It’s been a horrendous time for the left. As expected, Marine Le Pen (pictured above) led her National Front to first place in France’s regional elections. This would be bad enough as it is, without noting that Le Pen keeps very good company these days. Across Europe, the far right is surging. It is ascendant in Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands and Austria in western Europe, while in eastern Europe, it runs the government in Hungary and Poland.
On the other side of the pond, Donald Trump is now openly calling for a ban on Muslim immigration, and winning ever more support for it. It hasn’t helped matters that the right-wing narrative in America appears only to have been bolstered by the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California. Further to the south, the supposed left-wing tilt of Latin America now seems decisively reversed, as elections in Argentina and — over the weekend — Venezuela, delivered setbacks for left-wing governments. And then there’s Brazil, where President Dilma Rousseff faces impeachment and possible removal from office.
How bad is it? On one hand, some of this is local, particular or cyclical. As I argued recently, Donald Trump is not going to win the Republican nomination, let alone the American Presidency — though that doesn’t necessarily mean Democrats are a shoo-in. Moreover, while virtually all the European right-wing movements share Mr. Trump’s hostility to foreigners, much of their support comes from voters concerned with more prosaic issues, such as jobs or the deteriorating condition of public services. So the right-wing surge does not necessarily represent an intractable challenge for the left.
But that’s hardly reassuring. What this seemingly endless series of setbacks reveals is just how little the mainstream left has to offer most voters these days. Faced with terrorism, stagnant economies, worsening inequality and austerity, most left-wing parties offer little more than criticism of the right and faith in old solutions. What’s needed, we hear too often, is just a little more government spending — of the sort which sank the Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution in a rising floodtide of inflation. The far right may be peddling snake-oil, but the narrative they offer their supporters is coherent, clear and comprehensible. The story may be based on a lie — it’s highly doubtful that sending troops into Syria will defeat ISIS, while cutting immigration will probably only worsen the economic situation. But it is a good and reassuring story nonetheless, easy to re-tell, and with the promise of a happy ending.
The left needs a good story, and it needs a new one. Until then, all the statistics and arguments it can roll out will win few converts. Arguments don’t make us fall in love, emotions do. And right now, the right can evoke positive emotions far more easily than the left, which too often sounds about as compelling as a bland power-point.