PARIS — When Donald Trump shocked the world with an upset victory in the U.S. presidential election this month, much of Europe was aghast.
But in at least one critical sense, the result couldn’t have been more European: Across the continent, parties of the center-left that have dominated politics for decades — and that have given Europe its reputation for generous social welfare systems — now find themselves beaten, divided and directionless. Hillary Clinton and the Democrats are just the latest members of a beleaguered club.
In Germany and Britain, once-mighty center-left parties have been badly diminished, locked out of their nations’ top jobs for the foreseeable future. In Spain and Greece, they have been usurped by newer, more radical alternatives. And in France and Italy, they’re still governing — but their days in power may be numbered. The rout of the center-left has even extended deep into Scandinavia, perhaps the world’s premier bastion of social democracy.
Overall, the total vote share for the continent’s traditional center-left parties is now at its lowest level since at least World War II. Like the Democrats, these parties have been marginalized, with little influence over policy as the right prepares to place its stamp on the Western world in a way that could endure for decades.
“If the left and the center-left don’t get their act together, then we’re looking at a period of very unstable right-wing hegemony,” said Alex Callinicos, a European studies professor at King’s College London.
The decline of the European center-left is part of a broader unraveling of the continent’s mainstream consensus as electorates fracture and a political kaleidoscope of alternatives emerges.
But unlike the center-left, traditional parties of the center-right have managed to hold their own amid the populist fury, clinging to power in London, Berlin and Madrid — with a strong chance next year to take Paris, as well.
As recently as a decade ago, the picture was very different. Britain’s Tony Blair was at the vanguard of a generation of European center-left leaders who had emulated Bill Clinton’s pragmatic Third Way politics and seemed poised to ride their marriage of social democracy with market liberalization to an unlimited future of electoral success.
But the Great Recession — and the bumpy, deeply unequal recovery that followed — fundamentally changed that.
“With the economic crisis, and the negative effects of globalization, the socialists couldn’t convince the populations in their respective countries that the future lies in a liberal Europe,” said Gérard Grunberg, a historian of socialism at Sciences Po in Paris. “This is the end of the European utopia.”
That “utopia” emerged in the aftermath of 1945, when politicians across war-torn Europe banded together to build a new continent that would never repeat the grave mistakes of the recent past. This was the genesis of the European Union: an economic union that was meant to become, at least in theory,committed to the common cause of social justice, largely a leftist ideal.
If the three decades that followed World War II coincided with the longest period of growth in Europe’s history, voters today see neither leftist economic policies nor the E.U. itself as necessarily worth preserving. Britain voted to leave the bloc in June, and separatist movements have spread across the continent to France, the Netherlands and elsewhere.
To historians, the unlikely abandonment of this former European bedrock is partly a function of its own achievements.
“It was a failure by success,” said Timothy Snyder, a historian of 20th-century Europe at Yale University. “Once the left becomes not revolutionary but transformative, and once that transformation succeeds, people start taking it for granted.
“Europeans take for granted that they will have public education, free health care and social services,” he said. “And the left doesn’t get votes on this anymore.”
The marginalization of Europe’s center-left parties has been consistent across the continent, although their paths to the political wilderness have varied.
In France, prospects for a leftist victory in presidential elections in 2017 remain bleak. The perceived failure of the Socialist president, François Hollande, to respond adequately to a recent string of terrorist attacks has brought him the lowest approval ratings in modern French history and ignited a rebellion in his own party.
In particular, Hollande’s proposal to strip French citizenship from convicted terrorists who hold dual nationality outraged fellow leftists, distracting the party from presenting a united front against its opponents.
Hollande will face a conservative party whose candidates have promised to bolster national security and bring the country out of economic stagnation. For nearly the duration of the current Socialist government’s tenure, the unemployment rate has hovered at or above 10 percent.
In prosperous Germany, the Social Democratic Party’s years of playing second-fiddle to the center-right-led government of Chancellor Angela Merkel have diluted its voice. Analysts give it little prospect for victory in next year’s national elections.
In Italy, the center-left Democratic Party occupies a precarious position. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has proposed a host of constitutional revisions, which have been put to a referendum slated for early December. Renzi has reiterated his promise to resign from office if he loses the vote, which the latest polls suggest he will.
In economically devastated Greece, the traditional center-left party, Pasok, finished no better than fourth in a pair of votes last year that saw its support drop to the mid-single digits. In both elections, it embarrassingly placed behind the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn.
But rather than swinging to the right, Greek voters went far left, electing and then reelecting a government led by the Syriza party, a coalition of Trotskyites, Maoists and other figures once limited to the revolutionary fringe who were thrust into power on a pledge to fight austerity and the unforgiving terms of the country’s international bailout.
In Spain, voters have divided almost evenly between the long-standing center-left party, the Socialists, and an upstart far-left alternative that didn’t exist three years ago, Podemos. As a result of the split, the center-right People’s Party was able to squeak back into power after elections in June.
Britain’s Labour Party — which built the country’s vaunted National Health Service and was riding a streak of 13 years in power as recently as 2010 — has faced no similar challenge by an upstart party to its left. Instead, the far left has taken over Labour from within, through the bomb-throwing backbencher Jeremy Corbyn and his astonishing victory in leadership elections last year.
Corbyn’s win came after two straight national election defeats for Labour and a bout of soul-searching that mirrors the sort of anxious introspection now sweeping the Democratic Party in the United States.
Faced with the choice of three center-left contenders or the long-shot bid of Corbyn, Labour members went with a man who had made a career of bucking the Labour hierarchy and who starkly repudiated the centrism embodied by Tony Blair.
But there’s little sign that Labour’s lurch to the left has put it any closer to power. With a possible early election coming next year, polls indicate the party would lose decisively to the ruling Conservative Party.
Corbyn, meanwhile, has struggled to hold his party together as Labour members of Parliament have overwhelmingly said they have no confidence in his leadership. Blair and his allies have argued that Corbyn will simply guide the party to continued irrelevance.
“You win from the center; you win when you appeal to a broad cross section of the public; you win when you support business as well as unions,” Blair, who guided the party to three straight national election victories, said in a speech last year. “You don’t win from a traditional leftist position.”
But center-left parties have an obligation to try something more radical, said Callinicos, the European political analyst, because the moderate approach they’ve been offering hasn’t worked.
“The merger of traditional social democracy with neoliberalism and globalized free-market policies has fallen apart in fairly disastrous fashion,” he said, suggesting that the turning point was the global financial crash of 2008, when working-class voters saw their jobs disappear or their wages stagnate even as the net worth of the wealthy continued to race ahead.
Across Europe, the center-left has had little to offer those voters, who have looked elsewhere — including the far right.
In Britain’s June referendum on the European Union, for instance, working-class voters in traditional Labour strongholds ignored their party’s advice to opt to stay in, and instead heeded the call of the anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party to vote out.
Trump’s victory in the United States rested at least in part on a similar phenomenon — a billionaire tycoon using appeals to xenophobia and racism to scoop up support from voters who no longer believe the party of the working man has their interests at heart. As in the Brexit vote, Trump won certain key states with the help of working-class voters who had supported Barack Obama, a Democrat, in 2012.
One implication of the growing void on Europe’s left could be profound political instability, both within specific countries and geopolitically. Another could be the emergence of a right-wing stranglehold, based on widespread nostalgia for a world that, in Snyder’s view, never actually existed.
“All these continental parties are nostalgic for the interwar nation-state, which was a total disaster,” he said. “There was never any moment when they were happy, independent nation-states. There was never such a time, and their nostalgia is a kind of disguise.
“If you plunge into that abyss,” he added, “very bad things lie ahead.”
Witte reported from London.