Opinion | Niall Ferguson

Is social democracy shattered?

Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

She’s back. Already.

Usually, the losing candidate does a vanishing act after the presidential election. Not Hillary Clinton. Last Tuesday she returned to the political fray. “If the election had been on October 27, I would be your president,” she told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in an interview in New York.

“I was on the way to winning,” she explained, “until the combination of [FBI Director] Jim Comey’s letter on October 28 and Russian WikiLeaks raised doubts in the minds of people who were inclined to vote for me but got scared off.”

Readers will recall that Comey’s letter was addressed to Congress, and stated that he had reopened the bureau’s investigation into Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server. (He explained last week why he had felt obliged to write the letter, but had felt no similar obligation to reveal the FBI’s ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russian ties.)

But never fear, Clinton fans. She reassured Amanpour that she is “back to being an activist citizen — and part of the resistance.”

There is no denying that Clinton is resistant — to acknowledging the real reasons why she blew last November’s election. Of course, there is no question that Wikileaks and Comey contributed something to the victory of Donald Trump. But we still need to explain why a complete political outsider like Trump could have got close enough to Clinton for such variables to hand him victory. Might it possibly have something to do with Clinton and the disastrous campaign she ran?

For those who like political autopsies, I recommend the new book by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign.’’ Here’s what I learned from it. Whereas Trump’s campaign was hastily improvised, based on a strategy of viral marketing, Clinton’s was over-organized to the point of dysfunction. Lost in all the complexity was the simple reality that the candidate was connecting with key voters far less effectively than Trump.

Six months on, Clinton still hasn’t let go of the fact that she won the popular vote. But a contest between an amateur politician and a veteran should never have been so close that fewer than 39,000 voters in three swing states — including one she never even visited (Wisconsin) — could decide it by picking the amateur over her.

The acid test was provided on April 23 by a Washington Post-ABC poll, which asked a representative sample of voters how they would vote if the election were held again today. The answer? Trump 43 percent, Clinton 40 percent. So much for “Trump is a disaster,” the wearisome mantra chanted night and day by commentators who thought they had lined up terrific jobs for themselves in the inevitably-coming-predestined-by-the-arc-of-history Clinton administration.

There is, however, a deeper dimension to all this. When political parties enter a period of structural crisis, the default setting is to blame the leader. We see that in Britain today, where the Labour Party’s dismal performance in the local elections and its certain defeat in the coming June 8 general election are blamed on Jeremy Corbyn. We see it in France, too, where President François Hollande is generally held responsible for the Parti Socialiste’s miserable performance in the first round of the presidential election two weeks ago.

Yet there is another possibility that must be considered. Maybe it is the parties themselves that are in decay, and their useless leaders merely represent a more generalized uselessness. In an important essay in Foreign Affairs, Pierpaolo Barbieri argues that the real story of Western politics since the financial crisis has not been the rise of populism so much as the demise of social democracy: the “implosion of the center left.”

Greece was first. The once dominant Panhellenic Socialist Party got just 6 percent of the vote in 2015 (and that was in partnership with another left-leaning party). Then came Spain, where the Socialist Workers’ Party failed twice to unseat a weak conservative government. In Italy, the great hope of the center left, Matteo Renzi, fell from grace after losing a constitutional referendum. In the Netherlands the once mighty Dutch Labour Party, the PVDA, came seventh in March, with less than 6 percent of the vote. And yesterday’s presidential run-off in France was won by a candidate, Emmanuel Macron, who simply abandoned the socialist brand, creating a new party with the inane name En Marche!

Viewed in this light, American Democrats and British Labour supporters have essentially the same problem. The old coalition between progressive elites and the proletariat is broken. The former are too liberal on immigration, too in love with multiculturalism. The latter loathe both. As the British journalist David Goodhart shrewdly observed 13 years ago, the project of a redistributive welfare state is only viable in an ethnically homogeneous society. He was vilified for saying it. He has been vindicated by events.

Hillary Clinton says she is writing another book. Please, no. Instead, she should go home to Illinois — where she came from — and read one. I recommend Goodhart’s “The Road to Somewhere.’’ For her generation of center lefties, the choice is now between Somewhere and Nowhere.

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

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