Twilight of the Reds pinks

by Daniel on October 5, 2009

Well, the European Left still has Portugal, Norway and Greece, but having lost France, Germany and Italy and with Spain and the UK looking decidedly vulnerable, one has to conclude that on balance, European social democracy is not going through one of its purpler periods. The days of Blair/Schroeder/Jospin are over. Why, and what does the future look like?

My personal view is that what we’re seeing is the end of the electoral strategy which began with Bill Clinton and which (arguably) is still being kept alive by Kevin Rudd in Australia. Basically, it’s the view that you can keep a balloon flying by constantly chucking out left-wing ballast. Which worked very well in the 1990s and early 2000s, but it does have a limited lifespan built into it. After a while, you run out of ballast to throw out and you find that the hot-air burners aren’t working any more; the traditional left-wing base of your party has switched off, the unions can’t provide blocks of support and you’re left as a more or less identikit technocrat party, largely indistinguishable from your opponents and trying to compete on the basis of more efficient provision of “public services”.

The problem as I see it is that the New Labour tendency tended to treat the Ice Cream cart metaphor as an operations manual. In Germany in particular, but also in France and to an increasing extent in Italy, the decline and fall of the mainstream social democratic party has been accompanied by rapid growth of more radical Left movements; in the UK it’s been reflected in nationalist and single-issue (including Green) politics. All of which was actually predictable from the Hotelling model – if the ice cream cart has moved too far along the beach in order to capture marginal sales, then the people at the extreme left end of the bay are going to start looking for alternative sources of refreshment.

And it’s not necessarily possible to predict what those alternative politics will look like, or whether they’re going to fit well onto the left-right axis. Although most people’s political beliefs can be fit onto two axes (one, very important one, corresponding to the authoritarian personality trait and one barely significant one corresponding to laissez-faire versus redistributionism in economics), this basic psychological fact doesn’t underwrite any particular set of political institutions. So what does the post-Blairite politics of Europe look like? Search me, I’m not a professional and all the proper political scientists on this blog are too busy to post right now. So I’ll adopt the Three Rules of European Political Punditry, which are 1) announce that you have discovered a third force, 2) claim that all the old alliances may be on the point of breaking and 3) draw sage and chin-stroking conclusions about the USA, which is basically the only country in the world that anyone cares about anyway.

Announce that you have discovered a third force. Not sure which one of these counts as “third”, but I would tentatively defend a tripartite breakdown of European political parties at the moment. You have:

  • Technocrat/managerialists: the guys at the centre of the beach with the ice-cream carts. Basically attempting to project a post-politics vibe, talking a lot about delivery of public services and neoliberal economic management.

  • Berlusconist populist-loudmouthists: Usually coming from the eastern end of the centre-right, but politics is basically about showbiz – all about giving the crowd what they want, as long as what they want is a little bit of sleaze and a lot of nationalist rhetoric.

  • Single issueist-refusalists: Greens, far leftists, most regionalists – distinct from the populists in that they’re not of the Right and usually concerned with particular political agendas, but distinct from the technocrats in that their intention is to operate in an consequence-free environment; large parts of their political appeal is more or less explicitly based on the complete unlikelihood of them ever being in power.

Claim that old alliances are on the point of breaking. The most durable social democratic parties were always an alliance between pragmatist-technocrats and idealist leftists, with the traditional socialists delivering the union blocs and the technocrat/Atlanticists advising them how much ballast they needed to throw out to get elected. Similarly on the right, you had an alliance between the populists who could deliver the mob, and the technocrats who could deliver the money. After sixty years since the war, however, the technocrats of the Left have stretched the bonds of this invisible coalition too far and ruptured the link; the technocrats of the right haven’t. So the social democrats of Europe are stuck in the position of needing to bloc with parties that fundamentally don’t trust them, and who in many cases have just as much in common with the populists.

Draw amazingly speculative conclusions about the USA. Well, the Democrats are the ultimate example of a technocratic soft-left party, and the US electorate really do love their right-wing populists from Ronald Reagan to Arnold Schwarzenegger; even Sarah Palin had (and has) her fans. Meanwhile, the Obama victory was to a significant extent dependent on higher-than-usual turnout from black and young voters, who might reasonably be suspected to see more appeal than most in single-issue and anti-managerialist politics. US politics isn’t really very like European, but it’s certainly worth wondering if triangulation might not have come to the end of its useful life on both sides of the Atlantic …

{ 58 comments }

1

mart 10.05.09 at 2:43 pm

1. I would argue that your tripartite split doesn’t really make sense – it seems to me that many of Europe’s mainstream centre-right parties are in fact coalitions of right-leaning technocrats and shouty populist types (Berlusconi, Sarkozy, the Tories) that are enjoying some sucess at the moment as populists will during recessions. The centre-left coalitions, having (as you correctly identify) ditched a lot of the left’s traditional beliefs, are unable to offer any kind of popular programme for government right now.

2. A lot of those extra votes aren’t going to single-issue parties like the Greens, but to third/fourth/whatever parties such as the Lib Dems or various nationalist parties (in the UK, the SNP) that, far from being ‘consequence-free’, have quite serious programmes for government.

2

Ray 10.05.09 at 3:23 pm

The traditional socialists delivering the union blocs…

Are those blocs still available for delivery? If the unions are smaller, and less important in the lives of their members, then the problem is more that the union leaders – though perhaps even closer than ever to the technocratic bloc – don’t have as much influence as they used to?
Perhaps the left-technocrats could strengthen the link again, with pro-union policies, but it would be a case of those policies changing the social conditions rather than changing their message.

3

mpowell 10.05.09 at 3:27 pm

One big difference between the United States and Europe is that in Europe that actual state of policy and those policies that are generally regarded as centrist are pretty far to the left of the United States on matters of taxes and labor. While the US Dems may have abandoned too many members of their base, I could see a plausible argument that in Europe the socialist Dems ran into the problem of successfully enacting most of their program and now the parts that the Left would have them institute still they have successfully reckoned cannot be sold politically. On this account, the shift back to the Right comes from the inevitable recentering of the major political parties around the median voter. That’s not such a bad thing, although even an economically liberal right seems to retain a large degree of ugly nativism, which isn’t so grand.

4

Thorfinn 10.05.09 at 3:29 pm

What’s missing here is a story of how the right won. Yes, the far-left hurt the left. But the right also expanded, and it did so exactly by triangulating. They made peace with the welfare state and follow fiscally prudent policies. That’s why this doesn’t translate to the US, where the right has basically become a regional party of the south.

Note that this isn’t so bad. The success of the European right is bad if you’re a partisan leftist, but it’s good if you’re an ideological leftist; because it enshrines a common progressive commitment across both parties, which is better for advancing an agenda than through pure partisan means.

What is certain death for left parties, as in Germany and Israel, is forming a coalition with the center-right. Instead, they should think about how to reach out to the far-left to form a “Big Left” front, without losing the independents in the center who decide elections.

5

Chris 10.05.09 at 4:04 pm

The success of the European right is bad if you’re a partisan leftist, but it’s good if you’re an ideological leftist

IOW, you can’t run against Thatcher by defending the NHS when Thatcher is promising not to touch the NHS.

But the good thing about this is that no matter who wins, the NHS is safe.

This suggests that the main thing that took the wind out of the Left’s sails was… victory. There’s nothing to fight for when you not only own the battlefield, but the other side has to promise not to try to destroy what you built to have even a chance of making it into office.

If the new European center is competent technocratic management of institutions fought for and won by the old European left, it seems like the challenge for the current European left is to identify something new that needs doing, and make the case for it to the electorate. (At the same time, writing from the US, boy do I wish I had *that* problem instead of the ones we do have here.)

6

ajay 10.05.09 at 4:04 pm

In Germany in particular, but also in France and to an increasing extent in Italy, the decline and fall of the mainstream social democratic party has been accompanied by rapid growth of more radical Left movements; in the UK it’s been reflected in nationalist and single-issue (including Green) politics.

Mart’s got a good point. People voting for nationalist parties in the UK (especially the SNP) are not making some sort of a meaningless protest vote; they’re voting for the party of government in Scotland! The Lib Dems, on the other hand, haven’t capitalised nearly as much as I expected on current events, and I’d be fascinated to hear suggestions why.

7

jamie 10.05.09 at 4:20 pm

“The Lib Dems, on the other hand, haven’t capitalised nearly as much as I expected on current events, and I’d be fascinated to hear suggestions why.”

I think they’re comfortable in this nice little niche as the Vaguely Civilised Party, though this might seem belied by some of their electioneering tactics. On the whole, non-committed Lib Dems vote for them without thinking much about it and the Partry leadership doesn’t seem inclined to change its outlook to build potential coalitions. So we all snooze on. It’s obvious that to take power they’d have to replace the Labour party, but equally obvious since Charlie Kennedy got replaced that they don’t really want to do that. I certainly get the impression that Lib Dems think that all the people who voted for them because Labour went too far to the right and because of Iraq were foisted on them in some way.

8

Steve LaBonne 10.05.09 at 4:26 pm

(At the same time, writing from the US, boy do I wish I had that problem instead of the ones we do have here.)

And I don’t think it’s possible to overemphasize what deep doodoo we’re in; I wonder how many people in Europe truly understand how completely fucked we are. The Democrats, being an incoherent mishmash ranging from center-left to center-right and also being addicted to corporate cash, are as if designed to be completely unable to execute popular policies; and when their popularity inevitably wanes as a result, the only alternative under our rigged electoral system is the insane fascist clowns who nearly destroyed the country already and who have gotten even MORE insane since then. It’s really, really difficult to be optimistic about the future of this country.

9

Pete 10.05.09 at 4:43 pm

“The Lib Dems, on the other hand, haven’t capitalised nearly as much as I expected on current events”

Missing opportunities is what the party does best, sadly.

UK nationalist parties: It’s a source of bafflement to me that while the Scottish, Welsh, Ulster, and Irish republican nationalist parties are taken seriously, there doesn’t seem to be a face of English nationalism that isn’t looney. I think English nationalism is mostly subsumed into the Conservative party.

10

Uncle Kvetch 10.05.09 at 4:54 pm

Instead, they should think about how to reach out to the far-left to form a “Big Left” front, without losing the independents in the center who decide elections.

Isn’t that what Jospin did in 1997? It “worked” in terms of bringing the left into power, but IIRC the junior partners in the coalition didn’t stick around very long.

11

john b 10.05.09 at 5:11 pm

@Pete: partly you’re right about the Tories, but see also: “why black power movements are OK but white power ones really aren’t”.

For any of the Celtic Nats, the claim that their region has substantially different interests from the UK overall is meaningful. But England makes up 85%+ of the UK’s population and GDP, so the belief in a democratic-capitalist society that England and the UK overall have different interests is inherently loony.

12

P O'Neill 10.05.09 at 5:11 pm

It’s a challenge to tell a pan-European story so since France was one of the countries mentioned in the post, perhaps it’s worth some discussion. At which point it becomes necessary to mention the Socialists looking like fools. The massive egos at the top, the endless leadership soap operas (with a few personal soap operas thrown in), the extent to which you’re ever appealing to the working class from summer schools in La Rochelle and the way in which Sarko was able to turn the 35 hour work week into a rhetorical albatross for them by targeting “the France that wakes up early” and of course the business interests that were never happy about it. When you become pegged as the de facto umbrella trade union for the public sector workforce, especially the administrative cadres and not the postmen like Besancenot, you’re going to be pecked at from both the left and right.

13

Akshay 10.05.09 at 5:14 pm

In the Netherlands, the ” third way” figure was Wim Kok. In the 90s, his centre-left Labour party entered a coalition with the centre-right VVD, and governed against the centrist Christian Democrats, which sat in opposition.

For some reason, the result of this arrangement was the rise of a significant, stable and highly disciplined left-wing Socialist Party. When the populist-xenophobes split of from the VVD, things got worse for Labour. Many of their potential voters preferred the populist-xenophobes on cultural-authoritarian grounds, their “objective” economic interests be damned.

14

anitchang 10.05.09 at 5:30 pm

On a general level I agree with this analysis, and it is interesting to see this downfall of the social democrats as a development on an European level rather than as different national developments.

IOW, you can’t run against Thatcher by defending the NHS when Thatcher is promising not to touch the NHS.

But the good thing about this is that no matter who wins, the NHS is safe.

For Germany this might be true as well in the end, because the bigger member of the governing coalition will now still be the centrist CDU, but on the other hand the real winner of the last election percentage-wise were the Free Democrats (FDP) who have rather radical ideas about reforming health care and liberalizing the work market… At least for the German case it is an interesting development that while still dealing with such a financial crisis such a big number of voters would vote for a party that still promises that the free market will fix all things.

15

mpowell 10.05.09 at 5:41 pm

8: It is unfortunate for the state of politics in the United States that the two wealthiest men with somewhat sane political views, Gates and Buffet decided to spend their money in Africa instead of in American politics. Frankly, the stakes are much higher here. Instead we are left largely with the likes of the Walton family who are quite committed to sucking as much wealth as possible out of the public, long term consequences be damned. We are ruled by a corporate class, but it is also a suicidal corporate class.

16

Substance McGravitas 10.05.09 at 5:42 pm

It is unfortunate for the state of politics in the United States that the two wealthiest men with somewhat sane political views, Gates and Buffet decided to spend their money in Africa instead of in American politics. Frankly, the stakes are much higher here.

You can save a lot more lives for the dollar in Africa.

17

mpowell 10.05.09 at 5:58 pm

16: You’re thinking about this the wrong way. How many people died due to the Iraq war? If the United States goes all the way down the fascist path how many people are going to die as a result? The long term stakes are simply higher. Not to mention that X dollars lobbying the government can get you 10X dollars for a purpose. I think those guys just wanted to keep their hands clean. Can’t fully blame them.

18

Substance McGravitas 10.05.09 at 6:16 pm

You’re thinking about this the wrong way. How many people died due to the Iraq war?

I know what you mean, but if I can invest in X lifesaving operation that might work vs. Y lifesaving operation that will work I’m spending money on Y.

19

Chris 10.05.09 at 6:22 pm

Many of their potential voters preferred the populist-xenophobes on cultural-authoritarian grounds, their “objective” economic interests be damned.

Wait, Kansas isn’t in the Netherlands…

20

mpowell 10.05.09 at 7:26 pm

18: That’s reasonable. I just wanted to point out that the consequences for US politics have not been good.

21

Harry 10.05.09 at 8:20 pm

mpowell — maybe. Don’t underestimate, though, the capacity of the very rich to distort politics even when they themselves have broadly speaking sane views.

22

John Quiggin 10.05.09 at 8:27 pm

DD, I was thinking about posting on this same topic and was expecting you to put more emphasis on purely contingent factors such as

* Unusually high levels of incompetence/infighting on the left in France and Italy
* The German Social Democrats refusal to contemplate coalition with the former Communists which turned a win and a draw in the last two elections into a partial loss and an outright loss
* General tiredness and excess time in office in Britain, and the turning of the electoral cycle more generally (with Greece a case in the opposite direction)

That said, I agree with a lot of your analysis, but also with the point made by commenters that the social democratic left is dealing with the consequences, perhaps not of victory, but of a largely successful defence of the postwar social-democratic settlement against Thatcherism/market liberalism.

23

dsquared 10.05.09 at 8:49 pm

Hmmm, with regard to those points;

1. I don’t think this really explains though; the French right had just as severe levels of infighting – however bad the Royal/Jospin fight was, it didn’t actually reach the courts as Villepin/Sarkozy has

2. I don’t think this was a contingent factor though – I’d say it’s a natural consequence of the SPD’s strategy of moving rightwards to pick up marginal voters. There’s no way that the party they’ve become could have been reasonably expected to bloc with die Linke – the “oh noes! Communisses!” bit looked very much like a figleaf to me.

3. I also don’t think this was a contingent factor – if so, why didn’t it do for Merkel or Berlusconi? The disillusionment isn’t just about excess time in office – it’s excess time in office without really doing anything to inspire anyone; Labour’s basic appeal to the public is “look at all these mangerial and technocratic fixes we’ve put in! don’t you care about public services you ungrateful bastards!” and the general answer appears to be “less than you’d think, apparently”.

24

dsquared 10.05.09 at 9:13 pm

(also, I emphasised contingent factors in the 2004 US presidential election because it was a close result in a khaki election; it didn’t seem to me at all like the kind of wholesale rejection that’s implied by the SPD or Labour’s numbers).

25

Alex 10.05.09 at 10:36 pm

however bad the Royal/Jospin fight was, it didn’t actually reach the courts as Villepin/Sarkozy has

True, but the French right’s unity trend vector is going up. They actually created a new overarching party as recently as 2002, and so far it’s got a 100% record in national elections (2002 parliamentary and the last presidentials). There was certainly a lot of bitchology before the presidential elections, but it revolved around who might perhaps-maybe run a silly third party campaign. It was dead certain for years that Sarko would be the main candidate.

The French Socialists just keep getting worse (and the rest of the left is no better – new anticapitalist party for PCF, my arse). And the SPD is going the same way – becoming a party with a permanent mobilisation problem. Given that a party is essentially an organisation that can turn out voters, one that stops mobilising is dead for all practical purposes.

26

engels 10.05.09 at 10:56 pm

Spiegel: Left Party Celebrates While Greens Quarrel

The Left Party have a lot to laugh about this election night. They have reached double digits, securing 12.4 percent of the vote, a marked improvement on their 2005 result of 8.7 percent. And they also did well in state elections in Brandenburg and Schleswig-Holstein. “We have broken the sound barrier and have double digits,” Bisky told the cheering supporters while Gysi described the result as “historic.”

27

Tom West 10.05.09 at 11:39 pm

Could there be a rather simpler explanation? For many (most?) voters, an election is simply a referendum on whether the country has done well over the last little bit of time. If life is good, the party gets back in, otherwise it gets turfed.

The fact that the left was doing quite well means that eventually the right is going to do quite well and the left will be looking at its ‘twilight’. Give it another 4-8 years, and the papers will be full of ‘Europe’s left-ward lurch’.

In Canada, Quebec elects a separatist provincial government not because they’re actually interested in separatism, but because after 8 years it’s time to turf the non-separatist party out. Eight years later, the separatists get turfed. (No matter how good you are, eventually the dice aren’t going to roll your way in the voter’s referendum.)

You can see real sea-changes occasionally, but from what I’ve seen, there’s nothing particularly long-term about much of what has happened in Europe.

28

Idiot/Savant 10.06.09 at 5:58 am

The Lib Dems, on the other hand, haven’t capitalised nearly as much as I expected on current events, and I’d be fascinated to hear suggestions why.

An unfair electoral system, perhaps?

29

dsquared 10.06.09 at 6:33 am

Could there be a rather simpler explanation? For many (most?) voters, an election is simply a referendum on whether the country has done well over the last little bit of time. If life is good, the party gets back in, otherwise it gets turfed.

doesn’t explain Germany.

30

Ben Alpers 10.06.09 at 6:56 am

26: Thanks for the link, engels!

What’s interesting is that the leadership of Die Linke are so happy in part because they now expect the SPD to tack left to regain its footing.

I’m no expert on German politics, but it seems to me far from clear that this will happen.

Indeed, has any center-left social democratic party that moved rightward over the course of the last couple decades, but has now begun to lose support for the reasons discussed in this thread, responded to that loss of support by moving back to the left? My sense is that the new centrism of these parties has become pretty hardwired and will be hard for them to abandon.

Am I wrong about this?

31

Phil 10.06.09 at 7:10 am

has any center-left social democratic party that moved rightward over the course of the last couple decades, but has now begun to lose support for the reasons discussed in this thread, responded to that loss of support by moving back to the left?

In the socialist circles in which I then moved, I was the only person who thought that Labour would move Right rather than Left if they lost a fourth successive election in 1992. We know what happened next. (Well, John Smith died, and I hadn’t foreseen *that*. But still.)

32

JoB 10.06.09 at 7:35 am

29 – Well, it kinda does. The Great Coalition lost and that loss happened to be unevenly spread. There is something as a “chancelor’s bonus’ in European politics, which doesn’t by pure coincidence refers to chancelors. That bonus should make the German result a lot like the past 100 or so European election results with the centre (whether left, right or neither (as christian democrats want to have it) bleeding to the extremes – mostly on the right although we leftists love to generalize our few exceptions.

As much as I like the current generation of boring soc1alists in Europe to loose – you’re here giving them too much credit for even their own loss. Soc1al-democrats in Europe, the overdeveloped Europe that is, are characterized by being proud of achievements – and those achievements were mostly achieved by their genetic fathers, uncles. They’ll die proud and lonely, and a little bit dismayed at the small successes of extreme left’s absurd proposals that are even more outdated as their own.

Voters in the meantime are clinging on to anything that’s new & we can only hope they stumble onto something veritably new before they get entangled into something really really old.

33

chris y 10.06.09 at 9:34 am

The Lib Dems, on the other hand, haven’t capitalised nearly as much as I expected on current events, and I’d be fascinated to hear suggestions why.

In addition to the various suggestions above, there’s the point that they have over the last decade or so had majorities (I won’t say power in the most centralised state in Europe) at local level in quite a few places, and they have not acted in character as “the vaguely civilised party” – they have tended to run councils on a basis of unbridled opportunism overlaid by sufficient naivety that they’re unable to stand up to the agenda of their full time officers. Consequently, they tend to get run out of town in an election or two, having cashed their reserves of goodwill for some time.

This is unfortunate both for the many good people in their rank and file who probably joined because they couldn’t stomach NuLab any longer and who certainly are both more principled and more radical than their leadership, and for the national party leadership, which has worked hard to create the vaguely civilised brand only to see it go down in flames in city after city.

34

Keir 10.06.09 at 10:01 am

An unfair electoral system, perhaps?

Doesn’t explain too much; after all, Labour have to deal with it and did when they were the third party coming from behind.

(i mean, geography and all that, and the lib dems do suffer from being no. 2 in a lot of places, but that doesn’t explain the whole effect, because the lib dems have always been like that.)

35

Hidari 10.06.09 at 10:43 am

‘Indeed, has any center-left social democratic party that moved rightward over the course of the last couple decades, but has now begun to lose support for the reasons discussed in this thread, responded to that loss of support by moving back to the left? ‘

In a recent piece in the Guardian Bryan Gould argued that the New Zealand Labour Party had recently done this. I have no idea whether it’s true or not.

36

Kenny Easwaran 10.06.09 at 11:39 am

@29 dsquared – would the “expiration date” theory of electoral transitions do a better job if the expiration date were pegged at something like 7-10 years? As I recall, the SPD were in power in Germany not all that long ago (was it 2005 that Merkel took over?), so the CDU haven’t yet reached their expiration date the way Labour has in Britain. Similarly, Berlusconi hasn’t actually been in office all that long consecutively.

On the other hand, that doesn’t explain France or Spain then (if as you say, the left is in trouble in Spain).

37

Pete 10.06.09 at 12:33 pm

@11: not quite. I think it’s entirely possible for the minority to get policies enacted which are unfavourable to the majority, especially when there are wrinkles in the electoral and political system, and especially when the government relies on marginal support. Best example of this was the undue influence of the Ulster Unionists on the Major government, but it’s a repeated complaint that Labour relies on Scottish MPs who can vote on policy that will not be enacted in Scotland – that’s just asking for horsetrading and policy laundering.

In line with dsquared’s original article I’m going to suggest that alliances are on the point of breaking: the Labour party’s unionized working class + urban middle class bien pensant alliance, the Lib Dem SDP/Liberal alliance, the alliances between Scottish and Welsh parties and the national parties (cf Peter Law MP). Possibly also the conservative pro/anti Europe alliance.

38

Keir 10.06.09 at 12:44 pm

In a recent piece in the Guardian Bryan Gould argued that the New Zealand Labour Party had recently done this. I have no idea whether it’s true or not.

No, Gould argued they did this in the early 90s. (The change from when you could say `didn’t they try this in NZ’ to Aunty Helen, basically.)

Recently the NZLP is looking at similar problems having just lost an election, but it hasn’t really gone one way or the other. (Well, goff’s moving rightish, but mainly goff’s as boring as boring machine on full bore, so it’s kind of hard to tell.)

39

Alex 10.06.09 at 1:07 pm

Actually, I’m beginning to wonder whether the alliances that are cracking are cracking along the authoritarian/liberal axis, and whether this is because so many people over the last 10 years made a deliberate strategy of exploiting the authoritarians.

40

Doug 10.06.09 at 1:30 pm

Further to Germany, SPD-Linke cooperation at the national level involves two things that SPD regulars and leadership still aren’t ready to swallow.

First, it would involve getting back together with Oskar Lafontaine, who bolted the party at the first opportunity when it became clear that Schröder would in fact be Chancellor and not defer to his Finance Minister. A bit like Palin walking out of a McCain White House, only to return some years later as head of the Real Republicans, or some such.

Second, the SED is still the ur-source of most of the Linke’s votes, and those are the people (or the direct political heirs of the people) who put dedicated Social Democrats into concentration camps recently vacated after 1945. The heirs of Willy Brandt would rather be in opposition than go into coalition with the heirs of Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker. The attempt to form a red-red-green coalition in Hessen collapsed (narrowly) over precisely this question. Other post-communist countries have had to make their peace with the old communists parties (renamed, of course, and retooled to varying degrees) coming back into power because there wasn’t really any alternative left of center. In Germany there is, and they haven’t.

Two good reasons we’re still a considerable distance from red-red cooperation at the national level in Germany.

41

Chris 10.06.09 at 7:19 pm

@40: It seems that those issues could be solved in two ways. One is just for the old guard of either or both parties to die or retire, and the other is for some issue(s) to arise of such overriding importance that they are forced into coalition to avert disaster (and the center-right parties are on the wrong side of it).

ISTM that Germany’s center-right parties just aren’t crazy enough for the latter scenario. If there really is an approaching catastrophe, they’ll be trying to avert it too.

42

Martin Wisse 10.06.09 at 7:50 pm

Two things that may need to be considered when talking about the rise and downfall of the “social democrats”.

1) the framework of international treaties and institutions that have evolved and shackled politics in the last three decades which meant that even if social democrats want to move leftward again, they have much less room to do so as they’re bound by various GATT, WTO and EU rules and regulations.

2) The War on Iraq/Afghanistan (and earlier, Kosovo) — that really put the hurt on a lot of centre left AND centre right governments.

43

hix 10.06.09 at 8:42 pm

Germany is not so complicated. CDU/CSU and SPD both have a certain element of status quo/social imobility/social conservatism which helps the older generation, but hardly the young no matter if they are left or right. So they move away to the three smaller parties Linke/Grüne/FDP.

44

hix 10.06.09 at 9:44 pm

Why do people always think the young generation of the Linke is any better than the old guard?

They are just more delusional, seriously buying into the lies the old guard only half beliefs but tells all the time to reinfurce a positive self image. The type of people that think life expectancy was higher in the East and that the Stasi was some regular secret service just like the one in the West.

45

Idiot/Savant 10.07.09 at 2:12 am

@34 Keir: Doesn’t explain too much; after all, Labour have to deal with it and did when they were the third party coming from behind.

Sure. But it does significantly raise the barrier, and encourages people to think that a vote for a third party is wasted (except of course for all those Labour / Conservative voters who vote LibDem in swing seats to keep the other bunch out).

If the UK had a fair electoral system, then this wouldn’t happen, and party support could rise or fall to its natural level. Of course, if the UK had a fair electoral system, it would have been governed by coalitions for the past n years…

46

John Quiggin 10.07.09 at 10:27 pm

Contrary to DDs original post, the Rudd government in Australia is significantly to the left of the previous (Keating) Labor government in rhetorical terms, particularly, since the GFC where Rudd has sought to pose the issues in terms of social democracy vs neoliberalism. By contrast, Keating was pretty open in his emulation of Thatcher. And I think the government is somewhat to the left of Keating in policy terms as well – certainly it embraced Keynesian fiscal policy with enthusiasm, where Keating resisted in the recession of 1989-90.

47

John Quiggin 10.08.09 at 3:25 am

The news that Berlusconi has been stripped of his immunity to criminal prosecution could change the balance a bit. Contingency?

48

Z 10.08.09 at 1:09 pm

I am late to the game. In the case of France, a peculiarity is that the political balance of power these last 10 years has been achieved spatially rather than temporally. By that I mean that the typical French has had a left-leaning mayor, a left-leaning “governor” (executive power at the regional level), a left-leaning “conseil général” (legislative power at the local level) but a right-leaning representative and of course a right leaning government. Indeed, since the UMP came to existence, it won every national election but lost every local one. This arrangement is deeply unsatisfying to me, but one cannot deny it has a certain stability.

49

Doug M. 10.08.09 at 10:54 pm

@40, I agree with the other Doug. Chris, I think you´re drastically underestimating the very real revulsion that a lot of SPD leaders — and supporters — feel for Die Linke. Part of this is substance — the Lafontaine and DDR issues Doug mentioned. There are also issues of style (Gysi’s flamboyant persona sets a lot of older Germans´teeth on edge, and reminds some younger ones unpleasantly of some not-so-old history), class (whisper it, but class exists in German politics) and region (obviously).

You suggest that the “Communists!” argument is a figleaf. I disagree. Cooperation with Die Linke would be very obviously to the SPD´s benefit. But even at a state level — hell, even at a municipal level — they just can´t make themselves do it. The gag reflex just kicks in.

Doug M.

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Doug M. 10.08.09 at 10:59 pm

One other data point: the SPD here in Germany is getting pretty damn old. The average SPD voter was something like 4 or 5 years older than the average voter. If the vote had been restricted to people over 40, the Reds would have won a smashing victory. On the other hand, in the 18-25 group they´re barely in double digits.

This is very bad news for the SPD, but I submit that it doesn´t really fit with your “throwing left-wing ballast overboad” model. After all, you´d expect the voters most directly affected (or, in many cases, betrayed) to be the ones holding a grudge. But that´s not the case here.

Note that young Germans surged to Die Linke and the Greens, but surged even harder to the FDP. That doesn´t seem to fit either.

Doug M.

51

Martin Wisse 10.10.09 at 11:47 am

That younger voters surge to the extremes is not that surprising, is it?

52

Tatu Ahponen 10.10.09 at 9:00 pm

Finland, of course, has been going through a twilight of the Reds as well – last European election, while not exactly a perfect barometer of how things would go in the national elections, was dismal for both Social Democrats and Left Alliance, the traditional two parties of the left (Left Alliance being the heir of People’s Democratic League, which consisted of the old Communist Party and various other left-wing socialists.) Neither party has managed to fully capitalize on the campaign finance scandal which is currently wreaking havoc among Centre, the main government party – partly because neither is exactly fully clean on campaign finance matters. Being a fresh Left Alliance member I certainly hope that this slide will one day be reversed, but it will require effort.

One thing to consider, though, is that conservative parties actually are the natural governing parties of the most European nations. In France, during the Fifth Republic, there have been five conservative presidents (Gaulle, Pompidou, Giscard, Chirac and Sarkozy) but only one Socialist, Mitterrand. In Germany, after WWII, CDU has held the Chancellor’s seat for 40 years and SPD for 20; in UK, Tories for 35 and Labour for 29; in Italy, well, everyone knows that story. Europe only appears to be left-wing from the perspective of right-wing America.

53

Jack Strocchi 10.11.09 at 11:37 am

Thorfinn@#4 10.05.09 at 3:29 pm

What’s missing here is a story of how the right won. Yes, the far-left hurt the left. But the right also expanded, and it did so exactly by triangulating. They made peace with the welfare state and follow fiscally prudent policies. That’s why this doesn’t translate to the US, where the right has basically become a regional party of the south.

Correct. The EU Centre-Right favoured economic populism, which wedged the working class socialist voters.

The trouble with Thoffinn’s interpretation is that it ignores the greatest electoral appeal of the Centre-Right which was cultural populism. It is a response to terrorism, immigration and integration problems exacerbated by “multiculturalism”.

I predicted this earlier in the noughties.

There is little likelihood that this political tendency will abate, it is secular, rather than cyclical, in tendency. The proof that the electorate has shifted several points to the Cultural Right is the astonishing success of the Far-Right accross the board throughout Europe.

A nice example of how dabbling with fashionable liberalism is a good way for Left wing intellectuals to damage Left wing parties.

54

Jack Strocchi 10.11.09 at 10:29 pm

John Quiggin@#44 10.07.09 at 10:27 pm

Contrary to DDs original post, the Rudd government in Australia is significantly to the left of the previous (Keating) Labor government in rhetorical terms, particularly, since the GFC where Rudd has sought to pose the issues in terms of social democracy vs neoliberalism. By contrast, Keating was pretty open in his emulation of Thatcher.

Interestingly, as Pr Q noted, by the mid noughties “in rhetorical terms” the Howard govt had shifted “significantly to the left of the previous (Keating) Labor government “. During that election campaign Howard openly embraced state “investment in infrastructure and human resources” on principle, on behalf of the “community”.

Pr Q says:

And I think the government is somewhat to the left of Keating in policy terms as well – certainly it embraced Keynesian fiscal policy with enthusiasm, where Keating resisted in the recession of 1989-90.

Again, Howard was certainly shameless about his actual big-spending and high-taxing record. Most of the resources went to fund classic Big Government aims such as public infrastructure, community services and welfare transfers.

In mid-2003 I made an early warning signal on this to my Right-wing friends. Pr Q, in late 2004, also noted the political significance of the “Liberals for Social Democracy” spending trend. By late 2006 “The Rise of Big Government Conservatism” had become the conventional wisdom of Right-wing think tanks.

Whats signficant about this is that both parties or sides of politics are shifting to the populist Centre. The Centre of politics for most OECD states is civic populism on cultural matters and economic populism on fiscal matters.

That is, as Pr Q noted, the populus is well to the Right of the elites on civic matters. And well to the Left of the elites on economic matters. In short the populus tends to national socialism whilst the elites tend to global capitalism. Shocking, no?

Pr Q noted this dirty little secret in NOV 2002.

the Australian elite is both more ‘economically rationalist’ and more ’socially progressive’ than the population as a whole.

The “populist” tendency of the populus became clear, particularly in the aftermath of the the dot.com bust and 9/11 attacks. The present tectonic shifts in public opinion in Europe merely reflect the realisation of this tendency.

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Jack Strocchi 10.11.09 at 10:41 pm

Comments #53 and #54 are “awaiting moderation”. Is this normal, did I put too many links in them or did I do something wrong?

56

dsquared 10.11.09 at 11:04 pm

Jack – I’ll see what I can do. Normally, the problem is that you mentioned “soc1alism”, the middle five letters of which are also the name of a popularly spammed drug.

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Doug M. 10.12.09 at 8:39 am

@51: Actually, yes it is surprising. Younger voters, in Germany, have never behaved that way.

@53: while I’m not sure I agree with Jack Strocchi on the details, I do think he has an important insight. Dsquared, along with almost every other commenter that I’ve seen on this issue, is trying to parse it in terms of “where did we go wrong”. What’s missing from this analysis is any possibility that the other guys may have done something /right/.

This is an ancient and glorious tradition, to be sure. I lived in Britain in the middle 1980s, and I remember being repeatedly struck by how blind Labour supporters were to Thatcher’s political competence. You could loathe the woman’s policies, but that should have had nothing to do with recognizing the obvious fact that she was a more than competent political tactician and not a half-bad strategist either. Not brilliant, and she got increasingly sloppy after the ’87 election, but up until then she was a solid player of the game. But acknowledging this was anathema. I’d talk to Labourites and they’d spent hours obsessively picking their own party’s flaws to pieces — which, to be sure, was no small task — without ever mentioning that the Tories had done anything showing the most modest amount of political nous. Moderates blamed Militant, folks further left blamed Kinnock and other such “careerists”, and everyone blamed the Gang of Four. But the idea that the Tories were at some level outplaying them seemed literally unthinkable.

I also have to note that the chorus of indignation about NuLabour throwing the Real Left overboard was very muted back in the days when Labour was crushing all before it and winning General Elections with 160-seat majorities. When I look at the Labour platform for, say, 2001, I don’t see that it’s much to the left of where the party is now. So.

Doug M.

58

Martin Wisse 10.13.09 at 1:21 pm

@57: maybe Germany is finally becoming a “normal” country…

The main difference between New Labour 2001 and 2009 is the War on Iraq. It had supported “humanitarian interventions” before, in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, but nobody expected that a Labour government would get involved in a renewed invasion of Iraq against which the majority of the voters was opposed and for which there were no good reasons other than that the US asked them to.

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