Pundits reviewing 2022 are heaving a palpable sigh of relief. This was the year, or so the consensus goes, when far-right strongmen such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro were enfeebled, China stumbled and the “West” made a comeback, at least against Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

APTOPIX Brazil Elections

The return to power of former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is part of “a more widespread development: how a general discontent with the old order, exacerbated by the pandemic, is fueling a revival of the left in Latin America, Europe and Australasia,” Pankaj Mishra writes. Andre Penner/Associated Press, File

Such assessments, nostalgic for a lost “liberal international order,” ignore a more widespread development: how a general discontent with the old order, exacerbated by the pandemic, is fueling a revival of the left in Latin America, Europe and Australasia.

The trend can be seen most clearly in Latin American countries that have long been tormented by extremes of poverty and inequality. Returning to power in Brazil in October, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva heads a remarkably long victory parade by leftists throughout the region. In June, Colombia elected its first leftist president in Gustavo Petro. Gabriel Boric became in December 2021 the most left-wing president of Chile since Salvador Allende.

Bolivian President Luis Arce came to power in 2020. In 2019 in Argentina, Alberto Fernández defeated an incumbent right-wing president. A year earlier, Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador won in a landslide.

Australia, New Zealand and many European countries provide additional context for why so many voters are turning to social-democratic, and in some cases avowedly socialist, leaders. In the simplest terms, the benefits of globalization are shrinking and, as the prices of essentials such as energy and food soar, voters expect more social protections from governments. This is why center-left parties – from Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party in New Zealand to Pedro Sanchez’s Socialist Workers’ Party in Spain – share an emphasis on improved wages, better job security and more public goods.

This is a step away from the goals of privatization and marketization that since the 1980s have been energetically pursued by not only right-wing but also center-left and even some socialist parties in Britain, France, Germany, Sweden and other countries. Public opinion has shifted; the ideological hegemony of the so-called “Third Way” of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder now survives mostly in small bubbles, chief among them journalists and commentators over the age of 40.


Another preserve is Britain’s Labour Party, whose Blairite leader Keir Starmer and supporters in the media currently find themselves out of step with overwhelming public support for striking public-sector workers. Today’s cannier social democrats such as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Portugal’s Socialist President Antonio Costa work with the insight that the neglect of the welfare state, the shredding of the social security net and the rise of inequality – in part, consequences of the Third Way that were experienced with deeper pain during the pandemic – were what pushed many voters to the far-right. To get them back, leaders have to recreate some part of the old compact between the social-democratic left and the weak, the insulted and the injured. Thus, Scholz’s election campaign ran on the theme “respect for you.”

Leftists today are very far from the clear and confident consensus that in the 1970s united such European leaders as Willy Brandt, Olof Palme, Bruno Kreisky and François Mitterrand, and extended deep into governments and political movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America. For one, electorates have fractured, probably irrevocably, and most social democrats and socialists today come to power in coalition governments with narrow margins of victory.

They have little scope for structural transformations and the new alliances they create are precarious. While winning back alienated working classes, they cannot afford to lose the progressive and professional middle classes in metropolitan areas, as well as young activists seeking climate and gender justice.

But this dilemma is not unsolvable. As inflation peaks amid the unending crises of a pandemic and war in Ukraine, fear of the future will make many more people than before look to governments for social and economic security.

And politicians who respond to this widespread longing for reassurance are likely to do better than those still going on about how free markets will unleash entrepreneurial spirits and turbocharge growth.

In reaction, a cornered right is likely to become even more intransigently radical, ramping up its culture wars. Those celebrating the return of the West in 2022 ought to turn their focus to what’s likely to be the main event of next year: how, after years of ideological confusion and stalemate, the real battle for hearts and minds will be led by a freshly reconstructed left.

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