Everyone has noticed the collapse of Europe’s social-democratic parties, largely because it is unmissable. Take, first, the three big parties in the EU. France’s Socialist party went from a governing majority in the presidency and the National Assembly to 7 percent of the total vote in last year’s presidential election and virtual disappearance from parliament. Germany’s Social Democratic party (SPD) fell to 20 percent in the recent elections (and it’s fallen further during the negotiations over forming the new German government). Italy’s Democratic party managed a little better, winning 23 percent of the votes for both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. All three had started 2017 as parties serving in government — two as the dominant partners in coalitions.
This implosive trend started earlier and went further in Central Europe. Poland’s socialists lost power in 2005 when Polish politics became a contest between the urban, liberal Civic Platform and the rural, conservative Law and Justice party. They haven’t really come back since. Hungary’s Social Democrats lost office in 2010 and have since splintered into several parties; a five-party Left coalition won a quarter of the total vote in 2014 and splintered again; at present they are debating whether to form a new coalition for the forthcoming election on April 8. The Czech Social Democrats went from government into a polling debacle of 7 percent à la française last December. And Spain, Holland, Scotland, and other once reliably progressive places have seen similar collapses.
It’s not difficult to list the reasons for this cull, because so many agonized social democrats have already done so. The primary cause is generally agreed to be that the parties have either lost or abandoned their founding base in the mass working-class electorate. That happened because social democrats, who were increasingly composed of progressive middle-class intellectuals, usually working in the public sector, lost interest in blue-collar issues and were actively hostile to the conservative social values (patriotism, hard work, church) that appealed to workers as much as to the bourgeoisie. Eventually the workers noticed and began to drift off to other parties.
Pierre Manent, the classical-liberal French political scientist, has noticed that “Europe” played an important role in this tendency in the French and other parties because it replaced the proletariat as the proper focus of progressive loyalty. Environmentalism, feminism, immigration, and gay rights were other issues that replaced socialism and the welfare state in the social-democratic hierarchy of values. The disappearance of the Soviet Union disillusioned a small but passionate set of activists. And, finally, David Goodhart, a veteran journalist and former leftist, discerned a growing division in Britain and other advanced societies between the “Somewheres” (locally rooted people with modest ambitions) and the “Anywheres” (globally rootless professionals). A different kind of class war was overtaking the Left-vs.-Right conflict between the working and middle classes within a society — and producing a new politics.
As the workers drifted away from the social democrats, they were replaced by others — gays, feminists, ethnic minorities, highly educated professionals, yuppies. But these new groups didn’t have the numerical weight of the old proletariat — which, remember, had been about 70 percent of the population in 1950 — and so socialist parties shrank: first gradually, then in the past year quickly.
If that were all, the mainstream Right could rejoice, as indeed it initially did. Recall how the Tories were celebrating their permanent victory two years ago. But other things were going on under the surface of polls and election results. Someone who noticed was Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, who in 2014 wrote a front-page story in which he observed the rise of an “angry left-wing populism” that was “a radical, coherent and modern response to the financial crisis and the hardship suffered since.” And when we look more closely at the election results cited above, we can see that though the social democrats may have imploded and disappeared, the wider Left is still very much around. What has happened is that the wider Left has split, sometimes moving right, sometimes forming new parties, sometimes taking over old ones, and sometimes prospering when it does.
Look at France again. Its new “centrist” president, Emmanuel Macron, is a graduate of the Left who rose in President Hollande’s administration and who abandoned the Socialist party only when he saw it was too weak a vessel for his ambition. We don’t yet know how his administration will turn out in ideological terms. He’s mixing Right and Left policies in a very shrewd and ruthless way. But it’s early, and besides, he’s not the only Left contender on the field. He has a strong radical challenger on his left in the form of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who embodies the angry left-wing populism discerned by Nelson. Together they have the support of half of France — and indeed won half the votes in the first round of the French elections.
Even when the Left has weakened, the Right hasn’t always benefited. In some cases it’s actually been damaged. In France last year, as Charles Cooke has pointed out in these pages, a shift to the right among voters produced a stronger government of the center-left. In Germany the electoral losses of the SPD have been accompanied both by its taking a larger share of cabinet seats and by what a German newspaper called “the social-democratization of the CDU” (Christian Democratic Union), which will be more significant developments than the rise of the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland, the leading party on the right) for quite some time. As for Italy, take a second look at the “populists” of Five Stars, who are an odd combination of Left and Right, and until recently much more Left than Right (Dario Fo, the fun anarchist of Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!, used to be their ideological inspiration). That explains why the Euro-establishment wants to push Five Stars into an alliance with the declining socialists in a new Italian coalition. They sense it would be more conventional on the euro and related policies than the coalition of the Right, which still remembers how Brussels, Merkel, and Obama collaborated to replace Berlusconi with an unelected technocrat to protect Italy’s membership of the euro.
In Western Europe it looks as if the old social-democratic vote has gone in the following directions: to Right populists (e.g., the National Front, the AfD, the League), to Left populists (e.g., Melanchthon, Five Stars), and to centrist technocrats (e.g., Macron). And, of course, some votes have stayed with the social-democratic parties — in both Italy and Germany they still got about one-fifth of the total vote. It’s slightly different in Central and Eastern Europe, where the Left is more discredited and the Right has a stronger nationalist appeal. For apparent confirmation of these differences, see Poland’s latest opinion polls (which give Law and Justice over 50 percent), the victory of a populist party in the Czech elections, and (if the polls are borne out) the forthcoming Hungarian victory for Viktor Orban.
We’ve given the electoral kaleidoscope a terrific shaking, and the result is a complex pattern of new politics that varies from country to country and sometimes produces odd results. If we stand back, however, we can now see four forces in the new politics of flux: Left populists, Left centrists, Right centrists, Right populists. That indeed was the line-up after the first round of the French elections last year, when Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Emmanuel Macron, François Fillon, and Marine Le Pen filled these roles almost eerily. Until now, the default position of the mainstream parties and the European establishment in response to the upsurge of populism has been to form defensive centrist coalitions against it. This can be seen in both the European parliament and the German elections.
Pierre Manent sees this as a negative adjustment that will pit what he calls “populist demagogy against the fanaticism of the Center” in a political struggle of increasing bitterness. But as each election succeeds the last, it looks as if the voters keep trying to go around the establishment’s defenses. And they seem to be gradually breaking those defenses down. If Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, and his conservative Fidesz party win the April election, Europhiles will not be able to believe in the death of populism with any conviction. It will have to be accommodated.
And the Right is in a better position to accommodate it, since it’s still a going concern, while the Left’s collapse has already occurred. So the Right has time to assemble a new coalition by wooing the disaffected blue-collar vote with a patriotic appeal and then marrying it to traditional constituencies of the Right.
But not much time.