Dems are more united and stronger than the center-left in Europe and other large nations like India and Brazil.
Ragging on the Democratic Party is just the tradition in the US left - and some of it is quite warranted.
However, compare the Democrats to other left-leaning parties and coalitions in Europe. Dems have largely figured out how to build progressive governing coalitions that have often eluded the center-left in much of Europe and other places in the world.
Look at the US response to the recent pandemic-driven recession. Because of far stronger recovery programs, led by Democratic Party leaders, the recession was milder in 2020 and the economic bounceback in 2021 far stronger than in the Eurozone.
The US government provided far larger direct cash assistance to families to rise out the pandemic and spent a higher percentage of GDP on stimulus spending than most other countries. (I wrote in far more depth on this in How the Dems Saved the Economy.”)
And this wasn’t a one-off success during the recent pandemic. The US response to the financial crisis of 2007-2009 was also far more robust, both during the crisis and in follow-up years. While Europe strangled its own recovery because of an embrace of austerity economics, the US would embrace large deficits based on a Keynesian stimulus plan, particularly in 2009 in the first year of the Obama administration.
The subsequent economic growth here at home in the 2010s, however anemic at times, was far stronger than in the Eurozone, where many commentators referred to Europe’s “lost decade” with countries mired in austerity economics and slow growth.
Part of the explanation is conservative governments being in power in European countries during these economic crises but even where left-leaning parties were in government or within coalitions, those center-left parties tended to be more ideologically supportive of austerity economics- a point a number of commentators noted.
The Strength of the Democratic Party Coalition Contrasts with Fractured Left in Europe and Around the World
Party frustrations with Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema tend to obscure how much more unified the Democratic Party is compared to both its own history and to its European and global compatriots.
It’s not just the passage of the recovery programs in 2009 and 2021, but the near-unanimous Democratic vote in the House for the ambitious Build Back Better plan, along with the passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, approving a legislative version of Roe v. Wage, and immigrants’ rights bills. All of this shows a broad consensus for expanding social programs and fighting racial and gender bias across the factions of the caucus. You can contrast those votes, as well as the 100% Democratic opposition to the Trump tax cuts, with the fractured Democratic caucus in 1981, where large numbers of their members supported Reaganomics (including a young Senator named Joe Biden).
That this current consensus is stymied by the malapportionment of representation in the Senate and the filibuster leads many to overhype the tensions within the party, but they are nothing compared to the fractured left in other countries.
Take the United Kingdom, where the Conservative Party has controlled the government for twelve years, despite never getting a majority of the vote, because the opposition is so divided. First, it is divided between the Labour Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, Greens and others. But even the Labour Party itself has been bitterly divided between centrists allied to the tradition of former Prime Minister Tony Blair and more leftwing members, who elected Jeremy Corbyn as party leader in 2015. The division was so toxic that some Labour officials on party payroll actively worked to defeat Corbyn in the 2017 general election. And when the centrists elected Keir Starmer as party leader in 2020, he purged the membership and leadership of Corbyn supporters, including ejecting Corbyn himself from the party. Imagine if Biden once elected in 2020 had engineered Bernie’s removal as Senate Budget Chair, instead of working closely with him and others on the Democratic left wing.
Then there’s France, where the left is a complete shambles. Aside from the troubled Presidency of Socialist Francois Hollande in 2012, the left in France has not won the French Presidency since Francois Mitterand’s last victory in 1988. Current President Emmanuel Macron blew up Mitterand’s old Socialist Party when he defected to create his own centrist En Marche party in 2015, where he promoted policies cutting taxes on the rich, raising them on the working class, passing policies to weaken unions, and attacking “Islamo-leftism” and critical race theory in almost Trumpist terms. Macron defeated the fascist Right in two Presidential elections, but the left has been split between multiple parties, including the once vibrant Communist Party, the Greens and the party of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who himself split from the Socialist Party in 2008. These split forces just recently created a coalition to work together in upcoming parliamentary elections.
Italy’s politics remain the soap opera they have been throughout the post-war period, but the left has gone through multiple meltdowns and splits in recent decades. The long-standing Socialist Party, which had been part of national governments for much of the postwar era, would largely collapse in the stew of corruption that blew up most major Italian parties in the 1990s. The popular Italian Communist Party would step into the breach, relabeling itself the Democratic Party of the Left and later just the Democratic Party (DS), and would face off against the proto-Trumpist Forza Italia led by billionaire Silvio Bersculoni and other conservative parties. Coalitions formed by the DS have been moderately successful over the last few decades, but have seen left support splinter, particularly with the rise of the unstable populist Five Star Movement. By the 2018 election, the DS party received only 18.7% of the vote, which has left the Italian government in a shifting set of alliances and the current national unity government, involving most major parties.
Germany’s Social Democratic Party shifted rightward in 2003 under then-Chancellor Gerard Schoeder, implementing anti-labor policies and undercutting the German welfare state. The party’s support would splinter, some moving to the leftwing Die Linke party and other voters moving to the authoritarian rightwing Alternative for Germany party. For most of the next 20 years, the Social Democrats would not win an election, ending up as the subordinate player to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, supporting her imposition of austerity on Greece and other poorer European countries in the post-finanicial crisis era. Schoeder himself now makes $1 million a year as one of Vladamir Putin’s henchmen helping run Russia’s energy companies. The Social Democrats had moderate success in the most recent German elections, but gained the Chancellorship only in coalition with the Green Party and the centrist, pro-market Free Democrats- which gutted any chance for significant shifts to the left on economic policy, promising a “more-of-the-same government” in the words of the Wall Street Journal.
The left has done a bit better in its historic strongholds like Scandinavia, but even in Sweden the Social Democratic Party in coalition with the Greens could only muster a minority government, forcing continual negotiations with the conservative opposition to govern, eventually collapsing last November when it could not pass its coalition budget. Probably the most successful left government in a larger nation in Europe has been Spain, where Pedro Sanchez of the Socialist Workers Party pulled together a coalition to govern in 2018 and won a followup election in 2019, continuing to govern in coalition with the leftwing PODEMOS party. Not coincidentally, Spain seems the country most similar to the United States in having a left and a center-left establishment that have largely made peace with each other to build an alliance to defeat their nation’s rightwing. Portugal has also built an enduring left alliance to govern the country since 2015.
Outside Europe, the democratic left has had some successes in recent years, particularly in Latin American countries very recently, but has generally struggled to build working parliamentary majorities, something that even Lula’s Workers Party in Brazil would struggle with in the last decade, as the right surged, leading to Jair Bolsonaro’s Presidential victory in 2018. Possibly the most important collapse of the left has been in the world’s largest democracy, India, where the socialist-oriented Indian National Congress has increasingly lost ground to an ever more right-wing BJP party. The Indian Communist Left (in its various party groupings), which controlled state governments in West Bengal and Kerala, have seen their support erode as well.
So the Dems are Doing Okay
By comparison, the US Democratic Party is doing far better, both in maintaining and even strengthening its internal unity and in winning actual majorities in most elections over the last few decades. Joe Biden won the most votes of any politician in US history (81 million) in 2020 and the Democrats as a whole won a solid majority of votes as well, even if gerrymandering and the representational structure of the Senate limited the power of their governing majorities. Still, as detailed above, they’ve ended up with the power to save the economy twice from the failures of the Republicans and, as I’ve detailed, promote a far more progressive vision moving towards the future.
If things seem bad in the US, it is mostly because the Republican Party has become so threateningly toxic and even fascist in the Trump era compared to most traditional European conservative parties.
Justifiable fear of their victory again can lead to panic, but lessons from the broader failure of social democratic politics globally might make everyone, both centrists and leftists avoid too easily engaging in fragging of allies within the Democratic Party coalition. It’s worth instead building on what has worked in building the broad majority support the Democrats have achieved electorally, a majority that has eluded so many other left-leaning parties globally.
Not to be too Pollyanna, since the threat of the Right is too real. But despite frustrations- embodied by two Senators in particular - “voting harder” as some dismiss fighting to keep and expand its seats in Congress just a bit more - remains the best path forward.