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All Unhappy Social Democratic Parties Are Alike: They’ve Lost the White Working Class

By Harold Meyerson

In the recent U.K. elections that gave Boris Johnson’s Tories a resounding victory, Britain’s Labour Party was decimated in what had long been its working-class home. The new brand of nativist Tories ousted one Labour member of parliament (MP) after another in England’s north, once the United Kingdom’s industrial heartland, today its Rust Belt. The migration of Britain’s abandoned workers to the anti-immigrant nationalism at the root of Brexit closely tracks the pattern we have seen elsewhere in Europe and in the United States. In France, for example, the longtime proletarian strongholds of the French Communist Party have turned to the insular nationalism of two generations of Le Pens in recent elections. (The Communists have also failed to win many votes in France’s newer proletarian strongholds, the banlieues that are home to African and Arab immigrants and their children and grandchildren.) In Germany, the historic home of European social democracy, the world’s oldest social democratic party is polling close to single digits. And here in the United States, the Trumpified Republicans have their base in the white working class—the reason why Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin put Trump in the White House in 2016.

Last fall’s election in the United Kingdom marks the worst performance by Labour since 1935—just as the most recent elections in Germany and France also marked low points for the Social Democrats and Socialists, respectively. Socialists do govern in Spain, Portugal, Denmark, and Sweden (though the Swedish Social Democrats also experienced their worst election in 2018 and govern now in coalition with that nation’s Greens), but these are exceptions to the painful decline of European social democracy.

The migration of Britain’s abandoned workers to the anti-immigrant nationalism at the root of Brexit closely tracks the pattern we have seen elsewhere in Europe and in the United States.

Three kinds of fragmentation have vexed the parties of the European left over the past twenty years, just as they have vexed the Democratic Party in the United States. The first stems from the growing presence in those parties of urban upper-middle-class professionals, who are often at odds on cultural questions, broadly defined, with the parties’ more traditional and patriarchal working classes. The second results from defections from the left due to racism and nativism. This phenomenon is no stranger to the United States but is only now impacting Europe with the diminution (not sudden, but perceived as such) of many nations’ relative racial and religious homogeneity. The shift of England’s north from Labour to the Tories summoned memories of George Wallace’s surprising successes in Northern states in the Democratic primaries of 1964. Wallace’s vote marked a resurgence of white nationalism that heralded the end of the New Deal coalition and the subsequent electoral victories of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The third fragmentation results from geographic divergence—with minorities and the culturally liberal young and professionals clustering in cities with large service sectors, while rural and formerly industrial areas, increasingly poor and elderly, experience both the reality and the sense of abandonment.

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