The Death and Life of Social Democracy

Why Idealism Eventually Beats Populism.

Pierpaolo Barbieri

The seemingly endless stream of “rise of populism” stories as of late—cue French election results putting Marine Le Pen in the presidential run-off—ignore a complementary and no less important trend in Western politics: the downfall of social democracy.

Not so long ago, it appeared that modern social democracy—the marriage of free market capitalism with some form of social safety net—was taking over the world. In that ephemeral moment when “history was over,” center-left politicians implemented structural reforms that would have pleased Margaret Thatcher while proudly maintaining and sometimes deepening social protections. There were always some European holdouts, but by the late 1990s many followed the political “third way” that became closely associated with the youthful good looks of the United States’ Bill Clinton, the United Kingdom’s Tony Blair, and Germany’s Gerhard Schröder.

The 2007­­–08 global financial crisis that rocked capital markets and the neoliberal Washington consensus looked likely to force a further leftward move. The market implosion, many thought, would bring tighter market regulation, which would benefit those on the political left who were eager for more income redistribution and less market fundamentalism. Even the zealous International Monetary Fund became contrite, weakening the case for at least some of the more radical free market reforms it had once advocated.

Yet few remember calls for revolution that do not materialize. The crisis did not bring about the apogee of the social democrats. Rather, it brought about their demise. Indeed, rather than a rise of populism, the closest thing to a political trend in the developed world today is the implosion of the center left.

What is at stake in Europe’s busy 2017 electoral calendar is not merely the overhyped rise of populism, but also the electoral relevance of social democratic values in the post-industrial age.

As with the financial crisis in Europe, the first victim was Greece. 


Originally published in Foreign Affairs.