Social Democracy Isn’t Dead, But It Needs to Adapt

Social democrats lose when they try to be all things to all people. Better to side with the progressive middle class.

Social democratic leaders Robert Fico, Bohuslav Sobotka, Sergei Stanishev, Sigmar Gabriel and Jeremy Corbyn meet in Prague, December 2, 2016
Social democratic leaders Robert Fico, Bohuslav Sobotka, Sergei Stanishev, Sigmar Gabriel and Jeremy Corbyn meet in Prague, December 2, 2016 (PES)

Social democrats might despair after the collapse of the French Socialist Party on Sunday. Their candidate, Benoît Hamon, received only 6.4 percent of the votes, almost an historic low.

Hamon’s defeat comes mere weeks after the Dutch Labor Party sunk to its lowest level of support ever in parliamentary elections.

And it comes weeks before the British Labour Party is expected to suffer yet another defeat under the feckless leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.

There is some good news. Emmanuel Macron, the closest thing to a proper social democrat in France, is on track to win the presidency. Germany’s Social Democrats are riding high in the polls. Italy’s center-left Democrats are in power and will probably remain so after the elections this year.

Look closely and you see it’s not social democracy that is dead but rather a particular form of social democracy.

Third Way

Macron refuses to call himself left- or right-wing, but his program is reminiscent of Tony Blair’s Third Way.

So is Matteo Renzi’s, the Italian Democratic Party leader. He explicitly cites Blair as an inspiration.

Germany’s Social Democrats have never lurched to the left. Although purists still blame them for enacting labor reforms fifteen years ago, the majority of German voters share their middle-of-the-road views.

Corbyn and Hamon, by contrast, harken back to the socialism of the 1970s, before it came to terms with the primacy of the market.

Identity politics

There is also a cultural dimension to Macron’s and Renzi’s success.

Both appeal to one extreme in what the Atlantic Sentinel has called Europe’s blue-red culture war: the struggle between cosmopolitan voters who are generally urban and university-educated on the one hand and rural and small-town voters who are more traditional in their values and economically less secure on the other.

The pro-European rhetoric and liberal economic policies of Macron and Renzi are designed to win over “blue” voters from the center-right.

They recognize that the working class, traditionally supportive of center-left parties, has defected to “red” nationalists — and that there is little point in trying to lure them back.

Corbyn, Hamon and the Dutch Labor Party cannot accept that. They have been trying to satisfy both middle-income progressives and lower-income voters with socially conservative views and failed. You cannot be all things to all people.

Imperative

The great accomplishments of social democracy in the twentieth century were the emancipation of minorities and workers and the taming of capitalism.

The imperative now must be to defend the open, fair and tolerant society of the twenty-first century against reactionaries on the left and the right. Social democrats who rise to the challenge will be rewarded by voters.