What European left can learn from US

Published Feb 14, 2012 11:30pm

IN Europe the city’s aflame, but America’s Athens, Philadelphia, city of the founding fathers, has lit a very different touchpaper: its Occupy movement is the first in the country to announce it’s running for Congress.

Whether or not 29-year-old Nathan Kleinman beats the moderate incumbent, it says something about a new spirit of opportunism on the American left.

In December, a poll by the Pew Research Centre found support for socialism now outweighs support for capitalism among a younger generation of Americans. In 2012 so far, in a spectacular series of victories, American progressives have taken on big oil, Hollywood and (some people’s version of) God, winning every time.

The European left, meanwhile, is in freefall: the social democrats, once synonymous with Scandinavia, got just over six per cent in last month’s election for the Finnish presidency. In fact the only socialists governing alone in Europe today are Carwyn Jones in Wales and the Moscow-trained president of Cyprus. What has gone so badly wrong for the Euroleft, and what can they learn from the US?

The most recent progressive home-run — the high-profile reversal by the cancer charity Susan G Komen of its decision to de-fund the abortion advice charity Planned Parenthood (the UK equivalent would be Marie Curie doing battle with Marie Stopes) — has followed a familiar pattern of Twitter-enabled people power. In what politico.com has predicted will become the “textbook case on the political power of social media”, Komen executives were clearly overwhelmed by a half-a-million-a-day tweet tsunami, 80 to one against the decision, that engulfed them.

The killing off of the internet censorship bills Sopa and Pipa in January, despite big-battalion backing by the entertainment industry, and Bank of America’s binning of a proposal to charge for debit-card usage at the height of the Occupy Wall Street protests, were similarly internet-fuelled successes. The US left, it seems, has gone from retreat to re-tweet in just a few short years.

The progressive revival may be tech-enabled, but it’s far from tech-driven. The real social web these movements have created is a web of values, a vision that somehow connects with people at an emotional level, joining the dots between the personal and the political to create a sense of shared purpose — though often using new digital tools. It wasn’t a think tank report — that staple tactic of the European left — that won the battle for Planned Parenthood but people like Linda from Las Vegas, a breast cancer survivor, who became an overnight YouTube sensation, when she literally bared her scars to demonstrate her anger at Komen’s small-mindedness.

The American left learned their emotional intelligence the hard way in the culture wars of the ’70s and ’80s, when good arguments seemed powerless against ignorance and prejudice. During the Bush era, Democratic thinkers like George Lakoff and Drew Westen started the push-back by teaching progressives the importance of ‘framing’. Yet Karl Rove and the Republicans already had that playbook and used it with devastating efficiency. — The Guardian, London

The writer is a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.


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