How Europe's Right Stole the Left

With Angela Merkel's reelection in Germany on Sept. 27, and her subsequent ejection of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) from the ruling coalition, conservatives have come close to sweeping Europe. Center-right parties now govern Germany, France, Italy, and many historically progressive states like the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden. Of continental Europe's major countries, only Spain is now led by a socialist. While the hemorrhaging Labour Party holds on in Britain, it will need a miracle to survive next year's election.

The current crisis, capitalism's worst since the 1930s, should be a triumphant moment for Europe's left-wing parties, which have long warned of the dangers of unchecked markets. Yet instead of celebrating, they are now unraveling through schisms and infighting. In the recent elections, for example, Germany's Social Democrats scored their lowest tally by far since World War II, and have now lost 50 percent of their electoral support since 1998. As Europe's left self-destructs, many of its policies are proving more popular than ever—albeit in unexpected packaging. Conservative leaders are not just stealing votes from the left, they're also stealing ideas. They're cherry-picking what works or is popular with an astonishing ideological flexibility that often escapes the left, which seems to alienate its followers whenever it strays toward the political center.

No one embodies these new tactics better than Merkel. The onetime market reformer has turned herself into an ardent defender of Germany's "social market economy"—its highly regulated combination of free-market elements with strong worker protections and an expansive welfare state. During the recent campaign, she took pains to remind voters she still supported many of the compromises she'd made with the SPD during their coalition rule, including a big expansion of Germany's sector-specific minimum wages, longer unemployment benefits, and a new law that forever bans social-security cuts. Last week, even as her Christian Democratic Party (CDU) began negotiations over a new coalition with the pro--business Free Democrats, her lieutenants drew red lines around various policies they won't let their new partners touch, including rules that make it hard to fire workers.

Merkel and other new-style conservatives like Britain's David Cameron, France's Nicolas Sarkozy, and Sweden's Fredrik Reinfeldt have taken over a pragmatic middle ground once held by left-of-center reformers such as Britain's Tony Blair and Merkel's own predecessor, Gerhard Schröder. Their New Right has embraced the welfare state while declaring, just as the New Left once did, that it needs some repairs. And European voters are buying it. What used to be the right's Achilles' heel—the perception that it was too focused on keeping the economy humming—has turned into a source of strength. The conservatives' reputation for market friendliness has left them well poised to lead their nervous nations back to greater state intervention and control. Tony Judt, a historian at New York University, says conservatives "are in a better position to argue that when free marketeers undermine the state, the free market has to take a back seat." And their new defense of the welfare state, he says, may be more attractive to voters than the left's because it relies on appeals to national stability, not tired calls to class warfare. This year in Germany, for the first time, more blue-collar workers voted for Merkel and the conservatives than for the Social Democrats.

Merkel and her kind have combined pragmatism, opportunism, and expediency, co-opting what works, reaching out to new voters, and learning from past mistakes. The New Right has dropped much of the fussy traditionalism that used to make Europe's conservatives look like cultural relics—and made them unelectable among many women and urban voters. Since 1998, the twice-married, Protestant Merkel has pushed the deeply Catholic CDU to take more progressive stances on women, gays, and foreigners. That parallels a shift in France, where Sarkozy has given minorities and integration an unprecedented visibility, putting a -Senegalese-born Frenchwoman and others of North African descent into high cabinet positions. Even as he has taken an Old Right, law-and-order stance on crime and illegal immigration, he has pushed through a law making it easier for skilled immigrants to get visas. In Britain, the once prudish Tories have accepted openly gay leaders and have placed environmental issues at the center of their platform. Cameron calls the new mix "progressive conservatism"—the closest any of these New Right leaders have come to picking a label for their policies. Yet a German CDU deputy may have gotten closer to the rationale in 2005, when he told Merkel, "We'll do the conservatism. You just make sure our daughters get on board." In other words, focus on election victories, not ideology.

The shift has been most profound on economic issues. Most conservatives have now made peace with the established facts of the welfare state and the broad support among Europe's middle classes for an activist government. Long before the current economic crisis made it political suicide to advocate deregulation or other business-friendly reforms, New Right leaders such as Sweden's Reinfeldt had begun pushing to the left. When Reinfeldt and a small group of strategists took over the Moderate Party in 2003, the Social Democrats had ruled Sweden for 61 of the previous 70 years. Reinfeldt's group realized that their party's pro-business, anti-welfare, and anti-union positions ran painfully counter to the Swedish mainstream. So they rebranded themselves New Moderates and declared themselves a workers' party that would henceforth defend the welfare state. Never mind that this made them a virtual copy of the Social Democrats, minus their ideology and plus a few reforms to tweak the welfare system; the public approved. In 2006 the New Moderates beat their leftist rivals and Reinfeldt became prime minister. Merkel learned the same lesson in the 2005 election, when she ran on a pro-market platform that promised to pare down the German welfare state and ease restrictions on firing workers. The near loss not only forced her into the coalition with the SPD but left her with a strong sense that her country wouldn't tolerate major changes to the status quo.

Today Merkel defends Germany's social market economy at every turn. On her way to the G20 summit in Pittsburgh, she called it a model the rest of the world should copy. Such a switch has come even easier to Sarkozy, who since the start of the financial crisis has launched a global crusade against excessive bankers' pay, invented the Cash for Clunkers scheme, and last month expanded a plan to subsidize low-wage earners returning to work. Aided by the French tradition of blending left-right policies and a national consensus in favor of social democracy, Sarkozy's tactics have proved hugely successful—so much so that he now faces no real opposition. Cameron, meanwhile, has not gone as far as the others, but he too has shifted to the economic center-left. Just as Blair junked Old Labour's dictum of state ownership of industry, Cameron has dropped Margaret Thatcher's libertarian view that "there is no such thing as society" and has accepted a wide--ranging role for the public sphere. He says he admires Sweden's public--education system and wants to raise the marginal tax rate on the richest Britons from 40 to 50 percent. Cameron has already been called "the heir to Blair" by the British press. Tory traditionalists may consider it an insult, but political strategists see it as shrewd positioning.

The left sees what's going on—Peer Steinbrück, Germany's outgoing SPD finance minister, calls the CDU's appropriation "piracy"—but so far it has proved helpless to stop it. The conservatives' wide-open political tent suits the times—as Europe's electorate fragments, with big parties losing support to new, more focused factions—and the unprecedented crisis calls for rapid, flexible responses. Thomas Petersen, a political analyst, says that pushing a rigid political philosophy is "the dumbest thing to do" right now.

The New Right leaders have also learned from previous attempts to revitalize conservatism. In Germany in the 1990s, an attempt by a group of young conservative intellectuals to reenergize the Old Right with calls for patriotism and German values quickly degenerated into a xenophobic "Germans first" campaign that alienated moderates. Having grown up in East Germany, Merkel had no stake in the West's culture wars. Gerd Langguth, a Merkel biographer, says she doesn't have an ideological bone in her body. That's made it easy for her to support alliances with the Greens, for example, and to squash attempts to move her party back to the right. Merkel and her team do face pro--market challenges from smaller parties like Germany's Free Democrats (FDP), who insist on tax cuts, labor-law reform, and less red tape, and have already clashed with Merkel in their coalition talks. But the FDP has had a limited track record in pushing reforms at the national level, and has recently begun to soften some of its edges, tweaking proposed tax cuts to favor families and the poor.

The real conservatives today—those opposing change—now tend to be found on the left. In Germany and the Netherlands, far-left socialist parties have begun rabble-rousing against immigrants they say compete with natives for jobs. Meanwhile, it's France's Socialists and Germany's SPD that have come to represent the no-change mantra in their countries, spending more energy defending old entitlements than thinking about new ways to provide upward mobility for the poor, Such sclerosis, of course, only makes life easier for Merkel, Cameron, Sarkozy, and their crowd, and suggests their ascendancy may have real staying power. With conservatives sweeping Europe, this revival may prove broader than the last great conservative rebirth, Thatcherism, which held little attraction outside Britain and the post--communist East. The new rightists seem to have deliberately avoided any isms, the kind of ideological strictures that eventually did in Thatcher and her followers and that is taking down the left today. Ideology itself is fading away, and those who can prove most adaptive and pragmatic are likely to continue to triumph.

With Tracy McNicoll and William Underhill