If Chancellor Angela Merkel gets her way, the next German government will include the big loser of the September elections, her center-right Christian Democrats, and the even bigger loser, the center-left Social Democrats. After a failed attempt to forge a coalition made up of the Christian Democrats, the pro-business Liberal Party and the Green Party, Ms. Merkel is urging the Social Democrats, who allied with her in the previous government and were punished at the polls for it, to enter into yet another grand coalition.
The Social Democrats are understandably wary of Ms. Merkel’s courtship. Ms. Merkel used the coalition to co-opt many of their ideas, and analysts here believe they need time for therapy rather than another opportunity to ruin themselves in office. But their problems go further and deeper than the past four years; their party has been in steady decline for two decades — getting 20 percent of the vote today compared with 40 percent in 1998.
This downward trend is not limited to Germany — in most major Western European countries, center-left parties are in retreat, and in some cases they have practically ceased to exist. Just what has happened to social democracy?
In Germany, the Social Democrats’ woes are as simple to explain as they are difficult for the party to accept. It begins with a rift between political consciousness and practice: Despite its internationalist outlook, social democracy has always relied on the nation-state as the framework for safeguarding the rights of workers and redistributing wealth.
During the late 19th and much of the 20th century, this made sense. But now, this framework is shaken. Ironically, it was the Social Democrats themselves who, after 1989, embraced the idea of a globalized, post-national, post-wall era. In this brave new world, like-minded states fostered transnationalism to limber up for the increased competition of a global economy.
But this concept came with two built-in contradictions, a democratic and a social one. Both took their time to become visible, but today they loom large.
The first contradiction is that democracy’s apparent victory in 1989 also marked the beginning of the degradation of democracy. The convenient self-delusion of the “neoliberal” decades was that you could strengthen both national democracy (including welfare-state capitalism) and transnational policymaking. Capital could be harnessed to the nation-state at the same time it was being freed to move beyond it. Regional integration, meanwhile, came to mean more than just markets; transnational governance was the watchword.
Davos and Brussels were the capitals of this elitist complacency. In the headquarters of worldwide economic liberalization and European integration, respectively, dissenters of the cosmopolitian consensus were branded as narrow-minded or as “Europhobes.” Yet the truth is that you cannot have transnational governance without limiting the powers of national parliaments, thereby limiting the power of the people. And you cannot attempt to control capital at home while loosening the reins that prevent it from moving abroad.
The result has been long in coming, and predictable. Democracy has pushed back, through bottom-up agitation from ordinary people who had taken to the streets from Leipzig to Bucharest. And when the elites pushed back, whether it was over the Greek debt crisis or the refugee influx, who was standing alongside them? The erstwhile voice of the people, the Social Democrats.
This is not to indict the European center left; who can forget the flush of post-Communist optimism? Democracy’s thorough victory in the Cold War appeared to prove that it was self-supporting. But that optimism led to carelessness, and the naïve belief that labor and capital could finally unite under the flag of Davos.
Nor was this completely wrong; the world is a much better place thanks to freer markets and political integration. The problem is that these benefits have been dwarfed by the trickle-up effects to a fortunate few. The increasing wealth has been spread unfairly, and not just in terms of money: Risk of failure has been handed downward to the citizens. This became ultimately apparent in the wake of the financial and the euro crises. It was the regular European who eventually had to pay for high-flying dreams of the Davos elite.
Instead of at last addressing this contradiction, prominent Social Democrats appear intent on solving the dilemma of internationalism by making it bigger. Martin Schulz, the party’s leader, has just proposed a “United States of Europe” by 2025 — and to expel European Union member states that won’t join in his flight of fancy.
Social democracy’s second contradiction is that you can’t promote a borderless world and the welfare state at the same time. Ms. Merkel’s predecessor, the Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder, recognized this and pruned back Germany’s overgenerous welfare spending to make the economy more competitive. It was the right move, however unpopular, and the party wisely defends it today. But following these welfare restrictions, how can you convey to your electorate that you are opening the doors of your country to a million refugees and migrants who are entitled to welfare payments?
In the last election, millions of angry left-wing voters in places like the Ruhrgebiet, Germany’s equivalent of the Rust Belt in America, saw a state that had plenty of money for others but not for them. The response of Social Democrat leaders was to label such critics “right-wingers” and to demand they embrace even more liberal virtues, like identity and gender politics. This prompted a defection of hundreds of thousands of Social Democratic voters to the far-right Alternative for Germany, which scored almost 13 percent in the election.
Sigmar Gabriel, who preceded Mr. Schulz as the head of the Social Democrats and who remains vice chancellor until a new government is formed, seems to get this. In an essay for Der Spiegel, he wrote that the plight of the Democrats in the United States shows “how dangerous it is to focus on issues of postmodernism.” He added, “If one loses the workers of the Rust Belt, the hipsters in California aren’t going to be of any great use either” in winning national elections.
It’s not clear his party gets it, though. With no idea how to appeal to both Berlin hipsters and industrial workers in the Ruhrgebiet, it is no surprise the Social Democrats lack the courage to dig down to the root of their misery. As long as they avoid the two fundamental contradictions of modern social democracy, the decline will continue. And rightly so.
Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit.