Analysis The Center Can Hold

The Return of European Social Democracy

Center-left parties are winning elections again. What changed?

Olaf Scholz
German Social Democratic Party leader Olaf Scholz attends a conference in Berlin, June 25 (PES)

Olaf Scholz has given German social democracy a new lease on life. For the first time in sixteen years, his Social Democratic Party (SPD) — Germany’s oldest — has defeated the center-right Union of Christian Democrats. Support for the SPD went up from 20.5 to 26 percent in the election on Sunday. Still below its pre-reunification heights, when it would routinely win up to 40 percent, but enough to make Scholz the most likely next chancellor.

His counterparts in Portugal and Spain have been equally successful. António Costa was reelected with 36 percent support in 2019. Pedro Sánchez won two elections that year. Both govern with the support of the far left. Four of the five Nordic countries are led by social democrats. The fifth, Norway, soon will be, after Labor won the election two weeks ago.

It wasn’t so long ago that commentators ruminated on the “death of European social democracy,” myself included. Now it’s back in swing in the north, south and center. What changed?


The pandemic is an obvious explanation.

Paul Taylor writes for Politico Europe that public demand for a stronger, more protective state has relegitimized the left.

The pandemic also focused attention on the plight of frontline workers, from deliverers to nurses to supermarket cashiers; positions that are often low-paid, with long hours and precarious employment contracts. Social democratic calls for higher wages and better labor conditions suddenly look prescient.

Final push

The problem with this explanation is that social democrats returned to power in most countries except Germany and Norway before the pandemic.

Concerns about income inequality, labor market liberalization, a dearth of affordable housing and the climate crisis also predate COVID-19.

Maybe voters gradually warmed to the center-left after many years of center-right rule, and in a few countries the pandemic was the final push they needed?

It helps that migration has become less of an issue. Many native, working-class voters — traditionally the backbone of the social democratic coalition — felt party leaders were indifferent to their concerns. Some defected to the far right, which appealed more generally to a sense of being left behind.

It’s why the Alternative for Germany is popular in the formerly communist eastern states. 32 years after reunification, life expectancy, pensions and wages are still lower in the region than in the former West. East Germans are underrepresented in business, the media and politics, outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel being a notable exception.

Culture war

When support for the SPD fell to a postwar low in 2017, I argued they had to take a side in Germany’s culture war:

Campaigning on liberal immigration laws, social justice and international engagement alienates blue-collar voters.

Campaigning on border controls and deemphasizing identity politics turns away college graduates.

Do both at the same time and you end up with with no supporters at all.

Costa and Sánchez leaned in the first direction and won on the back of younger, more urban electorates.

Social democrats in Scandinavia tried the second strategy and also won.

Movement between parties and a generational divide reveal Scholz achieved something closer to the Scandinavians. He won (back) older voters from the Christian Democrats and far left. Younger voters preferred the more outspoken liberal Free Democrats and Greens. But he did it without talking about immigration at all.

Avoiding mistakes

Scholz refused to be drawn into identity debates, which Ruy Teixeira, an American political scientist, identifies as one of the five mistakes center-left parties tend to make.

The other four are:

  1. Retro-socialism: Mistaking support for bigger government with a desire to overthrow capitalism.
  2. Catastrophism: Warning the end is nigh if the world doesn’t slow down climate change.
  3. Growthphobia: Voters want abundance, not societally-mandated scarcity.
  4. Technopessimism: Seeing technology only as the destroyer of jobs and an enabler of misinformation.

Scholz avoided those mistakes too. He campaigned on raising the minimum wage and making housing more affordable. He didn’t agree with the Greens to go beyond the outgoing coalition’s climate plans. The Social Democratic manifesto called out battery production and recycling as opportunities to replace jobs that will be lost in fossil-fuel industries.

Bread and butter

Sánchez is a self-proclaimed feminist who governs with a far-left party that campaigned on nationalizing energy companies and leaving NATO. In power, they have prioritized bread-and-butter issues like classifying “gig economy” workers as employees, raising the minimum wage, lowering sales tax and tightening rent control.

Costa governs with the support of actual communists, but his policies are far from revolutionary: raising child benefits, investing in health care, reducing youth unemployment.

In the Netherlands, Labor Party leader Lilianne Ploumen centered her campaign on sexism and vowed to only go into government with the Greens, who want to abolish private health insurance, build more wind turbines on land and force farmers to reduce their livestocks. Voters weren’t impressed: Labor placed sixth with just nine seats in March, the same number as the once-marginal Socialist Party. Neither Labor nor the Greens will be part of the next coalition government.