Democrats’ Dilemma Is Familiar to Europe’s Center-Left

Try to win back working-class voters or side with the socially progressive middle class?

Pedro Sánchez Christian Kern António Costa
Spanish, Austrian and Portuguese social democratic party leaders Pedro Sánchez, Christian Kern and António Costa attend a meeting in Lisbon, December 2, 2017 (PES)

Democrats in the United States have the same dilemma as social democrats in Europe: should they deemphasize progressive social policies in order to win back working-class voters or side with the socially progressive middle class?

The parable isn’t perfect. The big cultural issue in Europe is immigration. In the United States, it’s race relations more broadly and changing social norms.

But that makes a strategy of accommodation with blue-collar voters who switched from Barack Obama to Donald Trump in 2016 even less attractive to the American left. It would mean repudiating causes like Black Lives Matter and transgender rights because they offend Trump voters’ desire for social order.

Voting against their interests

The usual argument from the left is that these Americans are voting against their economic interests and can be persuaded on issues like health care and income policy.

That only takes you so far, though. Sometimes it’s not the economy, stupid! There are Americans who are afraid of losing cultural and political power — and they understand that Democrats are driving these changes, by empowering women and minorities and by fighting and repealing voting laws that make it harder for blacks and Hispanics to vote.

Make a choice

The midterms give Democrats the advantage of pursuing whichever strategy works best in their district or state. For the presidential election of 2020, they will need to pick one candidate and one strategy.

You can’t be all things to all people. Hillary Clinton tried that in 2016 and failed. Social democrats in Germany and the Netherlands tried that and they got clobbered.

Social democrats in Denmark and Sweden have taken a harder line on borders, crime and defense in an attempt to win back working-class voters. Their counterparts in Portugal and Spain have made deals with the far left to oust the center-right. Both strategies are working. Voters respect and reward parties that stand for something.