David Vickrey, editor of Dialog International, wrote this guest blog post:
In the final days of the 2008 US presidential campaign, John McCain, the Republican candidate for president, accused his Democratic rival Barack Obama of being a "European socialist". McCain based this characterization on Obama's taxation reform program, a plan to "spread the wealth around", which, in fact, is nothing more than a reaffirmation of the tradition of progressive taxation in America.
The charge that Obama was a covert "European socialist" was especially curious since it was made during the weeks in September and October when the Republican Bush administration was nationalizing the American banking system. Certainly European social democrats found McCain's characterization laughable: there was nothing "socialistic" about the Obama campaign's stated policies. What did the candidacy of Barack Obama have to do with European social democracy? And what could social democrats possibly learn from a political campaign in the United States - the bedrock of unfettered capitalism and the epicenter of the global financial crisis? Plenty, according to the German journalist Werner A. Perger. Perger spent time in late summer 2008 in the US speaking with labor union leaders, political activists, and progressive thought leaders.
His essay Der Populismus der Aufklärung (The Populism of Enlightenment) was published by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.
Perger points out in his essay that there is a long history of cross-fertilization between progressive movements in the US and Europe. The New Deal of the Roosevelt era served as a model for postwar economic policy and the establishment of the Soziale Marktwirtschaft (social capitalism) in Germany. More recently, the pragmatic Third Way economic policies of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair resonated in Germany with Gerhard Schröder and the Red-Green coalition. Transatlantic progressive cooperation came to an end, however, with the Bush administration and a prolonged period of neoliberal orthodoxy. Now the global economic collapse has discredited neo-liberalism, and the success of Barack Obama's presidential campaign - what Perger calls "visionary pragmatism" - lays the foundation for renewed collaboration between European social democrats and American progressives.
America, Perger believes, is at a similar crossroads as it was in 1932. Will it bring forward a similar leader like it did during the depths of the Great Depression?
"Have we reached a new phase in American politics with Obama's campaign for change, similar to the breakthrough from the depths of the Great Depression? (.) Just as Roosevelt was able to win over Americans for his New Deal Keynesian reform projects with his intimate radio addresses, so can Obama , the charismatic speaker, avail himself of modern communication means to convey his program of progressive change." (note: all translations are mine -DV)
What impresses Perger is the ability of the Obama campaign to form a broad-based "coalition of the willing" consisting of organized labor, minorities, college students, highly educated professionals. What holds this coalition together, Perger asserts, is a strategy of "good populism": a positive vision of the future that taps into the American Dream, the principles of fairness, equality, and prosperity through hard work. He contrasts this with the negative populism we see in Europe with the divisive rhetoric of the left-wing parties and the right-wing populism of cynicism and white resentment we witnessed at the McCain-Palin campaign rallies. If President Obama is able to keep this broad coalition together during his time in office, Perger believes, it could become a force for real change with implications beyond the United States:
"The centrist reformer Barack Obama could make the Democrats the core of a reform movement which, the support of labor unions and the institutions of social welfare , could make the nation a model that, as in the past, would fascinate others. America could become a democratic and social experiment in civilization worth of emulation."
So what are the lessons for Europe? Perger acknowledges that Europeans have little to learn from the "content" of Obama's campaign for change. The policy objectives - universal healthcare, good public education, renewed infrastructure, and a more robust safety net for average citizens - have largely been realized and are embraced by conservatives and social democrats alike. No, social democrats need to study Obama's bottom-up organizing strategy, the "enlightened populism" that created a broad coalition which embraces pragmatic - instead of ideological - solutions to our most pressing problem.
Perger points out that, to a large extent, learning from America requires social democrats to return to their roots in the labor movement. The Social Democrat Party (SPD) once excelled at organizing at the grass roots and can learn how to do this once again from its friends across the Atlantic:
"We need to relearn how to maintain contact with the base, how to establish roots in our own communities, how to run political campaigns from the bottom-up, how to stay on the offensive in debating the issues, to draft large-scale political programs not just in the board rooms and circulate them among party aides, but to engage citizens in discussion about these initiatives in their neighborhoods and in their towns."
Obama's historic victory, Perger concludes, represents a challenge to structural rigidity of European politics. It also presents an opportunity for progressives on both sides of the Atlantic to collaborate and learn from each other. A fruitful trans-Atlantic collaboration could lead to American-style grass-roots (or "net-roots") political organizing in Europe, and Europe-influenced social policies in America.