Yesterday's snap election in Britain was supposed to be an easy win.
When Prime Minister Theresa May made the call in April, her Conservative Party enjoyed a 17-point lead. Faced with the rocky task of Brexit, solidifying her authority made sense. But in the month and a half that followed, the Labour Party's grizzled leftist Jeremy Corbyn cut the Conservatives' lead to the bone.
Ultimately, May's party still took home the most votes. But less than before, and Labour surged, leaving a hung parliament with no party possessing an outright majority. It's entirely possible Labour could put together a coalitional government with the other smaller parties, booting May from her position and making Corbyn prime minister.
Even if that doesn't happen, May's gambit will still have come within a hair's breadth of delivering the British establishment into a remarkable political rout. Corbyn and the left wing of Labour are a force to be reckoned with.
The implications of that lesson extend well beyond the United Kingdom's shores. What stands out, more than anything, is the sheer instability of Western politics right now.
In the course of a year, Britain has swung from Brexit — largely seen as a victory for the reactionary nationalist right — to quite possibly putting a hard-charging leftist in charge of its government. In America, the same election cycle that put Donald Trump in the White House almost threw the Democratic candidacy to Bernie Sanders, another crotchety democratic socialist in Corbyn's mold. Meanwhile, extreme left and extreme right parties are on the rise throughout Europe, from Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece to France's National Front and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands. The center of gravity in western politics has collapsed. Britain, America, and other western nations are reeling from the xenophobes to the socialists.
That center was characterized by a socioeconomic philosophy of low inflation, tight money, balanced government budgets, the belief that rising inequality was an inevitable result of technology and globalization, and the faith that free trade and education could solve all ills. In the "social issues" realm, the center was enthusiastically for gender and racial inclusion, free immigration, multicultural mixing and diversity, antiracism, feminism, etc.
Now, the people in power who represent that center find their authority waning, their institutions rejected, and voters increasingly willing to ignore them in favor of a smorgasbord of undesirables. And they seem unable to conceive of this battle on any terrain other than social inclusivity.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton essentially abandoned any economic argument in favor of hammering Trump for being a misogynistic bigot. (Which he certainly is.) The post-mortems of her loss reveal a Democratic Party that is hemorrhaging working-class voters of all stripes. Meanwhile, May undercut her campaign by telling struggling health workers that care "isn't a magic money tree" with which to hike their stagnant pay. She seemed to think this was an anodyne acknowledgement of reality. In actuality, it was a devastating admission that her philosophy couldn't help the average Briton.
In America, official unemployment may finally be down to marginally healthy levels, eight grinding years after the 2008 collapse. But that number hides a depressed labor force and a huge amount of economic precarity among people who are employed. Britain finds itself in a similar boat. The average unemployment rate in the eurozone remains over 9 percent, with large pockets of populations basically exiled from the economy.
The hard truth seems to be that many Western voters just don't care about cosmopolitanism one way or the other. The West's neoliberal economic order has grossly failed them, and they're increasingly willing to give a shot to anyone who says they can blow that system up and replace it with something new.
This is not okay. Cosmopolitanism is a value worth defending, and voters' willingness to indulge xenophobic authoritarians is alarming. But to protect those values, concerned politicians should yolk the West's new social openness to a program that really does overturn the economic order.
Corbyn's model is telling in this regard as well. The policy platform Labour released is unapologetic and ambitious leftism: Massive new government funding for the National Health Service, education, and other public investments; a rollback in cuts to the welfare state; free college tuition; construction of one million new homes; a higher minimum wage; and the re-nationalization of various key utilities like mail, water, power, and rail. And all of it will be paid for by big tax hikes on the wealthy.
Enthusiasm for that manifesto drove much of Labour's resuscitation in the polls — especially among young voters, who backed Corbyn by massively disproportionate numbers. Sanders enjoyed a remarkable surge among young people of all races and genders as well. And none of this should surprise: Young people are probably the most enthusiastic fans of social liberalism. They are also arguably neoliberalism's easiest targets: Older workers have more social clout, networks, and protection. As inequality depresses wages, drives up home prices, and empowers employers to hand out too-few jobs, it's the new entrants to the labor force that are hit the hardest.
The unemployment rate for British people age 18-24 is still a staggering 12 percent, and their wages are in the ditch. Young people in America face grindingly low wages and dismal job prospects as well.
The good news in America, at least, is that the Democrats may be learning.
The old order has failed. To win voters over, the political class must emulate Corbyn's boldness: Unapologetic faith in the public sector to deliver jobs, benefits, and resources, and to tame markets and raise wages. No more hiding meliorist economic policies in the tax code: Say what you'll do for the people and then do it, directly and right out in the open.
The West's workers are looking for help. And if you aren't clearly offering it, they're ready to try whatever snake oil the right-wing is selling.