Madrid view: right hand of the left

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Most of the discussions (lamentations, rather) about the future of the left are suggested in the pathetic pun of our title. For some, the problem is that the left is not very dexterous — that is, that it is ham-fisted when it comes to convincing its potential voters it has the solution to their problems. This line of thought starts from the assumption that the left is not only in the right (morally, or historically, or whatever) but that there exists a majority of voters potentially disposed to vote for a modern left, though faithful to their longtime principles.

For those who think this way, the possibility that voters may not back the left is a problem of the first order, but can be blamed on endogenous factors (communication strategies, quality of leadership, electoral systems) or on exogenous factors. These include (think of the US) the fact that economic power supports conservative parties, which obviously places the left at a disadvantage. Then comes the fact that, for various reasons (social exclusion, weak political culture), those who most benefit from leftist policies fail to come out and vote; or the fact that economic dynamics (globalization) render “social democracy in a single country” impossible. In short, to resort to economic terminology, the parties of the left have a problem of supply (they need to improve the quality of their product) but not a problem of demand (there are lots of people willing to buy their product). So, in a crisis like the present one, the solution would be clear: more left, and a better left.

For others, the problem is that the left is not dexterous enough, in that it is not adequately centered. In a politically modern, economically solid society ruled by the middle classes, they say, leftist parties face a severe problem of demand. It may be that they are in the right, and their basic principles are still valid, but since democracy is majority rule, being in the right is useless unless you obtain a majority with which to put your ideas into practice. In this context, the typically leftist belief in a state that regulates the markets and ensures equality of opportunity by (high) progressive taxation and high-quality public services, though praiseworthy, may be on the way to extinction if only the lowest-income third of society supports it at the ballot box.

To pursue the economic analogy, the supply may be adequate, but there is not sufficient demand. The crucial thing here is to find out what has happened to the deserters. Have they changed their interests and thus their values, that is, drifted to the right? Or have certain values of the left (personal liberty, abortion, divorce, the environment) colonized other sectors of the public, enabling many middle-class voters to abandon the left, without entirely renouncing their principles?

No answer to these questions can be simple or immediate. However, to be ignorant of the questions that need to be asked is a much more serious matter than not knowing the answers. And one has the impression that something like this is happening in the left. On the one hand, the left sees that inequality in the distribution of wealth, social differences, the lack of regulation of the markets (in spite of their importance) have ceased to be the factors of electoral mobilization that tipped the balance in its favor. On the other, it also perceives that the values of individual liberty are no longer under question, given that an ample majority (even on the right) not only tolerates but practices them. Meanwhile, many on the left believe in free enterprise as an efficient source of wealth, even in the supply of essential public services, thus weakening the left’s redistributive creed. With all this jumble of ideas and values, the impression is that the mantle of the left is a bit short: if it covers the feet, the upper body is left out in the cold, and if you cover your chest, your feet freeze.

This blog post first appeared in El Pais.

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