Scott Olson / Getty Images

Liberalism needs better politicians, not better ideas

Recent electoral defeats for the center left do not reflect a rejection of center-left policies

May 25, 2015 2:00AM ET

The political right appears to be ascendant. Last week it was the United Kingdom; before that, Israel; and before that, the United States. Greece’s left-wing Syriza excepted, it is hard today to find examples of success for the center-left in the past few years. One needs to go back to 2012, when President Barack Obama was re-elected and François Hollande secured the presidency in France. Neither of them has managed to implement much of the center-left’s agenda. For different reasons, neither has much of a future. The real challenges in Europe — from Hungary to Denmark — come, we are repeatedly told, not from the left but from the far right with its anti-immigrant, nationalist agenda. Looking at the Republicans entering the presidential primaries, it’s hard not to think that the threat to political stability in the United States comes from the far right as well.

Liberals tend to be quite astonished by the success of the candidates of the right both here and abroad. For liberals, it is obvious that the economic policies of the right led to the Great Recession and that the right’s austerity prescriptions simply prolonged the effects of the recession. They do not believe that the right learned anything from that experience except that a government bailout is available to those who would do serious damage to the economy if allowed to fail. The left also thinks it obvious that the general trend of modern capitalism is toward greater inequality. The very wealthy are doing extremely well while everyone else is stagnating, if not sliding downhill. What the left absolutely cannot understand is why the voters, who suffer the consequences of these economic policies, are putting their trust in the right, whose platform favors the wealthy. Can voters really be this irrational? Don’t they understand that they are part of the bottom 90 percent?

On foreign policy too, the liberal left cannot fathom what it is that voters see in the right. How can it not be obvious to Israelis that the right has no plan for peace and will exacerbate tensions with the Palestinians to the point of yet another violent outbreak? Don’t American voters see the warmongering of the right? Would voters really want the U.S. to do Iraq all over again, as potential Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush suggested recently? Do they want a military confrontation with Iran? Can British voters not see the political and economic advantages of a thriving European Union? Do they not understand that their withdrawal would likely hurt British business while disrupting the European order?

For the liberal left, then, a lot hinges on how recent elections are viewed. If there has, in fact, been a turn to the right, then it may well be time for a thorough reconsideration of the liberal policy agenda. A platform that cannot win voter support anywhere needs to be rethought. But have voters repudiated the liberal policy agenda? That is certainly the way conservatives read the elections, and they may be persuading liberals.

There has not been an ideological shift of voters to the right. Nowhere do the policies of the right have majority support.

The British Labour Party appears to have drawn this conclusion already after its recent defeat. Leader Ed Miliband has resigned, and there is a sense that the party’s turn to the left was a political disaster. In Israel and the United States as well, liberals seem at a loss as to what they might change in order to regain voter support. Here, many seem to hope that recycling the Clintons will be enough to get the center-left through the next election. This is hardly a long-term strategy, but no one seems to have a better idea. The absence of viable alternative candidates seems to suggest that no one has any ideas at all. In Israel, no one is even sure that the Zionist camp won’t eventually join the government rather than defend its policy positions. 

It makes sense that a thorough rejection by the voters of the liberal agenda would lead to political paralysis, for the left really believes that it has hold of the truth in its critique of the right. There is not an alternative truth it can find to take the place of these policies. When American voters reject theories of evolution, it is not time for the biologists to reconsider. This is how the left feels about their policies on redistribution, regulation, environmentalism and foreign policy. At most, they can think of repackaging. If that is not enough, they are immobilized.

But is the diagnosis that focuses on rejection at the polls right? Have the voters turned away? Not really. There has been no grand referendum on the policies of the liberal left. One has to look past the winning candidates to the voters to understand this. In Israel, strikingly, Likud received virtually the same percentage of the vote as it did in 2013. There was some movement among parties on the right, but overall the center and center-left did a little better than last time. In the U.K., the story is about not a turn away from the left but rather the rise of the Scottish National Party, which is actually to the left of Labour. In 2010 the Conservative Party received 36.1 percent of the vote; this time it won 36.9 percent. Labour, despite its massive loss of seats in Parliament, increased its percentage of the vote from 29.0 to 30.4 percent. In the United States, given gerrymandering and the maldistribution of voters among House districts, it is very hard to make sense of any one set of election returns. If we look over the last few election cycles, however, we see that generally the Democrats have outpolled the Republicans despite the skewed results in the Republicans’ favor.

So what is going on? Not much. Voters are more or less where they have been for quite some time, evenly divided at the ends of the political spectrum, with most bunched in the middle. Electoral outcomes, in fact, don’t reflect voter policy preferences. In the U.K., for example, the Scottish nationalists got about 5 percent of the vote but ended up with the third-largest bloc in Parliament. In Israel, the need to form a coalition government gives very small religious parties an outsize role in setting policy. That makes them powerful but not representative. In the United States the Republicans are in firm control of the House, regardless of whether they win a majority of the votes. We only have to remember the election of 2000 for an example of a candidate winning the White House while losing the popular vote. Governments may be the result of elections, but elections are hardly producing a mandate for any set of policies.  

There has not been an ideological shift of voters to the right. Nowhere do the policies of the right have majority support. There is not even any strong evidence that voter support for the candidates of the right has grown recently. What the liberal left needs is not so much new policies but better politics. It is not the message but the messenger that has been failing.

Paul W. Kahn is the Robert W. Winner professor of law and the humanities and the director of the Orville H. Schell Jr. Center for International Human Rights at Yale Law School. His tenth book, “Making the Case: The Art of the Judicial Opinion,” will be published this spring by Yale University Press.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter