April - Issue 162 - Magazine | Monocle

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politics –––  usa & germany
Left behind

René Pfister on how the words that politicians use can accidentally alienate those most inclined to vote for them.


As we approach another US election cycle, a convenient explanation has taken hold among the American left for Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. It goes like this: November 2016 expressed the last gasp of white Christian and patriarchal America, which is desperately resisting its loss of power in an increasingly diverse country. The problem with this explanation is that it has very little to do with reality. According to analysis by the Pew Institute, Trump actually made gains in the 2020 presidential election, especially among those voters who he allegedly wants to keep out of power. While 28 per cent of all Hispanic Americans voted for Trump in 2016, the figure was 38 per cent four years later. The Republicans also made slight gains among black voters. What gave Joe Biden victory, primarily, was the change of heart among white men with college degrees. 

“If left-wing parties in Europe get used to stifling political discourse with moral outrage, then we will go down the path of political polarisation that the US has travelled”

Why is this? And what can left-wing parties in Europe learn from it? Well, rather than winning elections, identity politics harms the political centre and the left. Trump had such success in the US – and could again – because the Democrats have lost their appeal among the working class. Biden is among the few in his party who understand this: his recent State of the Union address focused on social issues such as affordable healthcare. But some Democrats seem more concerned with debating nomenclature. High-profile party members such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez no longer call Hispanic Americans “Latinos” but “Latinx”. A Pew Institute survey shows that only 3 per cent of Hispanic Americans use the term. Words and acronyms such as “Bipoc” (black, indigenous and people of colour) are meant to be “inclusive” but are also a marker of distinction, driving a cleaver through sections of the electorate that the Democrats claim to want to unite. 

It is a special phenomenon of the political left that it becomes a victim of its own success. The traditional promise of Germany’s Social Democrats (spd) was advancement through education. It was a project that opened up access to university for millions and made the spd the party of the upwardly mobile academic milieu in the 1970s. However, this change not only transformed Germany but also the spd itself. This academic bent meant that the leadership became suspicious of the old electorate who did not speak the sophisticated language one acquires at university. “Feminism also includes breaking away from binary gender constructs,” the spd tweeted during the 2021 election. It surely came as a surprise to most spd voters that the division of people into men and women should be a notion of yesterday; in the end the party only won 25.7 per cent of the vote, despite facing the Christian Democratic Union (cdu), which had been in power for 16 years. 

If left-wing parties in Europe get used to stifling political discourse with moral outrage, then we will go down the path of political polarisation that the US has travelled already. One reason for the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party in Germany was that many Germans felt the cdu under Angela Merkel and its then-coalition partner, the spd, did not take their concerns seriously during the 2015 refugee crisis. No one doubts that there is a need for a robust commitment to equality in Europe. But if politics unthinkingly submits to the dogmas of the transgender movement or the catechism of anti-racism, many people will feel bullied and turn to parties whose business model is shamelessness. The result will then not be open debate but parallel worlds that no longer communicate with each other. 

René Pfister is Washington correspondent for ‘Der Spiegel’.


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