Social democrats in the twin-peaked world

by Henry on January 6, 2015

Paul Krugman wrote last week about the rise of a ‘twin peaked’ world in which the global poor are doing much better, as are the extremely rich, while the working class are doing badly in comparative terms. He asks:

Who who speaks for those left behind in this twin-peaked world? You might have expected conventional parties of the left to take a populist stance on behalf of their domestic working classes. But mostly what you get instead — from leaders ranging from François Hollande of France to Ed Milliband of Britain to, yes, President Obama — is awkward mumbling. (Mr. Obama has, in fact, done a lot to help working Americans, but he’s remarkably bad at making his own case.)

The problem with these conventional leaders, I’d argue, is that they’re afraid to challenge elite priorities, in particular the obsession with budget deficits, for fear of being considered irresponsible. And that leaves the field open for unconventional leaders — some of them seriously scary — who are willing to address the anger and despair of ordinary citizens.

There’s plausibly a structural story behind the inability of conventional leftwing parties to challenge conventional orthodoxies and respond to the needs of their traditional constituency. They haven’t really relied on this constituency for a long time. Peter Mair’s Ruling the Void hasn’t gotten nearly the attention that it deserves, perhaps because it came out after its author’s death. But Mair – an expert on the evolution of political parties and party systems – makes a strong case that leftwing parties in Europe today have become profoundly disassociated from their voters. This is in part because of ordinary people withdrawing from political parties – the membership of mass parties has collapsed over the last few decades. However, it is also because the elites of parties don’t rely on mass membership to provide resources – instead they rely on resources from the state and networks where they are firmly embedded with other elites. The result is that European political parties rather than representing their constituents to the state, tend to represent the state and its imperatives to their constituents.

This helps explain the extraordinary haplessness of mainstream leftwing parties faced with the politics of austerity. It’s reinforced by the politics of the European Union, which was purpose designed as a non-democratic space (into which, however, bits of democracy have crept over time).

bq. Despite the seeming availability of channels of access, the scope for meaningful input and hence for effective electoral accountability is exceptionally limited. It is in this sense that Europe appears to have been constructed as a protected sphere, safe from the demands of voters and their representatives.

National policies are constrained by EU institutions such as the European Central Bank and other institutions, which are designed to be non-majoritarian ones “from which parties and politics are deliberately excluded.” The result is that:

bq. insofar as competing policies or programmes are concerned, the value of elections is steadily diminishing. Thanks to the European Union, although crucially not only for that reason, political competition has become increasingly depoliticized.

European voters, mainstream European parties and European leaders have increasingly learned how to live without effective participatory democracy. And now it’s biting the social democratic left. The withering of links between leftwing parties and their electoral base, combined with the movement of real decision making to the European level, leaves these parties in the cold. They neither know how to connect to voters any more, nor have any real program for change on those occasions (thanks to exhaustion with their opponents) they actually win office. It’s little wonder that so many of their voters are defecting.