Europe is witnessing the disappearance of social democratic political parties. Tradition conservative parties are heading inexorably in the same direction. Europe is going through radical changes with regard to parties. The question is if political policies will change or neo-liberalism will continue to prevail?
Valerio Alfonso Bruno holds a Ph.D. in “Institutions and Policies” from the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore of Milan (2017) and was doctoral researcher at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland (2015).
Recently an allegedly left-wing populist won the presidential election in Mexico with the pledge to fight inequality and corruption; in Italy, most of the political support for the Movimento Cinque Stelle is based upon former voters of the social democratic Partito Democratico and strictly connected to the implementation of policies such as “Reddito di Cittadinanza” (a sui generis universal basic income scheme) and other measures trying to tackle the social impact of the excess of labour flexibility and delocalisation; Mitchell A. Orenstein, a few weeks ago, brilliantly wrote about the capacity of populist governments in Eastern Europe, in particular Poland, to include socialist characteristics in the agenda, such as supporting the poor and families, selling a vision of a social state as an alternative to that offered by liberal democrats. These are just a few examples of the capacity of populism, broadly conceived, to successfully channel dissatisfaction and anger from the Left of the political spectrum.
Conflating populism with the nationalist, xenophobic far-right is simplistic; and the crisis representative democracy is experiencing does not necessarily mean it affects equally all the traditional political parties. A rigorous data-driven analysis by Downes and Chan pointed out that in Europe traditional mainstream parties have been suffering increasing competition from populist parties since the global economic crisis of 2008 and the refugee crisis, which began in 2015. However the trend is far more pronounced in relation to Left-wing parties of the Social Democratic family. A possible explanation may be that middle and lower class citizens have not forgiven to Social Democratic politicians for their silent complicity, especially during the late 1990s, at the peak of their fortune, instead focusing on the interests of a few political subjects, and, more than this, have not accepted the quiet passivity of these parties in front of disruptive socio-economic phenomena.
On the decline of the traditional Left-wing parties
Tony Blair’s iconic “Third Way” can be regarded as paradigmatic of the ideological path followed by most Social Democratic parties in Europe: born as a political response to Thatcher politics, the New Labour Party should have represented (at least in the original intentions of its founder) a political alternative between neo-liberalism and the “original” Labour Party. This was supposed to have been accomplished by leaning toward the Centre of the political spectrum, accepting the supposed efficiency of the free and unregulated markets and reframing social policies in this regard. However, in the long run, the strategy of passive and acritical acceptance of neo-liberal policies revealed to be a complete failure, opening the doors to the success of nationalist and populist forces, (with mainstream Centre- Left still paradoxically unaware of it and denying any involvement). In the UK itself, the path of the Labour Party, coupled with frustration over EU governance, allowed the Tories to bring the country to the Brexit referendum (2016); in Germany the SPD governed only in coalition with CDU since Schroeder (2005); in Spain, Socialists did well only in relation to civil rights under Zapatero; in France, Hollande’s presidency (2012-2017) is considered the least popular since decades, with the former president not even trying a second term; in Italy, the internal fragmentation and passive acquiescence of austerity brought the Partito Democratico to the historical minimum result of 19% at latest political elections of March 2018.
The mistake of the Left: Markets, Globalization and Technology as “extra-political”
Since the global economic crisis, the level of income inequality and poverty sharply rose throughout Europe. Political responses by national governments to address the problem were weak, without any real helpful coordination at the EU level. Often globalization and technological innovation were used as leverage to justify the necessity of reducing the welfare state and introducing labour flexibility; austerity policies were linked to the dependence of the public debts on the financial Markets. Social Democratic parties, in particular, produced extremely poor political reactions in that sense, their acceptance of an “inviolable limit” in globalization, technological innovation, or the austerity imposed by financial Markets. They somehow assumed these were “extra-political” facts similar to physical laws: evidently the mainstream Left epitomized, in the eyes of the voters, the incapacity of contemporary politics to effectively deal politically (!) with those disruptive socio-economic phenomena, regarded as unfortunate, yet inevitable.
Populisms filling the gap
One of the key characteristics of that complex democratic phenomenon labeled as populism lies in its capacity to use effectively the political category of (broken) “promises”, independently from the objective irrationality and unsustainability of these promises. Promises can be particularly powerful in terms of political mobilization when opposed to the notion of “ineluctability”, increasingly used by traditional Left-wing parties with regard to the disruptive impacts of the Financial Markets and Globalization. Being a “thin”, flexible ideology, as described by Cas Mudde, populism magnificently adapted to the role of catalyzer of the sense of frustration deriving from the complete passivity and inaction of traditional politics, specifically of Left-wing parties, that traditionally should have been more sensitive to social and labor conflicts.
The growing perception of insecurity, paired with socio-economic frustration, are among the factors that provided populism with a political legitimacy for voters from across the whole of the political spectrum. This has been done by supporting and adopting highly heterogeneous political features, ranging from socialist characteristics to extreme-right xenophobic propaganda, from environmentalist policies to overly nationalistic positions, as well as the pledge to fight corruption. The gap, which had emerged between Social Democratic parties, and more generally the traditional Left, and European citizens, especially the ones disproportionately impacted by the disruptive effects of globalization, was rapidly filled by populism. In comparison to Europe`s corrupt and irrational traditional political parties, populism represents a revolt, probably doomed to fail, the result of political frustration with policies of the past decades which Europe´s political establishment had without demur accepted: the disruptive impacts of pernicious unregulated economic developments.