clock menu more-arrow no yes

The development and decay of democracy

The fate of social democracy should worry not only those on the left, but anyone concerned with democracy in Europe.

The German parliament building, the Reichstag.
Germany’s parliament is considering a sweeping law to restrict “fake news” online.
Sean Gallup / Getty

Over the past generation, party systems in Europe have changed radically as new parties on the left and especially the populist right have increased their vote share at the expense of traditional parties of the center-right and center-left. The decline of the latter has been particularly dramatic. In some European countries, social democratic parties have practically disappeared from the political scene, and even in former strongholds like Germany and Scandinavia their vote shares are at historic lows. The fate of social democracy should worry not only those on the left, but anyone concerned with democracy in Europe.

European socialist parties were the first “modern” parties, progenitors of a type of political organization that would play a critical role in making democracy work. In addition, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, social democratic parties were the most forceful advocates of democratization, and after the Second World War the stabilization of liberal, capitalist democracy in Europe depended critically on them.

It is simply impossible, in short, to understand the development of democracy in Europe during the late 19th and first two-thirds of the 20th century without paying careful attention to social democratic parties. It is also impossible to understand the challenges facing democracy in Europe today without understanding how these parties have changed over the past decades. In particular, the organizational decay and watering down of social democratic parties’ traditional economic profiles contributed to growing political disenchantment and disengagement, the increasing salience of social and cultural issues in political life, and the rise of populism in many European countries.

Organizational innovators and champions of democracy

Up through the late 19th century, most European parties had little in the way of formal or permanent organization, internal discipline, or strong ties to voters. This was because few democracies existed at this time — with very few men (women were not enfranchised until the 20th century) eligible to vote in most European countries, extensive internal organization, ties to civil society associations, cultivating members, and retaining their loyalty was unnecessary.

During the second half of the 19th century, however, a large working class emerged in Europe, but was for the most part excluded from political power. Lacking direct political influence and subject to harassment by the authorities, power and protection could only come through organization and discipline. And so in contrast to most liberal and conservative parties, as socialist parties anchored in the working class developed during the late 19th century, they developed strong internal organizations, extensive grassroots networks, disciplined activists, ties to civil society associations (primarily but not exclusively unions), and educational and cultural programs that created encompassing “subcultures” that in turn generated what we would today call deeply partisan loyalties or identities.

These parties provided workers — the disenfranchised and disadvantaged of the day — with a political “voice” or champion, as well as the solidarity, loyalty, and commitment necessary for a long-term struggle against a deeply unjust political and economic status-quo. The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) epitomized this model. The SPD’s hold over its members would make an extreme Republican partisan green with envy. As one famous study put it, so extensive and encompassing was the SPD’s organization that its supporters could live in it “from cradle to grave”:

An SPD member could read the party’s newspapers, borrow from its book clubs, drink in its pubs, keep fit in its gyms, sing in its choral societies, play in its orchestra, take part in its … theater organizations, compete in its chess clubs and join, if a woman, the SPD women’s movement and if young, the youth organization. When members were ill, they would receive help from the Working Men’s Samaritan Federation. When they died, they would be cremated by a social democratic burial club. (Vernon Lidtke, The Alternative Culture. Socialist Labor in Imperial Germany).

The astonishing breadth and ambition of this new type of political organization was directly related to its sweeping aspirations: preparing the working class for the struggle to change the world. The SPD’s first program called for a slew of practical reforms including freedom of association, speech, and thought; an end to child labor and other laws protecting workers; free and universal education; and democratization.

Indeed, in the decades before the First World War, socialist parties were the most forceful and consistent advocates of democratization. Conservatives, of course, rejected democratization, but liberals were wary of it as well. They favored giving the vote to the educated middle class but generally opposed universal suffrage because they feared empowering workers would lead to “tyranny of the majority” and threats to their property and prerogatives.

The social democratic foundations of successful democracy in Europe

The end of the First World War unleashed a wave of democratization across Europe but few of these new democracies survived the interwar period. It was only after the Second World War that stable liberal democracy became the norm in Western Europe. A significant reason for this was that a social democratic understanding of the relationship between capitalism and democracy came to dominate not only the left, but other mainstream parties as well.

This shift was based on a recognition that for democracy to finally succeed in Western Europe, the social conflicts and divisions that had fed left- and right-wing extremism and helped scuttle democracy in the past would have to be confronted head-on. In addition, the experience of the Great Depression — where capitalism’s failures produced social chaos, conflict, and growing support for Communism and fascism — led many to accept that political stability required avoiding economic catastrophes and ensuring that the benefits of growth were shared equitably.

After 1945, accordingly, Western European nations constructed a new political-economic order that differed greatly from what liberals preferred, namely as free a rein for markets and as small a role for states as possible, as well as what communists and democratic socialists advocated, namely an end to capitalism. Instead, after 1945 capitalism remained, but it was capitalism of a very different type than had existed before the war, one tempered and limited by a democratic state that openly committed to protecting citizens from markets’ most destructive and destabilizing consequences.

This social democratic order worked remarkably well: The 30 years after 1945 were Europe’s fastest period of growth ever while economic inequality declined and social mobility increased. This, in turn, undermined support for radicalism. In another remarkable shift from the interwar period when European party systems had been pulled to the extremes by communists on the left and fascists on the right, after 1945 European party systems became dominated by parties of the center-left and center-right that accepted the legitimacy of liberal capitalist democracy.

Social democratic decline and challenges to democracy

During the last decades of the 20th century, however, social democratic parties changed in dramatic ways, weakening them and the democracies they were embedded in.

By the late 1970s and ’80s the organizational features pioneered by social democratic parties and adopted by other traditional political parties — extensive grassroots networks, ties to civil society associations, committed activists, immense memberships, and so on — began to decline, hindering their ability to link citizens to governments, mobilize them for elections and other types of political activity, facilitate information flows from the grassroots to leaderships, and determine what issues dominated the political agenda. The result was growing electoral volatility and political disengagement, which probably contributed to growing disillusionment with political institutions overall, as well as accelerating the role played by the media in providing information to citizens and setting the political agenda.

During the late 20th century, social democracy’s programmatic profile also shifted, as the party watered down or even abandoned its commitment to the postwar social democratic consensus, instead embracing much of the emerging new neoliberal one. This shift had profound political consequences.

First and most obviously, it is an essential part of the backstory of the rise of the populist right.

Most European right-wing populist parties have their roots in the 1970s and ’80s, during the period when social democratic and other traditional parties began losing hold of their voters. But initially most new-right parties, including the French National Front, the Austrian Freedom Party, the Italian League, and the Danish Progress Party, had conservative economic profiles: They favored lower taxes, a smaller state, and cutbacks to welfare programs. In the late 1980s, for example, Jean-Marie Le Pen boasted that he had adopted the principles of Reaganomics and Thatcherism before they became fashionable. But social democracy’s economic shift created a golden opportunity for these parties.

Voters from low socioeconomic backgrounds like workers and those with low levels of education have always been fairly conservative on social and cultural issues; they also, however, generally have left-wing economic preferences. As long as right-wing populists advocated conservative economic policies (and flirted openly with fascism, which was universally rejected by European voters), voters with left-wing economic preferences would have trouble voting for them. But social democracy’s economic shift during the late twentieth century, along with growing discontent generated by the fallout from neoliberalism and then the financial/euro crisis, created incentives for these parties to shift course.

And indeed, by the early 21st century, all populist right parties had altered their profiles, breaking ties with fascist movements and anti-democratic individuals and moving left economically. Almost all these parties now advocate strong states, protectionism, social safety nets, and so on. Once the populist right underwent this reorientation, voters with conservative social views and left-wing economic preferences no longer had to choose between them when deciding how to vote. Given this, it is not surprising that many voters who in an earlier era would have voted for the left, most notably workers, shifted to the populist right. So dramatic has this shift been that in many European countries, including France and Austria, right-populist parties rather than social democratic ones are now the largest “working-class” parties in their systems.

But social democracy’s watering down or even abandonment of its previous economic profile also helped the populist right in another way: by increasing the salience of social issues in political competition.

As social democracy’s economic profile grew less distinct, party leaders had an incentive to stress non-economic issues to distinguish themselves from competitors. By the late 20th century, accordingly, social democratic parties became increasingly associated with support for immigration, multiculturalism, etc. This coincided with and was probably partially caused by a shift in the nature of center-left party leadership toward a highly educated elite whose preferences, particularly on issues like immigration, cultural change, and the EU, diverged greatly from those of their traditional voters and who presented their parties and their goals in technocratic, managerial terms.

Voters also, of course, had reason to focus increasing attention on social issues as the economic profiles of center-left and center-right converged. (This tendency was further aggravated when center-left and center-right parties formed grand coalitions, making it harder for voters to distinguish their positions and enabling the populist right to present itself as the real “political alternative.”) As one study put it, as the salience of economic issues as well as traditional parties’ differences on them

“declined in most Western European countries, the opposite trend can be identified for non-economic issues, including immigration, law-and-order, identity, and so on. These changes on the supply side of party competition cause working-class voters to base their vote decisions on their authoritarian, non-economic preferences and not — as in the past — on their left-wing economic demands.”

But shifting the focus of political competition to social issues from economic ones hurts the center-left and benefits the populist right as well as new-left parties like the Greens since the latter are unified by these issues while traditional left voters are divided by them. The more political competition focuses on social issues, in other words, the harder it is for social democratic parties to build and maintain broad, cohesive electoral coalitions.

But beyond electorally disadvantaging social democratic parties, when political competition focuses on social issues, democracy can run into problems. Such issues touch on questions of morality and identity, often making them difficult to bargain and compromise over and leading some citizens to view debate and competition over them as a zero-sum game.

Social democracy and the future of democracy

It is difficult, in short, to detangle the decline of social democracy from the challenges facing European democracies. In particular, social democracy’s decline raises some key questions.

The successful consolidation of democracy in Western Europe after 1945 was built on a foundation of organizationally strong, moderate parties of the center-left and right. Social Democratic parties in particular had high membership levels, strong ties to civil society groups, especially unions, and committed activists. This enabled them to organize and mobilize voters, communicate effectively with the grassroots, and provide an institutionalized link between citizens and governments. But these features of social democratic and other traditional parties have declined over the past decades, raising the question of whether other parties or organizations can take over the representational, social, informational, and governance functions they provided. If not, how well can democracy function without them?

Successful democratic consolidation in Europe was also built on a social democratic consensus that committed the democratic state to tempering capitalism and protecting citizens from its most destabilizing and destructive consequences. This differed from what Marxists, communists, and democratic socialists hoped for — namely, an end to capitalism— as well as what liberals preferred — namely, as free a rein for markets as possible. But during the late 20th century this consensus frayed, raising the question of how well democracy can function if the major players in it do not recognize the potential tensions between it and capitalism and are committed to overcoming them.

The contemporary neoliberal right believes firmly in markets but has worked to roll back the “social democratic” limits placed on them during the postwar era: favoring a less interventionist state, deregulation, paring back welfare protections, and so on. But this offers little to citizens suffering from stagnating incomes, inequality, and declining social mobility and is therefore ill-equipped to address their frustration, anger, and disillusionment with democracy.

The populist right, on the other hand, forthrightly address the fears of the economically “left behind” and supports an activist state and welfare policies — but only for those it views as legitimate members of the national community. The populist right’s welfare chauvinism is thus paired with illiberal and anti-pluralist positions, raising the question of how well democracy can function if such parties continue to gain support.

On the left, meanwhile, new-left parties like La France Insoumise and Podemos as well as major European intellectuals like Wolfgang Streeck and Thomas Piketty have brought democratic socialist and even Marxist critiques of capitalism back to the fore, questioning whether democracy and capitalism are compatible. Streeck, for example, forthrightly asserts that “there is an inherent conflict between democracy and capitalism” and that it is a “utopian” fantasy to believe they can be reconciled.

For those who believe that capitalism is necessary to ensure the economic growth and separation of economic and political power that healthy democracy requires, the growth of voices that lack a commitment to one or the other or do not believe they can be reconciled should be worrying. In the past, social democracy stood for the view that the democratic state could and should use its power to maximize capitalism’s upsides when minimizing its downsides. And it believed in organizing workers and other voters for the long-term struggle to create a better world.

The 21st century is, of course, different from the 20th. But during the last century, successful democracy in Europe depended upon the organizational model and political-economic vision associated with social democracy. Whether well-functioning democracy can survive in the 21st century should these things disappear is a question we may now be facing.


Sheri Berman is professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University. Her latest book is Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day (2019).

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.