Culture Wars, Diversity, Economics, Europe, Politics, Top Stories

What Happened to Social Democracy?

In a world that seems to be divided between neoliberal orthodoxy and identitarian dogmas, it is possible to miss the waning presence of traditional social democracy. Born of the radical Left in Marx’s own time, social democrats worked, sometimes with remarkable success, to improve the living standards of working people by accommodating the virtues of capitalism. Today, that kind of social democracy—learned at home from my immigrant grandparents and from the late Michael Harrington, one time head of the American Socialist Party—is all but dead. This tradition was, in retrospect, perhaps too optimistic about the efficacy of government. Nevertheless, it sincerely sought to improve popular conditions and respected the wisdom of ordinary people.

In its place, we now find a kind of progressivism that focuses on gender, sexual preference, race, and climate change. Abandoned by traditional Left parties, some voters have drifted into nativist—and sometimes openly racist—opposition while more have simply become alienated from major institutions and pessimistic about the future.1

The revolution in class relations

Social democracy was a product of the inequities of the industrial era and the consequent solidarity that flourished among working people. This often resulted in greater justice for racial minorities. The German Social Democrat Eduard Bernstein developed an “evolutionary” ideology based on gradualism, practical results, and a commitment to democratic norms. Observing late-19th century Britain, where unions were accepted even in business circles, Bernstein noticed that working conditions, contrary to Marxist dogma, were steadily improving. He believed that the proletariat was evolving from an oppressed underclass into a more upwardly mobile group, whose goal was to find “an appropriate status in industrial society.”2 For their efforts, Social Democrats were denounced as “social fascists” by Stalin, and Antifa’s predecessors—the German Antifaschistische Aktion—spent at least as much time fighting them as fighting the Nazis. A fatal error.3

After the Second World War, however, social democrats enjoyed considerable success while the remarkable productivity of the private sector helped transform the once-forlorn proletariat into something more bourgeois in aspiration. A study covering the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and the United States shows that all three saw a rapid decline in the concentration of wealth until the 1970s. Their program focused on physical needs such as boosting access to electricity and improving public health and education.4

Never before had so much prosperity and relative economic security been so widely enjoyed. By the 1960s, the American labor movement could boast of “developing a whole new middle class,” said Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers. Industrial laborers could afford to buy homes, send their kids to college, and live the kind of life only the affluent had previously enjoyed.5 Western Europe benefited from the same process—economic growth helped finance a welfare state that provided greater security and improved the prospects of most families; the rapid growth of export industries, in particular, was an integral part of the original Swedish social model of increasing wages without inflation.

Starting in the 1970s, such things as foreign competition, mass immigration from developing countries, automation, and the growing financialization of economic power undermined this progress. In the United States, data from the Census Bureau show that the share of national income going to the middle 60 percent of households has fallen to a record low since the 1970s. Wealth gains in recent decades have gone overwhelmingly to the top one percent of households, and especially to the top 0.5 percent. Social mobility has declined in over two-thirds of European Union countries, including Sweden. Across the 36 wealthier countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the richest citizens have taken an ever-greater share of national GDP while the middle class has shrunk. Much of the global middle class is heavily in debt—mainly because of high housing costs—and “looks increasingly like a boat in rocky waters,” suggests the OECD.

Parties repositioning

One might assume that this concentration of wealth would energize traditional working class parties—Labour in Britain and Australia, the Liberals in Canada, the Democrats in the US—but they shifted their focus away from blue-collar and lower-middle-class workers. Instead, leftwing parties are increasingly peopled by, and cultivated support from, the well-educated professional class—now an estimated 15 percent of the US work force—along with the corporate elites and academic clerisy. These classes have done well over the past few decades, while the traditional lower-middle and working classes have languished.

In the United States, the Democrats have become almost indistinguishable from the big Wall Street firms and tech oligarchies, mainstream media, and other wealthy elites. Democrats once ruled mining and manufacturing towns; today, they represent 41 of the 50 wealthiest Congressional districts. The Republican Party, meanwhile, has evolved from the country club Wall Street party into one reliant on white working-class voters, and increasingly minorities, like Latinos, who appreciate that Trump delivered the first real income gains in a generation.

Similar patterns have emerged in Europe, which has also experienced “job polarization” resulting from shrinkage of the middle-wage sector, notably in Germany, France, and Sweden—countries long associated with social democracy.6 In Britain, Labour has suffered enormous erosion of its once-solid working-class base; concern about uncontrolled immigration and the erosion of national sovereignty drove support for Brexit among blue collar workers. In 2019, the Tories won roughly half the once-reliable working-class vote, compared to a third for Labour.7

Similarly, the Australian Labour Party has seen its share of suburban, working-class voters decline as it adopted a progressive and green agenda more popular with the urban intelligentsia. In France, the working class has largely deserted the Socialist Party, with many turning instead to the Front National (now renamed the Rassemblement National). In 2015, the FN won more working-class votes than all the leftwing parties combined.8 In Germany, the working-class base of the great Social Democratic Party has also shifted rightward, including towards the nativist AfD, while the professional class moves decisively towards the Greens.

The green conundrum

The green agenda, notes Democratic analyst Ruy Teixeira, has driven much of this shift. The doctrines of environmental puritanism impact most directly those who work with their hands, in factories, the logistics industry, and energy. The disparate impact of draconian climate legislation on working- and lower-middle-class families is plainly evident in my home state of California, where climate policy has crippled the production of higher paid blue-collar jobs in fields like construction, manufacturing, and energy. The impact of “decarbonization,” particularly attempts to “ban” fracking, according to a US Chamber of Commerce report, would cost 14 million jobs, far more than the eight million lost in the great recession.

Progressives, and President Biden, suggest these job losses can be made up with “green jobs.” Unfortunately, this is something of a fairy tale; analysis by the Building Trades Unions shows that green jobs pay far less and last far less long than the positions they hope to replace. Rather than find a way to boost blue-collar jobs, there’s a growing appetite to employ the powers assumed by the executive during the pandemic lockdowns (for which the working class has borne the brunt) as a “test run” for a policy of dampening economic growth (“de growth”).

Life in the new green regimes will be ever-more restrictive and socially regressive; the Biden administration, for example, is discussing such things as taxing gas mileage to pay for infrastructure, something that would be wildly unpopular outside of a handful of dense, transit-dependent cities. Similar dangers lurk for Europe’s working class. In Britain, high energy prices have been linked to the continuing decline of the local steel industry. Higher energy prices in heavily industrialized Germany have hurt the working class far more than the affluent rich.

Low-income energy consumers, meanwhile, are particularly harmed by the enforced shift to renewables. The Jacques Delors Institute estimates that already some 30 million Europeans could not adequately heat their homes this winter. Deutsche Bank’s senior economist Eric Heymann predicts that green policies will create “a European mega-crisis” and a “noticeable loss of welfare and jobs.” This kind of naturally unpopular program, he points out, will necessitate “a certain degree of eco-dictatorship.”

Cultural wars

“Liberalism is stupid about culture,” observed Stuart Hall, a Jamaican-born Marxist sociologist.9 He may well be right in terms of aesthetics and social values, but nowhere have upper-class progressives promoted their agenda with less restraint or more censoriousness. Historically, social democrats—and even many militant Marxists—tended to embrace basic middle-class values and even strove to improve “social stability.”10 Social democratic policies were pro-family, designed initially to help primarily single-earner families raise their offspring comfortably. Christian Democrats and Social Democrats may have differed on policy priorities, notes political scientist Yascha Mounk, but there existed only “comparatively small” divergence from their respective constituents. That gap has expanded in recent times.11

In America, Harrington drew his radicalism from the Catholic Worker. He believed social change to be built on “liberal religious, humanist, as well as socialist values” not on scorning the country’s past, and he firmly rejected Soviet and Maoist models.12 In contrast, notions of hearth and home—like notions of cultural heritage—are no longer fashionable among progressives. As part of its radical neo-Marxist ideology (with kudos for Lenin and Mao as well), Black Lives Matter actively opposes the “oppression” of the nuclear family in favor of a more collectivist model.

The uncritical embrace of BLM by the cultural industries reinforces a growing gap between the artistic classes and a large part of the population. As historian Fred Siegel notes, this reverses a previous era in which the democratization of the arts saw massive audience attendance at Shakespeare plays, a rise in book reading, and ever-expanding access to education. Now mainstream culture embraces increasingly radical positions on family, gender, race, politics, and the military.13

Not surprisingly, viewership for shows like the Oscars, the Grammys, and the like has been plummeting, while popular esteem for mass media remains at historic lows. This is not helpful at a time when the publishing industry has lost thousands of jobs in Britain and the US. The icons of popular culture are demonized; a theater company in Minnesota, for example, recently banned a production of “Cinderella” as “too white.” Such harsh attitudes, known generally as political correctness, are widely unpopular, including among most liberals and racial minorities.

Similarly, in Europe, the upper classes seem to have embraced a worldview with little appreciation for the continent’s brilliant—if often far from socially just—heritage. Hans-Georg Maaßen, the former head of the German domestic secret service, calls this “post-nationalism”—an ideology that rejects any suggestion of national identity as somewhat reactionary or even fascist. These ascendant elements are better aligned, in David Goodhart’s phrase, with “anywhere” than “somewhere.” In the United States and Britain, working-class voters tend to feel greater patriotism than their urban and upper class counterparts.

Like the American heartland, peripheral France and provincial British counties are widely ignored or denigrated by the city-based media. One British columnist described an Essex seaside town as the locale of a “tracksuit and trainers Britain, tattoo-parlour Britain, all-our-yesterdays Britain”—the home of “white Van man.” As British author and labor union activist Paul Embery notes, these voters—“people with a deep affinity for place and tradition”—rarely embrace the “enlightened” cultural norms of inner-city sophisticates.14


In the three decades following the end of the Depression, under both Democratic and Republican regimes, the US income gap between black and white men shrank by about a third. Black women made even bigger gains. Racial prejudice persisted, but life expectancy, college enrollment, and homeownership rates for black Americans all rose dramatically. Economic progress, economist Benjamin Friedman has argued, established conditions that encouraged integration and generally more enlightened attitudes.15 “If a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness,” noted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. “He merely exists.”

Whereas social democrats favored cross-racial solidarity, the new racial progressives seem to embrace the notion of treating people as members of separate groups with their own specific needs. In today’s post-social-democratic world, views on race, not class, have become the central organizing principle. Author and racialist icon Ibram Kendi, a major recipient of funds from billionaire-backed non-profits, actually embraces conscious discrimination against whites, even poor whites, in the name of “anti-racism.” These views have become de rigueur within the Democratic Party, with the Biden Administration backing legislation that provides aid only to minority farmers. These approaches have now infected the private sector. Coca-Cola now impose racial “diversity training” on their employees, seeking to remove anything associated with the plague of “whiteness” from their ranks. Some businesses, like Uber Eats, have offered free delivery for African-American-owned firms only, while Oakland has initiated a $500 monthly basic income program for poor people, funded by rich non-profits, but with the proviso that whites need not apply.

Similar approaches to race, tied closely to views on mass immigration, have riled Europe as well. One former Labour Party advisor reveals that the party supported huge increases in migration to boost Britain’s “multicultural” bona fides; the number of immigrants duly increased from 50,000 annually in 2004 to over 300,000 in 2016. Racial minorities have become the preferred partners of progressives—in France, the fading Socialist Party seeks to revive itself by courting the votes of poor blacks and Arabs, often while ignoring their own historic base.16 This approach may not be as effective as some suspect. Contrary to claims of racial solidarity, a third of blacks and a majority of Sikhs backed Brexit while the Tories won many heavily minority districts at the last election.17 Similar patterns can be seen in France, where there is growing minority support even for Marine Le Pen’s nativist party, in part due to concerns over crime and the decline of conservative social values.

Even if they retain their sway in minority communities, progressive racialism clearly undermines the notion of solidarity critical to social democracy. If race is the inestimable defining quality of the person (sometimes also applied to gender or sexual orientation), class is not—black people, no matter how poor, are supposed to identify with the Duchess of Sussex, not with other people of different races struggling to make a living and raise a family.

Social democracy or top-down “fully automated” socialism?

Arguably the single greatest distinction between social democracy and the new progressivism lies in the word agency. The original social democrats sought “to enhance their economic power” by mobilizing grassroots support.18 In contrast, today’s “Left” tends to favor rule by experts—a reprise of Wilsonian progressivism. Like its contemporary analogue, this was more a product of the university and the boardroom than the union hall. And like the original model, today’s progressives increasingly embrace Wilson’s preference for censorship and the political repression of uncooperative political tendencies.19

There’s really no way to reconcile this progressivism with social progress. Climate change policies, in particular, wipe out any gradual way to increase wealth for the middle or working classes, although enforced strictures like “de-carbonization” create bounteous opportunities for highly profitable renewable energy speculation among financial and tech giants. The obsessive emphasis on race and culture reflects the concerns of the faculty lounge and the media newsroom.

In a slow-growth world, with few opportunities for upward mobility, perhaps the solution lies in a Universal Basic Income, a modern variant of what Marx described as a “proletarian alms bag.”20 Universal income is widely favored, particularly in Silicon Valley, where many dismiss the idea of upward mobility. The consensus there increasingly embraces a 21st century equivalent of the “bread and circuses” given to the masses in Imperial Rome. But Labour activist Embery notes such efforts “disempower workers,” discourage organizing, and turn them into essentially wards of the state, rather than independent agents.21

None of this is far-fetched, as we can see by the growing acceptance of stimulus transfer payments in both the United States and Europe. Yet, over time, as families become more dependent on government transfers, they may choose to confiscate the wealth of the uber-rich. Great inequality, Adam Smith suggested, naturally leads the poor to “invade” the “possessions of the rich.22 Some on the Left already propose using the riches of the oligarchy to fund a “fully automated luxury communism,” a kind of technologically enabled collectivist paradise. Given the history of utopian musings like these over the past century, they should be feared. But compared to growing inequality and dismal prospects for most, such a radical approach could still become surprisingly attractive.


Joel Kotkin is the presidential fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His new book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, is now out from Encounter. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Photo by Nicolas Nieves-Quiroz on Unsplash


1 Christophe Guilluy, Twilight of the Elites: Prosperity, the Periphery, and the Future of France, translated by Malcolm Debevoise, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019),p.104.
2 Harvey Mitchell and Peter N. Stearns, Workers and Protest: The European Labor Movement and the Origins of Social Democracy, 1890-1914, (Itasca, IL: F.E. Peacock, 1971), p.18, p.89; Arnold Toynbee, The Industrial Revolution, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1956), p.122; Richard Pipes, Communism: A History, (New York: Modern Library,2001) , p. 17
3 Pipes, p.96
4 Robert Gordon, The Rise, and Fall of American Growth: The US Standard of Living Since the Civil War, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), p.315.
5 Max Green, Epitaph for American Labor: How Union Leaders Lost Touch with America (Washington: AEI, 1996), p.19.
6 Enrique Fernandez-Macias, “Job Polarisation in Europe: Are Mid-Skilled Jobs Disappearing?” Social Europe, July 30, 2015; Margo Hoftijzer and Lucas Gortazar, “Skills and Europe’s Labor Market,” World Bank Report on the European Union, World Bank Group, 2018; Christophe Guilluy, Twilight of the Elites: Prosperity, the Periphery, and the Future of France, trans. Malcolm Debevoise (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), 14.
7 Paul Embery, Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class, (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2020), pp.23–7; p.42.
8 Christophe Guilluy, Twilight of the Elites: Prosperity, the Periphery, and the Future of France, translated by Malcolm Debevoise, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), p.103.
9 David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere, p.14.
10 Mitchell and Stearns, p.49
11 Yascha Mounk, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), p.91.
12 Michael Harrington, Toward a Democratic Left: A Radical Program for a New Majority, (Baltimore: Penguin Books,1968), p. 14
13 Fred Siegel, Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class, (New York: Encounter, 2013), p. 113, p.127, p.171.
14 Paul Embery, Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class, (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2020), p17. P.32
15 Benjamin Friedman, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, (New York: Knopf, 2005), pp.212–213
16 Guilluy, p.34
17 Embery, p.49
18 Mitchell and Stearns, p.31
19 Fred Siegel, Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class, (New York: Encounter, 2013), pp.26–27.
20 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The Manifesto of the Communist Party,” in The Essential Left (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1961), 36–37.
21 Embery, p.186
22 Cited in Jeffrey Winters, Oligarchy, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p.29.