Americans might recognize the struggles of the modern Democratic party, whose lackluster ‘Better Deal’ platform can hardly be said to have made a splash, let alone inspired the masses. The troubles of center-left political parties are far from limited to the United States; traditionally strong liberal parties across Europe have had difficulties getting voters to understand what exactly they stand for these days. The upcoming German federal elections are not likely to unseat Chancellor Angela Merkel, but they will offer another window into the state of Western center-left parties through the fate of the Social Democratic Party, or the SPD.
Nearly all political parties in Germany fall at or to the left of both major American political parties, with the exception of the Alternative for Germany party, whose vitriolic right-wing nationalism marks them as being far to the right of Trump’s Republican party. Equivalencies across nations aside, there are two major parties who currently control government together via coalition, with the CDU/CSU on the center-right and the SPD on the center-left. Despite this being her twelfth year in office, Angela Merkel and her party, the CDU/CSU, are likely to earn at least a strong plurality of votes.
The SPD, on the other hand, will likely see its support continue to erode, inching closer to making up only a quarter of the vote where it once gained upwards of a third of the votes in the 1990s and early 2000s. Why has this support fallen off? Progressive policies are widely supported, from the expansive social safety net to efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change. The CDU/CSU is conservative in the traditional sense of the word – slow to change and hesitant to rock the boat – yet it maintains strength in the face of a quickly changing world. The CDU/CSU has what the SPD, and many center-left parties, are struggling to hold onto – a well-defined base.
Torn between action and incrementalism, the SPD faces the same pressures as the UK’s Liberal Democrats and America’s Democratic party. Before they can define what they stand for, they must grapple with who they stand for. Each of these center-left parties was held together by a broad coalition of people whose interests were aligned; the unification of manufacturing workers and young progressives sounds familiar, doesn’t it? As the demographics of who each country’s laborers are has shifted, there has been less holding these groups together.
The SPD, like its fellow center-left parties, is at the point where it must choose who it wants to be. Focusing on retaining working class voters risks further attrition of those who are more socially liberal to smaller parties. Embracing dramatic change might keep those at the edge of the party in place, but what of the party’s base? Their option is to press ahead as though nothing has changed and old policies are still as attractive today. Unfortunately, the do-nothing plan is both objectively the worst way to keep voters on board and the most likely course.
Change is hard. Decisions are harder. Organizations do not frequently change course without hideous wake-up calls. For center-left parties, though, their erosion has not come in the form of a wake-up call. It has come through factionalization that makes it difficult to see the forest through the trees. It has come with caveats, from the familiar reminders that Hillary won the popular vote and reports of British voters filled with regret over voting to leave the European Union.
These little soothing bursts tell us that, actually, a very large number of people agree with us! We just have to do a little better – there is nothing to address here. I, myself, am only able to reflect on these reminders because I too believe them. But as another federal election rolls around, it might be time to add these losses up and talk more seriously about the problems these parties have.
It is often difficult to understand the implications of events as they are still unfolding. Regardless of the specifics of the Sep. 24 election, certain trends are unfolding across Western democracies that point to a change in how citizens relate to their government. Party identification and registration is falling, but what that decline is making way for is still somewhat unknown. Whatever rises to power, channeling the unbounded progressive energy of recent years, will be the force that can give a satisfying answer to questions of what they believe in – and it doesn’t look like traditional liberal parties will be the ones who can do that.