This dramatic shift in the rhetoric of ostensibly centre-left parties is part of a larger panic over how to halt the spread of rightwing populism across the west in recent years. Some academics now even go so far as to openly defend white identity politics. The argument that a tougher stand on immigration will revive the social democratic parties — and arrest the rise of the radical right — is based on two basic errors, which together reflect a larger misunderstanding about the historic role of centre-left parties. The first mistake is the widespread assumption that the rise of rightwing populism and the decline of traditional centre-left parties are two sides of the same coin — both caused by working-class voters abandoning the old social democrats for the nativist message of the new populist radical right.
The second misperception, closely related to the first, is that the voters who now support the populist radical right are largely the white working class that used to vote reliably for social democratic parties. As the data shows, both of these widely repeated assumptions stand on loose empirical footing.
In fact, most populist radical-right voters are not working class, and the majority of the working class does not support the populist radical right. These errors are based on a larger misunderstanding about the history of social democratic parties. Social democracy is an ideology that supports egalitarianism and social justice through the framework of liberal democracy and a mixed economy.
Inspired by the Marxist concept of class struggle, social democracy aims to uplift all marginalised groups. This misdiagnosis of the decline of the centre-left — and the rise of the populist right — leads to the wrong prescription for reviving social democracy. But both sides have the prescription wrong: if social democracy is to survive, its politicians need to return to their core values — rather than chasing a mirage that looks like their former core voters.
The key to reviving the fortunes of social democracy is not to pander to the nativism of part of the white working class, but to embrace the ideas and policies that are fundamental to social democracy — egalitarianism, social justice, solidarity, the right to social protection and a comprehensive welfare state. These values represented a widely shared common sense for the vast majority of Europeans in the second half of the 20th century — before their hegemony was eroded by three decades of neoliberal ideas and policies.
The only way back for social democracy is to fight to make these values dominant once again. A t first sight, it makes sense to link the decline of social democratic parties to the rise of populist radical-right parties. But correlation does not always equal causation. First of all, they did not happen at the same time.
More importantly, they have separate causes. But, as the vote share for social democratic parties fell in this decade, populist parties did not grow. These figures represent the average of votes across western Europe, but looking at specific countries makes it even clearer that the rise of the populist radical right has not caused the decline of social democratic parties.
In many cases, the populist radical right has risen without any comparable decline for the centre-left; in other cases, the centre-left parties began their sharp decline long before there was any major populist radical right party.
Its full implosion in , losing There is a simple explanation for this. The decline of social democratic parties has largely different causes from the rise of populist radical-right parties. First and foremost, the decline of social democratic parties has mainly been caused by the transformation of an industry-based economy into a service-based economy. This has led, among other things, to a sharp decline in traditional working-class jobs and a relative decline of all working-class people within the broader population.
Confronted with a declining working class and a growing middle class, social democratic parties started to target the latter at the expense of the former. Slowly but steadily, even the the French socialists and the various southern European parties followed suit. During the s, the average vote share for social democratic parties only fell back a small amount — but the populist radical right parties did not rise further at all. In many western European countries, this new political alignment — defined in cultural rather than economic terms — resulted in the Greens becoming the main leftwing party, and the populist radical right becoming the main rightwing party.
But even this ambition involves a misleading assumption about the history of the working-class vote.
It is true that, since the second world war, the working class in western Europe has voted disproportionately for social democratic parties, and communist parties where relevant — but a significant part of the working class has always voted for rightwing parties. S ince the emergence of the populist radical right in the early s, its voter base has continually shifted and evolved — with white workers as an important but far from dominant component.
Parties such as the Belgian Vlaams Bloc and the French Front National FN were particularly strong among the self-employed, but also attracted both blue-collar and white-collar workers. Unsurprisingly, given that populist radical-right parties declared themselves an alternative to both left and right, they drew voters from both sides as well as picking up some first-time and non-voters.
Those parties held on to their predominantly middle-class supporters, but began to add significant votes from among the working class. The perception that the working class was shifting its allegiance to the populist radical right in the late s was further strengthened by a shift in their propaganda.
As a consequence, the electorates of the more successful populist radical-right parties, like the French FN and Austrian Freedom party, started to more closely resemble, in terms of class structure, those of traditional socialist and social democratic parties in the s. The stereotypical populist radical-right voter in western Europe was now depicted as a young ish , lower-educated, working class male.
In fact, most voters for populist radical-right parties were not working-class — and most working-class voters did not vote for the populist radical right. Furthermore, surveys show that populist radical right parties do not primarily take voters from social democratic parties.
And voters who abandon social democratic parties do not primarily move to populist radical-right parties. In the German parliamentary elections , the SPD, which slipped from And the AfD, which entered the Bundestag for the first time with 94 seats A similar pattern could be seen in the Netherlands and Italy. What these examples demonstrate is that the recent growth of populist radical-right parties — unlike their initial expansion in the s — has not been driven by winning over more of the working class.
T his is not simply an academic debate.
These misconceptions about populist radical-right voters have had serious consequences for centre-left politics, because they have led many social democratic parties to pursue failed strategies against the populist radical right. This argument has been dominated by two rival camps — crudely, liberals against socialists.
Liberals tend to regard white working-class support for the populist radical right primarily in terms of cultural backlash, although they do not deny that economics has played a role. In reality, social democratic parties have a much more complex relationship with immigration and multiculturalism.
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Most social democratic parties were indeed vocal supporters of immigration and multiculturalism, particularly during the s and 90s. In many western European countries the links between the parties and the anti-racist movement were tight — such as in France, where the first president of SOS Racisme later became first secretary of the PS — and social democrats were at the forefront of the political struggle against the far right.
But social democratic parties across western Europe were often less supportive in their actual policies. With the third way no longer arresting their electoral decline, centre-left parties joined the centre-right in a strategy of co-optation — in other words, embracing the issues of the populist radical right in an attempt to marginalise the parties espousing them.
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