These are bad days for social democracy. In Europe, the continent that saw the emergence of this political ideology in the late 19th century, the crisis that the main social democratic parties are experiencing resembles a set of dominoes that cannot stop falling. As the case of the PASOK in Greece suggests, the fear of becoming irrelevant turns every election into an existential threat that could even lead to the disintegration of these parties. The Socialist Party in France seems to be falling apart, with dozens of its deputies joining the president-elect Macron’s new movement “En Marche” to run in the next legislative elections. The British Labour party, the German SPD and the Spanish PSOE are in no better positions, with a rocky road ahead in the next few months.
The aspirations that social democratic parties once had (and that for so long they were able to implement) to lead the progress of society contrast with the results of each recent election. While many analysts argue that this is the result of external factors that are turning social democracy into an outdated ideology, which leads them to say that this ideology is dead, we should not ignore the role that the parties themselves are playing in what seems to be a quest for self-destruction.
This is not to say there are not external factors that are making this quest an easier task to accomplish. The 2008 financial crisis (and the consequent worsening of life standards in Europe) and the rise of populist parties all over the continent can be identified as big challenges undermining the popularity of the more traditional social democratic parties. However, the attitude that these parties are adopting could eventually lead to their disappearance from the political spectrum.
This attitude refers to the response of social democratic parties to the biggest claim criticizing their position: that they are now “disconnected” with the values and the people that they once aimed to represent. The new narrative states that these parties have been captured by their own political elites and become part of the so-called “establishment”. And indeed, many of these parties have been involved in serious cases of corruption (as is the case of the PSOE in the historically socialist region of Andalusia in Spain); they have supported governments of the antagonist conservative parties (as it is seen in Germany, where the CDU, the CSU and the SPD formed the “grand coalition”); and many of their senior members have been involved in the damaging “revolving door” practice.
Those who are involved with the running of these parties remain for the most part committed individuals who defend the values of equality and social justice that have historically characterised this political ideology. The manifestos presented by these parties are still representative of those values, and the transparency mechanisms that they put in place are much more efficient than those we can see in the new populist parties that are arising. And yet, this accusation remains – not because these arguments are not convincing, but because these parties are not using them in a unified way.
On the contrary, within social democratic parties individuals and movements emerge that buy the narrative stating that their groups have been “captured” – and that use this narrative for their own personal benefit. Promising to take back control of these parties and give it to its affiliates (note resemblance to the slogan of the Brexit campaign), these individuals take part in the primaries of social democratic parties and confront those who they label as the “establishment”. By doing so, they start a process of internal opposition between those who seek cautious and reasoned measures to advance the principles of social democracy, and those who aim at “fighting the system”, sometimes promising more controversial actions. These are individuals such as Jeremy Corbyn, Benoît Hamon or Pedro Sánchez, whose fights agains the political leadership of their parties have created real civil wars within them. And, while organized debates on the future of a party are a healthy practice, civil wars threaten to reduce them to ashes, specially if the party was in a crisis in the first place.
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This clearly affects the performance of social democratic parties in the subsequent elections. Presented as profoundly divided organizations, they fail to maintain their position in government or as leaders of the opposition, sometimes experiencing the worst electoral results of their recent history. The Socialist Party in France went from wining the 2012 presidential election to finishing fifth in the first round of this years’ race. The Labour party just lost almost 400 councillors in the last local elections, and is expected to suffer one of their worst electoral defeats in the upcoming general election.
Social democratic parties are playing a rigged game, in which whatever they do, they will always lose. If they ignore the claim that they have become part of the “establishment”, they will undoubtedly lose support from the electorate. However, if they face up that claim and enhance their democratic nature by organizing primaries, somebody will take advantage that narrative – that false dichotomy of the elite versus the voters – and plunge the party into a damaging civil war that suggests an institution incapable of representing the likes of its voters, let alone to run a country.
The solution is far from clear. It is ultimately a question between two bad scenarios: to “betray” the commitment to debate by presenting a unified programme and ignoring the claims against the leadership, which will likely see their political support fall; or to engage in these destructive civil wars that could potentially break the parties apart, ending decades or even centuries of history working to enhance equality and social justice. In other words, to take a hit and survive, or to commit political suicide.
Social democracy is not dead, and its principles still have a lot to offer to improve our societies and shape the future of a world which globalisation and the fourth technological revolution threat to transform. Therefore, in this critical moment of its history, its political parties must do what it takes to make the ideology survive. The problem is that this might imply supporting the idea that they have indeed become part of the political “establishment”.