Watch your heads! The punditry pendulum is swinging again. For a while there, everyone was saying that global capitalism was dead, or at least fatally discredited. Then came the European Parliament elections. In votes held from June 4 through June 7 in 27 European Union countries, an impressive percentage of conservative parties, whether currently in government or in opposition, routed their counterparts on the left. Hence the instant analysis across the continent: Capitalism rocks! The Right has might! If the Left is losing now, when on earth can it win?
As an enthusiastic critic of welfare-state socialism, I wish that it were all that clear. But it isn't.
First, consider the pure protest factor. In places like Greece and Spain, it wasn't ideology that moved voters, it was incumbency. Here in Ireland, the left-leaning Green Party has been decimated by the fact that it is part of the governing coalition headed by the ragingly unpopular Fianna Fail party. The equally left-leaning Labor Party has been rejuvenated by the fact that it isn't. End of story.
In Britain, Labor's problems seem to be far less a matter of ideology than personality. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose popularity began sinking almost from the moment he took office, was actually gaining ground as a result of the economic meltdown, which the public seemed to feel he was handling capably.
Then came achingly ill-timed revelations that parliamentarians had taken absurd expense-account reimbursements. (The politically worst—and anecdotally best—case was perhaps that of the ironically named Douglas Hogg, who handed taxpayers the bill for cleaning his moat.) All political parties were embarrassed—Hogg, for one, is a Conservative—but Tory leader David Cameron responded deftly. Brown responded dully. For this and other reasons, he finds himself facing a public mutiny in his own ranks. Last week, Labor lost big in elections for local councils and for seats in the European Parliament—but the reason was scandal, not socialism.
Then there are all the places where the Left, quite apart from any intellectual lunacy, is in even more abject functional disarray than usual. In France, the only thing that President Nicolas Sarkozy may find more beautiful than his supermodel wife is his stunningly inept opposition. Back in November, Lille Mayor Martine Aubry was barely and bitterly elected leader of the Socialist Party over Ségolène Royal, who had lost to Sarkozy in the 2007 presidential race. The best that can be said of the two women's resilient personal rivalry is that it has been of no help in resolving the questions of how the French Left should define, let alone rebuild, itself.
Still, the Left isn't dead, it's just dithering.
And don't forget, since the global financial crisis hit, the European Right has gone pretty darn leftward. Angela Merkel may have genuinely intended to reform the German welfare state—a task that even her socialist predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, recognized as overdue. But what has actually happened under Merkel? Among other things, taxes have increased. The power of industrial unions has expanded. Pensions have been protected. With support from its coalition partners, Merkel's party has passed a stimulus package and a bank bailout.
Despite their current economic plight, the citizens of major European democracies have shown no desire to dive under the big-spending skirts of the Left. But maybe that's because they can now dive under the big-spending skirts of the Right.
In the end, though, no matter how and why Europeans voted last week, they appear convinced that their economic fate will not be decided in Paris or Berlin—let alone in Brussels or Strasbourg—but in Washington, D.C. For good or ill, what's happening in Washington is a lot of plain old-fashioned government spending. Europeans, like Americans, are divided on whether the Obama stimulus package is smart policy. But make no mistake: The whole of Europe—right, left, and center—is praying that it turns out to be bloody brilliant.