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The Shrinking of the Political Middle—and What It Means

Posted by hkarner - 22. Januar 2019

Date: 21-01-2019
Source: The Wall Street Journal By Greg Ip

As the far right and far left gain strength, countries find it increasingly difficult to get things done—both domestically and globally

In the past two years, the world has been rocked first by the rise of right-wing populists and now by a re-energized left. Both are products of a deeper-seated, destabilizing trend: the hollowing out of the political middle.

The shrinking center has hamstrung governments’ ability to act, as Britain’s Brexit chaos and the U.S.-government shutdown have demonstrated. It also erodes the international cooperation needed to confront common challenges such as on immigration, trade and the climate.

It’s a threat in particular to the global business leaders meeting in Davos this week. They’re the biggest beneficiaries of the market-friendly policies and global openness that centrist parties champion. They increasingly must deal with insurgents on the left and right with little in common except a mistrust of globalization,big banks and big tech.The demise of the center, years in the making, takes different forms in different countries. In Western Europe, it has come through the rise of splinter parties. From 2007 to 2016 across Western Europe, social-democratic parties’ vote share has plunged to 23% from 31%, while center-right parties’ share has fallen to 29% from 36%, according to political scientist Simon Hix of the London School of Economics.

Gains right and left
The main beneficiary has been the far right, but lately the far left has made inroads. In Germany last year, the center-left Social Democrats and the center-right Christian Democrats, who jointly govern at the federal level, saw their vote shares collapse in state elections. Meanwhile, both the anti-immigrant, anti-euro Alternative for Germany and pro-migrant, environmentalist Greens surged. In Italy, the far right and populist left now jointly govern.

In the U.S. and the U.K., the erosion of the middle has come through polarization between and within the major parties: Both American Republicans and British Conservatives are torn between their establishment and nationalist wings.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn is pulling British Labour to the left, while progressives and self-described democratic socialists seek to do the same with the U.S. Democratic Party. They are calling for interventions that Tony Blair and Barack Obama would never have entertained. Mr. Corbyn has proposed that workers receive up to 10% ownership in their companies, while Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, wants employees to elect at least 40% of big companies’ directors.

Similar forces can be seen in some emerging markets. Last year, both Brazil and Mexico elected presidents from parties that had never held power before, Brazil’s from the far right, Mexico’s from the far left.

A change in direction
How did politics fragment? Until a decade ago, most established parties of the left and right, in search of power and votes, moved steadily toward the center, in the process embracing many of each other’s positions. The center-left accepted globalization and deregulation, the center-right the welfare state. Both supported immigration.

This, however, left a growing share of voters dissatisfied with their choices. Sara Hobolt, a political scientist at LSE, says that in recent decades party attachment has declined in Europe and voters are much quicker to shift allegiances than a generation ago when, for example, blue-collar union members always voted for the center-left.

And, just as the internet broke the oligopoly of traditional media, it has helped to break the hold of traditional parties. “Getting your message out unfiltered to your base, or the opinion leaders within your base, has really helped these startup parties,” says Catherine de Vries, a political scientist at Free University Amsterdam.

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The combination of eroding political allegiance and more powerful communications technology was a boon to startup and fringe movements. All they needed was to make the case that the center had failed, and stagnating wages, financial crises and high levels of uncontrolled immigration have given them the opening.

The demise of the political middle has made it far harder to assemble the coalitions or negotiate the compromises that governing requires. The Netherlands now has 13 parties in its Parliament, and the largest, center-right Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s, controls only 22% of seats. The second largest, at 13%, is a right-wing nationalist party.

Though French President Emmanuel Macron, himself the head of a startup centrist party, has a majority in Parliament, the far right and far left command wide public support. That shows up in the leaderless “yellow vest” protests that have paralyzed French cities and forced Mr. Macron to back down on several policies.

In Britain, the landslide defeat of Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal exposed the absence of a majority in Parliament for any of the main options: stay in the European Union, leave without a deal (“hard Brexit”), or something in between.

In the U.S., no issue illustrates the polarization better than immigration. Back in 2006, Republican President George W. Bush wanted to legalize millions of illegal immigrants while plenty of Democrats, including then-senator Mr. Obama, voted to build fencing along the Mexican border. In 2016, President Trump promised his political base he would build a wall on the border, and in last year’s midterms, many Democrats promised their base they would stop him. The resulting standoff has shut down much of the federal government for the past month.

The World Economic Forum has felt the impact directly: Mr. Macron, Mrs. May and Mr. Trump all are staying away this year to deal with political turmoil at home.

The years to come
If a shrinking middle ground makes national governance harder, it makes international governance next to impossible. Even if one country manages to strike a deal with another, “it is less able to provide the guarantee it can deliver at home,” says Ms. De Vries.

The left- and right-wing populists now governing Italy have threatened to torpedo a free-trade pact between the European Union and Canada. Belgium’s prime minister resigned last month after an anti-immigrant party quit his coalition, depriving it of a parliamentary majority, over joining a United Nations migrant-rights accord.

This makes the coming years particularly fraught as the institutions that underpin the global economic system come under strain. The World Trade Organization could grind to a halt as Mr. Trump challenges its legitimacy. His own renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement could founder in Congress over Democrats’ objections. The European Union, already grappling with the imminent exit of Britain, may be challenged from within by Italy, Hungary and Poland, whose governments all question the bloc’s premise of ever-greater integration.

At some point, political stability will likely return as centrists and fringe parties alike adjust their positions to win more votes and coexist. But, Ms. de Vries says, the forces that have generated such ideological diversity aren’t about to dissipate: “Fragmentation is the new equilibrium.”

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