Populism and the Decline of Social Democracy

Issue Date July 2019
Volume 30
Issue 3
Page Numbers 5-19
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Across Europe and many other parts of the world, traditional parties of the left seem to be in terminal decline. While there are many reasons for this, we argue that the most important was the left’s shift to the center on economic issues during the late twentieth century. Although this shift made some sense in the short-term, over the long-term it had deleterious, perhaps even fatal, consequences: It watered down the left’s distinctive historical profile; rendered socialist and social-democratic parties unable to take advantage of widespread discontent over the fallout from neoliberal reforms and the 2008 financial crisis; created incentives for parties to emphasize cultural and social rather than economic or class appeals; and undermined the representative nature of democracy. The shift in the left’s economic profile, in short, deserves center stage in any account of its decline. Moreover, this shift and its consequences have been crucial to the rise of a nativist, populist right and to the broader problems facing democracy today in Western and Eastern Europe, as well as other parts of the world.

Across Europe, traditional parties of the left seem to be in terminal decline. In Western Europe, support for social-democratic and socialist parties sank to insignificance in the 2017 French and Dutch elections. In the 2018 German parliamentary elections, the once-mighty Social Democratic Party (SPD) received its lowest vote share since the end of the Weimar Republic, and in Scandinavia, long the redoubt of social democracy, center-left parties struggle to maintain 25 to 30 percent of the vote. The situation in Central and Eastern Europe is even grimmer. In Hungary, the Socialist Party (MSzP), initially one of the strongest post-transition parties, garnered only 12 percent of the vote in April 2018 elections for the National Assembly. In Poland, the social-democratic Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) is no longer represented in parliament, and in the Czech Republic just 7 percent of voters opted for the center-left Social Democratic Party (CSSD) in 2017 parliamentary elections. The trend continued in May 2019 elections to the 751-member European Parliament, where the center-left Socialists and Democrats bloc lost 38 of the 191 seats that it had carried in 2014.

About the Authors

Sheri Berman

Sheri Berman is professor of political science at Barnard College. Her works include Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day (2019) and The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century (2006).

View all work by Sheri Berman

Maria Snegovaya

Maria Snegovaya is a postdoctoral fellow at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Her essay (with Sheri Berman) “Populism and the Decline of Social Democracy” appeared in the July 2019 issue of the Journal of Democracy. She is author of the April 2022 Journal of Democracy online exclusive “Will Putin Outlast War?

View all work by Maria Snegovaya

Despite the Europe-wide nature of this trend, most explanations of the left’s problems focus on idiosyncratic region-specific factors. For example, many analyses of diminishing support for leftist parties in Western Europe emphasize changing class and value structures. The decline of West European manufacturing during the late twentieth century [End Page 5] weakened the working class and unions, shrinking the left’s traditional voting base and reducing the heft of the organizations that had been its most important affiliates. During the same period, postmaterialist values such as self-expression, environmentalism, cosmopolitanism, sexual freedom, and gender equality took on a new prominence in Western societies. Voters holding such values considered themselves to be on the left, but they differed from longtime leftist voters who remained wedded to national identities, prioritized law and order, and favored growth over environmental protection. The divisions between “new” and “old” left voters rendered socialist and social-democratic parties conflicted and confused.

For postcommunist Eastern Europe, a popular explanation of the left’s demise emphasizes anti-incumbent bias. In this view, disenchanted voters without strong party identifications simply punished incumbents by kicking them out of office. This resulted in power alternation between slow and fast reformers, represented by (more or less) reformed ex-communist successor parties and the democratic center-right opposition, respectively. Other accounts attribute falling support for the left to weak party organization, internal conflicts, and corruption scandals.1

While all these factors are worth considering, they alone cannot explain the left’s decline. Since this trend is not limited to Western or Eastern Europe, or even to Europe at all, the explanation must involve something broader than regional-level developments.

We argue that there is indeed a common factor underlying the decline of the left in Europe and in other parts of the world: namely, the left’s shift to the center on economic issues, and in particular its acceptance of “neoliberal” reforms such as privatization of parts of the public sector, cuts to taxes and the welfare state, and deregulation of the business and financial sectors. Although this shift made some sense in the short term, over the long term it had deleterious, perhaps even fatal, consequences. It watered down the left’s distinctive historical profile; rendered socialist and social-democratic parties unable to take advantage of widespread discontent over the fallout from neoliberal reforms and the 2008 financial crisis; created incentives for parties to emphasize cultural and social rather than economic or class appeals; and undermined the representative nature of democracy. The shift in the left’s economic profile, in short, deserves center stage in any account of its decline. Moreover, this shift and its consequences have been crucial to the rise of a nativist, populist right and to the broader problems facing democracy today in Western and Eastern Europe, as well as other parts of the world.

Capitalism, or rather a backlash against it, is the reason for the modern left’s existence. When capitalism emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it led to unprecedented economic growth and innovation—but also to dramatic economic inequality and insecurity, as well as immense social disruption. In response, an international socialist [End Page 6] movement emerged, with Marxism as its ideological lodestar. By the late nineteenth century, this movement had fractured due to differing views on how to deal with capitalism’s development. In contrast to the mid-century predictions of Karl Marx, capitalism was not collapsing. Some on the left thus argued that rather than waiting for history to run its course, leftists should form a revolutionary vanguard that would act to bring about capitalism’s demise. Russia’s Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) was the most important advocate of this position, and his followers became communists.

Another faction instead argued that reforming capitalism was both possible and desirable. They contended that the left should focus not on transcending capitalism, but rather on ensuring that its immense productive capacity would serve progressive rather than destructive ends. German political thinker Eduard Bernstein (1850–1932) was the most influential advocate of this view, and his followers became social democrats.

This social-democratic outlook was optimistic, even idealistic. Unlike communists and other socialists, social democrats argued that neither a violent revolution nor the collapse of capitalism was necessary to bring about a better future. Instead, they argued for the “primacy of politics”2: Human beings, acting collectively, could use the power of the democratic state to create a better world.

Through the interwar years, the left’s communist and social-democratic factions struggled for dominance, while also competing against the myriad other political forces (liberals, fascists, conservatives, anarchists) that vied for supremacy in Europe. With a few exceptions, however—communists ruled briefly in Hungary, and social democrats enjoyed exceptional political success in Scandinavia—neither group was able to dominate the left or capture political power in Europe. This changed after 1945. Communists took power in Eastern Europe, and social democracy came to dominate the West European left and exerted a decisive influence on the shape of the region’s postwar order.

The West European Story

The experience of the Great Depression of the 1930s, when capitalism’s failures produced social chaos and fueled support for left-wing (communist) and right-wing (fascist) extremism, had a deep impact on political mentalities in Western Europe. After World War II, actors across the political spectrum recognized that ensuring democratic success and social stability required dealing with the downsides of capitalism. During the postwar period, accordingly, West European nations constructed a new order designed to ensure economic growth while at the same time protecting societies from capitalism’s dangerous consequences. This order represented a decisive break with the past: After 1945 West European governments, rather than limiting themselves to [End Page 7] the role of economic “night watchmen,” sought to act as guardians of society and promoters of social stability. Capitalism remained, but it was capitalism of a very different type than had existed before the war—it was tempered and limited by the power of democratic governments. Citizens were promised protection from economic dislocation and suffering, creating the sort of “positive-sum” politics that enables democracy to flourish. This was precisely the approach that social democrats had advocated since the early twentieth century, but it took the tragedies of the 1930s and 1940s for their views to gain broad acceptance.

The thirty years after 1945 were Western Europe’s fastest period of growth ever, and democracy consolidated across the region for the first time in its history.3 Yet despite this impressive record, the social-democratic consensus eventually frayed. On the left, the very success of the postwar order led many to forget that reforms, while important, were simply a means to an end—that end being taming capitalism and reconciling it with democracy and social stability. Many on the left grew content with managing the existing order, forgetting that capitalism was constantly evolving and inherently dangerous. Others, disappointed that the prospect of a postcapitalist future had vanished and bored by what they saw as the banality and materialism of the postwar order, stopped focusing on capitalism entirely. Instead, they turned their attention to intellectual currents such as postmodernism, multiculturalism, feminism, and postcolonialism that were cultural rather than economic in nature. During the last decades of the twentieth century, the left devoted little strategic thought to the changing nature of capitalism.

The consequences of this became clear by the 1970s, when a noxious mix of inflation and unemployment hit the West. During the previous decades, a free-market right had been organizing and thinking about what it viewed as the drawbacks of the postwar social-democratic order. When the crisis hit, this free-market right was ready with explanations as well as solutions. This, combined with the left’s inability to credibly propose an alternate path, helped the neoliberal right to gain ideological dominance with its argument that “there was no alternative,” as Margaret Thatcher put it, to freeing markets and paring back the role of the state.

The Rise of the Neoliberal Consensus

So in a dramatic reversal of the postwar pattern in which a social-democratic consensus came to dominate the mainstream left and right, by the late twentieth century a neoliberal consensus dominated both instead. Tony Blair’s “New Labour” in the United Kingdom, Bill Clinton’s “New Democrats” in the United States, and Gerhard Schröder’s SPD in Germany largely accepted neoliberal policies and the idea that government’s ability to shape economic and social development was [End Page 8] limited. Social democrats, in other words, ceased presenting themselves as wary overlords of capitalism, cognizant of the need to protect society from its downsides, and instead increasingly presented their mission in technocratic, efficiency terms. This was accompanied by a shift in the left’s leadership toward highly educated elites whose preferences on many issues diverged from those of traditional left-wing voters.4

While the left’s economic shift may have made sense in the short term—almost all mainstream economists supported the new policies, and growth did recover after the slowdown of the late 1970s and early 1980s—its long-term consequences were profound. Most obviously, it represented a transformation of the left’s longstanding profile, even its identity, which had been rooted in the backlash against capitalism. The left’s success—indeed, Western Europe’s success—after 1945 was predicated upon the assertion that the democratic state could temper or even eliminate capitalism’s dangerous consequences and promote both growth and equality. Having abandoned this view, the traditional left was poorly positioned to capture the resentment and anger that materialized when the weakening of the postwar social-democratic order produced its inevitable fallout: dramatic economic inequality and insecurity, as well as immense social disruption. The 2008 financial crisis aggravated these trends, sharpening popular frustration with neoliberalism and the elites and parties that had embraced it.

With the traditional left no longer able to capture growing popular discontent, a golden opportunity arose for an enterprising political force. This force turned out to be populism.

Most European right-wing populist parties have their roots in the late 1970s and 1980s, but when they emerged on the scene almost all had conservative economic profiles. Social democracy’s economic shift, along with growing discontent generated by the fallout from neoliberal policies and then the 2008 financial crash and ensuing Eurozone crisis, created strong incentives for these parties to shift course.

Perhaps the earliest and most successful transformation of this kind occurred in France: Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front originally espoused neoliberal policies including low taxes and a small state. Indeed, Le Pen once boasted that he had adopted the principles of Reaganomics and Thatcherism before they became fashionable.5 But under the leadership of his daughter Marine Le Pen (who took over in 2011) the party shifted to advocating protectionism, an interventionist state, and a strong social safety net. The Austrian Freedom Party underwent a similar change. Originally a home for free-market liberals as well as former Nazis, this party later embraced “welfare chauvinism” (an approach that emphasizes limiting the welfare state’s benefits to native-born citizens). In Denmark, the antistatist, antitax Progress Party of the 1970s splintered and was eclipsed by a faction that became the pro–welfare-state Danish People’s Party. Alternative for Germany began as a middle-class [End Page 9] conservative party opposed to the euro common currency and to EU bailouts of Southern Europe, but by the time of its entry into parliament in 2017 it had morphed into a right-wing nationalist party accepting social protection “for Germans.” The U.K. Independence Party and Italy’s Lega also started off with conservative economic profiles, but shifted to the left in recent years. And during the 2018 parliamentary election in Sweden, the populist, nativist, right-wing Sweden Democrats claimed that they, rather than the Social Democrats, were the true defenders of the Swedish welfare state.6

In addition to providing populists with an opportunity to capture growing economic discontent, the left’s economic shift served to heighten the salience of social and cultural grievances. As left and right converged on questions of economic policy, politicizing noneconomic issues became, in the words of one cross-national study, an attractive “survival strategy,” insofar as “shifting competition to a new issue domain allows parties to better distinguish themselves from one another and thereby avoid losing voters to indifference.” These dynamics also “incentivize new parties to emerge and compete on non-economic issues.” Similarly, with fewer differences between the traditional left and right on matters of economic policy, voters had reason to pay more attention to noneconomic factors.7

Shifting the main axis of political competition from economic to social issues benefits the populist right more than the traditional left. Historically, at least, the left benefits most when class identities are strong and dissatisfaction with market outcomes is high. In addition, the voting base of leftist parties is more diverse than that of the right (in terms of ethnicity, religion, and sexual identity) and is also divided between a “new” or postmaterialist left and an “old” left that remains wedded to traditional social norms. So when political competition centers on social issues, it becomes harder for social-democratic parties to build and maintain broad, cohesive electoral coalitions.

The populist right’s appeal, on the other hand, was limited before its economic change of course. Voters from less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds, such as workers and those with low levels of education, have always been conservative on social and cultural issues; they also, however, have left-wing economic preferences. As long as right-wing populists advocated conservative economic policies (and flirted openly with fascism, which was universally rejected by European voters), voters with left-wing economic preferences would face tradeoffs voting for them. But once right-wing populists shifted course, voters with conservative social views and left-wing economic preferences no longer had to choose between them when deciding how to vote.

Scholars and commentators accordingly have long recognized that right-wing parties try, particularly during difficult economic times, to direct the public’s attention to social issues and identities, as opposed to [End Page 10]economic issues and class identities. As one study put it, as inequality grew, right-wing parties increasingly sought “to draw voter attention away from interests to values.”8 Right-wing populist voters are united in their social and cultural views, and electorates associate populist parties with issues such as immigration, law and order, and so on. (In the parlance of political science, populist parties “own” these issues.) When it comes to economic views, however, right-wing populist voters are divided—for example, between workers and small-business owners—and so it is in the interest of populist parties to keep social rather than economic issues at the top of the political agenda. As one study put it, “radical right parties employ” different strategies with regard to economic and noneconomic issues: “they compete on non-economic issues, while blurring their stances on economic issues.”9 And so given the course shifts by the center-left and populist right, it is not surprising that over the past years many voters who in an earlier era would have voted for the former began voting for the latter.10

The West European left’s economic shift not only had major consequences at home; it also influenced the evolution of the left in postcommunist Eastern Europe. To gain legitimacy, many East European leftist parties modeled themselves after their West European counterparts—and by the late twentieth century, this meant adopting neoliberal policies and portraying themselves as parties of technocrats and pragmatists. In addition to providing a particular model of how a modern leftist party should look, the West European left supported the neoliberal consensus dominant in the international institutions that were key to shaping Eastern Europe’s transition from communism to capitalist democracy. Because East European countries were saddled with debt and eager to join the European Union, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the EU had enormous influence over them.11 In some of these countries, parties of the left embraced the reforms promoted by international institutions even more fully than did parties of the right (being more likely, for example, to adhere to fiscal austerity and tighter budget constraints).12 As in Western Europe, this had tragic consequences.

The East European Story

As in the West, the acceptance of neoliberal policies by much of the left in Eastern Europe initially made sense. It enabled these parties to distance themselves from the communist past and to signal that they embraced the Western economic consensus and were committed to joining the EU.13 Given the overwhelming rejection of communism and the strong support for joining Europe among East European publics, this rebranding was critical in the short term in enabling parties of the left to maintain support. Over the longer term, however, this strategy contained the seeds of its own destruction. [End Page 11]

The transition out of communism in Eastern Europe created winners and losers. As in Western Europe, the losers were concentrated within the left’s “natural” constituencies: the low-skilled and less educated, the elderly, and residents of rural and peripheral areas.14 Where parties of the left were associated with neoliberal reforms during and after the transition, their support dwindled among those who lost out in these reforms, creating an opening for the populist right.

These trends have been particularly evident in Hungary and Poland. After 1989 the former Hungarian communist party rapidly rebranded itself as a social-democratic party (the MSzP), adopting a pro-European stance and accepting the neoliberal policies advocated by the IMF and the EU.15 After entering into a governing coalition with the liberal Alliance of Free Democrats in 1994, the party implemented further neo-liberal reforms—most notably the austerity-oriented 1995 Bokros Package, which entailed devaluing Hungary’s currency and reducing social benefits and real wages. Discontent with the fallout from these policies cost the MSzP much of its popularity, and in 1998 elections it lost its status as the largest parliamentary party.

Out of government, the MSzP reoriented itself once more, promising that if it returned to power it would increase social spending. When a governing coalition with the MSzP as its major partner was formed following the next elections in 2002, the party began borrowing to fund the promised expenditures. It made an even stronger showing in 2006, this time with promises to keep social expenditures high, but by this point the debt incurred as a result of this spending had brought Hungary into conflict with EU stability criteria. The MSzP-led government was thus forced to backtrack and implement austerity measures, including hikes in gas and electricity prices and in taxes.

Analysis of individual polling data by Maria Snegovaya shows that each round of austerity diminished the MSzP’s popularity among voters. A new austerity package was announced in June 2006, and support for the party dropped by 12 points between May and August of that year. Thus, even before the September 2006 leak of a tape in which the MSzP prime minister admitted that he had lied about the economic difficulties facing Hungary and before Hungarians began to suffer from the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis, the MSzP’s poll numbers had fallen dramatically. Meanwhile, support for Fidesz (a right-populist party) and later for the extreme-right Jobbik party was increasing. Both parties attacked the MSzP and promised to promote social justice, provide “honest jobs and honest wages,” and stand up for the interests of “the people.”16 By the 2010s, a majority of blue-collar workers supported Fidesz and Jobbik.17 In interviews, some workers seemed to be ashamed to admit that they voted for the MSzP, as the party had completely discredited itself in their eyes by its support for neoliberal economic policies and its entanglement in various corruption scandals.18

The Polish left followed a similar trajectory. Like the MSzP, the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD)—the successor of the Polish communist party—was initially supported by workers, pensioners, and some members of the middle class. Also like the MSzP, the SLD, after coming to power in 1993 in coalition with the agrarian Polish People’s Party, agreed to a mass-privatization scheme, deregulation, strict fiscal and budgetary policies, and the opening of the Polish economy to foreign investors. After a poor showing in the 1997 legislative elections, the party shifted course, promising to increase support for those suffering as a result of economic change. This helped the SLD to return to power after the 2001 elections in coalition with Labor Union and the Polish People’s Party.

But with Poland on the threshold of joining the EU, the need to meet the accession criteria forced the new government to enact further neo-liberal reforms, including large tax increases and cuts in social benefits (the total planned spending in the 2002 state budget was nearly 20 percent lower than in the previous year). These moves caused a rapid drop in support for the new government. Between November 2001, when the cuts were announced, and December 2002, the SLD’s poll numbers fell by 20 percentage points. Soon after, as in Hungary, corruption scandals erupted, heightening popular disgust with the government. When additional austerity measures were introduced at the end of 2003, the left was pummeled, and the SLD received only 11.3 percent of the vote in the 2005 legislative elections. Over the following years, many former SLD supporters turned to the populist right-wing Law and Justice party. This party criticized the nature of Poland’s transition in general and the consequences of neoliberal policies in particular, promising to protect those “left behind” in the new Poland.

Preempting the Populist Right?

In some Central European countries, leftist parties stuck with more protectionist economic policies, regained the support of blue-collar voters, and thereby left less of an opening for the populist right. In Slovakia, after the Party of the Democratic Left (SD¼) participated in the neoliberal reform process and subsequently collapsed, another left-wing party moved in to capitalize on popular dissatisfaction. Smer, under the leadership of Robert Fico, presented itself as the protector of “ordinary Slovaks” against social injustices committed by the previous government, employers who failed to pay wages on time, and Roma who were allegedly stealing from farmers.19 This profile enabled Smer to hold on to traditionally left-leaning voters and to keep traditional “left” issues such as poverty and social justice at the forefront of voters’ minds. Smer incorporated SDL’ in 2005, and the resulting Smer-SD also proposed adjusting Slovakia’s flat-rate value-added tax (VAT) to set an increased [End Page 13] rate for the wealthy. After a strong performance in the 2006 parliamentary election enabled his party to form a governing coalition, Fico continued to attack neoliberalism while adopting redistributionist policies, including changes in the labor code, modifications to the flat tax enacted by the previous government, the abolition of doctors’ fees, and the provision of additional payments to pensioners and to new parents.20 Combining left-leaning economic policies with moderate nationalism enabled Smer to secure a dominant position in parliament for much of the following decade.

Experimental work by Maria Snegovaya further demonstrates that the ability of right-wing populists to present themselves as champions of the welfare state has contributed to their success in Eastern Europe. In surveys stipulating that parties of the left embraced promarket policies, blue-collar and lower–middle-class voters said that they would choose the populist right in the next election as long as it promised greater social protection. Without such promises, anti-immigrant appeals were not enough to cause these voters to shift support to the populist right.

As in Western Europe, the left’s rightward shift on economic policy not only created a political opportunity for the populist right, but also produced electoral dynamics that encouraged divisive social and cultural appeals. As one study put it, in East European countries where parties of the left embraced neoliberal reforms, politicians unable to mobilize their supporters on the basis of economic-policy disagreements had “incentives to construct a single powerful socio-cultural divide on which to display meaningful programmatic differences and employ those to attract voters.”21

Implications for the Left and for Democracy

The decline of the center-left is one of the most consequential trends of recent decades. Although many factors have contributed to this decline, we believe that the left’s economic shift was paramount.

First, this was not merely a shift in policies but a dramatic change in the left’s profile, even its identity. From the late nineteenth through the late twentieth century, the distinguishing feature of the social-democratic left was its insistence—in contrast to communists, liberals, and others—that it was possible to use the democratic state to mitigate or even eliminate capitalism’s most destructive effects. This social-democratic view was also, of course, the basis of the postwar order upon which successful democracy was finally built in Western Europe after 1945. The social-democratic left’s economic course shift during the late twentieth century entailed a significant watering down of what had made it distinctive and appealing. And so once the negative economic and social consequences of neoliberal policies became clear, many voters decided that there was little reason to vote for the left at all. [End Page 14]

Second, focusing on the left’s economic shift helps us to understand why leftist parties have been having trouble in Western and Eastern Europe, as well as in regions such as Latin America. As Kenneth Roberts argues, populist movements were particularly likely to emerge in countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, where neoliberal reforms were implemented in a “‘bait and switch’ manner—that is, by governments led by established center-left or populist parties.” In such cases, those “left behind” by the reforms could no longer look to traditional leftist parties to address their grievances and so turned to antisystem parties and protests instead.22

Third, the political space opened up by the left’s economic transformation helps to explain the rise of populism. In Western Europe, established parties on the far right with conservative or libertarian economic profiles transformed themselves into defenders of interventionist states and social safety nets, thereby taking advantage of the backlash against globalization and austerity to expand their appeal. In Eastern Europe, populists explicitly appealed to voters “left behind” by economic change and by the policies that parties of the left had implemented.

The left’s economic shift likely also helped to fuel populism by raising the profile of social and cultural issues. With less to distinguish mainstream parties from one another economically, party leaders as well as voters had greater incentives to focus on other differences. But shifting the main axis of debate to social and cultural issues helps the right rather than the mainstream left. The latter historically has done best when it is able to champion class and economic grievances, and it is more divided internally on social and cultural questions, while the populist right’s appeal is based mainly on its “ownership” of social and cultural issues—the right benefits when economic issues are less prominent in political debate.

The growing prominence of social and cultural issues is also key to many of the broader problems now facing democracies in Europe and beyond. These issues touch on questions of morality and identity. They often have an “either/or” or “zero-sum” nature, and tend to be difficult subjects for negotiation. By contrast, questions about the distribution of economic resources—the main axis of party competition for much of the postwar era—are more amenable to the compromise and bargaining that lie at the heart of democracy.

Finally, the left’s rightward shift may have created an opening for new challenges to liberal-democratic norms. During the postwar period, those who felt “left behind” could find a champion in social-democratic or center-left parties committed to the liberal-democratic rules of the game. When such parties began abandoning this role, the resulting vacuum caused problems for liberal democracy. One of the most important roles that parties play in democracy is providing citizens with an institutionalized voice. But if traditional parties stop fulfilling this representative [End Page 15] function, voters who believe their interests, demands, and preferences are being consistently ignored may become susceptible to appeals made by parties that question the legitimacy of liberal democracy itself. It is difficult, if not impossible, to decouple democracy’s current malaise from a crisis of representation, and it is difficult to decouple this crisis of representation from the decline of the social-democratic or center left.

Looking to the Future

What does the future hold for the left and democracy? Can “new left” parties take over the role played by social-democratic and center-left parties during the postwar decades? In Germany, the Green Party—perhaps the oldest “new left” party in Europe—has recently overtaken the SPD in opinion polls. But this party, like its counterparts elsewhere, distinguishes itself primarily by its “left-wing” views on noneconomic issues such as the environment and immigration, rather than by a consistently left-wing economic program. This explains why the Greens have been able to ally at the state level with the center-right Christian Democratic Union and the liberal Free Democratic Party. Such “new left” parties appeal primarily to highly educated, professional, cosmopolitan urban dwellers, and they are poorly positioned to capture support from those who feel economically “left behind.” Partly for this reason, it is unclear whether these parties can garner enough support (in proportional-representation systems) to anchor strong coalition governments on the democratic left, much less form such governments on their own.

It is also unclear what the consequences for democracy will be if political competition comes to be even more sharply focused on the social and cultural issues often prioritized by “new left” and populist-right parties. In Eastern Europe, the “natural” constituency for “new left” parties is much smaller than in the West, which makes it even less likely that these parties can replace the “old left” electorally or as an anchor for democracy.

Is it possible, then, for “old left” parties to reinvent themselves? Just as an economic shift was the primary factor in the left’s demise, so too will such a shift be needed if the left is to revive its political fortunes. As noted above, voters who favor left-wing economic policies are divided on social issues; as long as political competition focuses on such issues, these voters will be split among the old left, the populist right, and (in Western Europe) the new or Green left. On the other hand, populist-right voters are united in their views on social issues, but divided in their economic views (the same is true to a large degree of Green voters). If competition focuses on social issues, these parties remain united, but if it focuses on economic issues, they will face difficult choices. To move forward, in short, the traditional left must diminish the salience of social issues and identities and increase the salience of economic issues and class identities in political competition.23 [End Page 16]

One place where this seems at least partially to have occurred is Portugal. After the 2015 election a Socialist government came to power in Portugal, supported by the Communists and two other small left-wing parties. Although these parties differed in important ways and had previously been unable to form a coalition, they agreed on one priority: ending the punishing austerity program implemented by the previous center-right government. Over the preceding years the Portuguese economy had shrunk, unemployment and poverty had risen, and young people had been leaving the country in droves. The Socialist government immediately reversed many of the policies that had hit the working and middle classes particularly hard, including cutbacks in wages, pensions, and social-security payments. The turnaround was remarkable: Once categorized as an economic basket case on par with Greece and Italy, Portugal became Europe’s success story, with growth recovering and the budget deficit dropping dramatically (the current deficit of 0.5 percent of GDP is the lowest recorded in Portugal in 45 years).24 As the New York Times put it, “At a time of mounting uncertainty in Europe, Portugal has defied critics who have insisted on austerity as the answer to the Continent’s economic and financial crisis.”25

If leftist parties are to undergo a political revitalization, they will need once again to offer voters a clear picture of what they stand for. In Portugal, because the Socialists came to power with the help of other leftist parties rather than as part of a grand coalition, they were able to highlight the differences between the left and right on economic issues. This reminded voters that democracy offers clear choices and helped maintain economic issues as the main axis of political competition.

Success both for the left and for democracy will also require injecting optimism back into politics. Portugal’s Socialist prime minister António Costa and his allies have stressed the left’s rejection of the idea that the fate of citizens or of their country is out of their hands. As Costa put it, his government’s program was designed to make clear that “there is an alternative to ‘There is no alternative.'” In a speech to the European Parliament, he reminded his colleagues that “What sets democratic politics apart from populism is that democratic politics does not tap into fears. … Democratic politics feels people’s problems, combating fears and angst and give[s] hope back to people in their future.” Hope is what will restore people’s “trust in democratic institutions and … belief in the European Union.”26

If the left can once again offer distinctive and convincing economic policies that promote greater opportunities for all, the appeal of divisive social and cultural messages will diminish. This will decrease support for populist parties (or provide an incentive for such parties to moderate their positions), and politics will become less polarized and less of a zero-sum game. These are the necessary conditions for democracy once again to thrive. [End Page 17]



1. Grigore Pop-Eleches, “Throwing Out the Bums: Protest Voting and Unorthodox Parties after Communism,” World Politics 62 (April 2010): 221–60; Anna Grzymala-Busse, “Hoist on Their Own Petards? The Reinvention and Collapse of Authoritarian Successor Parties,” Party Politics, online 8 November 2017; Margit Tavits, Post-Communist Democracies and Party Organization (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

2. Sheri Berman, The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Berman, “Unheralded Battle: Capitalism, the Left, Social Democracy, and Democratic Socialism,” Dissent, Winter 2009.

3. Sheri Berman, Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), chapter 14.

4. Stephanie L. Mudge, Leftism Reinvented: Western Parties from Socialism to Neoliberalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018); and Mark Bovens and Anchrit Wille, Diploma Democracy: The Rise of Political Meritocracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

5. Jean-Marie Le Pen, L’Espoir (Paris: Editions Albatros, 1989).

6. Alexandre Afonso and Line Rennwald, “Scoial Class and the Changing Welfare State Agenda of Radical Right Parties in Europe,” in Philip Manow, Bruno Palier, and Hanna Schwander, Welfare Democracies and Party Politics: Explaining Electoral Dynamics in Times of Changing Welfare Capitalism (New York: Oxford, 2018).

7. Dalston Ward et al., “How Economic Integration Affects Party Issue Emphases,” Comparative Political Studies 48, no. 10 (September 2015): 1233, 1235. Also Nils D. Steiner and Christian W. Martin, “Economic Integration, Party Polarisation and Electoral Turnout,” West European Politics 35, no. 2 (2012): 238–65; Dennis Spies, “Explaining Working-Class Support for Extreme Right Parties: A Party Competition Approach,” Acta Politica 48 (July 2013): 296–325; and Elisabeth Carter, The Extreme Right in Western Europe: Success or Failure? (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005).

8. Margit Tavits and Natalia Letki, “From Values to Interests? The Evolution of Party Competition in New Democracies,” Journal of Politics 76 (January 2014): 246; and John D. Huber, Exclusion by Elections: Inequality, Ethnic Identity, and Democracy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

9. Jan Rovny, “Where Do Radical Right Parties Stand? Position Blurring in Multidimensional Competition,” European Political Science Review 5 (March 2013): 1–26.

10. Eelco Harteveld, “Winning the ‘Losers’ but Losing the ‘Winners’? The Electoral Consequences of the Radical Right Moving to the Economic Left,” Electoral Studies 44 (December 2016), 225–34; Elisabeth Ivarsflaten, “The Vulnerable Populist Right Parties: No Economic Realignment Fuelling Their Electoral Success,” European Journal of Political Research 44 (May 2005): 465–92; and Jens Rydgren, ed., Class Politics and the Radical Right (New York: Routledge, 2013).

11. Hilary Appel and Mitchell A. Orenstein, From Triumph to Crisis: Neoliberal Economic Reform in Postcommunist Countries (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018); Randall W. Stone, Lending Credibility: The International Monetary Fund and the Post-Communist Transition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002); Grzegorz Ekiert, Jan Kubik, and Milada Anna Vachudova, “Democracy in the Post-Communist World: An Unending Quest?” East European Politics and Societies 21 (February 2007): 7–30; Frank Schimmelfennig and Ulrich Sedelmeier, eds., The Europeanization of Central and Eastern Europe (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005); Grigore Pop-Eleches, From Economic Crisis to Reform: IMF Programs in Latin America and Eastern Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

12. Margit Tavits and Natalia Letki, “When Left Is Right: Party Ideology and Policy in Post-Communist Europe,” American Political Science Review 103 (November 2009): 555–69.

13. Grzymala-Busse, “Hoist on Their Own Petards?”; Grzymala-Busse, “The Programmatic Turnaround of Communist Successor Parties in East Central Europe, 1989–1998,” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 35 (March 2002): 51–66.

14. Joshua A. Tucker, Regional Economic Voting: Russia, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, 1990–1999 (New York: Cambridge University Press), 2006.

15. Daniel F. Ziblatt, “The Adaptation of Ex-Communist Parties to Post-Communist East Central Europe: A Comparative Study of the East German and Hungarian Ex-Communist Parties,” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 31 (June 1998): 119–37.

16. Maria Snegovaya, “Ex-Communist Party Choices and the Electoral Success of the Radical Right in Central and Eastern Europe” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2018).

17. Oddbjørn Knutsen, “Social Structure, Social Coalitions and Party Choice in Hungary,” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 46 (March 2013): 32. Snegovaya, “Ex-Communist Party Choices.”

18. Eszter Bartha and András Tóth, “Munkásfiatalok az újkapitalizmusban” [Workers in new capitalism], Educatio 26, no. 1 (2017): 75–86.

19. Brian Fabo, “Rediscovering Inequality and Class Analysis in Post-1989 Slovakia,” East European Politics and Societies 29 (August 2015): 595.

20. Kevin Deegan-Krause and Tim Haughton, “The 2010 Parliamentary Elections in Slovakia,” Electoral Studies 31 (March 2012): 222–25.

21. Herbert Kitschelt et al., Post-Communist Party Systems: Competition, Representation, and Inter-Party Cooperation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 267; and Milada Anna Vachudova, “From Competition to Polarization in Central Europe: How Populists Change Party Systems and Change the EU,” Polity, forthcoming.

22. Kenneth M. Roberts, “Populism, Political Mobilizations, and Crises of Political Representation,” in Carlos de la Torre, ed., The Promise and Perils of Populism: Global Perspectives (Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 2015), 152.

23. Spies, “Explaining Working-Class Support”; and Winston Chou et al., “The Illusion of Radical Right Partisan Stability: How Party Positioning Affects Radical Right Voting in Germany” (working paper, Princeton University, 2018).

24. Peter Wise, “Portugal Posts Lowest Budget Deficit in 45 Years of Democracy,” Financial Times, 26 March 2019.

25. Liz Alderman, “Portugal Dared to Cast Aside Austerity. It’s Having a Major Revival,” New York Times, 22 July 2018.

26. “Social Democracy Is Floundering Everywhere in Europe, Except Portugal,” Economist, 14 April 2018; Jon Stone, “Reject Austerity to Defeat Populism, Portugal’s Socialist Prime Minister António Costa Tells EU,” Independent, 14 March 2018.


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