The Contradictions of America’s New Left

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Representatives of the new American left are radical by the standards of U.S. politics but don’t claim to be inventors. Other industrial democracies have developed a fairer and more compassionate version of capitalism, they say, and all the U.S. needs to do is look abroad to see what works. They have a point – but they’d be wise to follow their own advice and look a bit more closely at those successful foreign models.

Reasonable people can disagree about the proper scale of government and who should pay the taxes to support it, but the European welfare-state model plainly works. Europe has shown that universal high-quality health care (delivered in a variety of ways) is affordable, that smart public spending can blunt poverty and promote economic mobility, and that taxes more progressive than America’s can lessen inequality without crushing effort and innovation. True, Europe’s economies have been struggling lately, held back partly by macroeconomic difficulties due to their half-baked single-currency system. Still, few Europeans would wish to adopt U.S.-style capitalism. As seen from the U.S., a progressive consensus prevails, and in many ways succeeds.

But this consensus rests on two things – especially in the countries that have applied it most successfully. One is respect for profit-driven competition. The other is a sufficient degree of social solidarity. The new American left doesn’t just fail to see that these matter; it has set itself up in opposition to both.

U.S. progressives laud Denmark and other northern European countries for their high taxes, generous social provision and all-round prosperity. These places aren’t all the same, by any means, and as in any democracy their policies get pushed back and forth by shifting political sentiment. But in none of these nations is the prevailing ideology anti-capitalist. Progressive values aren’t seen as being in tension with profit-seeking competition. The European project, after all, is built on the idea of a single market. What is the single market but a forum for stronger competition and more effective economic rivalry – for capitalism on a larger scale?

Germany is the European Union’s biggest and arguably most successful economy. Its progressive consensus is rooted in the traditional concept of the social market. The early champions of this doctrine, so-called ordoliberals, were especially concerned to protect the private sphere from the undue attentions of an overweening state. What remains of this tradition hasn’t always served Germany or the rest of Europe well: An excessive preoccupation with fiscal restraints, for instance, has made the EU’s single-currency problems harder to solve. But the point stands: Germany believes in capitalism.

Relatedly, most northern European countries take a less adversarial view of employer-worker relations than many on the U.S. left. Germany has a tradition of worker representatives on corporate boards. But unlike their counterparts in the U.S. (or in Britain, for that matter) German unions don’t see themselves as playing a zero-sum game with the owners of capital. Interests might be seen as diverging in the short term, but there’s an understanding that over the long term, they’re pretty well aligned.

The anti-capitalist tenor of the new American left – the reflexive denunciations of corporate greed, the celebrations when a major company recoils from investing and creating new jobs, the idea that private enterprise is out first and foremost to screw the workers – is at odds with the most successful variants of European progressivism.

To work well, the progressive consensus needs something else, besides respect for the private economic sphere: It demands a commitment to social solidarity.

Perhaps it’s too obvious to need saying, but a highly redistributive state, with a generous safety-net for the unfortunate, requires a strong sense of mutual obligation and common purpose. In Scandinavia, ethnic homogeneity has served to strengthen those bonds – which is why high levels of immigration have proved more contentious there than foreign admirers of Scandinavian liberalism might have expected. Germany’s post-1945 social-market values were allied to a revival of national pride and a sense of German exceptionalism – hence the country’s current suspicion of an EU “transfer union” that widens the circle of obligation to people who aren’t Germans.

They might be making a hash of it, but Europe’s governments at least grasp the need to create a shared European identity to underpin their economic union. The new American left is assaulting the very idea of a shared U.S. identity.  

The greatest strength of the U.S. has been its civic purpose – its formal dedication to the common project laid down in the Constitution. Americans are enjoined to set ethnic and religious loyalties aside: If you’re a citizen, you’re part of this great undertaking, and that’s that. From the beginning, the application of the idea has been deeply flawed, to be sure, and the consequences aren’t to be waved away. But the ambition has been there, history has moved powerfully in the right direction, and as a result the U.S. has in fact been an astonishingly successful nation of immigrants.

The new left could build its appeal on that traditional promise to build a more perfect union. In doing that, it would be following the most successful progressive reformers in the country’s history. Instead, it champions a minutely divisive agenda that not only sets Americans against Americans, but also repudiates the idea that what America has built so far is valuable or cause for pride. The country’s record up to this point, it argues, is an object of shame. The U.S. is rooted in genocide, greed, embedded racism and monumental hypocrisy. These aren’t so much defects of the American model, the new left appears to say, as its very essence.  

In other words, only when most Americans learn to despise themselves as much as the new left despises them will it be possible to make some genuine progress.

Good luck with that as an electoral agenda. But even if this platform were somehow to succeed as a tactic, it would be self-defeating in policy terms. Reason and history say that a progressive consensus can’t succeed without a wide measure of economic freedom and a sufficiently united country. America’s new left is making itself the enemy of both. For the moment, it is dedicated to self-contradiction.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times, a correspondent and editor for the Economist and a senior editor at the Atlantic.

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