LONDON ““ During the 1990s, Democrats in the United States and the Labor Party in the United Kingdom pursued parallel transformations. Behind the leadership of President Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair, each party recast its traditional liberalism into a “Third Way” centrism that balanced government activism with reform and tilted its emphasis from economic “fairness” toward growth. Now the two parties are moving along matching tracks again, but toward a more confrontational approach that reflects each country’s shifting economic and political landscape.
President Obama and Ed Miliband, the leader of the British Labor Party, signaled the change this fall with milestone speeches in which each pledged to focus on the interlocked issues of widening income inequality, declining upward mobility, and stagnant living standards for average families.
Addressing the Labor Party conference last September, Miliband made clear he wants to force those issues to the center of the May 2015 election when the party hopes to unseat Prime Minister David Cameron’s ruling coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats (a centrist third party). The link between overall economic growth and gains for average families, Miliband insisted, has “broken.” Economic recovery, he charged, now “just seems to lift the yachts” while leaving most families confronting a “cost-of-living crisis” in which prices are rising faster than wages.
Obama, in his speech to the liberal Center for American Progress this month, struck the same notes. “[A] dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility “¦ has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead,” he insisted. “I believe this is the defining challenge of our time.”
These sharp words mark an unmistakable shift in tone and emphasis for Democrats and Labor since the Clinton and Blair era. Neither man ignored inequality or completely muted economic populism. Clinton raised taxes on the rich, at great political cost, in his 1993 budget and significantly expanded tax credits for low-wage workers; Blair passed Britain’s first national minimum wage.
But the “New Democrats” around Clinton and Blair’s “New Labor” mostly stressed ideas (such as free trade, targeted deregulation, and public investment moderated by fiscal restraint) meant to accelerate overall economic growth. Each was less interested in lashing the rich as a political foil than in winning more upper-middle-class and even affluent voters (which each, for a time, did with considerable success). Blair even pledged not to raise income-tax rates during his first term.
Obama and Miliband haven’t abandoned those themes (or upper-income voters, who often identify with their parties on social issues). But they are turning the dial back toward a more class-conscious message and agenda. “Politics became less ideological in the Blair years,” said Stewart Wood, a top Labor political strategist who also serves in Parliament’s House of Lords. “Ed Miliband has to be on the side of people who are going through tough times.”
On each side of the Atlantic, the shift toward inequality serves some short-term political needs. It offers Obama an opportunity to redirect what polls show is widespread frustration over the sluggish pace of recovery five years into his presidency. Focusing on inequality offers Miliband the opposite opportunity: shifting the debate away from indications that the British economy, after years of pain, is beginning to gather momentum. “For the next election, there’s a contest between two economic narratives,” says Peter Kellner, president of YouGov, a leading British polling firm. “The Conservative narrative is, ‘We’ve turned the corner, it’s working, don’t give the keys back to the people who crashed the car.’ The Labor narrative is that the benefits of recovery are going [only] to the rich.”
But, in each country, the shift is mostly rooted in the reality of deep economic change. Like almost all major industrialized countries, the U.S. and the U.K. have experienced a steady polarization of income: The top 1 percent of earners roughly doubled its share of national income in the U.S. from 1980 through 2008 and in the U.K. from 1970 through 2005. That concentration didn’t generate as many alarms while the income for average families was rising through the late 1990s (especially in the U.S., where Clinton’s second term produced the broadest income gains since the 1960s.) But with the median income in both countries stagnant over the past decade — and the prospect for future gains dim — rising inequality and diminishing mobility have become an unavoidable concern for many on the left (and even some conservatives.) Focusing on inequality “feels right to people since the 2008 crash,” said Wood. “If you go back to 1997, Labor talking about the problem of inequality would have been inconceivable.”
Both Obama and Miliband have faced some backlash from Clinton- and Blair-era reformers uneasy with their sharper populism. But the bulk of opinion in both the Democratic and Labor parties clearly supports their shift. Having largely won the internal debates, they now face a vastly more difficult competition with their conservative rivals. In each country, squeezed living standards have helped tilt many middle-income voters toward conservative arguments against spending, welfare, taxes, and immigration. Cameron, who began his term by trying to center his party, is now moving right on all those fronts (even while maintaining contrasting notes on expanding access to higher education and improving infrastructure).
Miliband has countered by proposing a freeze on energy prices and, like Obama, is touting a higher minimum wage and expanded educational opportunities. Polls have shown support for all of those ideas — and many of the conservative responses, too. But at a time when globalization, technological change, and the shifting balance of power between workers and capital are squeezing living standards and heightening inequality across the industrialized West, it’s an open question whether any party — from left, right or center — has found answers that can truly restore broadly shared prosperity.
What We're Following See More »
Foreign Policy takes a look at the future of mining the estimated "100,000 near-Earth objects—including asteroids and comets—in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they’re called, are small. Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars." But the technology to get us there is only the first step. Experts say "a multinational body might emerge" to manage rights to NEOs, as well as a body of law, including an international court.
Not to be outdone by Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece in The Atlantic about President Obama's foreign policy, the New York Times Magazine checks in with a longread on the president's economic legacy. In it, Obama is cognizant that the economic reality--73 straight months of growth--isn't matched by public perceptions. Some of that, he says, is due to a constant drumbeat from the right that "that denies any progress." But he also accepts some blame himself. “I mean, the truth of the matter is that if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter,” he said, “then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate.”
Ronald Reagan's children and political allies took to the media and Twitter this week to chide funnyman Will Ferrell for his plans to play a dementia-addled Reagan in his second term in a new comedy entitled Reagan. In an open letter, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis tells Ferrell, who's also a producer on the movie, “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have—I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.” Michael Reagan, the president's son, tweeted, "What an Outrag....Alzheimers is not joke...It kills..You should be ashamed all of you." And former Rep. Joe Walsh called it an example of "Hollywood taking a shot at conservatives again."
In a sign that she’s ready to put a longer-than-expected primary battle behind her, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D) is no longer going on the air in upcoming primary states. “Team Clinton hasn’t spent a single cent in … California, Indiana, Kentucky, Oregon and West Virginia, while” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) “campaign has spent a little more than $1 million in those same states.” Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sanders’ "lone backer in the Senate, said the candidate should end his presidential campaign if he’s losing to Hillary Clinton after the primary season concludes in June, breaking sharply with the candidate who is vowing to take his insurgent bid to the party convention in Philadelphia.”
The team behind the bestselling "Clinton Cash"—author Peter Schweizer and Breitbart's Stephen Bannon—is turning the book into a movie that will have its U.S. premiere just before the Democratic National Convention this summer. The film will get its global debut "next month in Cannes, France, during the Cannes Film Festival. (The movie is not a part of the festival, but will be shown at a screening arranged for distributors)." Bloomberg has a trailer up, pointing out that it's "less Ken Burns than Jerry Bruckheimer, featuring blood-drenched money, radical madrassas, and ominous footage of the Clintons."