There has been much talk about the crisis of social democracy and the shortcomings of the progressive agenda as the key explanation. Without disputing the priority of designing the right programme, I’d like to stress another important factor: the collapse of communities.
Our societies are increasingly fragmented. Once large-scale communities make place for smaller groups of varying cohesiveness. Some of the new types of smaller communities that spring up may display high levels of internal solidarity, but they are often also insular and divorced from society at large.
This is a vast challenge for the overarching social vision of progressive politics, and it is also an electoral problem for social democracy in that its own communities are deconstructed.
There may be various reasons for supporting a party, but let us take a brief look at some of the reasons (which are not mutually exclusive) in a theoretical breakdown: 1) A voter weighs party performance and likely actions and measures them against her preferences; 2) a citizen based on her values, with little attention to what the party is likely to do or has done in the past; 3) the individual chooses based on the party that her peer group most closely identifies with; 4) some impulse or a sense of protest.
I don’t know whether groups 1) and 4) are both growing to the same degree (my subjective sense is that 4 is gaining considerably more strength), but 2 and especially 3 are definitely in decline.
There may be some benefits to this: if there are more voters who take their democratic responsibility seriously and conscientiously weigh their choice before casting a ballot, then that takes us closer to the democratic ideal.
But as long as voters don’t let themselves be taken for suckers, there is also a great benefit in cohesive communities influencing individual choices. The ruggedly individualist or small community-based societies each bring their own indisputable benefits, such as greater freedom and more individual responsibility. In many respects this development meshes especially well with a modern conservative/liberal vision of society, in which everyone assumes greater responsibility for herself.
The disintegration of macro communities (e.g. solidarity-based political community or working class), and their associated organisations (e.g. political parties (see especially tables 3 and 4), trade unions (page 6)) is fatal to any social democratic project. Without a sense of community the argument for social justice is much harder to make.
For conservatives it has some benefits – it is perfect backdrop for taking apart welfare systems – though it has some obvious disadvantages as well, witness the decline of traditional religious institutions. Still, many people clearly continue to crave both physical and idea/value-based virtual communities.
I’d argue that the sense of community that they convey, and the void that this efforts fills, is also one of the reasons why populists succeed. This is especially striking in Eastern Europe, where the post-communist left finds it hard to connect to its voters by stressing values, or to develop any sort of emotional tie with these voters by making them part of a community of shared values.
Given their historical legacy as successor organisations to parties that operated a dictatorial regime, this much is understandable: many of the classic left-wing values that sound well-meaning in the West – e.g. equality and solidarity – carry sinister, state propaganda overtones in this region. As a result, post-communists relied on stressing their competence rather than building progressive movements based on common values.
Once the competency argument fails on empirical grounds, as it did in Poland and Hungary, legitimacy and support for these parties take a significant hit, however.
Interestingly, the right in this region often has far less problems embracing – generally on a rhetorically level – at least some of the traditional left-wing slogans, especially a robust critique of globalised capitalism, which resonates well with the public. This is then combined with the most potent community-creator, nationalism, to produce strong right and extreme right populist parties.
While the collapse of the Hungarian and Polish left is obviously a multi-causal phenomenon, an important factor is that very few people feel as part of a left-wing community. Nationalism resonates strongly, however, and it benefits from being interlaced with some left-wing catchwords. It is no coincidence that Slovakia’s Smer, a rare example in the region of a successful left-wing populist party, is not a communist successor party and is also intensely nationalistic.
Still, though the problem is primarily pronounced in Eastern Europe, it is by no means exclusive to the region.
Even in victory, classic social democratic parties suffer ever new lows, but the phenomenon is not a social democratic one. Established parties in general no longer command the loyalty of large swaths of the electorate. Some of the losses suffered by the established parties merely result from voter realignment – which is a natural phenomenon in democratic politics. This is in part their own fault because they fail to convey an ideological commitment that voters recognise and embrace, but it is also a result of social processes beyond their control.
In any case, it is highly problematic for social democracy, for reasons beyond its electoral troubles. All else being equal, voters who feel as part of a community are more likely to support a programme that is geared towards strengthening this community and its institutions.
Populist nationalism can of course serve as a cheap surrogate for a community grounded in progressive values, but such a community will by its nature be exclusive, intolerant and illiberal.
To counter this, progressive politics must find ways to reinvigorate its own political community as well as the social community at large. Of course that’s easily said. But the process can’t start without some substantial thinking devoted to these issues.
These are issues that are too self-involved (strengthening the base) or too grandiose (strengthening society) to receive much attention at the political level, but academia, media and think tanks ought to treat them as crucial questions.
Currently, the evolution of party politics points towards the inevitability of a strong professional elite working directly with loosely aligned voters rather than relying on the earlier intermediary functions of large party organisations, whose sustenance has become too costly and cumbersome. It may turn out that this is an inevitable process, but that does not mean that it should be taken for granted already.
If progressive politics can’t reinvigorate its own political community, it is arguably ill-suited for undertaking the daunting task of strengthening social cohesion and solidarity.