The end of liberalism – and social democracy?



Liberalism is in trouble. Initially a set of values that advanced individual rights and tolerance as a hallmark of a well-governed society, liberalism came to embrace a laissez-faire economic model that today places these values in jeopardy, notes Samuel Bowles, co author of The Economy: Economics for a Changing World In the process, liberalism has lost sight of the ends that once animated it. Xenophobic intolerance is a symptom, not a cause, of liberalism having lost its bearings, and of its lack of a convincing narrative of what went wrong, he writes for the OUP Blog:

It was partly in response to the ongoing increase in disparities of wealth that in the first half of the 20th century, liberalism was embraced as a modern conception of democracy. Under pressure from democratic socialist parties and the threat of communist revolution, economic and political elites conceded to the democratization of liberalism: Universal suffrage (see above) joined toleration, private property, and competitive markets as a liberal hallmark of good governance. RTWT

Are centre-left parties across Europe facing a future of decline? Drawing on a new book, Rob Manwaring and Paul Kennedy argue that an essential element in any robust democracy is an effective centre-left. However, centre-left parties now face a number of major challenges, from the rise of new parties, to the erosion of their traditional support bases, and only by addressing these challenges can their decline be halted. What’s driving this downward trajectory?

  • Institutionally, many of the centre-left parties face a fragmenting party system with new and emergent challengers, (UKIP, Podemos, the Swedish Democrats, the AfD in Germany, etc). The centre-left then becomes squeezed from both left and right. Changing electoral sociology means that the major parties suffer from class and party de-alignment. In many cases, the changing economic structures have eroded traditional centre-left support, and the parties have been unable to build enough support from other groups.
  • And what of agency and leadership? In many cases, some of the recent crop of centre-left leaders have not been up to the task. Moreover, much of the longstanding literature on social democracy tends to downplay the role of leadership, but in a more personalised, social-media driven environment, effective leadership is harder to deliver.
  • Ideationally, we tend to find that the centre-left has not really moved on from the ‘third way’ formula of the 1990s and 2000s. Commonly associated with Anthony Giddens, the third way was an attempt to renew social democracy, but also critique ‘old’ social democracy and neo-liberalism. Since the third way heyday, the centre-left has struggled to find a new ideational formula.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email