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  • Journal of Democracy

Populism and the Decline of Social Democracy

Democracy may be receding somewhat in practice, but it is still globally ascendant in peoples’ values and aspirations.

Despite the Europe-wide nature of this trend, most explanations of the left’s problems focus on idiosyncratic region-specific factors. For example, many analyses of diminishing support for leftist parties in Western Europe emphasize changing class and value structures. The decline of West European manufacturing during the late twentieth century weakened the working class and unions, shrinking the left’s traditional voting base and reducing the heft of the organizations that had been its most important affiliates.

During the same period, postmaterialist values such as self-expression, environmentalism, cosmopolitanism, sexual freedom, and gender equality took on a new prominence in Western societies. Voters holding such values considered themselves to be on the left, but they differed from longtime leftist voters who remained wedded to national identities, prioritized law and order, and favored growth over environmental protection. The divisions between “new” and “old” left voters rendered socialist and social-democratic parties conflicted and confused.

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