Can liberal government deliver? Question on both sides of Atlantic.

Michele Tantussi/Reuters
Olaf Scholz, the German Social Democratic Party's top candidate for chancellor, gives a statement after a party leadership meeting in Berlin, Oct. 6, 2021.

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From Germany to Britain to the United States, political leaders who tack left of center face two common challenges. One is discerning what’s politically possible for their ambitious social, economic, and environmental agendas. The other, closely linked to the first, is establishing popular trust that the government can deliver. 

The stakes are high. The political climate is unsettled, and the bond between voters and mainstream political parties is frayed. Without this bedrock of trust, any change agenda becomes more difficult.

Why We Wrote This

Center-left leaders on both sides of the Atlantic share common challenges – and how they address them could have longer-term implications for the relationship between government and the governed.

In all three countries, these leaders are staking out common ground. In Germany, Social Democratic Party leader Olaf Scholz, the surprise front-runner to replace Chancellor Angela Merkel, positioned himself as a progressive pragmatist able to deliver change and stability. In the United Kingdom, Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, drew sharp heckling from far-left members at a recent party conference. Yet his retort, to loud applause, was: Should we be “shouting slogans ... or changing lives?”

In Washington, President Joe Biden is trying to push his far-reaching infrastructure and reconciliation bills through Congress. If he can demonstrate that government actually can “change lives,” he might have made a start on achieving something of potentially deeper importance: restoring trust, and the bond between government and the governed.

Germany, fresh from an election revival for the Social Democrats, is starting the task of forming its first government in nearly 16 years without Angela Merkel. In Britain, the Labour Party has held a potentially redefining national conference. And American President Joe Biden’s Democratic Party is grappling for a way forward on the centerpieces of his domestic agenda.

All these political dramas have something important in common: They’ve highlighted a pair of shared challenges now facing center-left political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic.

The first is how to square their ambitions for social, economic, and environmental change with what’s politically possible. The second, related test could prove even more daunting: securing – or, in the case of the United States, beginning to resuscitate – popular trust in central government. 

Why We Wrote This

Center-left leaders on both sides of the Atlantic share common challenges – and how they address them could have longer-term implications for the relationship between government and the governed.

The stakes are high. For now, the political winds seem to be blowing in these leaders’ direction, in part because of the economic and social shock waves from the pandemic. Social democratic politicians hold the reins in a growing number of European countries, along with the Democrats in Washington.

But there’s no guarantee that will last. The political climate remains unsettled. And the bond between voters, especially younger voters, and mainstream political parties has become far more tenuous than it was in years past. Without this bedrock of trust – not just in the parties but in government itself – any kind of change agenda is bound to be more difficult.

Constructing a coalition

In Germany, the economic and political fulcrum of the European Union, all these elements will be playing out in the coming weeks amid negotiations to assemble a new coalition.

Social Democratic Party leader Olaf Scholz emerged from last month’s election as the surprise front-runner to replace Chancellor Merkel, who will remain as caretaker until the new government takes office.   

The SDP, once one of Europe’s pre-eminent progressive parties, had been inexorably losing support since the turn of this century. It had sunk to a barely 20% share of the vote.

But Mr. Scholz, boosted by having been finance minister in the last Merkel coalition, positioned himself as a progressive pragmatist, someone who could deliver needed social, economic, and environmental change without forfeiting the sense of political stability Germans drew from Ms. Merkel's long period in charge.

Though the SPD won only by a whisker, it did add 5% to its vote. Ms. Merkel’s center-right party crashed by nearly 9%.

Younger voters, however, deserted both major parties. They gravitated to the two smaller, socially liberal parties that Mr. Scholz will now need in order to form a government: the Greens and the Free Democrats.

That could mean tricky policy tradeoffs. But from Mr. Scholz’s perspective, the challenge all the potential coalition partners face is a potentially unifying one: to demonstrate that meaningful political change – generational change, too – is possible.

In other words: that progressive government can work, garnering the breadth of popular support needed both to address social issues and adapt the EU’s largest economy to the environmental and digital prerequisites of a changing world.

Britain takes notes

It’s a quest that other center-left politicians all over Europe will be watching, but few more closely than Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party in Britain.

When he took over two years ago from far-left Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Labour had been out of power for a decade. It had just suffered its worst election result since the 1930s. Barring a move by Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson to call an early vote, the next election remains several years away, and Labour is still being given little chance of winning it. 

But last week, at an annual conference marked by strident criticism from Corbyn loyalists, Mr. Starmer pointed Labour in a pragmatic, center-left direction more along the lines of Mr. Scholz – and of former Labour leaders Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who were in charge the last time the party was in power.

Heckled by left-wing protesters, he asked the conference, to loud applause: Should we be “shouting slogans … or changing lives?”

The question left hanging – how, in practical political terms, to “change lives” – is what’s now being navigated in Washington by President Biden and his fellow Democrats. They’re trying to figure out a way to pass both an infrastructure bill and a budget-reconciliation package with a raft of new social, economic and environmental programs.

The most obvious obstacle Mr. Biden faces is congressional mathematics: He’ll need every one of the Democratic votes in the Senate to succeed.

But his longer-term challenges are shared with Messrs. Scholz and Starmer: to demonstrate that government can deliver.

There is one key difference: While there have been growing divisions and disenchantment in most Western democracies over the last decade, the rifts run deepest in the U.S.

Having just read a remarkable new book by New Yorker writer Evan Osnos called “Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury,” I was struck by some poll numbers he cited. In 1964, 77% of Americans said they trusted their government. By 2014, it was just 18%.

That’s a powerful reminder that, despite the difficulties Mr. Biden is facing in shaping a legislative package that can get through the Senate, if he can actually do so and, in Mr. Starmer’s words, “change lives,” he might have made at least a start on achieving something of potentially deeper importance: restoring Americans’ trust, and the bond between government and the governed.

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