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Two weeks ago, an article in the political weekly The Nation lamented the fate of the traditional "social-democratic" left in Western Europe. Author Daniel Singer argued that the "third way" between capitalism and communism -- the combination of free-market economics and a minimal social safety net found in the U.S. and Britain -- has been a failure. France, Germany and Italy, he concluded, must defend their so-called "welfare state" in order to remain independent of the United States. While reading this piece, I found myself reflecting upon the U.S. presidential election and the increasingly vicious innuendoes being traded between the Democratic and Green parties. Singer's article coincided with an escalation in attacks on Ralph Nader's candidacy by the Democratic Party and pro-Democrat media. To judge from their paranoid rhetoric, the sole purpose of Nader's stubborn grassroots campaign is to play the spoiler and hand the presidency to Evil himself, Republican George W. Bush. By ignoring Nader's record of activism as a consumer advocate, apologists for Al Gore have portrayed Nader -- with great success -- as a quixotic idealist running a self-serving glam show under the guise of building "real democracy." For their part, Greens have pointed to Gore's complicity with corporate interests, from his ownership of stock in Occidental Petroleum -- the oil company set to drill on land in Colombia sacred to the indigenous U'Wa -- to his multimillion-dollar campaign donations from the biggest names in U.S. business. Once one overlooks the discrepancies between the two major parties on social issues such as abortion and school prayer, Gore's platform, they stress, is virtually indistinguishable from that of his Republican opponent and identical in foreign policy. Although I agree with these objections, it does no good to follow a party line -- any party line -- without examining its historical background. Once we do this, the differences between the Democrats and the European "third way" parties are dwarfed by their parallel evolution over the past decade. Despite claims that Western Europe had already begun to shift to the right in the early '80s with the election of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Helmut Kohl in West Germany, it was the collapse of communism that drastically altered domestic politics. It destroyed western Communists -- who had regularly won local elections and tallied up to 25 percent of the vote in Italy and France -- emboldened conservatives and neo-fascists, and demoralized socialists and social democrats, who could no longer defend their social services or envision a future outside U.S. control. The rightward drift of the Democratic Party here can hardly be blamed on the end of the Cold War. Already in the mid-1980s, as a result of Ronald Reagan's stunning success in driving U.S. political culture to the right, "centrist" Democrats -- including Gore -- drafted a strategy for remaking the party by jettisoning support for civil rights and appeasing corporations. But whatever the causes, the end result proved the same. In the U.S., Democrats found it ever more difficult to distinguish their policies from those of Republicans. You may recall the excitement with which progressives greeted Bill Clinton's election in 1992. These hopes have long since soured, as Clinton perfected his technique of "triangulation" -- promising to the left while delivering to the right -- but could not prevent both houses of Congress from "going Republican." Of course, even after eliminating welfare, pushing free trade and bombing several small countries, Democrats could still point to social issues as the one arena that marked them off from a Republican Party increasingly dominated by fundamentalist Christians. In Western Europe, where abortion, gay rights and school prayer barely register on the political radar, traditional leftists found themselves reduced to spokesmen for "globalization with a human face." This continent-wide collusion with U.S. corporate rule and military expansion has now successfully assimilated Germany's Social Democrats, England's Labor Party and Italy's former Communists. Last year, while NATO was bombing Yugoslavia, I was shocked to learn that of all the major Western European parties, only Germany's Party of Democratic Socialism -- the successors to the East German Communists -- opposed the war. Has the old left become part of the right? Is there any commitment to social justice, any opposition to unbridled corporate power and military adventurism in the "reformed" neoliberal left, here or across the Atlantic? Questions like these are clearly disturbing the Democrats. As their contempt for their progressive challenger indicates, neither they nor their European counterparts are willing to face the answers.

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