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U.S. Democrats Can Learn From the European Left’s Failures

The demise of center-left parties across Europe is a warning to Democrats focused on divisive cultural issues rather than bread-and-butter economics.

By , a professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University.
Supporters of President Donald Trump protest outside the Clark County Election Department on November 7, 2020 in North Las Vegas, Nevada.
Supporters of President Donald Trump protest outside the Clark County Election Department on November 7, 2020 in North Las Vegas, Nevada. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Despite the Trump administration’s corruption, incompetent handling of the pandemic, and racially divisive politics, the Democratic Party did less well in the 2020 elections than many expected. Joe Biden won the presidency but by a smaller margin than predicted, and Democratic performance at the congressional, state, and local levels was disappointing. These results refocused attention on the political challenges facing the Democratic Party, most notably its long-term loss of working-class, non-college-educated white voters, who make up 42 percent of the electorate and were Donald Trump’s most important constituency.

Many view the behavior of white voters through the prism of the United States’ particular history. From this perspective, white voters’ abandonment of the Democratic Party and embrace of Trump are best understood, as Vann R. Newkirk II put it, as “The embodiment of half-century of backlash” against the policies Martin Luther King fought to enact. But as Lawrence Glickman argues, the latest backlash is part of “a reactionary tradition, one that is deeply woven into American political culture and that extends back to the era of Reconstruction, at least.”

However distinctive and often dismaying U.S. history may be, the defection of working-class, non-college-educated white voters from the left and the success of a nativist, xenophobic, and illiberal right are not uniquely American phenomena. Indeed, despite different histories, over the past decades similar developments have occurred in almost all European countries, indicating that some broader, cross-national factors are at least partially to blame.

The defection of working-class, non-college-educated white voters from the left and the success of a nativist, xenophobic, and illiberal right are not uniquely American phenomena.

One that has come in for particular attention in the United States after the 2020 election is what the Democratic strategist James Carville recently referred to as the left’s “wokeness” problem. Although simplistically and crudely put, Carville is surely on to something. Over the past several years, the relative emphasis placed by the Democratic Party as well as mainstream left-wing parties in Europe on cultural versus economic issues, and the degree to which these parties have shifted to the left on the former, has created a gap between them and working-class, non-college-educated voters.

It is hard to explain the problems currently facing mainstream left-wing parties on both sides of the Atlantic without examining their shifting profiles over the past few decades.

During the postwar decades, mainstream left-wing parties in Europe consistently received the support of the vast majority of working-class votes, in some countries up to 70 percent. Indeed, although these parties always enjoyed the support of voters outside the working class, they generally presented themselves as the champions of workers and the underprivileged and advocated policies such as high levels of social spending, large public sectors, and generous unemployment support that were designed to help them.

But as in the United States, voting patterns in Europe began shifting in the 1970s, and working-class voters gradually abandoned mainstream left-wing parties. Today, labor and social democratic parties are not primarily working-class parties but rather parties of what Thomas Piketty has referred to as the “Brahmin left”—led and supported by highly educated metropolitan voters.

This is similar, of course, to the contemporary American case: Although the Democrats have lost the support of a majority of white working-class voters, the party currently enjoys the support of a majority of college-educated metropolitan ones. (Biden won this group by 55 percent to Trump’s 42 percent.) Also mirroring the American pattern, in most European countries working-class voters now heavily support nativist, xenophobic, and illiberal right-wing parties such as the French National Rally or the Austrian Freedom Party.

In their examinations of support for these parties, scholars of European politics consistently find views on immigration, national identity, and related issues to be an almost “perfect predictor” of right-populist voting. This is not because racism and xenophobia directly or inexorably determine vote choice. In fact, there is little cross-national or temporal correlation between such sentiments and populist success. Some European countries that score low on measures of racism and xenophobia, like Sweden, have very successful right-wing populist parties, while others that score relatively high on such measures, like Spain and Ireland, have less successful parties of this type. In addition, support for right-wing populism has grown over time, but surveys show that racist and anti-immigrant sentiments have diminished over the same period in Europe.

What seems to explain right-wing populist success is not increasing racism or xenophobia but rather that citizens concerned about immigration, and national identity have increasingly voted on the basis of these concerns. With regard to non-college-educated, working-class voters in particular, it is important to stress that in Europe, as in the United States, these voters have always had moderate-to-conservative views on such social and cultural issues. The significant change that has occurred over time is not in these views but rather in the importance or salience of them to their voting choices.

Dramatic events such as terrorist attacks or the wave of Syrian refugees that came to Europe in 2015, and the intense media attention focused on such things, have surely mattered. But certainly equally, if not more important, in affecting salience are the actions of politicians and political parties.

Recognizing that they do well when the salience of immigration and related issues is high, right-wing populists in Europe have worked hard to keep voters’ attention focused on them, demonizing immigrants, blaming them for rising crime, the erosion of national values, and so on. But it isn’t only right-wing populists who have increased the salience of these issues; mainstream left-wing parties have played a role as well.

During the postwar decades, political competition in Europe pivoted primarily around economic issues, with labor and social democratic parties championing the welfare state, government regulation of the market, full-employment policies, and so on. But during the late 20th century, this changed as these parties shifted to the center economically and the differences between them and their center-right competitors diminished accordingly.

Tony Blair’s Labour Party in Britain was the avatar of this trend, but it occurred across Western Europe. The result, as one study put it, was that by the 1990s, mainstream left-wing parties “had more in common” economically with their “main competitors than with [their] own positions roughly three decades earlier.”

As they abandoned much of their distinctive economic appeal during the late 20th century, European labor and social democratic parties began paying increasing attention to noneconomic issues such as immigration and national identity and particularly during the last decade or so shifted their positions to the left on them. (Some, such as Denmark’s Social Democrats, have recently shifted back to the center, seeking to win their old voters back.)

As they abandoned much of their distinctive economic appeal, European labor and social democratic parties began paying increasing attention to noneconomic issues like immigration and national identity.

This, along with economic convergence between the mainstream left and right, helped increase the centrality of noneconomic issues in political debate. It also moved mainstream left-wing parties away from the preferences of working-class, non-college-educated voters in particular and the electorate more generally.

A recent study by the political scientists David W. Brady, John A. Ferejohn, and Aldo Paparo, for example, found that while “[a]nxieties over immigration have risen sharply in recent years” in Europe, mainstream parties increasingly came to be “perceived by their partisans to be more welcoming towards immigrants than their own partisans.” Moreover, the “further a partisan perceives the distance between herself and her party on immigration the greater the likelihood is that they will desert their party in a future election.”

Here, too, of course, there are similarities with developments in the United States.

Although the Democratic Party’s economic profile was never as distinctively left-wing as that of most of its European counterparts, during the late 20th century the party shifted to the center economically, with Bill Clinton presenting himself as an advocate of small government, fiscal restraint, welfare state retrenchment, globalization, and so on. (Reflecting this, former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan once called Clinton as “the best Republican president we’ve had in a while.”)

Alongside this economic shift, the Democratic Party also moved left on social and cultural issues, a shift that was particularly pronounced during the last two elections. Studies of the 2016 election found not only that Trump focused more directly on social and cultural issues, most notably immigration, than his predecessors but that his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, did as well. The result of the increasing attention paid by both candidates to immigration, for example, was that the correlation between preferences on this issue, and which candidate people chose to support, went up.

Many of the stances taken by the Democratic Party on social and cultural issues such as illegal immigration, so-called political correctness, police reform, and affirmative action are to the left of working-class, non-college-educated white voters, the party’s own partisans, and the electorate more generally. Many internal party critics, accordingly, believe that these “wildly unpopular” positions, alongside the party’s general “cultural leftism,” are a major reason why it has been hard to attract back more working-class, non-college-educated white voters as well as culturally conservative nonwhite voters.

During the late 20th and early 21st centuries, left-wing parties across the West have lost the support of non-college-educated, working-class white voters. In Europe, the electoral decline of labor and social democratic parties—many of these parties have lost 30 percent or more of their previous electoral shares over the last decades, and some, such as the French Socialist and Dutch Labour parties, essentially disappeared in the last elections—cannot be separated from their loss of working-class, non-college educated voters.

While the two-party system in the United States protects the Democratic Party from the threat of splinter parties, it hard to see how it can compete with the Republicans at the national, state, and local levels over the long term without winning back more working-class, non-college educated voters. Analysts of the 2020 election, for example, have argued that Biden’s modest gains with such voters, particularly in pivotal states, were more important to his win than the growth in the share of the nonwhite electorate that has occurred over the previous 30-40 years.

It is hard to see how the left—much less liberal democracy—in the West can be reinvigorated without reversing this trend.

And in the United States, where observers have begun morbidly joking about Republicans “assembling the multiracial working-class coalition that the left has always dreamed of,” Trump managed to recapture the percentage of minority voters that his Republican predecessors had previously received and he improved significantly on his 2016 performance with such voters. Many right-wing populist parties in Europe also currently enjoy the support of a majority of the working class. It is hard to see how the left—much less liberal democracy—in the West can be reinvigorated without reversing this trend.

There are many causes of the dramatic voting realignment that has occurred across the West over the past few decades, but ignoring the role played by the mainstream parties of the left would surely be a mistake. Shifting to the center on economic issues and to the left on social and cultural ones contributed to increasing the salience of the latter while also moving left-wing parties away from the preferences of non-college-educated, working-class voters and the electorate at large. This created, in political science parlance, a “representation gap” between the left and many voters and thus an opportunity for right-wing populists to capture some of them.

None of this requires the left to abandon important goals including humane immigration policies, racial justice, and police reform. It does mean recognizing, however, that in a democracy sticking with consistently unattractive positions entails accepting permanent political disadvantage, if not impotence.

Winning elections requires either persuading voters of the desirability of your positions or reconsidering them. Concretely, this means convincing activists who generally have views far to the left of other voters on noneconomic issues that unless they are able to shift public opinion, they will have to accept some compromises on them.

It also means that left-wing parties should recalibrate the amount of time focused on economic versus noneconomic issues (with the left’s positions on the former being broadly popular among working-class and other voters), as well as the way in which they discuss the latter so as to make clear to working-class voters of all backgrounds and other sympathetic citizens that progress on these issues is a positive rather than zero-sum game.

Sheri Berman is a professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University and the author of Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancién Regime to the Present Day.