Tackling populism to regain the people

The outcome of the European elections held in June 2009 raises thorny issues for European social democracy. In virtually all the European countries, the parties adhering to social democracy (which did their utmost to draw attention to their common allegiance by publishing a single “manifesto”) experienced a sharp setback, whatever their political status (in or out of government, within or outside a coalition, etc.). Everywhere journalists and activists agreed that the social democrats did a poor job of campaigning, with leaders who were often challenged and, worse, lacked inspiration, and an often rhetorically grandiloquent but always factually conventional platform that was anything but compelling.

It is this last point regarding the platform that is most alarming. Beyond the ups and downs of this particular election, it pinpoints the existential issue facing European social democracy today. Why does social democracy fail to get votes and approval at a time when everything it has fought for historically should by rights enable it to triumph in the current economic crisis – redistributive social justice, public regulation of the market economy, a culturally open society thanks to mass education (a society of smart people), all within a European framework acting as a federal system when there is a need to compensate for government shortcomings?

Social democracy comes across as a victim of the crisis, when it should appear as a refuge or a hope after years of neo-liberal excesses. It is as if, in the eyes of the electorate, social democracy no longer has a credible claim to represent the future of European societies. Why is this?

Social democracy is said to have lost the confidence of the public because it was not able to draw a distinction between itself and the dominant economic neo-liberalism when it was in power in recent years (and it was in power in most European countries at some point over the last two decades). The social democrats are accused of having failed to govern their countries better than the right and of having taken on board the worst excesses of the market economy (deregulation, privatization, financialisation, casualisation of labour, etc.). And once relegated to the opposition, where they again began to talk the language of the left, they are accused of continuing to think on the right. In short, social democracy is said to have betrayed its ethos and its base by tacking to the right; and at this point, the reader unversed in the history of the left will sigh and think: “as usual”.

This explanation – that the social democrats lost their economic and social bearings – is the most widespread, and there is some truth to it. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. First, because the list of European social democracy’s economic and social successes and failures over the last 20 years is obviously more disparate that would at first appear – not to mention differences from one country to another, which are deliberately ignored – and second because measuring its performance against this yardstick misses, if not the essentials, at least the more fundamental level at which political change takes place in societies.

The issue facing social democracy now transcends the question of the extent to which it has or has not been converted to economic and social neo-liberalism. It will be noted that confining the discussion to this question is of no help to the social-democratic leadership. The issue must be addressed at the more fundamental level of “values” or prerequisites (of the economic and social model in particular). The European right as a whole, as well as the political forces that are here and there referred to as “populist”, have clearly gained a better understanding of what is at stake. The governing right was forced to do so, since the left embraced most of its economic policy, for example in the triangulation practiced by the New Democrats in the United States and New Labour in the United Kingdom in the 1990s. The right had to wage the political struggle on the basis of values by “triangulating” the values of the left in turn, like labour values, as Nicolas Sarkozy did during the French presidential in 2007.

In doing this, the right all over Europe picked up on and benefited from popular aspirations often neglected by the left (which thought it could take them for granted based on its historic monopoly, which was largely a figment of its own imagination): labour values, of course, but also national identity, family values, a sense of belonging and collective security, etc. These are aspirations, and therefore values, that the left, seeing itself increasingly deserted by the working class that had traditionally supported it, gradually began to denounce as “populist”. Social democracy ceded these values – and the support of those who for a one reason or another set great store by them – to non-respectable political movements and leaders, particularly on the extreme right. It was not so much a matter of the traditional right benefiting electorally (if not programmatically) by “co-opting” the extreme-right working class, as of social-democracy (i.e. the governing left) forfeiting that part of the electorate because it was unable to offer a platform that accommodated both its interests (economic and social) and its identity (its “values”) – demonstrating, in the process, that the two are closely linked.

For this reason, populism is the central issue. It is a double-edged sword. In its European version (but not in its U.S. incarnation) it harks back to the continent’s darkest hours and smacks of dangerous manipulation of working-class despair. But it can also be read as a signal that must be picked up and listened to, especially by the left (if one considers that the left without the people is no longer the left). It is therefore important for European social democracy to take a dialectical approach to populism, if only to avoid falling into the trap set by the right. This is today the major challenge facing social democracy if it is to survive as a historic tradition, a source of bedrock values and a political alternative within the democratic process.

To do this, social democracy must re-connect with the people. This objective is within its reach. If it is openly and clearly formulated as such and expressed with conviction – and not as just one more last-ditch communication strategy on the part of the social democratic parties – and if it is regularly improved with as broad a range of discussion and experience as can be managed, it can represent the platform of democratic socialism for coming years.

It was an approach of this type that enabled Obama to win the U.S. presidential election. He did not win because he was black, or because he was more adept than others at using new technologies or networking his supporters. He won because he spoke with a unifying voice (which was needed not only in the United States following the period of stark political polarisation driven by the American conservatives, but also in Europe where the leadership on the right used the same polarisation to win elections) and because his campaign was properly focused on values. He tapped into a positive, energising American populism that brings people together rather than segmenting the electorate in a dangerous exercise in political marketing. Where the Republican strategist of the Bush years, Karl Rove, had seen divisive values issues (the “culture wars” between the red and the blue America, in American parlance) and the mobilisation of groups such as conservative Christian voters as the most sure-fire way to win the election, Obama ceaselessly made the case for transcending differences of opinion and identity, and not just in terms of race.

To target the debate at values and avoid being drawn into a polarising approach to them, the European social democratic left needs to identify a few highly relevant and energising issues. Avenues to be explored could include social capital and the fight against “unearned income” of all sorts. One might also mention the need to give absolute priority to higher education and research, given that we have entered a sort of class struggle based on education rather than social class. These are a few examples of ways to translate into issues a general theme, a “narrative”, that the left could focus on. This narrative could, for example, take inspiration from the concept of “common decency” (which encompasses the moral standards, social conduct and self-respect of the individual) as formulated, for example, by George Orwell: “My chief hope for the future is that the common people have never parted company with their moral code.” (CEJL, 1:583).

Texte pour un séminaire de la FEPS (Foundation for European Progressive Studies), 16 mars 2010, Bruxelles.

Europe Gauche Politique

Laurent Bouvet View All →

Professeur de théorie et d’histoire des idées politiques à l’Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin en Yvelines.

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