Imagine a map of Europe showing which party of the Left or the Right heads the government. Twenty years ago, it would be almost wholly covered in red, the traditional color of European democratic socialism, not to be confused with “red for Republicans” in the United States. Today, following the bellwether elections in France and Germany, only five countries are inked in red, among them such giants as the tiny island of Malta.
There goes the Socialist International. The decline reflects a long-term trend; it seems to betray destiny, not just a trough in the usual ups and downs of democratic politics.
Take France. In the postwar period, tenure pretty much alternated between the moderate Left and the moderate Right. In recent times, the Socialist Party (PS) had conquered the presidency twice, propelling François Mitterrand and François Hollande into the Élysée Palace. In the first round of June’s presidential elections, the Socialists barely scraped together 6.4 percent.
In Germany, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) once brought forth towering figures like Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt, and Gerhard Schröder, scoring up to 46 percent of the national vote. In the September elections, its candidate Martin Schulz went down in flames with 20.5 percent, the party’s worst take since World War II.
In Italy, the once mighty Socialist Party (PSI), which used to dominate Italian politics prewar and shared tenure in the early postwar decades, is no more. In the Netherlands, the Labour Party (PvdA) headed the government as recently as 2002. Then it fell to a junior partner—and into oblivion, winning just nine seats in this year’s general elections. Its share of the vote plummeted from 19 to less than 6 percent.
In Greece, PASOK used to be one of the two major parties—in the government and out. Once able to collar 44 percent of the vote, it is now down to 6 percent. Greeks have a name for this kind of shrinkage: “pasokification.” And so it goes, from Iberia all the way to Scandinavia, where the social democrats perfected the modern welfare state. Finland now has the first conservative President in five decades. Norway has been ruled by the center Right since 2013.
There seem to be two exceptions to this pattern. One odd-man-out is Jeremy Corbyn, whose Labour Party ended up just two points behind the Tories in the June snap elections. This last-minute surge from way behind in the polls does not seem to indicate a reversal of the trend. Arguably, Corbyn scored because of a torrent of dislike that nearly drowned Theresa May. The vote was not pro-Labour, but anti-May.
The other exception is the United States, where the Democrats, the U.S. version of social democracy, conquered the White House twice for Barack Obama, also pocketing the majority of the popular vote in the Clinton-Trump face-off. But look at the heartland. Since Obama was first elected in 2009, the Republicans have added 1,000 seats at the state level. They now control 34 of the fifty governors’ mansions.
What happened? “It’s history, stupid!,” Bill Clinton might growl. The democratic Left rose to power in tandem with a rising working class. These parties gave a voice to the new urban masses, acting as advocates of their interests. But the old working class, nourished by rampant industrialization, is no more. A simple statistic tells the tale. In the past half century, the GDP share of manufacturing (very roughly) has dropped from 35 to 15 percent. So social democracy has been losing its customer base.
The democratic Left has also lost by winning. The welfare state is a fact between Stockholm and San Francisco. Western governments at all levels take in and disburse about one-half of GDP—more in France, less in the United States. The effect is reflected in the Gini Index that tallies income inequality. Measured by the raw Gini, the United States is far less equal than Germany. When you factor in taxes and transfers, differences between egalitarian Germany and “ultra-capitalist” America wane. The advanced welfare state is a socialist dream come true: It redistributes from Peter to give unto poorer Paul, robbing the democratic left of its best selling point.
This is why the SPD’s Martin Schulz tanked with his “social justice” slogan: take from the rich and increase subsidies and services to the less fortunate. Alas, the party’s traditional clientele has gone middle-class, and it is not enamored with the promise of more taxes when the highest bracket begins to bite at €50,000—the salary of a skilled worker.
So nothing fails like success. As the welfare state expanded and the industrial sector shrank, the fortunes of the moderate Left declined. Yet more recently social democratic parties have come up against a new enemy. Call it populism (which always has both Right and Left varieties) in the guise of the “Alternative for Germany” (AfD), Marine Le Pen’s National Front, or the Trump Party. Those who defected to the new populists are not just the “deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton had it, but vast swathes of the electorate that felt abandoned by what Thomas Frank calls the “Liberal Class.”
Educated and articulate, dominating published opinion, education, and the administration, this class has established “cultural hegemony,” to invoke a term invented by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. And the “forgotten man,” as he was known in the FDR era, doesn’t like it.
Resentment ranges from gender mainstreaming, correct speech, and minority politics to open borders for goods and people. The United States faces undocumented immigrants from the south. Germany just took in 1.2 million from the Middle East and North Africa. Italy battles the influx from Libya. “What about us?,” ask the so-called deplorables. These folks don’t write op-eds, but they have the vote. And now they have Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump. Or UKIP in Britain, Geert Wilders in Holland, and the AfD in Germany.
Ask them why they voted as they did, and they will probably all answer as Germany’s AfD voters did: 30 percent liked the party’s platform, 60 percent voted out of “disappointment” with the established parties.
So why doesn’t the moderate Left shift into competitive mode and offer a new menu to its defectors? You might just as well ask why the Democrats don’t go nationalist and mainstream instead of trying to cobble together a majority with ethnic and sexual minorities. It is in their DNA, just as in the case of their European comrades. If you are attached to globalization, secularism, and diversity, you can’t go protectionist, nativist, and nationalist. The old recipe of welfarism doesn’t beat the defensive nationalism gripping the entire West.
Social democracy, in short, is trapped between its creed and its defecting clientele. History whispers that its salad days are over. But then look at the upside. Throughout Western Europe, the new populists have scored but not conquered. Take the most recent case, Germany. The AfD jumped to 13 percent in the September elections. By simple subtraction, this leaves 87 percent for the parties of the democratic mainstream.
The downside is Hungary and Poland, where the authoritarians came to power in free elections. Plus Donald Trump’s America, where the most critical battle is unfolding because the United States is the world’s mightiest democracy. But remember: This constitution has held for 230 years. In Europe, myriad constitutions have been trampled or torn up since 1787.