into an exercise that seems to deeply divide the party, notably between its parliamentarians and grassroots; some German social democrats think about whether they actually should bother presenting a candidate for the Chancellery in 2017 since the Conservative chancellor Merkel appears to be doing such a great job and given that the social democrats stand no chance of winning a majority without an alliance with the more radical left (an alliance they are strictly opposed to); whereas the electoral hopes of the French centre-left appear to rest on the idea that the spectre of the extreme right and the particularities of the electoral system with its two rounds of voting may save their skin in the next presidential election. The situation in other countries seems hardly more encouraging, so that it is not surprising if one asks what has gone wrong since the end of the 1990s, when the centre-left, draped in the cloth of a new ‘Third Way’, dominated European politics and beyond.
First, social democracy suffers from a “loss of historical future [that represents] the main source of a political paralysis in the present” (Cunningham,2015, 31). In a period when humanity faces a range of immense challenges, from climate change and democratic disaffection to rising social inequalities and volatile economic conditions, it seems that social democratic forces restrict themselves to the stripped back promise of doing things a bit more socially just than their conservative counterparts. While for example the radical left attempts to reconcile social and environmental imperatives in the concept of eco-socialism, whereas conservative and liberal parties pursue a programme that profoundly alters the relationship between citizens and states, there is no meaningful contribution to these debates from the side of social democratic parties, which appear devoid of any overarching ideas as to what the future should look like, and which seem to believe that focus-group tested micro parcels of policies are sufficient to gather long-term and strong support. Moreover, this unwillingness to ‘think the future’ often goes hand in hand with an acceptance of the key ideological assumptions of their political opponents on the right, which contributes to the ideational hegemony of mind-sets that run counter to the ideals of a society based on the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity.
Secondly, social democracy (and the left in general) has lost the source of its power, the support from a coalition of working class and lower middle-class voters linked to an array of diverse progressive forces from all levels of society. It was this base and the strong collaboration with the trade union movement, boosted by the wide attraction of collectivist ideals, that helped to turn the three decades after the end of the Second World War into a truly social democratic moment. Since the 1980s, this support has been eroding due to two interconnected trends: On the one hand, increased levels of individualisation or even atomisation combined with profound socio-economic changes have undermined the collaborative model of post-war welfare capitalism; on the other hand social democratic parties have begun to aim more and more for the infamous ‘centre-ground’ while abandoning any serious attempts to engage with and mobilise voters from lower income strata – which contributed to ever rising levels of abstention and political disengagement from large segments of society that used to be a solid support base. To make matters worse, not many social democratic leaders seem to understand that voting is different from retail and that the involvement, mobilisation and binding of voters and supporters requires more than a friendly knock on the door or some advertisement campaigns every four or five years.
Finally, the wider institutional setting within which national policy-making occurs is no longer as amenable to social democratic principles as it was in the past. Put simply, social democracy assumes that there is a shared interest of all social classes and groups to create a stable, prosperous society, and that a form of consensus can be negotiated within the confines of a nation-state. The globalisation of the world economy and particularly its immense financialisation, combined with the dominance of competition (between states, organisations and individuals) as guiding principle of societies, have altered the parameters of political conflict. The difficulty of acknowledging this problem contributes to the intellectual vacuity of the social democratic mainstream and to the toothless approach in addressing the social conflicts of our times, at least in those instances when some form of opposition is still expressed – which is not always the case, as for example the support of most social democratic parties for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership demonstrates.
One could now say, why should we care? I would argue one should for two reasons: First, with social democratic parties as the traditionally strongest element of the left, the crisis of the former inevitably represents a crisis of the latter, not just from an electoral point of view but also regarding the legitimacy of left-wing policies. If people see social democratic parties fail repeatedly to improve living standards, it is likely that doubts regarding all forms of progressive, solidaristic policies spread. Secondly, even though the European welfare state of the post-war era, with its universal public services, was not only built by the social democratic movement but also by conservative and liberal parties, it was undoubtedly the influence and power of social democratic principles (strengthened by a good dose of fear of the communist bloc) that drove this extension of social rights. It is to be feared that with a social democracy in tatters and alternative forces of the left yet underdeveloped, the near future will be less comfortable for most of us, regardless of one’s political persuasion.