In this weekend’s edition of his show GPS – Global Public Square on CNN, the usually insightful Fareed Zakaria has delivered an over-simplified assessment of political mood swings in Europe and the United States in relation to the current economic crisis.
In his What in the World segment (video below) he notes in surprise that, rather than as one might expect moving sharply to the left in response to the most severe economic crisis to hit Western economies since the Great Depression, European and American electorates have moved to the right in elections following the onset of the economic collapse. As examples in Europe he lists the election of conservative governments over their liberal predecessors under the leadership of Nicolas Sarkozy in France, David Cameron in the UK, and Mariano Rajoy in Spain. For the US, he bases his argument on the rise of the Tea Party in 2008 and the – perceived – failure of the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2012, and the transformation of voters’ perception of Mitt Romney as a moderate rather than conservative presidential candidate between the 2008 and 2012 election cycles.
While that, for the most part, might hold up chronologically it does not, however, provide a completely honest assessment of what happened.
For starters, the economic crisis hit in earnest with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September of 2008. Nicolas Sarkozy was inaugurated as France’s new President in May that same year, 4 months before Lehman’s spectacular bankruptcy. While the subprime mortgage crisis was indeed gaining strength, and economists were discussing potential consequences of that process already as Sarkozy was being elected, the looming difficulties had hardly penetrated the mind of the average French voter at the time. While Sarkozy overcame an “anyone but him” attitude from left-leaning voters to beat out Sénégolène Royale, the electoral campaign dealt in large part with issues of immigrant integration, fears of a political stalemate with another co-habitation between a conservative Prime Minister and a socialist President, high unemployment (a stalwarth in European elections in most of my lifetime), and law and order issues in response to violent rampages in minority dominated suburbs of Paris. Royale for her part was punished for an overall lack of organization in France’s political left following the election loss by socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and the ensuing circular firing squad. The election of Sarkozy had therefore very little to do with a global economic crisis or any electoral reaction thereto.
The election of David Cameron as Prime Minister of the UK in 2010, on the other hand, did happen as the nation was wrestling with the fall-out of the 2008 economic collapse. Still, his success is probably more attributed to the fact that his party was not in power during the 10 years preceding the dark days of economic insecurity, than the fact that he was a conservative. Gordon Brown’s unpopular tenure as Labor Prime Minister trying to follow in the footsteps of the far more charismatic, and politically agile, but increasingly scrutinized Tony Blair, combined with a collection of ethics scandals did much to present Cameron as the fresh face British voters were yearning for. It should also be noted that, in contrast to his most recent conservative predecessors Thatcher and Major, Cameron did not win an outright majority, but needed to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in order to gain power. Hardly a ringing endorsement of conservative policies by the British electorate in times of economic crisis.
As for Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, it should be remembered that in March 2008 Rajoy as the candidate for the center-right People’s Party lost to the socialist party candidate José Luis Zapatero exactly BECAUSE he warned openly and bluntly of the coming economic crisis looming on Wall Street and its impact on the Spanish economy, while Zapatero claimed to have the policy tools required to safeguard the country from such harm. In November 2011 Rajoy was finally elected as disillusioned Zapatero voters grudgingly had to admit that he had been right in his warnings. Still, in recent regional elections in Andalusia, while winning the majority of votes, the People’s Party still does not hold the majority of seats, as voters grapple with tremendous unemployment, unpopular social service cuts and the worrying prospect of further austerity measures, to avert a situation comparable to the deep crisis in Greece.
In the U.S. meanwhile it is true that the Tea Party was an important factor in the 2008 presidential and 2010 congressional elections, reflective in the popularity of Sarah Palin following her vice-presidential candidacy, as she fully embraced the Tea Party platform and helped a wave of Tea Party candidates get elected to congress in 2010. The Republican 2010 congressional election victory came after two very hard years for Americans with significant job losses and little prospect of a prompt recovery. 29% of voters in an ABC exit poll conducted on November 2nd 2010 said that someone in their own household had lost their job in the two preceding years while only 14% of those polled said their own economic situation had improved from two years ago, and voters needed someone to blame. With the Democrats holding the Presidency and both congressional houses, and even a supermajority in the Senate, that really only left one logical target for an angry electorate.
As for Occupy Wall Street, to call it a failure at this conjuncture is premature. Yes, the movement has slipped out of the headlines over the winter, as it grappled under the weight of its own success and increasing push-back from local police departments. However, the explosive manner in which the movement gained national and global attention last fall points to several important factors:
– A growing number of Americans and Europeans are looking for alternative approaches as they fail to see how current leaders can bring about lasting relief from the ongoing stream of austerity measures and the lack of economic opportunity. Republicans themselves have added fuel to the fire with their disastrous strategy surrounding the debt-ceiling increase in 2011, which brought the United States to the brink of economic default and both Ryan budgets with their proposals for cuts in the social network while increasing military spending and cutting taxes on the rich. Prior to the debt ceiling negotiations, budget austerity was all Washington talked about. Since then, the national debate has moved to one of social inequality and Wall Street excesses. The upcoming general election seems to shape up to be fought along those very lines.
– The political left in America has been in serious disarray since the 1980’s and the rise of Ronald Reagan to the Presidency and has, under the guise of Occupy Wall Street, only recently begun to recongregate and reorganize. Many say that in the case of Occupy the horse had left the barn before the barn had a chance to be built, as pent-up frustration of a new generation of college graduates inspired by the uprisings they had witnessed overseas joined forces with an array of seasoned leftwing campaigners suddenly recalled from the political wilderness and thrust back into the middle of an all-American conversation. Meanwhile, the Tea Party movement has fomented slowly and over time during Ron Paul’s four presidential runs and conservative uproar over democratic presidents Clinton and Obama.
– Occupy Wall Street as a movement is a process and not a targeted protest, as it is a collection of people who meet in public places to figure out how to get a fair shake in a society in which, in their assessment, the political and the economic elite have joined forces for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many. Indeed, at this stage the movement has no singular message as its participants are still busy formulating the questions they want their message to answer. Occupy is a collective effort to find comprehensive solutions to complex problems. Try and fit those onto a bumper sticker.
Several important outcomes however can already be seen from the emergence of the Occupy movement:
– Occupy Your Homes: A nationwide alliance of grassroots organizations dedicated to help homeowners stand up to their banks to prevent foreclosures and renegotiate mortgages. The group also promotes affordable housing policies. In several states the movement has formed foreclosure defense teams, where entire neighborhoods work together to prevent evictions, legal teams assist home owners in negotiations with the banks, and protesters apply public pressure on politicians and bank managers by disrupting foreclosure auctions and demanding for them to be more responsive to home-owners’ needs. Detroit, a city where the devastation of job losses and foreclosure are extraordinarily evident, has been a hotspot for Occupy Your Home activities. Read more here.
– Recall elections in Wisconsin and Ohio. While not directly an output of the Occupy movement, voters in Wisconsin and Ohio have succeeded in forcing re-call elections of a number of government officials that tried to push through bans on collective bargaining rights. With the return of social inequality to the national conversation, these effort gained significant steam.
– Occupy Your Workplace: A working group helping non-unionized workers collaborate to collectively bargain with employers for better work conditions.
– Healthcare for the 99%: A working group pursuing the creation of a universal publicly-funded system that guarantees affordable, comprehensive, high-quality healthcare for all under the premise that healthcare is a human right and not a privilege.
– All in all, over 90 working groups are working on strategies to combat rising student debt, job creation, food safety, alternative banking options, labor outreach, prison reform, and other important issues.
The presence of three conservative challengers in the Republican field did not only pull Mitt Romney to the right in his own policy proclamations, but also made him appear a moderate in comparison. Obama however, did not have to face a primary election process, so the re-emerging political left has had little opportunity to challenge his positions and voice their discontent at the ballot box. However, the base which elected Obama in 2008 has shifted, and may well require Obama 2012 to run to the left of Obama 2008 to motivate them to come out to vote in November, as many on the left are disillusioned with his perceived weakness in the face of Republican opposition on social security and medicare cuts and his signing of several controversial laws such as the National Defense Authorization Act and H.R. 372, which many argue undermine the Bill of Rights as well as the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
Meanwhile, as Mother Jones wrote in March 2012 at in at least 10 congressional districts, incumbent democrats will find themselves challenged by opponents running on the Occupy platform in primary elections. The road to the 2012 November elections is still long, but promises to be an interesting one.
Across the pond meanwhile, as Zakaria rightly points out, France’s Nicholas Sarkozy is struggling mightily to secure his reelection, as left wing politician Francois Hollande has consistently lead in recent polls. UK’s David Cameron’s popularity has travelled a somewhat rocky road since his election, as his austerity measures and economic reforms have not found unanimous applause at home. Still, in January 2012 his poll numbers have reached a 22 month high despite a looming fight with the House of Lords over welfare reforms. Elsewhere in Europe the fear of austerity measures and social security cutbacks is currently battling for supremacy with fears of outright sovereign bankruptcy as the Eurozone is dealing with the fallout from economic instability in Greece, Italy and elsewhere. So, at this point it remains anyone’s guess whether electorates in those countries will choose the devil they know or throw the bums out next time they head to the ballot boxes.
I usually enjoy Fareed Zakaria’s program and look forward to his return to his habitual in-depth analysis of global matters and economic policy. In this particular case, however, I found the depth surprisingly lacking.