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  • How the Left Can Right Itself
  • Terri E. Givens (bio)

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Mainstream left parties are in retreat. In Europe and the U.S., far-right populism has been quietly ascendant since the 1990s, but this past year—with the Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump, and the candidacy of Marine Le Pen for the French presidency—the right’s successes have revealed just how much ground the left has ceded. Some, like Sen. [End Page 26] Bernie Sanders and Frank Bruni of The New York Times, have faulted the left for neglecting white working-class voters, who have been attracted to anti-immigrant, anti-globalization candidates. But sidelining or even deriding diversity isn’t the answer. Countries are multiracial and multiethnic, and parties need to—and ought to—attract a broad spectrum of voters to win elections and govern responsibly.

Yet many politicians and candidates in Europe and the U.S. have rejected these multicultural values and cast immigrants and foreigners as a threat. President Trump justified his executive order calling for a wall along the Mexican border by saying, “We are in the middle of a crisis on our southern border: The unprecedented surge of illegal migrants from Central America is harming both Mexico and the United States.” The night of the U.S. presidential election, CNN’s Van Jones famously called Trump’s victory a “whitelash,” or a backlash by white voters against the legacy of Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. Available survey data bears this out. One study of the 2016 election concluded that about two-thirds of Trump’s advantage among white Americans without a college degree can be explained by racism and sexism.

Center-left parties must build broad-based support for a multiethnic approach to governance that prioritizes social welfare. The focus must be on addressing inequality, strengthening unions, and developing immigration policies that include burden-sharing agreements and support for those caught in conflict areas. If the left concentrates on these three areas, it will be able to beat back the threat of far-right populism across Europe and the U.S.


After World War II, large numbers of immigrants came to the U.K., Germany, and France. At the time, few understood the cultural impact these immigrants would have or how they would transform their new homes. In the U.K., hostilities between the newcomers and native communities emerged in the late 1940s, when immigrants from the nation’s former colonies obtained citizenship and settled in Britain permanently. By the late 1950s, riots were common, and in 1968, the conservative MP Enoch Powell predicted “rivers of blood” if immigration continued. This was, of course, hyperbole. Racial tensions and racist incidents never disappeared, but racially motivated violence declined until the 1990s, when far-right populism began its resurgence. As I describe in my book on anti-discrimination policy in Europe, violent attacks on ethnic minorities increased in tandem with the development of the far-right British National Party and haven’t abated since.

The story of immigrants in France and Germany is a bit different. After World War II, both countries needed manpower to rebuild their infrastructure and maintain economic growth. Temporary immigration policies were adopted to fill the need for manual workers, but many of these migrant laborers—from Italy, Greece, and Turkey—stayed.

Labor recruitment into Europe slowed in the 1970s after the oil crisis and global economic downturn, but immigration picked up a decade later, when many national courts ruled in favor of family reunification. Settled communities developed, and immigrants began to forge group identities. Still, it would not be until the late 1990s that Muslim immigrants across Europe began to associate themselves with a community that transcended nationality. [End Page 27]

As birth rates declined in the late 1990s and early 2000s, many politicians, economists, and social scientists argued that for Europe to maintain its generous welfare system, particularly its pay-as-you-go pensions, the continent would have to open its doors to more young, tax-paying migrants. But this academic consensus came just as anti-immigrant far-right parties gained traction in countries...


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