Beyond the Third Way: What Is Wrong with Social Democracy?

By Matt Browne, Ruy Teixiera and John Halpin

Germany's Social Democrats are in crisis. And they are not alone. Across Europe, social democratic parties are struggling to connect with a new generation of voters. What's the problem?

Germany's Social Democrats are in upheaval after a dismal showing in general elections on Sunday. Zoom
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Germany's Social Democrats are in upheaval after a dismal showing in general elections on Sunday.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's re-election this weekend confirms what many already knew: Europe's social democratic parties have failed to distill any political benefit from the association between the right's reverence for unfettered markets and the economic crises that grip the continent.

Historically, Europeans turn to conservatives in times of crisis. But today, the situation is more complex. In Germany, Merkel's Christian Democrats also fared worse than in previous elections. Instead, voters opted for the far-left Left Party, the liberal Free Democrats and the Greens. These parties tapped into modernizing demographic trends: the rise of a progressive younger generation, the continuing rise in educational levels, the growth of the professional class, the increasing social weight of single and alternative households and growing religious diversity and secularism. Despite the defeat of the social democrats, then, one can discern the emergence of new constituencies that favor progressives. These trends are repeated across much of Europe.

But why do these groups not vote for the social democrats?

The Shortcomings of Social Democracy

One can discern four reasons, common to many social democratic parties in Europe, each rooted in shortcomings of the Third Way.

First, European social democrats have done a poor job of defining what they stand for or how it differs from conservatives. The Third Way reconciled progressive thought with the market economy, individualism and globalization. This helped Bill Clinton in the US, Tony Blair in Britain and Gerhard Schröder in Germany establish political hegemonies in an era of conservative dominance. All three projects were egalitarian, but in rejecting many signature policies of social democratic thinking, they allowed conservatives to blur the differences between themselves and social democrats. Moreover, the social democrats' current difficulties in defining an alternative economic paradigm stem from gaps in Third Way thought, most notably with regards to industrial renewal.

Second, social democrats have failed to connect with the values of voters and thus struggle to respond to the populist anger that is typically rooted in these values. The Third Way's rejection of ideology was once a strength; it has now become a weakness. Social democratic politicians often suffer from "seminaritis" -- treating the political process as a matter of compiling data, evidence and the best ideas. But voters need more than a list of policy positions. Focusing on responsibility and technocratic reform, social democrats appear uninterested in the values and emotions of the working class and emerging progressive constituencies. As a result they are outflanked by parties to their left and right, and by the Liberals and Greens.

No Convincing Response

Third, social democrats now find themselves confronted by a raft of new policy challenges that the Third Way did not foresee. The Third Way emerged at a time of profound optimism. The end of the Cold War, and the dot-com boom led many to believe ideology (and conflict) was over, and that the post-modern West could live off services while consuming goods produced by the developing world. But, the entrance of a billion new workers into the global economy has not been without its consequences. While the benefits of globalization have been broadly distributed, the costs have been born by a specific few -- usually working class communities that were once the base of social democratic parties.

These trends have been exacerbated by the current crisis, and social democratic parties have failed to offer any convincing response. Add growing concerns about immigration, crime and Islamic terrorism, and European electorates have become vulnerable to a politics of fear and populism. Social democrats are currently trapped between appearing tone deaf -- singing the virtues of globalization or multiculturalism without admitting their difficulties -- or alienating part of the electorate they need to win office. On the economy and immigration, their heartland vote is tempted by the emotional messages of right and left wing competitors.

Had Its Day

Finally, social democrats have failed to modernize the way they do politics. The appeal of many new ethical or progressive movements is that they are open and less hierarchical. The days of a command and control structure that manages the 24-hour new cycle, and policy and message development are gone. The advent of new social media and the "blogosphere" make such an approach impossible. Moreover, voters are now less deferential and want to play a more active role in the political process.

While the Third Way was an essential stage in the renewal of social democratic thinking, most notably because it reconciled an electorate acclimatized to conservatism to the possibility of progressive politics, it has clearly had its day. If social democratic parties are to recover, then they must move to a new phase of progressive governance.

For social democrats to profit from the emergence of new social groups and constituencies that are potentially favorable to them, they will need a new agenda, new passion, and a new politics -- one open to collaboration with other parties, and new constituencies.

For those versed in the politics of the Third Way, this transition will be hard, but the work must start now.

This article is based on a longer paper, "The European Paradox," written by Matt Browne, Ruy Teixiera, and John Halpin which will be presented at a meeting of US and European progressives in Madrid, Spain. It was kindly provided to SPIEGEL ONLINE by the Heinrich Boell Stiftung.

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