A crisis of capitalism is supposed to create an opening for the political left. But in Europe, the place where the concept of left and right was born, political conservatives have won the bulk of the elections held since economic catastrophe struck in 2008.
Is this about to change?
The conservative victory most noted in the U.S. was the rise to power of David Cameron, the British prime minister feted at the White House last week. The Conservatives won only a plurality of the parliamentary seats against the Labor Party in the 2010 elections. But they drove Labor to its worst showing since 1983 and were able to put together a coalition government with the center-left Liberal Democrats. Cameron has gotten good press in the U.S., even from liberals who wish the American right would follow Cameron's moderate and modernizing ways.
Cameron's was not a singular victory. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats were re-elected in 2009, and the center-right also prevailed in recent voting in Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands -- and also Sweden, the very heartland of social democracy.
The question is whether 2012 will mark a comeback by a left invigorated by a growing unhappiness with rising economic inequalities and a backlash against austerity policies aimed at saving Europe's common currency.
The biggest test will come in two rounds of voting on April 22 and May 6 in France, where center-right President Nicolas Sarkozy has been trailing Francois Hollande, a moderate Socialist.
The French election has already presaged a new trans-European form of politics. Merkel has made clear her preference for Sarkozy, which has prompted the idea that the voting is actually a referendum on a candidate named "Merkozy."
To preserve the euro, Merkel and Sarkozy have pushed for tough austerity policies, particularly in Greece. Hollande has argued that their budget-slashing approach has stifled growth across the continent. The French Socialist has also highlighted the inequality issue, calling for substantially higher taxes on the very rich. If he wins, Hollande would probably not be able to alter European Union policies as much as his campaign talk suggests, but a Socialist victory would open up the economic debate to more expansionary, Keynesian approaches.
One politician watching those elections closely is Ed Miliband, who took over as leader of the British Labor Party after its 2010 defeat. He's had some difficult moments since he narrowly defeated his brother, the broadly respected former British foreign secretary David Miliband, in a closely fought leadership contest. The oddity of a brother-against-brother race has not been easy to live down.
But Ed Miliband has been doing better lately, helped by his assault against Cameron's proposal to open Britain's popular National Health System to more private-sector elements. Labor has edged back ahead in the polls, though an election is not likely until 2015.
In a telephone interview from Britain during Cameron's recent visit, Miliband said he was not surprised by the center-right's triumphs in the years immediately after the crisis. "The right got an opening," he said, "because at times of fiscally difficult circumstances, they're the ones who say they know how to fix these things."
But austerity policies in Britain and elsewhere have failed to restore robust growth, and in the meantime, an ever larger number of voters have concluded that "the system is not working for the vast number of working people."
Miliband added: "The promise of free market capitalism, Reagan-Thatcher style, was that it would deliver for the vast majority, if not for the poor, but it's not working for the vast majority."
Yet the left, Miliband acknowledged, still has to overcome "a great skepticism about what government and politics can achieve" and revive hope "that things can be different than they are." He's trying to re-establish Labor's organizational roots in working class communities, and knows Labor needs to increase public confidence that it would both improve the way government works and lay out a "clear sense of priorities."
There is still skepticism about the 42-year-old Miliband's capacity to win, though I confess a certain sympathy for him as the only leading British politician who is an ardent baseball fan -- and a Red Sox fan to boot.
And he poses exactly the right question about contemporary conservatives: "Do they have any vision for the future that goes beyond reducing the deficit? That's the right's vulnerability and the left's opportunity." This is a challenge that both President Obama and the Republicans who want to replace him might usefully ponder.
Email E.J. Dionne at ejdionnewashpost.com.