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Left or Right: Whose Side Is History On?


FILE - Anti-Brexit protesters stand outside the International Convention Center in Birmingham during a Conservative Party Conference at the ICC, in Birmingham, England, Oct. 2, 2018.

Speaking in Zurich earlier this year about economic nationalism, America’s right-wing populist ideologue Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, assured supporters, “The populist wave in Europe is not over: it’s just getting started. History is on our side.”

But the West's ethno-nationalists aren't the only ones convinced that as the center in politics dislocates they can reap the benefits. Despite recent electoral setbacks — from the U.S. to Germany — their left-wing counterparts have a new-found swagger, too.

And, like their ideological foes, they believe they are the ones moving with the grain of history. Tracking polls on both sides of the Atlantic suggest they have as much cause for optimism as their right-wing opponents.

A Gallup poll, published Thursday, suggests Americans of all age groups have a less jaundiced opinion of socialism than at any time since 1949, with an increasing number viewing it in non-derogatory ways. “Almost 70 years later, Americans' views of socialism have broadened. While many still view socialism as government control of the economy, as modified communism and as embodying restrictions on freedoms in several ways, an increased percentage see it as representing equality and government provision of benefits,” according to Frank Newport, Gallup's editor-in-chief.

In Britain, support for higher taxes to fund more public spending has hit a 15-year high, according to a survey by the National Center for Social Research. Its survey showed 60 percent of respondents want to see a hike in income taxes to pay for increases in public spending, up from 49 percent in 2016 and 31 percent in 2010.

“Since 2010 the proportion of people who want more tax and spend has nearly doubled and shows the country is clearly tiring of austerity,” according to the NatCen’s Roger Harding. The apparent shift in British public opinion favoring an increased role for the state goes some way to explain, say analysts, the current confidence of the country’s Labor Party and its expanded radical ambitions.

Last year, the party came close to a surprise unseating of the ruling Conservatives in a snap general election. Its manifesto then was far less radical than what it is now proposing.

FILE - Supporters during a "Leave Means Leave Rally" are seen at the National Conference Center, Solihull, central England, Sept 30, 2018, as the ruling Conservative Party starts its annual conference.
FILE - Supporters during a "Leave Means Leave Rally" are seen at the National Conference Center, Solihull, central England, Sept 30, 2018, as the ruling Conservative Party starts its annual conference.

At a fringe event at the party’s annual conference, held last week in the northwestern city of Liverpool, John McDonnell, the party’s de facto deputy leader, once dismissed as a maverick Marxist even by his own Labor colleagues, appeared to relish the Brexit difficulties ensnaring Britain.

He declared to cheers: “The greater the mess we inherit, the more radical we have to be.” McDonnell and party leader Jeremy Corbyn unveiled in Liverpool arguably the most leftwing policies seen in Britain in 50 years. Labor believes the British want a leftward turn.

The party’s economic policies now include: nationalizing 10 percent of any business employing more than 250 people to create an inclusive ownership fund for workers, requiring worker representatives to make up a third of all company boards, and re-nationalizing public utilities. In private, Labor leaders have talked about introducing capital controls and imposing curbs on the media, according to party insiders.

At this week’s Conservative Party annual conference, Britain’s beleaguered prime minister, Theresa May, launched a scathing attack on Corbyn. But at the same time she indirectly acknowledged there has been a shift in public opinion by announcing that once Britain has exited the European Union, she will end austerity policies and increase government spending on the health service and social care.

“Corbynomics is actually popular,” laments commentator Allister Heath, a fervent free-market advocate and editor of the Conservative-leaning Sunday Telegraph newspaper. “It’s not that the electorate has suddenly caught Marxism: the vast majority of voters still support a mixed economy, want to earn and own more, and distrust Jeremy Corbyn himself. Yet many of his policies resonate, appealing even to some Tory voters and across acquisitive Middle England,” he wrote last week.

In August, Britain’s Economist magazine, which advocates editorially for free trade, globalization, open borders and cultural liberalism, and is considered by many as the ‘house journal’ of classical liberalism, warned the political consequences of the 2008 financial crash are still playing out — to the detriment of the center ground of Western politics.

FILE - Banners of opposing views on Britain's Brexit referendum on continued EU membership are displayed on the balconies of two neighboring apartments in the Gospel Oak area of north London, Briatin, May 27, 2016.
FILE - Banners of opposing views on Britain's Brexit referendum on continued EU membership are displayed on the balconies of two neighboring apartments in the Gospel Oak area of north London, Briatin, May 27, 2016.

“Staring in the early 1980s, free markets, globalization and individual freedoms flourished. Liberalism — in this broad classical sense, rather than the narrow American left-of-center one — saw off communism as well as social conservatism. Then, in the crash of 2008, it all fell apart.”

The political wreckage left has the Economist worried about an erosion of individual freedom. It has launched the Open Future project — a series of essays, debates, reports and podcasts — to restate the ‘classical liberalism’ ethos and to highlight the benefits of free market capitalism when compared to state-capitalism of either left or right.

While much of the media focus on both sides of the Atlantic has been on populists of the right, partly because they have scored a series of electoral successes, Gallup notes that in the past few years “socialism has reentered the public discourse.”

In the U.S. that’s partly due to the high-profile candidacy of socialist Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, who came close to stealing the nomination from the front-runner and more centrist Hillary Clinton.

Radical left-wing politics, though, has continued to thrive within the Democratic Party, highlighted in June by the surprise victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America organization, or DSA, who won the Democratic primary in New York's 14th Congressional District.

According to the DSA, 46 avowed socialist candidates won Democratic Party primaries this year for state-level office or the U.S. House of Representatives.

Like their counterparts on the right, the radicals of the post-2008 crash left are busy building international alliances, hoping to use each other’s successes and advances, whether the Greens growing clout in Bavaria or the elevation to government of the Socialists in Spain, to boost their own prospects.

On the populist right, Steve Bannon started earlier this year a new project, called The Movement, which aims to help right wing populists nationalists across the European continent in next year’s European Parliament elections. Likewise, French left icon Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his group La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) has embarked on building a counter Europe-wide coalition — “Maintenant le peuple” (Now the people) — to battle Bannon’s The Movement.

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