In a scathing condemnation of the attitudes of the “Davos elite”, the political editor for Germany’s Die Zeit newspaper has penned an article for the New York Times blasting the “two built-in contradictions” of social democracy.
Jochen Bittner, who writes once a month for the NYT, begins by dissecting the electoral irrelevance of Germany’s Social Democrat party, led by former European Parliament president Martin Schulz. He diagnoses social democracy’s decline by outlining two major “contradictions”.
Firstly, that you can broaden the domestic welfare state and its crony capitalist underpinning while shifting policy-making to larger, transnational institutions like the European Union. Secondly, that this same welfare state can exist in a world of “open borders” or open migration.
“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,” he writes of the first problem.
He notes of the second: “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.
As Foreign Policy magazine has reported, the march of new populism from both the left and right is continuing across Europe, not abating as some suggest:
The picture that emerges is very clear: Populist movements had been gradually gaining votes well before the shock year of 2016. And they have continued to do so since. While the average vote share for European populist parties was 9.6 percent in 2000 and 17.2 percent in 2008, for example, it is now 24.6 percent.
Foreign Policy‘s study was undertaken by two fellows at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, indicating the centre-left, social democrat concerns over a mass rejection of the long-standing “Third Way” political ideology.
Earlier this week the Financial Times issued a call for a new “radical centrism” in the face of Western disaffection with Blair/Clinton-style politics.
If 2016 represented a shock year of victories for populist nationalism, while 2017 established the battle lines, then 2018 will surely be the first year the true war is fought between these competing world views.
Raheem Kassam is the editor in chief of Breitbart London