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The European Paradox

SOURCE: AP/Bela Szandelszky

Social democracy appears to be declining in Europe even as many progressive policies remain deeply ingrained.

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Looking across Europe and the United States, progressives have two strengths going for them. The first is that modernizing demographic forces are shifting the political terrain in their favor. Consider these trends:

  • The rise of a progressive younger generation
  • The increase in immigrant/minority populations
  • The continuing rise in educational levels
  • The growth of the professional class
  • The increasing social weight of single and alternative households and growing religious diversity and secularism.

All these factors favor policies embraced by the broad center-left of the political spectrum in America and in Europe. Put simply, progressives are the natural beneficiaries of modernity and that, combined with their still substantial base among the working class, puts them in a potentially dominating political position.

Progressives’ second big advantage is the intellectual and policy bankruptcy of conservatism. Their approach to the problems afflicting today’s complex global capitalism still relies heavily on laissez-faire and is completely devoid of creative ideas for taming the immense power of this economic system for the common good. The assumption that capitalism left to its own devices is both self-regulating and productive of the best economic outcomes would be laughable at this point if the actual outcomes had not been so tragic.

Conservatives’ economic philosophy has now been tried and found grossly inadequate to the needs of modern societies. One might, then, have expected that last October’s sudden financial crisis and the subsequent global recession it triggered would all herald a resurgence of progressive politics.

In the United States, this is how it has worked out in electoral terms. The 2008 presidential election of Democrat Barack Obama, who championed a largely progressive agenda, was not just notable for bringing America its first black president, but also for the rout of conservative candidates and the rejection of conservative ideology at every level of government and in many parts of the country where they had previously been strong. Overall, Obama’s 53 percent of the popular vote was the largest share received by any U.S. presidential candidate in 20 years.

Obama carried all 18 states that Democrat John Kerry won in 2004 (and by 10 percentage points or more), plus nine states that Kerry did not: Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia. Obama also carried seven of the eight most populous states: California, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. At the presidential level, progressives now solidly control the Northeast, the Midwest (with the exception of Missouri), the Southwest (with the exception of Arizona) and the West, while conservative strength has been reduced to rural and lightly populated states in the southern and central parts of the country.

Despite this electoral success, however, the first months of the Obama presidency have been fraught with problems. Conservatives have slowed Obama’s agenda with a ferocious counterattack designed to raise public doubts and stampede wavering members of Congress in swing districts and states across the country. Obama’s attempt to promote progressive policy making on a scale not seen in the United States since perhaps the 1960s has had a very rocky road.

The relative success of conservative opposition to Obama’s policies is grounded in the long-standing suspicions of government action entrenched in certain segments of the U.S. population. Despite promising electoral and demographic trends for progressives, support for the state and public action has often been viewed with skepticism among conservative and independent voters.

The U.S. progressive movement has experienced this before. Every major era of progressive reform in U.S. history has encountered fierce and often irrational opposition fueled by these attitudes. Some of this antipathy is based purely on ideological concerns or parochial financial interests. Some of it is based on less tangible perceptions that the government is unable to deliver on its promises and frequently sides with undeserving segments of the population at the top and bottom of the economic order.

No matter how supportive Americans may be on the goals of progressive politics, there will always be difficulties convincing people that greater government involvement in society is desirable and effective. And unlike more mainstream conservative parties in Europe, conservatives dominate the Republican Party in the United States and have successfully sparked an angry and visible conservative movement rooted in an extreme stew of libertarian economic ideas and fundamentalist social values.

What we are seeing now is the convergence of these ideological concerns—focused on government spending, taxation, bailouts, and (to a lesser extent) federal budget deficits—into a solidified antigovernment backlash that is influencing key independent segments of the U.S. electorate who were positively predisposed toward progressives and Obama in 2008. This antigovernment narrative is growing in strength by successfully tapping into a range of negative perceptions about Obama himself, economic failure, government overreach, excessive coziness with certain industries and interests, fear of second-class national and group status, elite arrogance, and values antithetical to free enterprise and market capitalism.

Europe is a different story. Over the last decade voter support for the European parties most often promoting progressive policies, the social democrats, has fallen to its lowest level in the post World War II era, averaging under 27 percent in national elections. In 2000, 13 out of 15 member states of the European Union were ruled by social democratic parties or progressive coalitions. Today, social democrats hold office in only 5 of the 27 member states. And in the 2009 European parliamentary elections this June, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (to which all the social democratic parties belong) captured only 25 percent of the vote—the worst performance by the social democratic grouping since the European elections began in 1979. Among seven traditionally strong parties, Germany, France, the U.K., Sweden, Austria, the Netherlands and Denmark, the average tally was only 19 percent—far below these parties’ worst performance in national elections.

So social democracy’s electoral appeal appears to be declining in Europe despite favorable modernizing demographic trends. In spite of social democracy’s electoral woes, however, many progressive policies remain deeply engrained in European societies and are accepted by parties of both the left and the right. Cases in point include universal health care, carbon emissions targets, support for social protections and benefits, and a more balanced and restrained foreign policy. Indeed, in many important ways, progressive policies are more clearly entrenched or institutionalized at the center of democratic debate in Europe than in America. We call this set of contradictory trends the European paradox.

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