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A Revival of the Left in the Age of Coronavirus?


The left is in crisis worldwide, and has been for some time. The reasons for this are manifold. With the coronavirus pandemic, the window now seems to be open for a revival of progressive politics. It would be premature, though, to hope for a rapid improvement of the left’s fortunes.

© REUTERS/Annegret Hilse

In many places, left-wing parties and especially those on the center-left are struggling for their survival. The technical term for this phenomenon is “Pasokification.” The formula refers to the long-standing Greek social democratic party, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement or PASOK, which was thrown out of government in 2013 after barely achieving a vote share in the double digits. It has since served as a warning sign for the unstoppable decline of former major parties.

Observers spoke at that time of a unique shock, but Pasokification is by now (almost) everywhere. Sure, historically the center-left has always had to accept painful losses of votes. In recent years, however, the decline of the left no longer seems to be reliably followed by phases of recovery. PASOK, for example, received just 8.1 percent of the vote in last year’s elections—and that was in an alliance with several smaller left-wing parties.

But it shares this fate with many socialist and social democratic parties, some of which have shaped the fate of their societies for decades: the Labour Party in Israel, the Social Democrats in Austria, the Labour Party in the United Kingdom, and other center-left parties in Ireland, Spain, Italy, Australia, and of course Germany, where the country’s oldest party, the SPD, now seems stuck with a support of 15 percent. In all these countries, center-left parties have long been political fixtures, and yet today they face existential challenges.

A cartography of left-wing governmental responsibility leads to a world map with only a few red spots: In Portugal and Spain, in Sweden, Denmark and Finland, social democrats or socialists lead governments, and beyond Europe they also rule in Mexico and New Zealand. Otherwise the map looks conservative or liberal, if not populist-autocratic.

Victims of Fragmentation

So, what is going wrong? The analysis is complicated not only by ideological differences, but also by the fact that analytically it is almost impossible to separate the shock of the left from the more general crisis of those parties that traditionally had broad appeal to many parts of the electorate.

Yes, left-wing parties are losing not only elections but also members, and with few exceptions, worldwide. But in times of individualization this is true for conservative parties and ultimately for mass organizations as a whole: trade unions, churches, associations. One consequence is a political fragmentation, which is not least supported by the desire for ideological clarity. “I want to be part of a youth movement,” sang the Hamburg band Tocotronic many years ago. But who today longs to be part of a big political party?

The center is shrinking, the number of parties in the parliaments is increasing, and the ideological span is growing. For years, the vanguard of this development was the Netherlands, which currently has 13 parliamentary parties. But the trend can now be observed in every advanced Western democracy, with the exception of those with strong winner-takes-all voting systems, such as the UK or the United States.

So, is the crisis of the left merely part of a general malaise of the parties? The empirical evidence suggests otherwise. In fact, embedded in the distress of the parties, left-wing politics is experiencing a crisis within a crisis. Many formerly decidedly “left” parties have recently renamed themselves “progressive” or “progressive” movements. The Socialist International (SI) has been supplemented and partly replaced by a Progressive Alliance. Programmatically, the Swiss Social Democrats currently describe themselves as “the most important force for progress.” The Parti Socialiste in France also promotes “human progress,” while comrades in Austria place themselves “at the forefront of progress.” But what if progress causes concern rather than confidence? Opinion polls in the EU and the US show time and again that less than 30 percent of people are optimistic about the future. For parties that see themselves as parties of the future, this is not an optimal starting position.

Seen globally, optimism has long since migrated to the global South—despite having objectively limited life chances. In Western democracies, on the other hand, optimism about progress has found new homes: in liberal alternatives—in France, for example, with the particularly pro-European Emmanuel Macron—but also in parts of the Green movements, which have largely abandoned the culturally pessimistic criticism of progress of their founding years. Ecological movements are still a phenomenon of developed industrialized countries—in all 54 sovereign African states taken together, for example, there are only a handful of Green members of parliament. But in many OECD countries, public interest in the issue of climate protection has proven to be a powerful driver for Green parties.

The parallel success of right-wing populist forces can be seen as a significant counterbalance to this approach and is also reflected in the demographic composition of the electorate.

Even before the left started to melt, this polarization was supported by the prominence of issues that seem unfavorable for center-left parties. The eurocrisis, refugees and migration, climate protection: in none of these fields have center-left parties in European democracies traditionally shown any special competence. But can thematic trends alone explain long-term crises?

“The End of the Social Democratic Age”

It is characteristic of the current crisis of the left that the discussion of causes precedes the actual manifestation of symptoms by years, in some cases decades. As early as 1983 Ralf Dahrendorf proclaimed “the end of the social democratic age” and predicted the current crisis of the left, seeing it as a consequence of its success. In Western industrialized countries in particular, he said, distribution conflicts had been so completely resolved by the work of social democracy that the healing of society made it possible to stop taking medication. “In the end,” Dahrendorf stated, “we almost all became social democrats.” The diagnosis applies today to numerous Western societies and has serious consequences for the differentiation of social democratic policies.

It is difficult to contradict the broad strokes of Dahrendorf’s thesis, but there are real questions about the details. Certainly, one can hardly deny that there has been socio-political and economic progress. But the diagnosis of social saturation seems to depend heavily on one’s own perspective. For years, surveys have shown that majorities worldwide perceive the prevailing economic system as highly unjust. In addition, rising rents, insecure employment and extremely unequal opportunities in life remain such a massive problem in many places that the goal of social justice can hardly be seriously considered to have been reached.

A completely different, yet also influential approach to explaining the current crisis of the left also refers to successes, but—apparently paradoxically—to the electoral successes of left-wing parties themselves. These are the ideological reforms of left-wing parties using key phrases such as “New Labour”, “Third Way” and “Neue Mitte.” Based on the successes of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, numerous center-left parties attempted to reinvent themselves as a force of the center in the 1990s. From the Netherlands, Finland, and Germany to New Zealand, Israel, and Brazil, party leaders relied on a credo that, according to the Schröder-Blair paper, “Europe: The Third Way/Die Neue Mitte,” “the essential function of markets must be complemented and improved by political action, not hampered by it.”

At the ballot box, this break with tradition initially proved to be a recipe for success. However, privatization, liberalization, supply-side policies and often significant cuts to state welfare services made left-wing parties attractive to the middle of the political spectrum only to the extent that they appeared to be increasingly unattractive to those further to the left. Looking back, it is hardly surprising that this economic middle course strengthened alternative offers from the far left and from a social-chauvinist new right, not only in Germany but also in Greece, France and Italy. This ideological break came in combination with political flexibility, which resulted in numerous coalition formations with center-right parties.

Neither “Neue Mitte” Nor Radical Left

Comprehensive criticism of the aberration of the “Neue Mitte” has recently almost developed into a basic consensus of left-wing Social Democrats. It is not only the leader of youth wing of the SPD, Kevin Kühnert, who calls the Schröder-Blair years a “original sin.” At party congresses in Austria, too, the social reforms of the “Third Way” have been comprehensively, ritually exorcised as a neoliberal “demon”—not to mention Great Britain and Italy, where clearly left-wing party leaders Jeremy Corbyn and Nicola Zingaretti took over the party leadership from Third Way supporters.

In this widespread, more economic reading of the crisis, center-left parties are and will remain called upon to rediscover classic redistribution positions and to bring about a renaissance not only of their own values but also of the conflict over economics as the decisive playing field for elections. In political reality, however, turns to left-wing economic purity have rarely proved successful in the long term. Lost trust is difficult to win back—especially for a left-wing party that wants to continue to participate in government. Only in crisis-ridden Portugal does a center-left party seem to have succeeded so far in assuming lasting government responsibility by adopting a decidedly leftist course. Elsewhere, clearly leftist parties seem to be fading after a brief surge.

The short-term successes of more radical left-wing hopefuls such as Alexis Tsipras in Greece, Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, Pablo Iglesias in Spain and not least Bernie Sanders in the US appear to have evaporated, at least for the time being. Even the “Jeremy Corbyn Blueprint,” which the US magazine Jacobin still saw as a signpost “for the coming years” in 2017, seemed to have faded, at least until the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. One reason is probably that the forces driving anti-elitist left-wing populism are difficult to translate into sustained political support. The question is: if the key to rescuing the center-left is really turning toward the more radical left, why do the more radical alternatives that already exist fail at the ballot box—or like Bernie Sanders fail to be nominated?

New Dividing Lines?

Starting from this question, another school of thought has established itself in recent years. This line of thinking sees the current crisis as being rooted in a combination of economic blunders and cultural errors, which together led to a loss of traditional voter milieus. The British journalist David Goodhart has proven to be influential in the Anglo-Saxon discourse here, noting a division of Western societies into globalization-friendly “anywheres” and more traditionalist, more nationally oriented “somewhere.” For Goodhart, this dividing line represents a new social divide that runs through the traditional core electorate of center-left parties. In the German-speaking world, this analysis corresponds to the contrast between communitarians and cosmopolitans described in particular by the political scientist Wolfgang Merkel.

Attempts by center-left parties to compensate for the economic course of the “Third Way” through progressive flagship projects in the field of identity politics or with regard to an open attitude to immigration issues are not only unsuitable for returning alienated voters to the parties. In fact, they exacerbate the problem. Precisely because compromises are more difficult to reach in identity politics than in economics, this new line of conflict undermines the traditional voter coalition of center-left parties. In this context, my colleague at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation Ernst Hillebrand speaks convincingly of a center-left “that stands with one leg each on two ice floes that are slowly but inexorably drifting apart.” The parties are forced to decide to which segment of society they will make urgent political offers. However, since any shift in emphasis on the cultural conflict axis is likely to face considerable resistance from the remaining electorate, a shift in direction would only be possible at the price of an initial worsening of the crisis.

Perhaps because of its far-reaching implications, this interpretation has so far met with little response in progressive parties themselves. Critics of this view not only reject on moral grounds any suggestions of adapting to political opponents; they also fear that progressive parties could lose the last shred of credibility if they appear to be trying to ingratiate themselves with supporters of conservative positions. After all, in the end people will likely still choose “the original.” The question remains, however, as to how these critics explain the success of parties that are economically left wing, but more conservative in terms of identity politics. The SPÖ in the Burgenland region of Austria, the Social Democratic Party of Denmark or the Scottish National Party, ultimately achieve not only respectable successes with this orientation, but comprehensive election victories.

They thus prove that a combination of left-wing economics and rather conservative values on the cultural conflict axis can certainly attract non-voters and keep the growth of right-wing populist movements in check. It is important to note that adopting conservative values should not be misunderstood as a reactionary backlash, but rather as the preservation of progressive achievements such as equality, secularism, and sexual self-determination.

The Return of the Strong State

Will the COVID-19 pandemic now bring about party-political shifts that affect this crisis? In principle, the way Western societies are dealing with the coronavirus and the varying performances of ultimately competing systems in international comparison should strengthen left-wing political agendas in the short term. While the decisive role that nation states have played in the first phase of the virus control seems at first to run counter to multilateral convictions, it also reinforces the center-left narrative of a strong state capable of action and the primacy of politics.

This applies not only to concrete policy areas, but also, at least possibly in the short term, to a reassessment of traditionally defined work.

In this regard, the Overton window, the window of acceptable policy proposals, has rapidly shifted toward progressive policies during the pandemic. Demands that seemed controversial just months ago have become commonplace almost overnight: massive state investments, proposals for a significant deepening of European integration, an increase in the minimum wage, better pay for “systemically important professions,” growing support even for an unconditional basic income. The left, it seems, is taking to heart the advice of Barack Obama’s advisor Rahm Emanuel to “never let a serious crisis go to waste.”

Certainly, the crisis is evidence of humanitarian commitment, solidarity, and a rediscovery of community. But it gets tricky when one looks at a longer time period. Empirically, there is little evidence so far that economic crises contribute directly to long-term gains in solidarity and to the strengthening of the left.

The 1918 flu epidemic, for example—as American sociologist Lane Kenworthy points out—put an end to two decades of progressive reform in the United States, while the crises of the 1970s and 1980s did not result in the triumph of the left, but in the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Not to mention the consequences of the 1929 Great Depression: at least in large parts of Europe, Black Friday was not followed by Red Saturday but by the disastrous triumph of Brown ideologies. And the economic and financial crisis of 2008 not only allowed neoliberalism to survive but also resulted in a worldwide wave of populism.

The US political scientist Ronald Inglehart has made a significant contribution to understanding the underlying causes of these developments. Based on decades of opinion research in more than a hundred countries, his studies show that the development of progressive values has historically always depended on the perception of economic security. “Reduced job security and rising inequality encourage authoritarian reactions.” A high level of existential security, however, strengthens “openness to change, diversity, and new ideas.”

Not All Will Prosper

In view of the economic consequences of the pandemic, it can therefore be assumed that conflicts over redistribution are likely to experience an exceptional renaissance—and will compete with climate policy concepts for attention. However, in line with the historical experience of the New Deal and the development of the Swedish welfare state, known as the Folkhemmet or People’s Home, for example, left-wing parties are likely to benefit from this trend only where they see themselves in a position to play a decisive role in shaping political developments in the direction of safety nets.

Conversely, however, left-wing forces can hardly rely on an automatic impact of post-pandemic solidarity. On the contrary, there is much to be said for a feedback loop in which strong left-wing forces will tend to be further strengthened, while weak left-wing forces will tend to be further weakened. The “opportunities of the crisis,” which Dahrendorf spoke of in the context of the liberal movement, actually exist for the political left in the age of the coronavirus. It will not be strong enough everywhere to take advantage of these opportunities.