It is sometimes suggested social-democratic parties are torn between ‘communitarian’ workers and ‘cosmopolitan’ professionals—but it’s not so simple.
Social-democratic parties face unprecedented structural challenges. Since the 1970s, they have struggled to offer voters an alternative to neoliberal economic policies of the right, abandoning the Keynesian model of full employment and social corporatism. Globalisation and European integration are claimed to have eroded national welfare-state solidarity and reduced governments’ social-policy tools. Meanwhile, the traditional power resources of western-European social democracy have dramatically declined due to deindustrialisation and labour-market transformations, such that social democracy’s working-class base is only a fraction of its former size.
Simply put, the basic strategic paradigm which allowed for postwar social-democratic electoral success during les trente glorieuses no longer exists. The ‘third way’ did attempt to reconcile a globalised economic climate with social-democratic policy-making but in the long-run it turned into an electoral failure.
Confronted with the exodus of their working-class electorate, many social-democratic parties have taken a ‘tougher’ stance on immigration and become more assimilationist on integration. Their struggle for a consistent position on social policy and immigration/integration in the last few decades can essentially be attributed to the strategic dilemmas they have been facing, as they attempt to build a more durable coalition of voters and look to re-establish themselves as a stable (and much-needed) electoral force in western-European party systems.
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The large-scale occupational change associated with the relative decline of the working class has reduced what political scientists describe as the ‘salience’ of the class ‘cleavage’ and transformed the western-European class structure. And it has become increasingly common ground in the academic literature that the new electoral coalition of social democracy is especially composed of production workers and socio-cultural professionals (such as teachers, social workers and salaried medical professionals). While the traditional class cleavage has reduced in salience, it has also become increasingly evident that globalisation has resulted in a salient new cleavage, opposing ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of globalisation in terms of (respectively) universalistic and particularistic worldviews.
Using post-electoral data from the Belgian National Election Study, I have shown that this opposition literally cleaves the Flemish social-democratic electorate. Appealing to both left-particularistic production workers and left-universalistic socio-cultural professionals is proving challenging when the new cleavage is salient—especially as populist radical-right parties strategically position themselves to align with production workers, while green parties increasingly specialise in addressing socio-cultural professionals.
Nor do the welfare-state preferences of the two electorates align entirely. While both strongly support an interventionist state, 30 per cent of production workers but a negligible 2 per cent of socio-cultural professionals adopt a populist stance, combining a nativist, exclusionary egalitarianism with a critique of the functioning of the national welfare state. Socio-cultural professionals are more likely to believe in universal, boundary-crossing solidarity than production workers (15 per cent, compared with 7 per cent of production workers) and tend to have a left-wing profile supportive of social investment (52 per cent, compared with 23 per cent). Both production workers and socio-cultural professionals can however agree on the importance of a redistributive and interventionist state.
Social-democratic electorates are internally split between these two groups as they struggle to forge a durable cross-class coalition. This electoral dilemma is compounded by their ambiguous or sometimes outright conservative position on immigration and integration, which may reasonably be expected to put off ethnic-minority voters. The literature increasingly acknowledges that the interests of ethnic minorities play an important role in their members’ vote calculus and social-democratic parties may lose minority voters by adopting a position that harms those interests.
Again, patterns of electoral competition are crucial. In a number of western-European countries ethnic-minority parties are rearing their head, providing perhaps the most credible appeal to defend minority interests where social-democratic parties are failing—although they appear to be obstructed by electoral thresholds. When in Antwerp, a former social-democratic bulwark, the social democrats adopted some controversial policies in their effort to contain the rise of the radical right there, it was the radical-left party PVDA (Partij van de Arbeid van België) which benefited from their meandering on the issue of integration.
Higher perceived ethnic discrimination is linked to a vote for the radical left, instead of the social democrats, at least partly explaining the surge of minority voters behind the PVDA in recent elections. In trying to recover some of their former electorate of left-particularistic production workers, social democrats thus stand to lose their ethnic-minority electorate, which has arguably been the only consistently loyal section in recent decades.
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It is questionable if the former social-democratic core electorate of left-particularistic, working-class voters should still be considered as having mobilisation potential, especially where radical-right parties target these voters with a populist welfare programme. Yet losses among these voters do not signal the death of social democracy nor does this necessarily turn social-democratic parties into ‘middle-class’ parties indistinguishable from the greens.
First, a fair share of production workers (7 per cent in Flanders) holds left-universalistic views and an even larger share (23 per cent) supports social investment. Working-class voters with such a profile are ideologically allied with socio-cultural professionals, providing the basis for a contemporary cross-class coalition of social democracy. For social-democratic parties this means they can combine a focus on working-class politics and universalism, retaining their raison d’être as parties that represent the grievances of the working class without having to resort to conservative immigration policies.
Besides, while their social-policy preferences may differ, social democracy’s three core electorates all support a strong, interventionist state which redistributes resources through taxation—social democracy’s original core business. Harnessing their image as the primary defender of the welfare state will however require social-democratic parties to move beyond the neoliberal paradigm of budgetary ‘responsibility’ and welfare-state retrenchment, if they are to meet the different interests of a diverse electoral coalition.