Across the Western world, the traditional left is in crisis. In Germany, support for the Social Democratic Party, once a cornerstone of mainstream politics that led six postwar governments, has fallen below 20 percent. In France, François Hollande’s approval ratings recently reached a mind-boggling low of 4 percent, while the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party has seen its support drop by almost half in less than a decade. The decline of Pasok, Greece’s main social-democratic party, which fell from winning elections to ratings of under 5 percent in less than a decade, was so rapid that it spawned a new word, “Pasokification,” for the collapse of traditional center-left parties. Even in Scandinavia, once-invincible parties of social democracy have been hit by increasingly disaffected voters, as right-wing populists stoke anxiety about immigration and its impact on the welfare state.
In some of the same countries, there are signs of hope, but they are usually qualified. Podemos, Spain’s new party of the left, went from its initial foundation to winning 20 percent of the vote in little more than two years, but it’s currently locked in an uncertain debate about a realistic path to power. In Greece, the radicals of Syriza were propelled into government as the country fell into a deep economic crisis—but the party’s torrid time in charge has sown division and confusion. In the United Kingdom, the election of veteran leftist Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader has been accompanied by two contradictory developments: Labour has attracted so many new members that it now claims to be the largest party in Europe, but among the voting public it is also scoring its lowest poll ratings in decades.
In the United States, progressive politics is full of its own nuances and complexities, but the picture of uncertainty and contradiction is comparable. Hillary Clinton’s merits are obvious compared to the mess of bigotry and nastiness embodied by Donald Trump, but there has been little sense of enthusiasm at the prospect of her presidency, nor any clear idea of her essential mission.
As he campaigned for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders spoke to that vacuum. For many of us, watching him gain momentum as he spoke about hitherto taboo political issues to huge crowds was undeniably exciting. But there was also a nagging sense of doubt about whether his vision of a reborn New Deal was more the stuff of keening nostalgia than the politics of the future. At the same time, there is still a sense that the radical left’s energies have yet to be fully revived after the demise of the Occupy movement, which was seemingly unable to resolve the tension between its emphasis on horizontal, non-programmatic politics and the fact that any enduring movement needs a clear sense of definition and goals.
The Western left faces three grave challenges, which strike at the heart of its historic sense of what it is and whom it speaks for. First, traditional work—and the left’s sacred notion of “the worker”—is fading, as people struggle through a new era of temporary jobs and rising self-employment, which will soon be succeeded by a drastic new age of automation. Second, a new wave of opposition to globalization is led by forces on the right, which emphasize place and belonging and mistrust of outsiders. Third, political alignments rapidly fragment, leaving the idea that one single party or ideology can represent a majority of the people looking like a relic. The 20th century, in other words, really is over. Whether the left can find its voice in the 21st is a question currently surrounded by a profound sense of uncertainty.