Following Hillary Clinton’s long-heralded announcement Sunday that she’ll be “Getting Started” on a 2016 run, American progressives are facing a tough choice about who, if anyone, to support in the next presidential fracas. Thankfully, there are more choices available to today’s movements than might seem obvious. With relatively little federal electoral promise in our own backyards, those interested in contesting for power and an unapologetically left-leaning agenda can start looking abroad.
Certainly, a mass populist party along the lines of Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain — each of which has already or is poised to take over their country’s top office — is not on track to appear here, in the United States, before 2016. That said, Americans grasping for a third way can learn important lessons from the recent successes of Syriza and Podemos — lessons that point to more than a totally marginal Green Party candidate or centrist Democrats that say but rarely do the right things. No, Syriza and Podemos show that it’s possible to mount a real, fighting challenge to the political establishment.
Thanks to the idiosyncrasies of “first past the post” voting, whereby any candidate securing anything over 50 percent of the electorate wins it all, outside challengers face a tougher uphill battle to state power than their counterparts in the many countries worldwide with proportional representation. Syriza and Podemos, though, also dealt with entrenched political malaise. Most importantly, the popularity of each grew from the movements of 2011 — the Indignados in Spain and the broad-based, youth-drive antifascist and anti-austerity movements in Greece. Obviously, an American Syriza or Podemos would look quite a bit different than its Mediterranean inspiration. But, as Dan Cantor and Ted Fertik of the Working Families Party explained in an article for In These Times, “It would be political malpractice not to pay attention to what’s going on in Europe.”
Part of what made the parties in Greece and Spain so successful was their ability to tap into a positive vision of the future. While remaining clear about their common enemy (the “totalitarianism of the market” as Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias puts it), popular opinion coalesced around vision rather than vitriol. Podemos, after all, translates to “we can” in English, while Syriza’s Thessaloniki Program promised such basic services as electricity and health care to the country’s poorest residents. In Greece, especially, part of the party’s popularity was built around the fact that they already had delivered such services for ordinary Greeks suffering through economic turmoil.