This article is part of TBI’s ongoing analysis of populism around the world
Social Democratic parties have been losing vote share across Europe. Much of the popular focus on why this has happened has been about how they have lost touch with the more socially conservative working-class by catering to the growing, but more socially liberal middle-class. A leading strain of argument is that dissatisfaction with social liberalism has been the main reason for working-class defections from the social democrats and that these working-class voters have found a new home with the populist right.
But the evidence for this is surprisingly weak. In several countries, social democrats have been more likely to lose voters to green parties, the center-right, and especially to abstention. Losses of past voters to abstention have been particularly strong in several countries, but this pre-dated recent issues with the EU and immigration, which suggests that social democratic losses aren’t just due to recent controversial cultural issues but long-standing economic ones.
And recent research on social policy preferences and party support shows that the divide between the middle-class and working-class on cultural issues is also present in social policy preferences. The middle-class is much more likely to support policies that focus on social investment issues like childcare, higher education, and worker retraining. Meanwhile the working-class is much more likely to support consumption-oriented social policies like pensions, wage subsidies, and unemployment benefits. As with the emerging open-closed divide on social issues, we see the emergence of a two-dimensional axis on social policy; those who prefer investment-oriented social policies and vote for the greens or the center-right are on one end while those who prefer consumption-oriented policies and vote for the populist left of right are on the other. Social democratic parties find themselves in an increasingly ill-defined middle space.
This seems quite ominous for social democrats because it suggests that the middle-class and working-class are divided on economic as well as cultural issues. Are social democrats destined for a future in which they lose one of the two core parts of their base? This may be their fate if they take sides on polarizing social issues. Recent research shows that they can lose more voters to other left parties and even the center-right if they shift to the right on cultural issues. And it’s questionable that this would help them gain or retain the types of voters that they’ve been losing, many of whom were lost before the recent rise of the populist right and its issues.
But there’s opportunity for social democrats to appeal to both parts of their traditional coalition’s social policy priorities by focusing on the consumption potential of green policy. Green policy is an area in which governments must make the types of substantial investments which can appeal to the investment preferences of middle-class voters, but which will also have great potential to create consumption benefits for working-class people and for regions that have been disadvantaged by technological change and globalization.
To meet their ambitious net zero goals, countries will need massive investments in green technologies in a variety of areas, including power generation and networks, industrial production, and home heating. These investments will require substantial government support, but that support could result in the creation of new working-class jobs. Emissions reductions in heavy industry will require the installation of new hydrogen-based fuel sources and carbon capture and underground storage, creating new jobs in areas with these industries. Meeting emissions targets in home heating will require mass installation of insulation and low-carbon heating systems, which will create well-paid and geographically distributed jobs in the HVAC industry.
But currently, climate change action has more political association with cultural liberalism—preferred by the middle-class—than any potential for working-class economic development. It is often perceived and presented as a project by and for cultural elites that will—like past economic transformations—come at the expense of the working-class. A lot of the specific issues on which climate change activists have focused—eliminating air travel and meat consumption—have made the issue seem downright threatening to the lifestyles of many in the working-class.
Social democrats can try to avoid the perilous cultural framing around climate change by keeping the focus on how smart investment can promote economic development. They should argue that these investments will not only create localized jobs, but help create industries in which their countries can become world leaders. This will also help address some of the concerns about the loss of industrial pre-eminence associated with globalization, which has increased social authoritarianism and dissatisfaction with the mainstream left.
A serious effort to focus on the future economic benefits of climate change action can appeal both to middle-class preferences for a social policy of investment and working-class preferences for a social policy of consumption. Instead of cementing division, it can help rebuild the political coalition between them. Social democratic parties were always consumption-oriented parties; they built welfare states in the UK and Scandinavian countries that were oriented around job creation and decoupling basic needs like health care from the ability to work. A focus on green investment as both investment and consumption policy will show a renewed social democrat commitment to ensuring good living standards for the working class while retaining a focus on the forward-oriented concerns of middle-class voters. And it will help contribute to economic growth, which supports the other consumption-oriented social policies for which social democrats continue to receive much support.
 The authors show that even after the establishment of the AfD in Germany, the SPD still lost more voters to the CDU-CSU.