On September 9, 2018, the nation of Sweden held its most recent general election to the country’s parliament, the Riksdag. The country’s dominant party, the Social Democrats, won just over 28% of the popular vote, slightly better than polls had predicted, but still the worst returns for the party since 1911 and far from the party’s peak of 50.1% in 1968 at the height of its power. The biggest surge in the Swedish election was by the Sweden Democrats, a far-right, nationalist party, who came in third in the election with 6.3% of the vote, reflecting the rise of nationalist parties in many Western democracies. Prominent examples in Europe include Marine Le Pen’s second-place finish in the 2017 French presidential election, the surge of support for the Alternative for Germany in that country, as well as Luigi Di Maio’s government in Italy that includes the anti-immigrant Northern League. Donald Trump’s election in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro’s election to the Brazilian presidency display the worldwide reach of this trend.
What these results all have in common is that the rise of nationalist parties comes at the expense of center-left parties in each of these nations: the Socialist Party in France, the Social Democratic Party in Sweden and Germany, the Democratic Party in the United States and Italy, and the Brazilian Workers’ Party. “Welfare nationalists” have been moving from center-left parties to nationalist political parties due to their perception that welfare state benefits are being diluted by immigrants and their perception of status threat. Movement away from center-left parties has also been toward more radical leftist parties such as The Left in Sweden and the Jean-Luc Mélenchon-led La France Insoumise. In both cases, voters are worried about threats to the welfare state, although those fleeing for leftist parties tend to be driven more by concerns about globalization and the wealthy than worries about immigrants and the status of white workers in these countries. Workers in countries like Sweden and the United States don’t feel that strong economies are providing them with economic security.
This presents a major question for center-left parties: what is to be done? There are center-left parties that have actually made strong gains in the last couple of years, and they may show the way forward for parties around the world. Perhaps the most prominent example of this is Jeremy Corbyn’s success in leading the Labour Party in winning 30 seats in the United Kingdom’s June 2017 election. Corbyn succeeded in increasing the party’s vote share by almost 10% thanks to a combination of moving the party, previously led by moderates like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, to the left through its manifesto and energizing the country’s youth. In the 2017 election, younger voters voted at a rate of 72% compared to 43% in 2015. The Conservative Party also saw a 5.5% increase in their vote share despite their losses due to the country’s two-party vote share increasing from 67.3% in 2015 to 82.4% in 2017 because of tactical voting. This tactical voting occurred largely along the lines of those voting for the Remain and Leave options in the 2016 Brexit referendum, with Labour’s best results coming in seats that voted for Remain by a wide margin. Labour campaigned on accepting the results of the Brexit referendum but promised to pursue a “soft Brexit” policy that would prioritize protecting access to the common market.
Labour was aided by a series of problems with the Conservative Party’s manifesto, or party platform, especially regarding elderly care that included a policy derisively nicknamed the “dementia tax,” as well as a rollback of that policy proposal that undermined Prime Minister Theresa May’s image of “strong and stable” leadership. In the end, Corbyn succeeded by pushing the Labour Party to expand its coalition to empower youth voters and contested the Conservative Party’s “hard Brexit” policy and came within striking distance of a parliamentary majority. Britain provides an example of the counter-narrative that the center-left can develop: forming a more diverse coalition, including more ideological diversity, and emphasizing a robust welfare state to counter decades of center-right-led cuts to such programs. Labour’s success also provides an important element of success that the center-left has struggled with in recent years: finding a way to balance the important role that the state can play in creating economic security for its citizens while advocating for an open, globalized society from which all people can benefit.
Brexit provides a complicating factor to this narrative and one that is missing from the Labour example, yet is critical to the success of the center-left in Portugal and Spain: a sense of national revival. Portugal’s Socialist Party came to power after the country’s 2015 election by forming a minority coalition with the country’s leftist parties, primarily The Left and The Greens parties. In Spain, meanwhile, the country’s main center-left party, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, or “PSOE” (pronounced “peso”when translated into Spanish), has also managed a comeback. After seven years under center-right leader Mariano Rajoy, the country’s current prime minister Pedro engineered a successful no-confidence vote against Rajoy in May due to corruption within Rajoy’s party.
Sanchez has led Spain in two major efforts to define the country’s national identity since taking over as Prime Minister in June 2018. First, he confronted the populist government of Matteo Salvini in Italy in a June incident in which the ship Aquarius, housing 629 migrants who were rescued near Libya, was denied entry into a Sicilian port. Sanchez said of Salvini’s actions, “It is our obligation to help avoid a humanitarian disaster by offering a safe harbor to these people.” Sanchez offered the migrant ship the ability to dock in Valencia, followed by a similar ship in July, directly repudiating Salvini’s government. The move was applauded by PSOE’s leftist coalition partners and aided by the country’s open attitude towards accepting migrants. Sanchez has also led Spain in directly confronting its fascist past under the Francisco Franco regime with an effort to exhume Franco’s remains from monumental memorial called “The Valley of the Fallen.” The Valley of the Fallen was built between 1940 and 1958 to house the remains of Spanish soldiers who died during the country’s brutal civil war from 1936 to 1939, which the fascists ultimately won. In exhuming Franco from the Valley of the Fallen, Sanchez has led Spain in confronting its fascist past and instilling a sense of national revival that has helped PSOE take a lead in polls for a future election.
In Portugal, meanwhile, Costa’s government has led the country in an economic revival that has reversed years of austerity policy and rewritten the rules on economic recovery. During the financial crisis, Portugal became known as a member of PIGS, a group of European countries along with Italy, Greece, and Spain, who were unable to refinance their government’s own debt during the crisis and required a bailout from the European Union. Costa’s center-right predecessor, Pedro Passos Coelho, instituted severe austerity measures in August 2011 to reduce the country’s sovereign debt. Portugal’s unemployment rate peaked at 17.7% in early 2013 as austerity cut spending, but even as Costa came to power in late 2015, the country’s unemployment rate still hovered around 12.5%.
Soon after coming to power, Costa began to reverse the country’s austerity policies, raising public sector wages and the minimum private sector wage, as well as restoring vacation days to pre-bailout levels. Costa increased government investment in the economy in a way that has paid huge dividends: unemployment has fallen to 6.7% as of July 2018 and the country is on track for a budget surplus in 2020 after 25 years of deficits. GDP growth reached 2.7% in 2017 and confidence in the country’s economy has rebounded as Portuguese exports now account for 40% of the country’s economic activity. Meanwhile, Costa has sought to tackle Portugal’s past as a colonial power by aiding the country’s former colonies like Angola in fighting poverty and corruption. Costa’s efforts have shown that there is an alternative to neoliberal economic policies, and all while restoring relations with Angola and working with the European Union to strengthen economic ties as the country seeks to pay off its debt.
Avoiding the decline of the center-left is essential to providing a future alternative to the welfare nationalism that currently plagues many Western countries. What has helped these nationalist parties succeed is their momentum and their ability to craft a compelling narrative: everything was fine for people “like us” until factors like immigration and globalization got in the way, but if we can counter those processes, then everything return to how it used to be. The mission of the center-left, then, should be able to counter this narrative, which is based in a return to the past, with a vision based in the future. This is something that the center-left has sorely been missing in the last few years: a sense of mission and purpose. As Anna Sundstrom of Sweden’s Olof Palme International Center, an NGO associated with the Swedish Social Democratic Party has said, “You sort of forget to talk about, what about in 20 years, or 50 years? We’ve not been maybe good enough at explaining where it is we want to go. Yes, we’ve created a fairly good society, but then what?”
Social democracy succeeded throughout the 20th century because it recognized the essential role that the state should play in providing economic security for its citizens and in providing those citizens with a sense of pride. Rather than being scared away from identifying with the state by ugly nationalists who seek to use the state for malicious purposes or neoliberals who deride state regulation, social democrats should embrace the role that government can play in ameliorating inequality and protecting workers, while also recognizing the increasingly global state of the economy and the labor market. Globalization cannot be wished away, but its benefits can be more equitably distributed if states are willing to stand up to corporate interests that continue to unevenly benefit from global economic integration. The state shouldn’t be seen as the antithesis to globalization, but rather as the solution to the increased sense of displacement and insecurity that globalization has created for many people. Rather than choosing a form of patriotism based in fear and anxiety, we can embrace a form based in universal human dignity and what Robert Kennedy called the “bond of common goal.”