National Policy
July 12, 2022

Sailing Between Scylla & Charybdis: A Call to the Left To Reject Neoliberalism

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It seemed to many liberal observers as though the post-Cold War world had established a stable new global order. In the liberal mind, waves of decolonization and nationalist independence movements brought the “right to self-determination” to previously oppressed peoples everywhere, yielding to nationalist antagonisms and pacifying causes for state instability. The dissolution of the USSR signaled to many that liberal democracy had prevailed against the authoritarian state capitalism of the Soviets. Yet, despite the hegemony the western sphere has enjoyed in past decades, it quickly found a new crisis on its hands: a bilateral challenge to liberal dominance by both the Left and national populist leaders on the Right. Contrary to the belief that the ascendance of liberal democracy heralded the “End of History,” the so-called “primal impulses” of nationalism and the “anti-historical” confrontation of the capitalist mode of production actively question the status quo – neoliberalism. In western democracies around the world, national populists and leftists offer a legitimate challenge to the state of affairs. In France, two candidates nip at the heels of the neoliberal Macron, Mélenchon and Le Pen, a leftist and nationalist respectively. In the United States, although considerably further right than its sisters in Europe, Trumpism has taken over the liberalism of the late 1990s and early 2000s, albeit arguably building a new Left. 

The political Left often finds itself in a bind in electoral politics. Generally there are only two candidates that have plausible chances of winning in a given election, neither of which represent the political goals of the Left, the classic “lesser of two evils” scenario. In these instances, many social liberals, progressives, and leftists find themselves swayed by moral blackmail; they fall for the enchanting rally behind moderate liberalism to defend against fascistic or nationalistic ideas that permeate the Overton window. Many leftists are swayed and mobilize to vote for the more moderate liberal candidate because, in the face of “fascism”, many liberals and leftists argue that they must throw aside their ideological differences and work in common to keep nationalistic authoritarian threats at bay. Yet, rather than blindly voting for the “lesser of two evils”, the modern Left should abstain from voting because moderate neoliberal policies undo the political goals of the Left. Furthermore, the election of neoliberal centrists perpetuates the rise of national populists and ultimately reorganizes the Left in the wake of a national populist victory.

The modern Left should abstain from voting for the “lesser of two evils”, the neoliberal candidate, because neoliberal policies undo the political goals of the Left and give implicit consent to their nullification. Voting for the neoliberal candidate indicates to established political parties that the Left is willing to hypocritically compromise with the status quo and doesn’t encourage political parties to branch out to the Left to garner support. In these elections, moderate neoliberals must only demonize and propagandize moral high ground over a “political Other” to claim victory, not propose and enact policies that help the majority of the population. 

One such example of a neoliberal candidate who was able to edge over a right-wing challenger through votes from the Left was Emmanuel Macron in France, first in 2017. Macron’s opposition was Marine Le Pen. Le Pen’s social platform supported giving favoritism to French citizens, decreasing immigration to keep French cultural identity, and leaving agreements that encouraged capitalist globalization and liberal tolerance (Galbreath 8). Many of those left-of-center identified her authoritarian conservatism as dangerous and thus flocked to support Macron. In 2017, Macron emerged victorious, earning 66.1% of the vote in the second round, giving him the presidency (Statista). Yet, Macron’s neoliberal policies quickly began to undo the aspirations of the Left. Immediately, Macron’s administration began to undo progressive taxation, slashing the wealth tax as well as the corporate tax rate, down from 33.5% to 25% (Asen). Macron “sought to reassure companies that they could indeed let go of their hires in the face of adversity, in line with 2017 reforms. As a result, firms more frequently provided low-security jobs (short-term contracts, temporary work, etc.). In 2020, 3.3 million people in France held low-security jobs, some 12.4 percent of total employment” (Brunet). In addition to undermining the job security of the French working class, he lowered and scaled punishments for illegally dismissing workers without real and just cause (Brunet). The grand result of his policies? “The 0.1 percent of the country's wealthiest . . . saw their purchasing power leap by some 4 percent . . . The least privileged, the 5 percent of France's poorest households, were the biggest losers: their purchasing power sank 0.5 percent on average” (Brunet). When Macron ran for office yet again in 2022, he pursued further anti-labor proposals, such as increasing the age for pension by three years and overhauling unemployment benefits to drive French workers back to work (Chrisafis). Macron’s neoliberal stances have contributed to increased economic inequality, expanded low-security jobs, slashed taxation on corporations, and weakened workers’ economic positions in terms of unemployment protection and pensions. Every single one of these policies contradicts the goals of the Left in regards to labor issues. Macron has wholeheartedly shattered the Left’s aspirations for French society in the past 5 years. 

Secondly, the Left should abstain from voting for the “lesser of two evils” because the successful election of the “greater of two evils” often rebuilds and organizes the Left, leading to future radicalization and increased chances of success. Oftentimes, the election of a far-right candidate outside the political mainstream, like Donald Trump in the United States, triggers a chain of liberal radicalization to the Left and enlarges the Overton window. Fueled by social media movements and established liberal mass media outlets demonizing and scrutinizing every action taken by right-wing politicians, many liberals begin to critically evaluate the existing status quo and become more receptive to left-wing ideas outside the contemporary political sphere. An excellent example of this phenomenon is the remarkable growth of the Left during the Trumpism of the late 2010s. 

For America, Trumpism represented a shock to the established norms in the political sphere. It marked the return of American populism back to the mainstream; the nationalist promises of “American First” and “Make America Great Again” became the dominant attitudes of the Right. The rise and success of Trumpist populism caused the Republican Party as a whole to gravitate towards rhetorical styles and ideologies of Trump. Republican candidates simply invoked Trump’s name or endorsement to guide them to victory in primaries and general elections across the country. In a short 4 years, Donald Trump became the defining figure in the Republican Party; political and social ostracism was a serious risk for many Republicans if they were to disagree with Trump. 

Trump’s willingness to flirt with authoritarianism, xenophobia, and racism, when it fitted his agenda, prompted an indefatigable reaction by the Left. Reactions to Trumpism caused increased awareness and more cohesive unity around racial and economic issues, the most since the Occupy Wallstreet protests of the late 2000s, moving many Americans to embrace ideas on the Left. 

One large-scale reaction that Trumpism sowed the seeds for was the Black Lives Matter protests that began in 2020. Kicked off by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, the story took an already tense, politicized climate by storm. Floyd’s death and similar situations of police violence against black citizens engendered protests, often violent, in over 2,000 cities and towns across the United States (Burch, Audra, D.S., et al.). Trump, using typical right-wing rhetoric, ignored the movement’s demands and called for a return to the status quo, tweeting “LAW AND ORDER!,” as well as a myriad of inflammatory and anti-BLM tweets and speeches at rallies. Naturally, liberal media went ballistic and were more susceptible to publishing anti-Trump narratives and ideas. Critical leftist ideas on topics like race became widely proliferated in reaction to Trump’s rhetoric. One study found that “six months after the George Floyd protests in 2020, social media attention to anti-racist ideas was significantly higher than it was before the protests. Daily visits to Wikipedia pages for ‘Black Lives Matter,’ for example, were around 10 times greater; for ‘systemic racism,’ 5.5 times greater; and for ‘prison abolition,’ 1.6 times greater, from August through December 2020, compared to the same period the year before” (Eckart). It’s impossible to imagine that liberal media would have spread and discussed ideas like restorative justice and systemic racism had a liberal president headed the government, such as Obama. Although the circumstances of George Floyd’s death differed from other police murders of black citizens, the demonization of Trumpism and the accompanying conservative right-wing incentivized liberal media to publish and push leftist ideas on race and government, triggering waves of radicalization to the Left. 

Similarly, Trumpism also precipitated changes within the liberal opposition party itself, the Democratic Party. After moderate Hillary Clinton successfully outmaneuvered social democrat Bernie Sanders to win the Democratic nomination and successively lost the presidential election to Trump, the Democratic Party began a new ideological struggle from within. The party became increasingly split between older, more neoliberal moderates and generally younger progressives who called for environmental and economic reforms. The first wing of the party continued to identify with the classic slogans of neoliberalism. The second and much more interesting wing hinted toward more radical solutions to economic and social dilemmas of the time. Bernie Sanders helped facilitate moderate social democracy to fit in the Overton window. Particularly important in this new wing were young progressives led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who emphasized immigration and environmental reforms in light of Trump’s hardball immigration policy and dismantling of environmental regulations, such as leaving the Paris Accords. As observed by many, “rather than seeing [Sander’s] role as an oppositional figure diminish under President Donald Trump, Sander’s opportunities to affect the Democratic Party and American politics . . . actually increased” (Uetricht 21). The election of Trump also created a new organization, Our Revolution, dedicated to remaking the Democratic Party. This group was involved in over 100 campaigns in the 2016 election cycle, many on the national level, supporting young progressive candidates that opposed the DNC mainstream (Uetricht). This ideological split is summed up perfectly by Saritha Prabhu, who writes:

"For starters, is the Democratic Party a party of the rich or a party of the little guy? For many years, they’ve been the party of the rich playing a good game of pretending to be for the little guy. . . .

But in the economic issues that matter, they often sock it to the average Democratic working-class voter: in the global trade deals that’ve offshored jobs and have decimated the American manufacturing base; in their looking the other way as illegal immigrants depress the wages of working-class Americans, and more." (Prabhu)

Additionally, the election of Trump saw many liberals abandon the Democratic establishment altogether, joining new organizations associated with class consciousness, like the Democratic Socialists of America. Membership in the DSA went from around “5,000 to nearly 100,000 members and counting” between 2016 and 2020 (“The Rising Popularity of Socialism”). 

With large protests and widening social agreement that issues like climate change, student debt, and police reforms were necessary, it seemed as though within the electoral apparatus, politicians would arise who supported change. Although Trumpism caused a chain of radicalization to the Left, it was not sufficient enough to yield a mainstream left-wing contender in the presidential election, only to make his opposition, Biden, flirt with progressive ideas on his ticket. Biden promised stronger environmental protections, criminal justice system reforms, and to increase the minimum wage to $15, all progressive policies. In typical establishment Democrat fashion, both Biden and Congressional Democrats failed to make good any of the above promises. 

Finally, the main reason why the Left cannot succumb to voting for the neoliberal, “lesser of two evils” candidate in elections is that the Left must realize that the cyclic rise of national populists like Le Pen and Trump are because of the policies of neoliberal candidates they support. This is because neoliberal approaches often feed into the populist conception of man that makes voters embrace populist candidates. The rise of populism is thus a symptom of neoliberal economics. If the Left votes for this neoliberal candidate, they are in effect growing the support base of the populist Right in the future. 

Neoliberal economics feed into the populist conception of man, meaning that if the Left were to support the “lesser of two evils” candidate, they would merely ripen the ground for an eventual national populist victory in the future. The populist conception of man thrives under the economic problems for middle and lower classes under neoliberal policy. Neoliberals love globalization, liberal tolerance, and pro-business, anti-labor policies. Any good populist “directs his or her ire exclusively upward: at corporate elites and their enablers in government who have allegedly betrayed the interests of the men and women who do the nation's essential work. The Populists embrace a conception of ‘the people’ based on class and avoid identifying themselves as supporters or opponents of any particular ethnic group or religion” (Kazin 17). Moreover, spikes in populism “are not random. They arise in response to real grievances: an economic system that favors the rich, fear of losing jobs to new immigrants, and politicians who care more about their own advancement than the well-being of the majority” (Kazin 18). Neoliberal policy only feeds into popularizing the populist conception of man by bringing the nation into these economic crises and wrecking havoc upon the working class. Increased globalization comes at the offshoring of blue-collar manufacturing, the devaluing of traditional values and demographics, and an increased feeling that the “political elites” only serve the established “hidden elites”; these all push voters to embrace populist candidates who promise to “revive the nation” and put middle-class voters first, despite these promises being often empty. An excellent example of neoliberal policies pushing voters to embrace the far-right’s nationalist and populist promises has been contemporary France over the past 5 years. 

Since the dawn of the 21st century, France has seen the Right rise in domestic popularity, threatening the established political order. This culminated in 2017. The final two candidates in the run-off election were Macron and Le Pen, a neoliberal and national populist respectively. Macron earned 66.1% of the vote, while Le Pen mustered 33.9% (Statista). Macron, as discussed previously, quickly began implementing neoliberal reforms. He lowered progressive taxation, undermined job security, increased income inequality, and changed the French pension and social welfare system. Moreover, Macron was very tolerant of immigration and embraced different cultures other than those that were French. These economic and migrational policies set the scene for Le Pen’s rise. Although Le Pen doesn’t propose solutions that actually get to the root of the issues, her politics appeal to the lower classes of French society who feel left behind or actively undermined. Le Pen “describes a France for the French. Le Pen uses the idea of laïcité to advance her anti-immigration stance, discriminating between those who are French and those who are not. Her policy includes prioritizing French citizens for jobs and housing, deporting illegal immigrants, and reducing the quota for legal immigration from 200,000 to 10,000 people per year” (Galbreath 8). Le Pen’s appeal because of Macron’s policies was much clearer in the 2022 election. In 2022, Le Pen gained around 8 percentage points, albeit losing to Macron 58.5% - 41.5% (Sam, Cedric, et al.). Although Macron was yet again able to keep Le Pen at bay, the gap between them is closing and Le Pen’s rhetoric is gaining traction again in Europe. In short, the Left is creating its own enemies by backing neoliberal candidates and failing to yield a truly left-wing candidate by voting for the “lesser of two evils”. To close, Zizek, a leftist philosopher, interestingly remarked on the French elections that what he fears is “the assuagement that will follow Macron’s triumphant victory: sighs of relief from everywhere, thank God the danger was kept at bay, Europe and our democracy are saved, so we can go back to our liberal-capitalist sleep again” (Zizek). In short, the Left must wake up to reality and rebuild. 

The twenty-first-century world is a tumultuous place. The relatively stable global order of the second half of the twentieth century is gone. Liberal democracy and neoliberal capitalism, far from being the “End of History,” are still challenged critically by both the Left and national populists on the Right. Many western democracies are increasingly finding themselves at crossroads between nationalism, socialism, and the status quo. Oftentimes, pressure by leftists and national populists to challenge liberal hegemony in the political sphere is exerted within the electoral apparatus. In recent years, both sides have raised candidates with surging popularity. However, the Left frequently finds itself in a bind, caught in a “lesser of two evils” scenario, forced to pick between two candidates, often between a neoliberal and a national populist. In these situations, the Left must abstain from voting for the “lesser of two evils”, the neoliberal candidate, because neoliberal policies undo the political program of the Left and perpetuate the rise of national populists and because the reaction to the successful election of a “greater of two evils”, a national populist, often reorganizes and rebuilds the Left.

Works Cited

Asen, Elke. “France Could Be on Its Way to a More Competitive Tax System.” Tax Foundation, The Tax Foundation, 31 Oct. 2019, https://taxfoundation.org/emmanuel-macron-2020-france-tax-plan/

Brunet, Romain. “Five Years of Macron: France's Economy Trickles down in Drips and Drops (Part 2 of 4).” France 24, France 24, 11 Mar. 2022, https://www.france24.com/en/france/20220311-trickle-down-in-drips-and-drops-the-french-economy-after-five-years-under-macron

Burch, Audra D.S., et al. “How Black Lives Matter Reached Every Corner of America.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 13 June 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/13/us/george-floyd-protests-cities-photos.html

Chrisafis, Angelique. “Emmanuel Macron Vows to Step up Welfare Reforms If Re-Elected.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 17 Mar. 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/17/emmanuel-macron-vows-to-step-up-welfare-reforms-if-re-elected

Eckart, Kim. “How Black Lives Matter Protests Sparked Interest, Can Lead to Change.” UW News, University of Washington, 7 Mar. 2022, https://www.washington.edu/news/2022/03/07/how-black-lives-matter-protests-sparked-interest-can-lead-to-change/

Geoghegan, Thomas. “Toward a More Perfect Union: A Case for Compulsory Voting in the Age of Trump.” The Baffler, no. 49, 2020, pp. 112–22. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26866595. Accessed 19 May 2022.

Kazin, Michael. “Trump and American Populism: Old Whine, New Bottles.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 95, no. 6, 2016, pp. 17–24. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43948377. Accessed 19 May 2022.

Prabhu, Saritha. “The Coming Civil War in the Democratic Party Won't Be Pretty.” The Tennessean, The Tennessean, 21 June 2019, https://www.tennessean.com/story/opinion/columnists/2019/06/21/democratic-party-civil-war-donald-trump/1503516001/

“The Rising Popularity of Socialism.” MetroFocus, MetroFocus, 8 Oct. 2021, https://www.thirteen.org/metrofocus/2021/10/rising-popularity-socialism-mqaetn/

Sam, Cedric, et al. “French Presidential Election 2022 Live Results.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 27 Apr. 2022, https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2022-france-election/

Statista Research Department. “French Presidential Election Results 2017.” Statista, 5 July 2021, https://www.statista.com/statistics/887844/french-presidential-election-results/

Uetricht, Micah. “The World Turned Upside Down: ‘Our Revolution,’ Trump Triumphant, and the Remaking of the Democratic Party.” New Labor Forum, vol. 26, no. 2, 2017, pp. 20–27. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26420065. Accessed 19 May 2022.

Zizek, Slavoj. “Don’t Believe the Liberals – There Is No Real Choice between Le Pen and Macron.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 3 May 2017, https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/french-elections-marine-le-pen-emmanuel-macron-no-real-choice-a7714911.html.