The collapse of Europe’s once-dominant socialist political parties has been apparent for years, and it continued in 2018. By now, however, the left has the information it needs to pull out of its nosedive. It just has to start using it.
The crushing defeats of 2017 - the near-death experience of the Socialist Party in France, the deflation of the Social Democrats in Germany and the Labour Party in the Netherlands, the shrinking of the entire left wing in the Czech Republic - apparently weren’t enough of a wake-up call. The defeated parties haven’t regained popularity, and some, like the German Social Democrats, have slid further down in the polls. The center left collapsed in the Italian election, letting two populist parties take the reins. In Sweden, the Social Democrat-led government saw diminished support in an inconclusive election and is unable to keep governing. In the U.K., the Labour Party was unable to wrest power from the squabbling, poorly led Tories, largely because it is itself divided on major issues such as Brexit and the desirable degree of wealth redistribution. Far away in Brazil, the Workers’ Party lost the presidential election.
Just five European Union countries are still ruled by center-left or leftist governments - Greece, Slovakia, Malta, Portugal and Spain. Only Spain’s Socialists won power in 2018, and not in an election but rather in an unusual parliamentary coup. In Greece, the leftist bloc Syriza will probably lose power this year, and in Spain, center-right parties are better positioned than the Socialists for the next election, whenever it comes. In the 2019 European Parliament election, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats - the center-left umbrella party - is projected to be the biggest loser, and while the more modern and more radical European United Left-Nordic Green Left is expected to gain a few seats, that won’t be nearly enough to help the entire leftist spectrum recoup its losses.
There are three accepted explanations for this litany of woe. One, popular among leftists themselves, is that the traditional parties took a wrong turn somewhere. In his 2017 book, “Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost,” the British economist and business professor Geoffrey Hodgson argues that, after making compromises with capitalism since the 1950s, the socialist and labor parties have failed to offer a “persuasive, feasible and democratic alternative to capitalism” after the 2008 global financial crisis.
Another view has to do with the changing class structure of society. Its proponents argue that the old working class is gone, taking with it the traditional base of the leftist parties united by class consciousness and by the institutions that supported it, from labor unions to choral societies and women’s clubs. “First, the emancipation of the working class - primarily the extension of access to higher education - changed the working class and its dependence on left-wing subcultures and organizations,” the political scientist Jan Rovny of Sciences Po in Paris wrote in a London School of Economics blog post earlier this year. “Second, the left’s enabling of the search for rights allowed younger generations to seek personal liberation from traditional hierarchies, including those of the left.”
By this thinking, the old proletariat has been replaced at the bottom of the class hierarchy by a new precariat, people working in the service economy with few chances and little desire to organize. They are often immigrants separated from each other by cultural divides and sometimes disenfranchised. The traditional left has had little to offer them.
The third concept is more radical than the first two. It posits a collapse of the entire traditional left-right paradigm, describing it as too simplistic for today’s complex matrix of factors affecting political preferences. Social scientists Yann Algan, Elizabeth Beasley, Daniel Cohen and Martial Foucault analyzed this matrix earlier this year using a detailed dataset from the 2017 French presidential election. They saw people with lower-than-average incomes for their level of education voting hard left, for Jean-Luc Melenchon, and people with higher incomes than their education level going for the center-right (Francois Fillon). They noted that people with lower interpersonal trust went for Melenchon if they had higher life satisfaction, and for nationalist populist Marine Le Pen if they were less happy with their lives. The ideological divides that used to match class lines have also shifted: For example, though the supporters of Le Pen were as unlikely to be wealthy as those of Melenchon, the nationalist’s voters weren’t particularly interested in redistribution.
The three explanations of the traditional left’s demise approach the same problem from different angles. The structure of society has changed for a number of reasons: broader access to education, deindustrialization, migratory flows, the success of social policies pursued by the same leftist parties that are suffering now at the polls. At the same time, the toolbox for describing and measuring societal divides, as well as for exploiting them for political purposes, has improved dramatically with the rise of data science and social networks. The leftist parties, meanwhile, have failed to use this toolbox to offer compelling ideas to the social groups that might be willing to support them.
I’m not a leftist by any definition. No one who grew up in the Soviet Union, as I did in Moscow in the 1970s and 1980s, can be one without amnesia-inducing drugs. State-run redistribution will always turn into a corrupt, wasteful system that fails to make anyone happy regardless of how much repression is involved. That said, I have a stake in the survival of the traditional left in the Western world. It has a proven record of making societies fairer, holding back imperial impulses, shortening wars. It has been a useful counterbalance to the natural inclination of the traditional right to support big business, the military and law-enforcement machines.
The traditional left doesn’t have to give up these important roles. What it requires is clarity on three issues: Whom it stands for, what it stands for and how to communicate the ideas. The new potential support base includes diverse groups. Three of these are government employees who believe in the positive mission of the state; creative classes and intellectuals who stand for freedom, diversity and a massive role for educational institutions; a precarious working class that feels ill-treated by a system rigged in favor of the rich. All of them share an interest in one thing: fairness.
Many leaders on the left understand this, and Martin Schulz, the losing German Social Democratic candidate for chancellor in 2017, even chose “More Fairness” as his slogan. The reason he lost was that he couldn’t explain what the word meant to him and how he was going to deliver fairness to the different target groups. In such a situation, the government employees, intellectuals and students tend to vote for environmentalist parties like the German Greens, which share their sensibilities. Many of the insecure workers go for the nationalist populists who address the issue of fairness in the simplest terms: A country, according to them, must help its own first.
There are, meanwhile, ways to address the concerns of all the potential audiences while advocating clear policies. The Dutch GreenLeft, which did unexpectedly well in the 2017 election and has increased its popularity since, provides an important example.
It’s the product of a merger of four progressive parties that stressed different aspects of socialism and environmentalism but found ways to combine both. Merging with Greens can be a productive way forward for the traditional left, since voters appear to move freely between them. In Germany, for example, the decline of the Social Democrats has led to the rise of the Greens, who replaced them as the nation’s second most popular party this year.
The GreenLeft has departed from traditional redistribution ideas; the party proposes programs that stress getting the underprivileged into training and work rather than providing more financial support for them. While calling for more education spending, it actually advocates a smaller government and a more streamlined political system, catering to the anti-elite mood of the struggling lower middle class.
A combination of “green” goals with leftist sensibilities could be an answer to movements like France’s Yellow Vests. Instead of fuel taxes, which set off violent protests because they have an immediate, direct effect on the tightest family budgets, such hybrid parties want to extract environmental taxes primarily from big corporations. Though the effect of higher corporate taxation would trickle down to the poor, too, the framing of the matter is less likely to cause protest - especially if investments in public transportation come through, as these parties promise. The coalition government in Luxembourg, headed by a center-right party but also including a leftist one and a green one, proposes to make public transportation free in the small country next year, a highly popular move that is likely to boost the government’s staying power.
A focus on fairness should probably mean less of a focus on political correctness. Social liberalism has prevented politicians on the left from talking freely about the dark side of immigration.