Over the last few years as the parties of the left effected their historic change of mission and clienteles, they believed they could do so without damaging their political strength.
Their bedrock working-class supporters might be disgruntled, it was assumed—but as voters they could be taken for granted because they really had nowhere else to go.
This proved to be wrong—a monumental miscalculation that would not only devastate the parties of the left but also transform the entire spectrum of Western politics, as the economic forces unleashed by globalization have proceeded to reshape society in unforeseen ways.
The full extent of the profound political changes occurring across the West was not immediately evident to observers because every country was a different context influenced by its own history, socioeconomic makeup, and electoral traditions.
Only in retrospect—and setting aside the ravings of an elderly Vermont senator and a young New York congresswoman, exceptions that prove the rule—does there emerge a clear pattern of what happened to the working class when they realized their long loyalty to parties of the left had been betrayed. Examining countries individually best reveals this.
In Germany, the woes of the world's oldest Socialist party began with their frequent parliamentary alliances with the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and their gradual affirmation of globalization. In successive elections the Socialists’ share of the vote declined until it fell to less than half of its historic peak.
Similar but less-noticed disasters also overtook long-ruling Socialist parties in the smaller countries of northern Europe.
A huge catalyst for the spreading political realignment as Socialist and other working-class voters sought new affiliations was the migration crisis, which boiled over in 2015 in the wake of Angela Merkel's politically calamitous decision to welcome to Germany over a million refugees from the Middle East and Africa.
The decline of France's Socialist party had its roots in the 1980s and ‘90s partnership between President Francois Mitterand and Germany's conservative Chancellor Helmut Kohl in converting the European Economic Community (EEC) into a new and more ambitious entity called the European Union (EU)—which through the "ever closer union" doctrine was thought to be the best way to accommodate the growing trends toward globalization.
The negative effects of globalization on France's working class were gradual but the Socialists’ political collapse was sudden. Entering the 2017 election controlling the Presidency, Parliament, Senate and a majority of France's regions, the Socialists fell to fifth place in the presidential race, and their number of MPs crashed from 280 to just 30, winning only a humiliating 7.4% of the vote.
UK and US
Due to their longstanding (mostly) two-party traditions, the disruption and realignment of politics played out differently in Britain and the United States and with much more spectacular consequences.
The shocking 2016 Brexit result was made possible when fully 38% of working class Labour voters defied their party leadership and supported leaving the European Union. This stunning split among Labour's rank and file also explains the Party's near paralysis in the subsequent debate over how to implement Brexit.
A similar split in the Conservative Party also explains the still unfolding crippling of Theresa May's government.
Just five months after Brexit, an even greater upheaval occurred in the United States when Donald Trump was elected President, owing largely to the revolt of Working Class Democratic voters particularly in the country's industrial Rust Belt.
Additional evidence is found in Eastern Europe, where working class voters propelled populist parties to victory, and in Italy's populist coalition that electorally demolished the long dominant Socialists.
A particularly interesting example is the recent Israeli elections. A highly detailed voter analysis by the Jerusalem Postclearly demonstrates the populist identity of Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party which rallied the country's "peripheral other" to victory over the urban elites concentrated in Tel Aviv.
Israel's electoral and socio-economic patterns conform very closely to those described in France by Christophe Guilluy in his seminal book Twilight of the Elites.
Interestingly, Likud under four Prime Ministers has governed Israel for 32 of the last 42 years while the Socialist Party, which dominated the country for the first 30 years of its existence, won only 7.6% of the vote in the last election.
Constituencies on the Move
In a multi-polar world it is difficult to articulate broad conclusions, yet surveying the West it is clear that vast numbers of voters previously loyal to left-wing parties are on the move, seeking new parties and principles, and new leaders to follow. As far as the likes of America’s Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez becoming those leaders, don’t bet on it.
If globalization--the embodiment of supranationalism--doesn't find a way to prevent its "winners" from making "losers" of half the population, its future is most unpromising.
The independent nation-state, by contrast, has proved its resilience, and for the foreseeable future will remain the principal engine of political change in the Western world.
Bill Moloney covers national and international politics for the America blog. His columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post and Human Events.