Another crisis? Social democracy facing the populist challenge

Tuesday, June 25, 2013
A0.08 (Oudemanhuispoort)
Laurent Bouvet , CEVIPOF, Sciences Po
Pr Laurent BouvetUniversity of Versailles and from January 2013, Director of CEVIPOF (Sciences Po, Paris)

Another Crisis?. Social democracy facing the populist challenge

Social democracy/SD comes across as a victim of the economic and financial crisis, when it should appear as a refuge or hope after years of neo-liberalism. In the eyes of the electorate,  SD no longer has a credible claim to represent the future of European societies. It is said to have lost the confidence of the public because it was not able to draw a distinction between itself and the dominant economic neo-liberalism when in office.

This explanation is the most widespread, and it holds some truth. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. One reason for this is that the right (and far right) picked up on and benefitted from popular aspirations often neglected by the left: labour values, national identity, family values, a sense of belonging and collective security, etc. These are aspirations and values that the left, seeing itself increasingly deserted by its traditional working class support, gradually began to denounce as “populist”.

This paper tries to explain: 1. How populism appears as a double-edged sword – harking back to the continent’s darkest hours smacking of dangerous manipulation of working-class despair, to be read as a signal that must be picked up and listened to by the left. 2. That it is important for European SD to take a dialectical approach to populism to avoid falling into the trap set by the populist parties. A major challenge is facing SD if it is to survive as a democratic political alternative.