Magdi Semrau

Here's the truth about how Democrats compare to conservatives in Europe

"In Europe, Democrats would be conservative." This assertion is so pervasive in American discourse that it has been repeated by both politicians and journalists. In a piece in Foreign Policy, Carlo Invernizzi Accetti said this of former Vice President Joe Biden in March of last year. "The Democratic front-runner's ideology has less to do with Obama or the Clintons than a distinct style of European conservatism."

This is a myth, but debunking it is difficult, as it involves sorting through a tangle of variables. If you do start picking through the various cross-country comparisons, though, you'll find the actual US analogue of European conservatism is the GOP.

First, what do people mean when they say that Democrats are similar to European conservatives? What policies are they talking about? And what "Europe" are they referring to? Surely, people are not thinking about Polish conservatives, who have sought to ban abortion and investigate miscarriages. And they can't be referring to Hungary, where activists may face criminal penalties if they help asylum seekers.

So people must not be equating Democrats to conservatives in Europe as a whole, but those in specific areas of Western and Northern Europe. Yet this is still problematic.

There is no fixed definition of "conservative" in even these specific regions of Europe. Traditional center-right blocs are in flux, as they both compete with the far-right for voters and engage in post-electoral coalitions with these same parties.

In France and Italy, for example, the center-right parties have imploded, losing much of their support to the far-right. In Germany, Angela Merkel's CDU1—often perceived as the last bulwark of sensible conservatism—is leaking voters to the far-right and facing pressure from extremists within the party itself. Meanwhile, in Sweden and Spain, traditional conservatives have entered into post-electoral coalitions with extremist far-right parties who espouse anti-Muslim and anti-women beliefs.

Thus, the comparison of US Democrats to European "conservatives" is inherently messy. However, perhaps there are some ways to mount cross-country comparisons between parties. For example, how do parties position themselves with regard to extant government spending and support? How do they approach immigration or civil rights? The answers reveal that many European conservatives are less wedded to the project of government spending than they are to the trend of Thatcherite neoliberalism. They are also clearly influenced by xenophobia and nationalism.

France is a good example. The country's last mainstream conservative president—Nicolas Sarkozy—advanced tax reforms benefiting the wealthiest. He also proposed increasing privatization of education, raising the retirement age, and reducing the power of labor. This platform was adopted by other conservative leaders. In 2017, France's conservative prime minister, Édouard Philippe, said that "The French are hooked on public spending. Like all addictions, it doesn't solve any of the problems it is meant to ease. And like all addictions, it requires willpower and courage to detox."

Do these conservatives sound like Nancy Pelosi? No. They sound a lot like Paul Ryan, who famously described his desire to gut social security over a keg in college.

Similar conservative ideologies can be observed throughout Europe. From the UK to Spain to Sweden, conservative parties argue for policies that would reduce their respective welfare states, as well as reduce taxes on corporations and the wealthy. Do these parties openly declare that they want to take a hammer to popular government programs? No. They would rather nibble at the edges, just as the Republican Party in this country attempts to do regularly with Medicare and Social Security.

So comparisons between the Democrat Party in the US and conservative parties in the EU are misguided within the economic domain. When one considers social policy—such as civil rights and immigration—the comparison becomes flat-out ludicrous.

More than a dozen European countries have passed laws banning burqas or hijabs in public spaces. Such bans have not only placed Muslim women in jail or burdened them with legal fees, but they have also restricted access to employment and education. These bans are championed by conservatives, but also gain support from many liberals and progressives under the guise of feminism or secularism. This is just one manifestation of xenophobic policy and rhetoric that is endemic across Europe.

In France, Algeria has become a political flashpoint, with Emmanuel Macron—the centrist president—walking back his previous promise to apologize for French colonialism. The most recent conservative candidate for president—François Fillon—went so far as to declare: "France is not guilty to have wanted to share its culture with the people of Africa." Even the leader of France's largest leftist party has demonized the French-Chechnyan community and denied France's role in the Holocaust.

This doesn't sound like the rhetoric of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden.

And US Democrats don't just perform better than France. Denmark, hailed as an progressive utopia, has taken perhaps the farthest right turn in social policy. It has taken to confiscating money, jewelry and other valuables from asylum seekers. Some Danish cities have mandated municipal menus serve pork to promote "pro-Danish identity," thus excluding Muslims and Jews. Notably, these policies haven't just been pursued by conservatives but by members of Denmark's center-left party: Mette Frederiksen, the Danish Prime Minister and head of the Social Democrats, recently went so far as to suggest non-Western immigrants be relocated to North Africa.

If you peel through every major political party in Europe, you might find a conservative group here and there that looks like the Democratic Party. Such a discovery, however, would be an exception, not the rule. In social policy, you will find that US Democrats are more progressive than even many European left-wing parties.

Overall, the Democrats here are committed to civil rights and they want to expand our social safety net programs, whereas EU conservatives typically want to shrink their own. These same conservatives are either overtly xenophobic or in coalition with neo-fascists. If you want to compare European conservative parties with anyone in the US, compare them with the Republican Party. That's where the real similarities lie.

This is a time of immense opportunity for progressives — but they risk wasting it

Last week, Jacobin published an article entitled "The Democratic Party's Real War in 2020 Was Against Bernie Sanders." It argued that Democrats' primary fear in 2020 was not that Trump might be reelected, but that the party would be lost to "socialism."

The piece gave little evidence for this point, but rather offered familiar tropes about imagined tensions that proliferate in modern discourse. In reality, the rift between the center-left and far-left is more practical than ideological. Center-left Democrats and the far-left agree, overwhelmingly, that the state should do more to promote social welfare; they disagree about how. If we misdiagnose this disagreement, we risk losing out on the present opportunity to meaningfully advance the progressive agenda.

There are ideological divisions in US politics, to be sure, but they serve primarily to separate the parties. The modern GOP gleefully parrots Ronald Reagan's line, "the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help." This quote is beloved by Republicans because they fundamentally believe the government shouldn't help. Such a deep commitment to limited government is shared by few within the left-of-center spectrum. That the Democratic Party has an appetite for social expenditures is easily confirmed. One needs to look no further than the American Rescue Plan, one of the most aggressive spending bills in modern history. On the fundamental questions, the far-left and center-left agree with one another: the government can do a lot of good. The disagreements that persist are therefore not so much deeply ideological, but rather about what is politically feasible.

Consider healthcare. Perhaps more than any other issue, exaggerated claims of ideological division abound. Both the far-left and the center-left are committed to the universal provision of healthcare. Sure, many on the far-left advocate for a single-payer system that excludes private insurance while the center-left favors a hybrid model wherein the government competes alongside private providers. These differences are not trivial. But they aren't purely ideological either. The goal of achieving universal healthcare is shared. It is the means of achieving the goal that's a matter of dispute.

Consider education. Here, too, practical disagreements are often interpreted as reflecting intractable differences. No serious person within the left-of-center spectrum believes individuals should suffer under crushing debt or that anyone should be denied higher education for financial reasons. There is in fact significant consensus among friends on the left, such that so-called socialists and liberals agree: the government can help. What is unresolved is how this help can be best actualized through policy. Do we, for example, eliminate all student debt in one fell swoop, or do we target debt relief towards those with greatest need? After addressing the current debt crisis, what can be done to prevent the next one? How much should be allocated for K-12 education? What other measures are needed to maximize social welfare and the common good?

The tendency to portray debates within the left-of-center spectrum as deep and ideological, rather than instrumental, is also apparent in the portrayal of major political figures. The ideological differences between the Speaker of the House (Nancy Pelosi) and the Democratic Party's leftmost member (US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) are easily and often exaggerated. This is no less true of the differences between Joe Biden and United States Senator Bernie Sanders. These figures, like most in the left-of-center, agree that the government can and should improve citizen's lives.

Correctly diagnosing the disagreements within the left-of-center spectrum is not merely an academic matter of political taxonomy. We need to understand which of our differences are matters of value and which are matters of expediency. The latter, but not the former, are amenable to compromise. Those who gleefully quote Reagan will resist any expansion of the welfare state. The rest of us waste time catering to such uncompromising requests. But, in contrast, members of the far-left and center-left actually share an ideological space and should be optimistic about the prospects of collaboration. Their primary differences do not constitute a cavernous divide between values; instead, they span the more negotiable domain of instrumentation.

My contention is not that there are absolutely no ideological differences within the left-of-center, nor do I wish to suggest that all differences are merely cosmetic. Rather, my claim is that, if you objectively quantify debates between the far-left and center-left, pragmatic disagreements over means are far more significant than ideological differences over ends. And this, I should stress, is of practical import.

First, instead of caricaturing Democrats as rapacious capitalists opposed in principle to government expansion, the far-left would benefit from delineating shared goals with the center-left. Second, and relatedly, far-left activism would be most usefully directed at issues of political feasibility, which, again, is often the primary point of disagreement. In the context of healthcare, for example, progressives might advocate for auto-enrollment to a public option. This would measurably increase access to healthcare without introducing obstacles the center-left fears. Even if the far-left considers a hybrid system as non-ideal, provisions like auto-enrollment would universalize the Democratic proposal. Or, to take another example, progressives could pursue increased taxation on the wealthy to reduce co-pays. Proposals like these are both politically feasible and worth pursuing. Here, progressive change is possible.

Overall, this is a time of immense opportunity for American progressives. The Democratic Party has moved left on both social and economic policies since the election of Barack Obama in 2008. There is little evidence that this trajectory has a defined endpoint, given the expansive government spending in The American Rescue Plan (2021) and other policy proposals. The question now is how to continue to target government resources through specific policies. The far-left has a real chance to shape the agenda. This opportunity will be squandered if attention is focused on ideological disputes like those imagined in Jacobin. In recognizing that the primary forces dividing the left-of-center spectrum pertain to instrumentalization, rather than ideology, we may sooner arrive at policies that do a lot of good for millions of Americans.

Liberals and leftists are united in this: Reagan was wrong. There is nothing terrifying about a government invested in helping citizens. The government can and should help. The question we should debate among ourselves is: how can it help the most?


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