Across the world, the right has, for the past decades, celebrated a remarkable string of successes. Far-right populists are now in power in countries from the United States to India, and from Turkey to Brazil. Even most of the democracies in which right-wing extremists remain comparatively weak are ruled by right-of-center, or at most centrist, leaders: Angela Merkel is now in the 14th year of her chancellorship in Germany, Scott Morrison was recently reelected in Australia, and Emmanuel Macron is the President of France.
In politics, one party’s gain is virtually always another party’s loss. While the right is dominant in most countries, the number of democracies ruled by the left now stands near historic lows. Spain, Portugal, Denmark, and Mexico have leftist leaders. Canada might be added to the mix, though the incumbent faces an uphill battle to stay in power at upcoming elections. That’s about it.
A lot of ink (some of it my own) has, in the past years, been spilled to explain the remarkable success of the right. This singular focus has made it more difficult to understand the equally significant transformations that have been taking place on the left side of the political spectrum: the ongoing decline and fall of social democracy; the rise and rapid fall of the far left; and the recent rise of green and liberal parties.
The true import of these developments has been further obscured because they are usually discussed in isolation from one another. As a result, a growing number of observers now suggests that the recent success of green parties, especially in western Europe, marks the end of the populist ascendancy. To grow the overall vote share of the left, they say, far-left and social democratic parties need only to emulate the greens. And to beat the populist right, they have but to change the topic of conversation, since voters ultimately care more about the environment than about things like immigration. But this overlooks the rather obvious point that the greens have largely thrived by attracting voters who had previously opted for social democratic or far-left parties. Even if the rivals of green parties might improve their relative standing by taking a page out of their playbook, increased competition for the same pool of voters is unlikely to break the right’s electoral dominance.
To understand the real predicament facing the left in Western Europe, North America, and beyond, it is therefore necessary to recognize these developments as different manifestations of the same underlying trend: In most developed democracies, social and cultural issues have, over the past decades, displaced economic ones as the principal political cleavage. This has allowed green parties to capture a growing share of the educated, urban electorate, establishing themselves as a major force on the left. But the same trend has made it far harder for the left to appeal to its traditional working-class constituency, weakening both social democratic and far-left parties. Unless left-of-center parties can find a way to widen their shrinking electorate, they will likely keep losing to the right.
The Primacy of Culture
For much of the twentieth century, social democratic movements like Labour in Britain or the Social Democratic Party in Germany monopolized the vast majority of left-wing votes. Their success was owed, in good part, to preconditions that were widely taken for granted at the time: a large pool of blue-collar voters, and the primacy of economic questions.
The focus on economic issues handed social democratic parties a vast heartland in the industrial parts of the Western world. With few exceptions, just about every factory town in a major democracy was the natural possession of the political left: Whether in Hull or in Sindelfingen, in Scranton or in Brisbane, most workers reliably voted for the parties that fought for union rights, higher wages, and generous social services.
At the same time, the primacy of economic questions also made it possible for social democratic movements to build up a base of support among significant sections of the middle class. The left celebrated victories not only in the large factories of Hull but also in the cobble-stoned streets of Hampstead, and it could rely on passionate champions not only in the proletarian housing blocks of Sindelfingen but also in the leafy apartments of Schwabing. While few bankers or doctors voted for the left, plenty of students, artists, teachers, civil servants, and non-profit workers did. Call it the bohemian-proletarian coalition, if you will.
It was never easy to hold such a diverse political coalition together. Even 50 years ago, the two wings were divided on important social and cultural issues, like gay rights. And successful conservative parties thrived whenever they managed to peel off a significant portion of the left’s coalition, building an impressive cross-class coalition of their own. But in virtually every democracy around the world, the bohemian-proletarian coalition did ensure that the major party of the left reliably drew around a third of the vote—and lent a great amount of stability to the political system as a whole.
But these conditions are now disappearing, and the vote share of social democratic parties is rapidly declining as a result. While social democratic parties drew more than a third of the vote in elections for the European Parliament as recently as 1994, for example, their share has now sunk to a fifth.
Some of the reasons for this decline are directly connected to structural shifts in the economy. As much of the world’s manufacturing has moved to the factories of China and Southeast Asia, developed economies built on industry have shifted toward white-collar and service-oriented work. A big reason for the decline of social democratic parties is, quite simply, that fewer and fewer people are now ensconced in the milieus that gave birth to these movements in the first place.
But another reason also helps to explain why social democratic parties have struggled to appeal to a broad swath of the population. For the first time in a century, the defining political divide in most Western democracies is cultural rather than economic—putting a much greater distance between low-wage workers and university graduates and making it incomparably harder to strike a compromise when their views and interests diverge.
Until a few decades ago, a pollster tasked with predicting voters’ partisan identification would have inquired about their economic standing. And if all he could do was to study their preferences on one specific issue of public policy, he would likely have asked about their views of taxes and the welfare state: Citizens who were willing to raise the level of income tax in order to expand entitlements were likely to vote for left-wing parties. Those who were willing to brook cuts to social provisions in return for lower taxes were likely to vote for right-wing parties.
But in many recent elections, from Austria to the United States, voters’ income has been a poor predictor of political predilections. Nor are their preferences about economic policy especially predictive of their voting behavior. Across much of Europe, it is now far from remarkable to encounter a partisan of the left who would like to lower taxes, or a partisan of the right who seeks to defend the welfare state. Even in the United States, a part of the populist right is coming to challenge the longstanding economic orthodoxies of the Republican Party, as with Donald Trump’s hostility to trade, or Tucker Carlson calling the current economic system an “enemy of a healthy society.”
Instead of asking about taxation, a pollster who is tasked with predicting voting behavior based on voters’ policy preferences would, today, be far more likely to ask them questions about social issues: Citizens who welcome more immigration and believe that democracies have an unconditional duty to admit refugees are very likely to vote for the left. Those who believe that immigration incurs much greater risks than benefits and want to put hard limits on the number of refugees who enter their country are likely to support the right.
It is this premium on social and cultural questions that has made it virtually impossible for social democratic parties to hold together the two sides of their traditional coalition. For while the economic differences between Hull and Hampstead have long been considerable, the cultural divide between these places is much more visceral: Rather than standing in mere tension, they are, on many issues, diametrically opposed to each other.
To make things worse, cultural issues are much less amenable to compromise than economic ones. If the left’s proletarian base prioritizes higher pensions while its urban supporters want to ensure that it does not skimp on culture, education, or the civil service, traditional social democratic parties could fulfill some (if not all) of the demands of each side. But a similar fudge is much more difficult to achieve on deeply emotional issues like abortion, the rights of sexual minorities, or immigration. Gay marriage, for example, is either the law of the land or it is not. And while it is in theory possible to broker a compromise about the number of immigrants a country should admit, the symbolic importance of many of these debates makes a middle position hard to sustain in practice: For many urban and educated voters, any restriction on the number of immigrants or asylum seekers who can enter the country reeks of racism. Meanwhile, many working-class voters reject this very sensibility as a sign that the parties that once represented them have long since sold them out.
Despite the deep difficulty of brokering compromises on cultural questions, social democratic parties have largely attempted to keep their traditional coalition together by appeasing both the proletarian and the bohemian wing of their coalition. In the process, they have mostly succeeded in alienating both. Across the Western world, a large number of working-class voters has migrated from the left to the far right: In many recent elections, parties like the Freedom Party of Austria, the Alternative for Germany, or The Brexit Party have come out on top among the “proletariat.” Meanwhile, many urban and educated voters have, especially in countries with a system of proportional representation, deserted social democratic movements for green or liberal parties. The bohemian-proletarian coalition is dead—and the failure of social democratic parties to acknowledge this inescapable fact is only helping to accelerate their gradual slide into electoral irrelevance.
When the Red Rose Wilts
For a few short years, the decline of traditional social democratic parties provided an unexpected opening to the far left. As social democratic parties declined due to the weight of structural changes, a new crop of left-wing politicians argued that their troubles were owed to the embrace of a more moderate (or “neoliberal”) set of policies. What was truly needed to recover these parties’ former standing, they claimed, was a return to the slogans and policies of an earlier period of left-wing politics: an unabashed emphasis on the economic interests of the working class, coupled with the full-throated promise of social revolution.
For a few years, this strategy seemed on the cusp of delivering a major breakthrough. In 2015, Jeremy Corbyn, a septuagenarian backbencher with longstanding links to a wide array of leftist splinter groups, was unexpectedly elected leader of the Labour Party. During his first months in office, he enjoyed a massive surge of popularity among young voters. In the summer of 2017, 100,000 revelers at Glastonbury, Britain’s largest music festival, appropriated a famous riff from The White Stripes, chanting: “Oooooh, Je-re-my Cor-byn!”
Corbyn was not the only hard-left politician to experience an unexpected stint in the limelight. In Greece, Alexis Tsipras’s left-populist Syriza had just come to power by decimating center-left PASOK. In Spain, street protests led by Pablo Iglesias, a Marxist academic, had led to the formation of a left-populist movement that styled itself as an enemy of the country’s “political caste”; within a few years, Podemos was besting its main left-wing rival, the moderate PSOE, in key votes. Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron’s rise seemed to turn a self-declared communist by the name of Jean-Luc Mélenchon into the leading voice of the country’s left, eclipsing the influence of the more moderate Partie Socialiste (PS).
Socialists have even been able to celebrate an unlikely revival in the United States. Over the course of the 2010s, the far left gained a much louder voice in the country’s media landscape. The Democratic Socialists of America experienced a rapid rise in membership. In 2016, Bernie Sanders mounted a serious challenge to Hillary Clinton in the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination. For a few years, it seemed as though the future of the left might belong to a rose-red tide.
This makes it all the more remarkable that the brief renaissance of the far left is now ending as quickly as it began. The failure of Project Corbyn is the most remarkable example. Regarding the European Union as an irredeemably capitalist project that would stand in the way of his vision for socialism in one country, Corbyn has, again and again, proven to be out of step with his young, overwhelmingly Europhile supporters. Even now that Brexit has become the all-encompassing preoccupation of British politics, he is still holding on to a triangulating middle path that is spectacularly failing to reconcile the cosmopolitan views of the party’s activists and the nationalist attitudes of its working-class supporters.
The result has been utter humiliation at the ballot box. In the worst result the party has posted in more than a century, Labour came in third in recent European elections, taking 14 percent of the vote. Even on his own home turf, in the longstanding Labour stronghold of Islington, Corbyn was beaten by the Liberal Democrats, a “centrist” party much reviled by his staunchest supporters.
The far left’s reversal of fortunes has been no less striking in other parts of Europe. In Greece, Syriza was thrown out of office by New Democracy, the center-right party whose demise Tsipras had once celebrated as a sign that the old order had been defeated once and for all. In Spain, Iglesias’s Podemos fell to 10 percent of the vote, the worst result since its founding, in recent European elections. Meanwhile, in France, Mélenchon drew no more than 6 percent, the same share of the vote for which he had mocked the sorry remnants of the PS after Macron’s election in 2017.
Even in the United States, where the country’s majoritarian political system has to some extent forged a temporary alliance between the faltering far left and the surging cultural left, the limits of the socialist project are quickly coming into view. Faced with a much greater number of competitors in his bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders has failed to hold on to the level of support he had enjoyed four years earlier. It’s always possible he could see some kind of surge as the voting draws nearer, but so far, fewer than one in five primary voters seems to favor Sanders.
It may be too early to administer funeral rites to the far left. But if its current downward trend continues, it would imply that its short-lived success was largely owed to negative space. As social democratic parties declined, voters went in search for some—for any—kind of left alternative. Because of the longstanding ideological dominance of the center left, the only people who could offer this alternative were orthodox leftists whose political outlook had been formed in the 1960s and ’70s, like Corbyn and Mélenchon, or new populists who forged their political identity in countercultural street protests following the 2008 financial crisis, like Iglesias. For a few brief years, their novelty allowed them to gain tremendous influence and popularity. But the more voters saw of them, the less they were convinced. On closer inspection, the new protagonists of the far-left tide turned out to be no more capable of commanding a large share of the vote than their long-defunct predecessors.
The Limits of the Green Movement
As social democratic parties have faded in significance, and the far left has proven incapable of replacing them, a new crop of green and liberal parties has rushed in to fill the void. It is their rise that is reshaping the face of the left.
Take the remarkable success of the German Green Party as an example: Five years ago, the Greens took 11 percent of the vote in European Elections, finishing third. This time around, they doubled their share, comfortably taking second place. It is the first time in history that they have beaten Germany’s Social Democrats in a nationwide election. Similar successes in recent state elections from Bavaria to Hessia suggest that it is unlikely to be the last.
Germany’s Greens are part of a wider trend: Their sister parties also posted significant gains in France, Portugal, and the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, liberal parties, which tend to pursue more pro-market policies but have similar views on many social and cultural issues, performed strongly in Spain, Britain, the Netherlands, and parts of Scandinavia. The greening of the left is also affecting the Democratic Party: While Sanders has enjoyed the loudest voice in the past years, it is politicians who combine a commitment to the free market with a robust defense of the welfare state and an emphasis on the kinds of social and cultural issues that are of pressing importance to educated city-dwellers—like Nancy Pelosi, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, or Cory Booker—who increasingly represent the party’s mainstream.
The story of the green and liberal insurgence is remarkable, and so it is understandable that many commentators have interpreted it as a sign that the populist wave is already cresting. Instead of worrying about the influx of refugees, these triumphalists proclaim, most voters welcome immigration and want their leaders to focus on combatting climate change. The future belongs to progressives after all. All they need to do is stay the (green) course.
It is a heartening story, but one that ignores the extent to which the strength of these new green parties has been brought about by the exact circumstances that have weakened their predecessors: the fading primacy of the economic cleavage, and the disintegration of the social democratic coalition. Indeed, while green and liberal parties are at the opposite end of the political spectrum from far-right populist parties, they owe their recent ascent to the same basic mechanism.
In many countries, the new focus on cultural questions has allowed the populist right, which is more than willing to demonize immigrants and refugees, to outcompete traditional conservative parties, which (at least in some places) still tend to remain uncomfortable with such open forms of demagoguery. As we have seen, the focus on cultural questions has also created great difficulties for social democratic parties: Because they still aim to retain some support among the proletarian part of their base, which tends to be more culturally conservative, they often send muddled messages on issues like migration, and tend to take up causes like same-sex marriage or climate change in a slow or half-hearted manner. Green parties, by contrast, have long catered to more urban, educated, and increasingly affluent voters who tend to be very progressive on cultural issues. As a result, they consistently champion progressive social values and cheer on immigration. This makes them the perfect political vehicle for the “cosmopolitan” voters who are most horrified by the rise of the far right.
The same basic story also helps to make sense of the rise of liberal movements, which tend to be similarly progressive on social issues but more conservative on economic ones. Like the greens, liberal parties such as Austria’s NEOS, the Netherlands’s D66, and Spain’s Ciudadanos all thrive in contradistinction to the populist right.
If the green and liberal movements that have rapidly grown over the past few years play their cards right, they will be able to use these structural advantages to eclipse their older competitors. The impact on the party system of developed democracies will, especially in countries with a system of (quasi-)proportional representation like Austria, Spain, and the Netherlands, be profound: Economically, the distinctions between left and right will continue to blur; on social and cultural issues, they will keep accelerating.
But since the bulk of support for Greens and liberals comes from voters who supported left-leaning parties in any case, it would be a big mistake to interpret this transformation as an unalloyed victory for progressives. The German example is once again instructive: When the country’s Green Party went from strength to strength, a loud chorus of international commentators celebrated it as a sign of the left’s resurgence. But far from expanding the overall vote share of the left, its rise has merely served to upend its traditional hierarchies. At the last European elections, in 2014, Greens and social democrats enjoyed a cumulative vote share of 38 percent. In the intervening years, the star of the Greens began to shine a lot more brightly, but that of the Social Democrats faded even more rapidly. As a result, their cumulative vote share has, in the past five years, declined to 36 percent. In Germany, and across the West, the greening of the left has failed to grow its overall level of support.
Rebuilding a Winning Coalition
Over the past decades, social democratic parties have become less and less capable of holding their traditional coalition together. The far-left project of revitalizing its political standing by reemphasizing more strongly anti-capitalist policies has largely failed. This has opened vast political space for green and liberal parties that primarily cater to a young, urban, and highly educated electorate.
There are some important reasons to believe that the potential audience of these “lifestyle parties” is only going to broaden in the coming years: They are more popular among younger than among older voters. The share of college graduates among the total population is still increasing. And most Western democracies are continuing to urbanize.
But for the time being, the left’s growing support among the urban and educated electorate is purchased at a very heavy price: Its share of the vote is continuing to fall among large parts of its traditional electorate. Indeed, in many countries, like France or Austria, working-class voters are now more likely to vote for the far right than for any party of the left. The most pressing strategic question facing any left-of-center leader for the next decades is therefore clear: How can it seek to halt, and preferably regenerate, the left’s cratering appeal among working-class voters?
In countries with a system of proportional representation it is likely that different movements, some old and many new, will divide the bohemian-proletarian coalition up between them. Green and liberal movements are in a good position to capitalize on the growth of the urban, highly educated electorate. But their self-consciously cosmopolitan view of the world also imposes a clear ceiling on their potential since the majority of the population will, for the foreseeable future, continue to live in suburbs or smaller cities, leave the educational system after high school, or attend technical colleges, and have significant reservations about rapid cultural change. Meanwhile, far-left parties have long struggled to forge their disparate supporters into a cohesive group. Lacking a cohesive, let alone sizeable, demographic base, they are likely to remain a relatively small part of the political system.
As before, the left’s ability to build lasting majorities thus still depends on the traditional social democratic parties that now face the most challenging set of strategic options. Should they compete with green parties for the affection of the rising urban middle class, as many commentators—and most of their young activists—advocate? Or should they concentrate on recapturing a substantial share of the working-class vote, as some social democratic parties in Denmark and New Zealand have recently sought to do?
So far, social democratic parties have effectively chosen to pursue the first option. While they tend to be a little more defensive of the welfare state, and to put a somewhat higher premium on economic growth, their political program now has a huge degree of overlap with that of their principal left-of-center competitors. This is especially true on cultural questions: While Germany’s Social Democrats are less vocally supportive of immigration than the Greens, for example, the substantive positions the two parties took during the 2015 refugee crisis were difficult to distinguish.
A big problem with this strategy is that Social Democrats are unlikely to beat Greens on their own terrain. An even bigger problem is that it’s unclear what they would accomplish if they did: By winning back some of the voters who currently support green parties, traditional center-left parties would reverse the relative weight of each faction within the left coalition, but fail to build a left-of-center majority—or to stem the flow of working-class voters toward the populist right.
The second option is for social democratic parties to focus on regaining working-class votes. This would likely require them to distinguish themselves from other left-of-center parties on two dimensions. Economically, they would need to serve the material interests of their voters without giving them lectures about an ideology of which they remain deeply skeptical. In other words, they would champion higher wages and fight for existing social entitlements more uncompromisingly than they have done in the recent past; but they would also resist the temptation to indulge in the anti-capitalist language and dreams of socialism so beloved by the far left.
Since the economic dimension is no longer primary, the biggest change would, however, have to be in the way social democratic parties treat the most contentious cultural issues of the day. To remain true to their historic mission, social democratic parties must loudly oppose the far-right’s attacks on the rule of law and proudly reject policies that discriminate against minorities. But they would also need to take the instinctive cultural conservatism of many working-class people, including their apprehensions about high levels of migration and the failure of existing political parties to secure national borders, more seriously than they currently do.
The path toward regaining working-class voters will by no means be easy for social democratic parties. Party leaders still cling to the unrealistic dream of reassembling the bohemian-proletarian coalition. Young activists are likely to favor a greening of social democratic parties. And much of their erstwhile proletarian base has come to see social democratic parties as part of a political establishment that has sold out its economic interests and looks down on its cultural preferences. But the price that beckons is very significant: Only by winning back a substantial number of working-class votes can social democratic parties help to rein in the rise of far-right populists—and recover a realistic chance of building a governing majority.
Britain and the United States
Majoritarian electoral systems, like those in the United Kingdom or the United States, favor the dominance of two catch-all parties and make it much harder for new political parties to break through. In certain respects, this makes it easier to maintain the bohemian-proletarian coalition.
Both in the United Kingdom and the United States, for example, large parts of the current right are associated with strongly pro-market policies that are widely unpopular among many working-class voters and with deeply discriminatory views on cultural issues that perturb a significant segment of their traditional base. This provides an opening for left-of-center parties like Labour or the Democrats to retain working-class support by emphasizing the importance of welfare state programs like Social Security or the National Health Service while expanding their middle-class vote by offering a more moderate stance on cultural issues.
But the same basic dynamic that ensures that radicals with widely unpopular views can play a large role in right-of-center parties, or even come to dominate them, also presents an acute danger to the left. In systems of proportional representation, socialists flock to far-left parties, and the most culturally progressive voters tend to cluster in green parties. In majoritarian systems, they seek to shape the profile of catch-all left-of-center parties. If either succeeds in winning outsized control over the messaging of their coalition, they run the danger of alienating parts of that coalition and handing victory to the right.
This danger comes in two flavors. The first is that left-of-center parties can come to overestimate working-class hostility to capitalism (both among whites and non-whites). For while key social entitlement programs remain overwhelmingly popular among working-class voters, the romantic attachment to socialism that motivated some of their forefathers has long since faded; today, a worker in a car factory or a steel plant is far less likely to believe in socialism than an undergraduate at Oxford or a graduate student at Harvard. As a result, left-wing parties certainly can—and probably should—mobilize their base by lambasting “crony capitalism” and promising to defend the interests of the less affluent. But this is very different from the rhetoric of far-left politicians who talk at length about socialism or political revolution.
Second, to the extent that catch-all parties can successfully appeal to the economic interests of working-class voters, their economic pitch is now likely to be overshadowed by their cultural message. Big parts of their traditional base reject racism and expect politicians to stand up to attacks on ethnic or religious minorities. But many of their white supporters are also concerned that the leaders of the party they have supported for many decades increasingly seem to look down on them as a basket of “deplorables”; seek to build a new demographic coalition that is designed to dispense with their support; and spend a much greater portion of their time on causes favored by a small cadre of affluent and educated elites than on their own pressing concerns.
How the Left Can Win
It is—as it has so often been in the past—once again fashionable to project, in the words of the Financial Times, that “the future belongs to the left.” At first sight, there are strong reasons for this conclusion: In most Western democracies, left-leaning parties enjoy comfortable majorities among the youngest cohorts of voters. Demographic groups that tend to support the left, from ethnic and religious minorities to the residents of large cities, are continuing to grow. Finally, a new set of left-of-center parties is rapidly rising, and seems poised to take on the reins of government within the next years or decades.
Even so, a closer analysis of recent transformations on the left suggests a far more skeptical conclusion. Social democratic and far-left parties are failing to attract a large or cohesive share of the electorate. The rise of green and liberal parties cannot compensate for their weakness. For now, no left-wing movement seems capable of—or even especially intent on—appealing to some of the voting block who had once been their most loyal supporters.
The strange predicament of today’s left is that it is both too pessimistic and too presumptuous. Even as some left strategists insist that they can deal a fatal blow to capitalism, many of them seem content to give up on much of its traditional electorate. And even though many of them believe that demographic changes will hand them an automatic majority, especially in the United States, they envisage a future in which a person’s skin color will be an excellent predictor of their partisan identity.
For all of these reasons, it is time for the left to become less triumphalist and more optimistic. It remains possible to build a left majority. But to do so, left-of-center parties need to speak both to the rising segment of urban, cosmopolitan voters and to their traditional base.
How to do this will, of course, depend on context. The separation of labor within the left will need to look different in countries with a majoritarian electoral system, like the United States, than in countries with a proportional electoral system, like Germany; in countries that already have a generous welfare state than in those in which millions of people still lack health insurance; and in those that are now experiencing high levels of immigration than in those that are in danger of depopulation. But despite all of those differences, left-of-center parties have a real opportunity to take bold positions on which a large swath of (potential) left-wing voters agree.
All across the world, left-wing parties can—and should—win elections on the promise to fix capitalism by standing up for the interests of working people. And all across the world, they can—and should—fight for an inclusive patriotism that promises solidarity to all citizens, irrespective of the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, or their religion. It remains possible for the left to build a broad coalition on a principled message. But to do so, it first needs to recognize that its old political strategy has become obsolete—and that an exclusive focus on mobilizing voters who already have all the “right” views is unlikely to compensate for the loss of its historic base.