Wed May 25th, 2011 at 05:46:11 AM EST
An article in the Canadian Globe and Mail points out that large centre-left parties - recently the Canadian Liberals, but also the French Socialists, Irish Fianna Fail, Dutch Labour, German CDU and SPD, and Spanish Socialists - have all been suffering electoral setbacks.
Political scientists are placing the blame on the financial crisis.
The hemorrhage of centrist votes began in earnest with the financial crisis of 2008, when a surprising number of voters shifted away from the big all-in-one parties to "outsider" voices - single-issue parties such as the Greens and the anti-immigration parties of the Netherlands and Scandinavia, traditional parties of protest such as the NDP in Canada, anti-system parties such as the Scottish and Catalan separatists, or forces of indiscriminate anger, such as the right-wing National Front in France.
This is not so much a shift of voters to more extreme politics... but rather a surprising but predictable response to the way the crisis unfolded: While it began, in 2008, as a private-sector crisis of bad debt and unsupported credit in the financial and banking sectors, this was quickly followed by bailouts and rescues that shifted the burden to the state. Private-sector debt and potential insolvency turned into public-sector debt and higher taxes to pay for it, and the parties in power got blamed.Many voters' first personal experience of the crisis was an announcement of a tax hike, massive government debt, or slashed public service being used to pay for the crisis; this, combined with a job loss and a fuel-price spike, turned people against the parties that oversaw the crisis.
On top of this, the parties of the centre-left, like the Liberals in Canada and Labour in Britain, [had] attempted an experiment in the 1990s and 2000s that they hoped would bring both rising equality and rising prosperity: A largely free and unfettered market economy, combined with low government debt and big investments in social services. The idea was that the booming economy would finance a state-supported rise in equality. The experiment mostly failed: While life did improve for the poor in the West, it didn't change at all for the middle class, and often got worse, as they watched the wealthy become ultra-wealthy. The increasingly angry "squeezed middle" are the people who tend to vote in elections, and many were driven to distrust the big parties whose experiment failed them.
It's important to realize that the public's underlying ideological views have not shifted. Rather, they are moving from larger parties to smaller ones:
The range of political views in most countries has not become more extreme; there are about as many left-wing people and as many right-wing people as before, and fringe views haven't increased much. But the parties of the fringe have expanded dramatically. Until recently, the big parties of the centre were able to absorb voters with a strong dislike of immigrants or of capitalism, offer them some token recognition, and reward them with the benefits of mainstream power. Now, in a tougher age, that power means little, and the big ideological supermarkets of the democratic world have given way to dusty alleys lined with colourful boutiques.
I would say this analysis is spot-on for the UK. It is perhaps least accurate in Canada, where the financial crisis was best contained and no bank bailouts took place - and the mainstream centre-right party is now stronger than ever. In an indirect way, it is true for the US; although actual minor parties cannot easily be formed in its FPTP system, fringe movements within a party, like the Tea Party movement, can assume a lot of power.
It would also seem to indicate there is an opening for new parties of the left to assume greater prominence. The Green party has played this role in Germany; the NDP in Canada, and the Liberal Democrats in the UK (at least during the last election). But in France, Netherlands, Sweden, and the US, I don't see a similar force - just the traditional centre-left party losing ground to mostly conservative parties, new and old.