End of an Era? The Slow Death of Europe's Social Democrats

Across Europe, social democratic parties are in crisis and on Sunday, the German SPD could slide to its worst result since World War II. What has happened to the once-glorious center-left parties on the Continent? And how can they recover? By SPIEGEL Staff

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On a recent late summer evening, Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern pulled into Illmitz, in Austria's Burgenland, in a tour bus not unlike those used by rock stars. He was greeted with cheers and a brass band before making his way through a throng of selfie-hunters at a local trade union festival to reach the stage, in front of which some 200 people were gathered to hear him speak.

His speech focused on the "Austrian Dream," and he outlined his own journey from a humble background to the very top. He talked about Austria and what people were telling him about their concerns, outlining a plan to turn the country back into a place where everyone "gets the chance to have a successful life." It was the kind of rhetoric you would normally expect from an American president, not an Austrian Social Democrat.

Yet despite him being a good candidate, despite running a good campaign and despite the country's solid economy, with unemployment at 5.7 percent and economic growth topping 2 percent, Kern and his party, the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ), are failing to gain traction. His country's economy is even better shape than Germany's, yet the SPÖ has been polling at 22 to 28 percent for months now -- far from enough to win the Oct. 15 general election.

Kern, 51, headed the Austrian national railroad before becoming chancellor last year. He was responsible for making sure that special trains were provided during the 2015 refugee crisis. And he forced the hapless former chancellor, Werner Faymann, out of office. Kern's team is young and motivated, with hardly anyone on his bus older than their late 30s, and he has multimedia experts to manage his social media presence. But absent a miracle, Kern will have to step down after the election.

One reason, of course, is Sebastian Kurz, Kern's 31-year-old challenger. Kurz has rebranded his party, the Austrian conservatives, and is betting on his youth and staunch anti-Islam stance. In polls comparing the two on an individual basis, Kern and Kurz are basically neck-and-neck -- but next to his young challenger, the incumbent chancellor nevertheless looks like the status quo. Despite everything, Austrian voters associate the current chancellor with old, sclerotic social democracy.

In 2000, social democrats or socialists were part of the government in 10 out of the 15 countries that made up the European Union at the time. These days, though, the picture is a drastically different one. There is a real chance that German Social Democrats will no longer be part of Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition following Sunday's vote and the same could happen in Italy after voters there go to the polls next spring. Were that to happen, center-left parties would only be part of six EU governments out of 28 member states, all of them on the European periphery: Malta, Portugal, Romania, Sweden, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The populist left-wing Syriza alliance heads the government in Greece. Elections are scheduled for October in the Czech Republic, but it seems unlikely that the social democrats will be returned to power.

There is even a new word for the social democratic swoon: Pasokization, as in PASOK, Greece's long-term governing party, which fell into insignificance in the 2015 election. A similar situation applies in the Netherlands, where the traditional Labor Party captured only 5.7 percent of votes in the last election. French Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon came in fifth in the recent French presidential election, with 6.4 percent of the vote, and his party went on to receive a miserable 9.5 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections a short time later. In Poland, the Social Democrats no longer hold any seats in the parliament.

It is a puzzling development given the desire held by many voters for greater social security. Indeed, that desire could help explain the rapid, yet brief, rise of Social Democratic chancellor candidate Martin Schulz in the polls earlier this year. Indeed, the SPD came within a single percentage point of Merkel's conservatives -- only to plunge again. That dive certainly had something to do with the SPD's uninspiring campaign, and with Schulz's own apparent inability to win over voters. But there was also a bigger problem: No one knows what exactly social democracy stands for anymore.

This is astonishing. Weren't people proclaiming a comeback for strong state governance and the end of financial capitalism after the 2008 financial crisis? Isn't the gap between rich and poor widening almost everywhere in Europe? Don't voters have several good reasons to vote social democratic?

Social democrats have shaped Western Europe more than any other political movement. Their ideas are now taken for granted among large segments of the middle class: principles like the social welfare state; the notion that the strong bear some responsibility for weaker members of society; and the idea that everyone should have the same opportunity to participate in society. Those are the philosophical underpinnings of social democracy, yet social democratic parties are no longer benefitting from these ideas.

Splintered Electorate

Martin Schulz has made "social justice" the central issue of his campaign, but the working class, once the key constituency of social democracy, has been fragmented into a well-paid core workforce and a periphery of temporary workers who often do the same work for less money. Others are stuck in dead-end service jobs. Are social democratic parties still the parties of workers? Or is this just a distant memory to which educated, upwardly mobile public servants cling to? That, at least, is what the SPD factions in state parliaments and the Bundestag make it look like.

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For decades, social democratic identity centered on the concept of work, out of which it derived its everyday pride and sense of self-worth. But changes in the working world and employment relationships, along with the rise of digitalization and the service economy, have thrown everything into disarray. To make matters worse, the party system as a whole no longer functions the way it used to. These days, those who want to become politically involved now tend to do so through citizen's initiatives than a party. This disproportionately affects social democratic parties, which have always been dependent on large membership roles organized in local chapters and led by local functionaries.

Nowadays, labor parties are primarily made up of retirees. The intricate network of clubs and organizations they once maintained, and that served to unify a wide range of different interests, is in shreds. Many working-class people now vote for right-wing and left-wing populists.

Center-left governments in the EU: 200 and 2017.
DER SPIEGEL

Center-left governments in the EU: 200 and 2017.

Take Italy, where the populist Five-Star Movement of former TV comedian Beppe Grillo, 69, is out-polling the Italian Democratic Party, as the social democrats there are called. To be sure, "manic fragmentation," as the daily newspaper Corriere della Sera describes it, has always been a feature of the Italian left. But the current situation is particularly exasperating because things had been looking so good for the social democrats until recently. But then, former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, 42, gambled away his job with a referendum -- and now that he has returned as the Democratic Party's leader, he lacks grassroots support because its more traditional members view him as too progressive, economically liberal and anti-union.

Renzi had actually been a shining hope for European social democracy. He was the first of a new type of politician to come to power in European governments: young men in well-tailored suits, who combine good looks, excellent connections and organizational talent.

And now? It is quite possible that Renzi will not even lead the left in the upcoming 2018 elections, leaving the job to the incumbent prime minister, the relatively low-key Paolo Gentiloni, whose primary attraction is that he likely won't further exacerbate the antagonisms running through the rival camps on the left. But his prospects of winning the election are uncertain.

Corbyn's Army

On a Thursday in late August, Jeremy Corbyn is standing somewhat awkwardly next to an empty stage, having slipped into Glasgow's Drygate brewery through a side entrance, unnoticed by most of the roughly 400 guests. He tugs at his beard, takes a sip of water, scribbles a few words into a small notebook and looks anxiously at the stage, which is bathed in red light. He looks a little surprised when he is called up.

Corbyn is a luminary among the European left and in the brewery, people hang on his every word. They applaud when he condemns the austerity mandate under which his country is suffering. They hoot when he accuses the government of making a club of the rich even richer. And they cheer when he says it makes him feel ashamed. It is Corbyn's second appearance of the day in Glasgow, the first one being an afternoon speech to 1,500 supporters outside a mosque.

There actually isn't a campaign underway in the UK. The last election took place three months ago and ended with two surprises: The Tories, under Prime Minister Theresa May, lost their absolute majority, and the Labour Party, which had been written off, exhumed itself. Since then, though, Jeremy Corbyn has simply carried on in campaign mode. He wants to be ready for the next election, which could happen soon if May stumbles.

When May announced new elections in the spring, public opinion survey had predicted a landslide victory for the prime minister and her party. Labour seemed finished, reduced to a disorderly heap of infighting and incompetence. But then something remarkable happened. Despite being up against the superiority of the Conservatives, a large segment of the British media and key forces in his own party, Corbyn unexpectedly captured about 40 percent of the vote nationwide on June 8.

For the first time in many years, people in Great Britain are excited about politics again - or, more precisely, about a politician who had been written off by almost all parties. Young people, those who have been left behind, minorities and union members see Corbyn as the poster boy of post-capitalism. He appeals to all of them when he speaks of the widespread anger about a society that tolerates poverty and inequality even as a small number of people keeps getting richer.

The European left is playing close attention to Labour's rise. Corbyn wants to nationalize key industries. He is a socialist, not a social democrat.

So how could someone like him become the leader of the Labour Party? It was made possible by the hatred that large portions of the party base have for former Prime Minister Tony Blair, inventor of the "Third Way." Corbyn is everything Blair is not: He is not glamorous or cynical; he is the antidote to the greed of the neoliberal era. Labour's retro, socialist reinvention is mostly the result of Blair's departure.

Many European center-left parties have their own version of Tony Blair -- a leader that betrayed what social democracy once represented. Blair joined U.S. President George W. Bush in the invasion of Iraq. In Germany, it was Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, passing deep cuts to the country's social welfare system in the 2000s.

But it isn't easy to get rid of people like Blair and Schröder. They are the ones who most recently led their parties to victory, which means a lot in parties that have experienced nothing by electoral failure since. They are the protagonists of the grand narratives about social democracy. The departure from the old leftist ideals was the flipside of the great social advancements that were made possible since the 1960s by social democratic education policy. This reorientation could have been a great opportunity.

Unfortunately, not everyone came along: Many have stayed behind.

Changing Bases

The social milieus that supported social democrats in Europe for decades have dissolved. From the German cities of Hamburg and Bremen to France's coal-mining regions to the industrial regions of northern England, every country has its so-called social democratic heartland. But almost everywhere, those hearts have now stopped beating. It's not just social democratic ideas that can now be found across the entire party spectrum, but also the people who once belonged to social democratic parties. Some have moved away, to the neighborhoods of the new middle classes. Those who live in poorer neighborhoods are realigning themselves.

No one really knows how to deal with these changes. But the social democrats in Denmark are experimenting with one possible model. In no other country in Europe has the center-left shown such a willingness to cooperate with right-wing populists as in Denmark. The strategy could even bring them back into power. Mette Frederiksen, the 39-year-old who has been chair of the Danish Social Democrats since 2015, is not ruling out the possibility of forming a governing coalition with the right-wing populist Danish People's Party when Denmark holds its next election in two years.

The Danish People's Party, formerly a pariah of Danish politics, is successfully positioning itself as the voice of decisive conscientiousness. It combines a rigid policy towards foreigners with a social agenda promoting more humanitarian conditions in the workplace and lower taxes for low-wage earners, and it opposes an increase in the legal retirement age. It has, in other words, adopted several items from the classic social democratic platform.

Frederiksen, of course, knows that many on the left have a soft spot for refugees and are critical of her willingness to work with the People's Party. This is why she claims to be neither in favor nor against immigrants, instead insisting that she merely supports political realism. "In Denmark, you are entitled to almost all benefits from day one. It's a difficult system when large numbers of people come into the country," she says. Danish cohesion is her biggest concern.

Frederiksen's strategy is exemplified by her statement: "If Social Democrats are unable to appeal to those who are most strongly affected by the challenges of the future and the changes in our society, we are not a true social democratic party." She believes the same applies to other social democrats in Europe.

But is it true? Does the future of social democracy lie in protecting the people who have been left behind by globalization? Perhaps.

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