MAY 28, 2019

MAY 28, 2019

The Social Democratic Collapse. I don’t claim to know how many elections have been held in Europe’s democratic nations since 1945, but I’m quite certain that Sunday’s European Parliament election featured the worst performance by socialist, social democratic, and labor parties since the end of World War II—and possibly since the end of World War I.

In the U.K., Labour ran third, getting a bare 14 percent of the vote, with anti-Brexit voters casting their ballots for the more unequivocally anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats (who came in second with 20 percent of the vote) and the Greens (who almost eclipsed Labour as well, winning 12 percent of the tally). Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s ambivalence about the EU is at one level understandable: While many of the Union’s work rules reflect the continent’s greater commitment to worker representation and benefits, the entire structure of the EU, and particularly its anti-Keynesian monetary union, imposes austerity on Europe and limits leftist experimentation. Nonetheless, Labour’s failure to wholeheartedly condemn Brexit as a bigoted, racist withdrawal from a more universal modernity cost it heavily among voters who might yet side with it in winner-take-all U.K. parliamentary elections.

The social democratic picture wasn’t any brighter elsewhere. In Germany, the Social Democrats—since 1945, the nation’s second- or first-largest vote-getter—ran third, pulling just 16 percent of the vote, and trailing not just the Christian Democrats but also the Greens, who pulled down 21 percent of the vote. The Left Party won just 6 percent of the vote. In a separate election on Saturday, the Social Democrats failed to come in first in the city-state of Bremen, where they had won every previous election since 1945. Clearly, the party’s decision to serve as the subordinate coalition partner with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats has blurred its ideological and political profile to the point of near invisibility. It is the SPD’s worst decision—both for itself and for the nation—since it voted to support Germany’s decision to go to war in 1914.

In France, the Socialists finished sixth, with 6 percent of the vote, while France’s semi-equivalent of Germany’s Left Party, La France Insoumise, also won a whopping 6 percent. France’s Green Party got more votes than both left parties combined, winning 13 percent. And so it went throughout most of Europe, the chief exception being Spain, where in the past few weeks, the Socialists have placed first in the local, national, and now continental elections. Socialism in one country, indeed.

To be sure, there were some extenuating circumstances for the socialist wipeout. Sunday’s was an election about openness and closed-ness; it pitted a kind of cosmopolitanism against a kind (bigoted) of nationalism. Many of the issues that predominate in national elections—most especially, national economic policy, which once was the calling card of social democratic parties—weren’t in play. But first, the rise of xenophobic nationalism in Europe has made combating that nationalism a primary, at times the primary, issue for progressives, and in many nations the greens have been more prominent in opposing it than the social democrats. Second, the decades-long shift in class composition in Western Europe has long since shrunk the old working-class base of the left parties, and the greens seem increasingly poised to pick up left-of-center white-collar voters. And third, as in the United States, it’s disproportionately and understandably the young who’ve taken up arms against the climate crisis, and who voted green in Sunday’s elections.

Here in the U.S., the Democratic Party is beginning to experience its own green-vs.-social democratic conflicts, which could devolve into a second coming of the young-left-vs.-old-labor strife that divided the party during the Vietnam War. Democrats may well find it easier to finesse the Medicare for All against Medicare for Some battle than to come up with a way to bridge the green-against-labor war that looms menacingly over the horizon.