Socialism is On the Run in Western Democracies

There seems to be a reasonably good chance (say 40%?) that come July, Democrats will nominate Senator Bernie Sanders as their party’s standard-bearer in July. To date, he has broken above 30% of his own party’s vote just once in the four early states that have started the nomination. Still, Sanders narrowly leads the Democratic field in both delegates acquired and in the national polls.

Sanders outwardly professes a brand of socialism that America has never seen before. He has in recent speeches and interviews said that he’d be open to a 90% top income tax rate; that he supports free healthcare for illegal immigrants (Biden, Warren and Steyer agree with that position; Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Bloomberg are non-commital); that he would take apart some of America’s most successful companies (such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google); has introduced a bill to completely ban hydraulic fracking, a practice which has created substantial income and millions of jobs (many of those jobs have been created in key swing states: Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota); and that he wants a 50% expansion in federal spending paid for the highest wealth taxes in the world and a doubling of the payroll tax on working class Americans, plus an array of new taxes.

Recent election outcomes for “democratic socialist” parties

Yet in recent elections across Western democracies, this brand of socialism has been a losing proposition, electorally.

In Canada, the socialist New Democratic Party (the “NDP”) has become marginalized under the leadership of Jagmeet Singh. As late as 2011, the NDP had formed the Official Opposition, with 103 seats in Canada’s Parliament. But the NDP lost 59 seats in the 2015 election, and 15 more in 2019 (where the center-right Conservative Party won the popular vote). Today, they have just 24 of the 338 seats in the Canadian House of Commons, and are a non-factor.

In the UK, in December of 2019, the UK’s Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn was trounced by Boris Johnson’s Conservatives 365–203 in seats, and 44–32 percent in the popular vote. This was the worst result for Labour since 1935. 2019 also saw the worst finish for the Austrian Social Democrats since 1945 (they lost 12 of their 52 seats), and the second worst for the Finnish socialists since 1962 (the absolute worst happened in 2015).

In 2018, the socialist left was also wiped out electorally in Italy, where Matteo Salvani’s center-right coalition in Italy emerged with a plurality of seats, while the Five Star Movement led by Kuigi Di Maio won the popular vote. The center-left coalition, led by former Prime Minster Matteo Renzi, came third, losing 227 seats in the Chamber of Deputies (out of 349) and 65 in the Senate (out of 125). And in Sweden that same year, the Social Democrats sunk to their lowest level since 1908.

In 2017, the French Socialist Party took its heaviest beating ever. The Socialists held power under President Francois Hollande, who saw his approval rating drop to single digits in late 2016. The party pushed him out and Benoît Hamon led them into the election, which was a wipeout for the Parti Socialiste, who finished fifth in the presidential election.

Also in 2017, the German Social Democrats recorded just 20% of the vote (after routinely getting 38–45% in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and as late as 2002). They now have just 153 seats out of 709, the second-worst performance since 1949. In the Netherlands, the Labour Party was trounced, losing 29 of its 38 seats, and polled just 5.7% of the popular vote. This was an astonishing result for a party that was in coalition and received one 24% of the vote in 2012.

This is more than just a coincidence.

Analysis

Underlying the trend is a wider realignment of Western politics. A study of the positions in these elections indicates that attitudes about immigration, national identity and domestic security have proven more predictive, and have disadvantaged the Left. This has probably been most pronounced in the UK. Between 1945 and 1975, a majority of the working class voted for Labour, and even as late as the 1997 election, at least 40 percent voted for the Tony Blair’s New Labour. Since then, however, Labour’s support within the white working-class has fallen, and bottomed out at less than 20 percent in 2019.

Figure 1 plots the swing to parties of the Right between the 2010 and 2019 elections by constituency. The shift of white working-class voters toward the Conservatives, as with the similar move of Midwestern blue-collar whites into Trump’s Republicans, is heavily predicted by views on immigration.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Constituency voting shifts between 2010 and 2019 by immigration attitudes (Source: UnHerd Britain)

The 2015 Migration Crisis has seemed to give a significant boost to right-wing parties in the European Union. Data shows that immigration into the European Union from outside Europe began to rise above half a million in 2013, eventually reaching two million during the height of the 2015 asylum wave. By late 2015, a majority of Europeans surveyed said immigration was the leading issue facing the EU, and James Dennison and his colleagues found a significant relationship between immigration levels, concern over immigration, and populist right support in nine of ten western European countries between 2005 and 2016.

The Exceptions

There are a few recent counter-examples to this overarching trend. In Portugal, in October 2019, the left wing Socialist Party (the “PS”) won the elections with 36% of the vote and 108 seats, a gain of 22 compared with 2015. The center-right Social Democratic Party still controls the office of the Prime Minister in a minority government, but lost seats in 2019.

In November 2019, the socialist Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (the “PSOE”) managed to hang on in coalition in Spain despite a surge in support for the populist-right Vox and gains made by the centrist People’s Party.

In September 2017, in New Zealand, the Labour leader Jacinda Ardern became the Prime Minister despite winning only 25% of the popular vote (the center-right National Party won 47% of the vote) and formed a coalition with the populist-right New Zealand First party.

I believe that these exceptions can be explained by how the democratic socialist parties campaigned. In New Zealand in 2017, Jacinda Ardern weathered charges of racism from progressive commentators to campaign on a platform that included cutting immigration levels in half. In Portugal, where the unemployment rate hovers above 20% and where immigration is much lower than it is in Germany, Luxembourg, Austria, the UK, Italy, or France, cultural issues have been less important.

One other interesting case study is Canada. Justin Trudeau, the Liberal Prime Minister, was re-elected in 2019 (albiet after losing the popular vote, and without winning a single seat in Western Canada’s two big “Prairie Provinces,” Alberta and Saskatchewan). Even through Trudeau’s Liberals retained power, the divisive campaign saw the Liberals win just 157 seats compared to 184 in 2015. And their popular support dropped 6.5 points to 33 percent. In Canada, the opposition was unable to coalesce behind a single unifying party, with the center-right Conservatives taking 34 percent of the vote, and the separatist Bloc Quebecois in Quebec winning 8 percent. Unlike other western democracies, Canada has had a long tradition of multiculturalism, which came about because of that nation’s longstanding Anglo-French division. Western Canada and Quebec have remained separate factions, and that allowed the Liberals to hold a minority center-left position while the progressive NDP imploded.

Conclusion

The evidence overwhelmingly shows that “democratic socialism” — a focus on equality of economic outcomes as opposed to opportunity; identity politics and multiculturalism; immigration — has resulted in a string of electoral defeats for the Left. They have been able to increase their vote share in urban areas and among those with advanced college degrees, but they have lost far more votes among working class voters.

Conservative parties that have been able to move left on certain issues— on the environment, on trade / tariffs, and on wefare state spending — and have been the primary beneficiaries of the decline in the vote share of the Left. This has been true of Trump’s Republicans (2016), Johnson’s Conservatives in the UK (2019), Macron’s Independent Party in France (2016), and Mark Rutte’s center-right People’s Party in the Netherlands (2017).

The left wing parties that have survived for the most part in minority coalitions have embraced the center on cultural issues (and taken a lot of criticism from the progressives in doing so): Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand (2017) is the primary example. The other example is Denmark, where in 2019 the “Red Bloc” ousted the governing center-right coalition. In that election, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen shifted right on immigration and integration, thereby ensuring her electoral success.

By and large, the ethnic change that is transforming western societies makes cultural issues more relevant, benefiting the Right while harming a Left that finds itself hemmed in by progressive norms, unable to adapt to new electoral realities.

Former C-suite at PayPal, Sonos, eBay. Now general partner & founder at Practical VC, a secondary venture capital fund.