The conservative populist playbook has a timeless power, and two of its key strategies are especially potent: 1) Attack faceless government bureaucrats that are meddling in people's lives; and 2) Attack people who look different and are changing things.
Both these strategies have been propelling the right to power in Europe, and were key to its victory in the recent EU parliamentary elections.
Of course, also, these strategies have been hugely successful here in the United States, where anti-statism and xenophobia have been almost two sides of the same conservative coin for over a hundred years. But those core themes were less salient from the 1970s up through 2004 because of the power of the Christian right and a raging culture war As the social wedge issues and the evangelical power have faded, though, we've seen the right's more traditional face in the Tea Party, an anti-statist movement infused with xenophobia.
European leaders are now struggling with a challenge that has long bedeviled Americans on both the left and in the center: How do you blunt the appeals of right-wing populists?
I wish we Americans had a better track record to point to in offering advice to Europe, but we don't. American liberals have never done well in dealing with right-wing populists. The McGovern faction of the Democratic Party tried to ignore them and spent a few decades in exile. Centrists like Bill Clinton sought to propitiate them by tacking to the middle. President Obama has alternately caved to the Tea Party crazies or been thwarted by them.
It'd be good to do better on this front, but how? Here are a few suggestions.
First, to blunt anti-statism, the left needs to do a better job of emphasizing its own traditions of localism and a belief in decentralized power. Which is not to say that it, too, should beat up on government. Rather, I mean that the left's considerable work and ideas around empowering local and civil society actors to solve problems should feature more prominently in its overall narrative of how progress happens. The left has never put all its faith in one-size-fits-all federal solutions. It's always believed that a whole array of players were essential to creating changing, from the neighborhood groups to nonprofit service organizations to mayors to state governors to regional coalitions. The left invented the phrase "think globally, act locally," remember?
And a commitment to pushing solutions in a decentralized way burns as hot as ever on the left. Sure, the right can demonize Democrats for empowering unelected bureaucrats at the EPA to tackle climate issues, but that caricature completely misses how much of the action by progressives on climate change lately has been taking place at the state level, where numerous governors and mayors have moved to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Not to mention the huge push to change individual behavior.
Ditto on the minimum wage, where -- yes -- progressive would love to see federal action. But they've also pushed local wage hikes in response to local conditions -- like the sky-high costs of living in San Francisco.
The rise of new progressive urban leaders is one of most exciting things going on right now on the left, and these leaders most certainly are not looking to the federal government to solve every problem.
My point is this: Right-wing populists aren't alone in believing that local and civil society actors are often best suited to manage problems, as opposed to distant bureaucracies. Many on the left believe this too, and always have, only you'd hardly know it. A stark dichotomy between a right that champions power to the local people and a left that wants all the power in the hands of Washington is simply false. But its conventional wisdom in many minds nonetheless and provides a powerful fuel for conservatism in a country with deep anti-statist traditions. That has to change. And it doesn't mean putting aside the left's agenda for expanding federal power in key areas. It just means painting a fuller picture.
As for blunting the appeal of xenophobia, this is trickier, and I'll defer to the experts on how best to message on immigration and diversity issues. But one thing is crystal clear: xenophobia thrives in hard times when people perceive fierce competition for jobs and resources. That's clear in Europe right now, with the EU's 10.5 percent unemployment rate.
In the end, there is no better antidote to xenophobia than growth and prosperity -- which is why it's good news that economic issues have moved to the forefront of progressive politics in recent years. Let's hope they stay there.