Let Them Eat Respect?
Plenty of center-left political strategists have concluded that traditionally social democratic parties need to accommodate nationalist and anti-immigrant sentiment to win back working-class voters. But this approach is not only misguided politically and morally; it is also empirically wrong.
PRINCETON – A few victories by center-left parties in large countries hardly makes for an international trend. Nonetheless, wins by the US Democrats in 2020 and the German Social Democrats (SPD) in 2021 – not to mention a strong socialist performance in Portugal’s recent election – suggest that the much-discussed crisis of social democracy has not been fatal.
According to some center-left strategists, political renewal requires a turn away from anything that smacks of identity politics. The fact that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s successful campaign theme was “respect” supposedly proves this. The implication appears to be that the “working class” deserves priority over the recognition of ever-more assertive self-identified minorities. And from this premise follows another argument that pundits have been making for years: the center left must win back votes from the far right, not only by refocusing on bread-and-butter issues, but also by making concessions to nationalist and anti-immigration sentiment (though this part usually isn’t said out loud).
But this premise is wrong, both empirically and morally, and parties that pursue such a strategy not only will fail to secure future majorities; they also will betray the core commitments that define the center left, and that younger voters take especially seriously. To be sure, Scholz’s triumph last year seemed to vindicate former SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel, who warned in 2016 that “if you lose the workers of the Rust Belt, hipsters in California won’t save you.” Scholz also took advice from Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel, who has been urging the center left to abandon its fixation on meritocracy.
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