Ironically, at a time when American politicians are flirting with social democratic concepts, their historic parties are fading in Western Europe where those political slogans originated.
The prime example is Spain. There the PSOE [Partido Socialista Obrero Español], the Party of the Spanish Worker, the country’s oldest, has weathered many crises. During the 40-year-long Franco dictatorship, it maintained its role as the principal anti-Communist left opposition operating among refugees in France.
After governing in Madrid 21 of the last 39 years, the PSOE will probably lose its commanding position in this month’s elections, even losing role as leader of Spain’s left where the majority of the voters self-identify. Shorn of their old Soviet attachment and command structure, a revolutionary movement on the left, Podemos, and a right of center party, are likely to reduce the PSOE to less than 20% of the vote. Spanish political theory is highly influential throughout the whole Ibero-American world, and Latin American styles are almost certain to follow – as already demonstrated in Brazil, Argentina, Peru, and soon in Venezuela, where left-wing regimes are being ousted.
The loss of popularity of the social democrats in Spain echoes throughout Western Europe where for more than a half century they have played a dominant role. In Germany, the original home of social democratic concepts, the socialists are polling new lows. The ruling French Socialists have become increasingly unpopular under their Pres. François Holland, in part because he has adopted a program of economic and labor reforms ignoring traditional socialist nostrums.
In the early 90s, Italy’ socialists – in the early postwar years with a Soviet line by far the largest party, an ally of the Communists — under their first prime minister, Bettino Craxi, was almost wiped out by corruption. Three Socialist deputies committed suicide as a result of the scandals. Splinters of the early socialist parties, from anti-Communist to those fellow-traveling in the Soviet era, have joined forces forming the Socialist Party (PS), renamed Italian Socialist Party (PSI) in 2011. But many former social democrats have deserted the socialists for four-time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s bigger tent, largely a right-of-center grouping.
Europe’s social democrats have become discredited through their growing association with the policies of the moderate right — austerity, deregulation, liberalization and free trade. Virtually the whole technocratic community has seen these as necessary economic measures to restore prosperity. These have been increasingly seen by the media and among many younger politicians as the cause of Europe’s present economic decline.
But as voters of the traditional left have grown bitter as they saw their party of the welfare state, the public sector and of the blue-collar workers, reverse its governing strategy. That feeds a growing separation between social democratic politicians who view these policies as the only options as jobs have disappeared and economies flattened and the street, always ready to find leaders for protest and violence..
In Spain, an inconclusive general election last December left the socialists in a dilemma: either adopt the centre-right promises of tax cuts and more supply-side reforms, or bend to a new left that calls for an end to austerity and channels the anger of the mob.. In the U.K., this dilemma has produced a new leftwing leadership in the Labor Party, But whether, even with the conservatives in disarray over the question of withdrawal from the European Union, they have a formula to gain power is dubious.
It seems unlikely that this paradox won’t be present for the European socialist movement for the indefinite future. Whether it has application to the American scene – current political fashions to the contrary – seems highly unlikely. The U.S. economy, while not roaring forward, still is the envy of most of the Western world, with few calls even from the “progressives” for the nationalization and “socialization” of the major industries.