By E.J. Dionne, Jr.
Just a few weeks ago, the vogue was to declare that “we are all socialists now,” and to speak of how capitalist theory and practice were being toppled by an economic catastrophe that proved how profoundly flawed the old system was.
There is something to this, especially if what is seen to be falling is not the market system itself but an approach to capitalism that saw government playing an ever smaller role in economic and social life, and finance reigning over production and invention.
The bywords now are stimulus (by government), re-regulation of finance (by government), and stronger safety nets (also provided by government). If there is one part of the system that is under sustained attack, it is the mechanisms of finance.
Still, that doesn’t make us socialist. There is, as yet, no broad demand for a government takeover of big companies or a widespread desire to replace capitalism with a cooperative system.
We may well become more social democratic, socialism’s philosophical brother that made peace with the market after World War II. But above all, the demand in the democracies is for experimentation and (I know this word is unsatisfying) pragmatism. We have put down the ideological enthusiasms of the Reagan-Thatcher Era and come up with ... well, with a lot of questions.
In describing the confusion of the current political moment, David Winston, a Republican pollster, offered an arresting metaphor. “It’s like a game of 52-card pickup,” he said, “and all of the cards are still in the air.”
He was discussing the state of the fight between Republicans and Democrats in Washington, but this will also be the theme when the world’s leading economic powers meet in London this week.
Of course, there is agreement that the economic system is a mess, and also that the rules of regulating finance should be tightened. Where there is disagreement is over how far individual governments should go in using public money to spend our way back to prosperity. There is also discord over exactly how damaged the international capitalist system really is.
These areas of difference may well be played up in the news accounts. What the reports won’t say is that this is hardly surprising, since the world’s leaders are still trying to figure out the precise nature of the storm that has hit us.
Voters in democracies have reasonably good intuitions as to what a political moment requires, and if there is a trend in democratic nations now, it is toward younger politicians who express disenchantment with the status quo, more by questioning past approaches than by offering fully worked-out alternative systems.
This was brought home last week when President Obama met with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of Australia. Both are young. Both were elected with overwhelming support among voters under 30.
Both are mildly leftish and critical of the conservatism of the recent past, yet there was a calculated vagueness in the promises each of them made: In 2008, Obama pledged himself to change, while Rudd in 2007 promised “new leadership” and “fresh ideas.” Neither Obama nor Rudd was pressed too hard to define the refreshing change each had in mind.
On the right end of politics, the British Conservative Party leader David Cameron has made a name for himself mainly by backing away from the old Thatcher brand in favor of pragmatism—and by being young. When Obama made his European campaign swing last year, Cameron embraced him, suggesting that the British Tory wants to move beyond a discredited conservative past.
In Italy, the left-of-center Democratic Party recently chose 50-year-old Dario Franceschini as its new leader. His political past is rooted in the old centrist Christian Democratic Party, not in the reformed Communist Party that provides the Italian Democrats with their organizational base. That sounds pretty pragmatic, too.
To all rules there are exceptions, of course. The hot new political property in France is Olivier Besancenot, whose party carries an unambiguous name: The New Anti-Capitalist Party. In Germany, the trends are utterly confusing. Some voters are protesting the status quo by moving left while others do so by moving toward the staunchly pro-capitalist Free Democratic Party.
In short: The dissonance at this week’s Group of 20 meeting in London will arise from the death of one system of ideas even as another struggles to be born. The new ideas won’t be of the old capitalist variety, but they won’t be the old socialist notions, either.
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group