In nearly eight years since the start of the 2008 financial crisis, European politics has witnessed a remarkable surge in left-wing anti-capitalism and right-wing nationalism. With the 2016 presidential election, this ideological shift has arrived on American shores. Its heralds are the two expected victors in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary: Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
Each of these candidates represents a particular political tradition that was, until recently, alien to national elections in the United States. Trump, whose disregard for the pieties of evangelical conservatism sets him apart from other GOP hard-liners, fits neatly into a European mold. His blend of hardline nationalism and ideological flexibility is similar to that of European right-wing populists such as Britain’s Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and France’s Marine Le Pen of the National Front.
Trump, however, falls to the right of his closest European analogues. Both Farage and Le Pen, for example, have publicly distanced themselves from Trump’s call for a temporary ban on all Muslim immigration. Farage, in particular, said that Trump had gone "too far" with the proposal.
Sanders appears to be a more distinctly American type, a veteran of civil rights marches and the 1960's student movement. But his platform and ideology would be right at home among the moderate social democrats of Scandinavia. His calls for progressive taxation, a stronger labor movement, and an expansive public health care system are already commonplace to the point of banality in Sweden and Denmark — to say nothing of Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and other strong Western European states.
To his critics in the U.S., Sanders is a radical who threatens to ride a wave of popular discontent to upend the political establishment — as Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s Podemos parties have. But a closer European analogue to Sanders might be Jeremy Corbyn, the old-school trade unionist who seized control of Britain’s Labour Party amidst the collapse of the centrist wing.
European-style candidates are resonating with voters now because political parties in the U.S. are facing some of the same pressures as those in Europe.
Most obviously, American political parties have become more polarized. Whereas European parties have almost always tended to be defined by a shared political program, America’s peculiar constitutional system birthed sprawling coalitions with interests that frequently overlapped for members on different sides of the aisle. But that changed in the aftermath of the civil rights era, when the Republican Party succeeded in capturing the South and began moving further to the right. Democrats eventually began their own leftward drift, albeit at a slower pace; by 2005, political scientists found that even the most conservative Democrat in Congress was nowhere near as right-wing as the most liberal Republican. The two parties had become ideologically discrete, much like the parties in parliamentary system.
Political parties in the United States are also experiencing similar external pressures. The 2008 financial crisis pushed millions of European and American households to the economic brink, and disaffected voters on both the right and the left blame the political establishment. As John Judis has observed in the National Journal, a substantial chunk of the Sanders coalition consists of newly “proletarianized” white-collar professionals who are attracted to the classic social democratic message of wealth redistribution and solidarity between the poor and middle classes. Trump’s nativism, meanwhile, has drawn in a poorer and less educated segment of white workers. Like many Europeans drawn to the National Front or UKIP — they fear that large-scale immigration will further erode their crumbling economic foothold.
To be sure, the U.S. has weathered the recession much better than Europe has. The Federal Reserve has not imposed a tight money policy at the expense of jobs, and U.S. state governments have applied austerity measures only intermittently. As a result, the U.S. has mostly recovered from the elevated joblessness it experienced after the recession, even as the Eurozone continues to suffer double-digit unemployment.
Nonetheless, wage stagnation persists in the U.S., and extreme inequality in the U.S. is getting worse. Expect more right-wing populists from the GOP and more social democrats from the left as a result.