The Decline of European Democracy

German magazine Der Spiegel has an interesting story about the current state of the European left. The story has broader implications than the magazine appears to realize – it is, in a sense, a prelude to an analysis of how Europe’s parliamentary democracy is in a state of degeneration. Decades ago, European elections were battles between ideologies; today, they are mere popularity contests between administrators of the welfare state.

More on that in a moment. First, let’s see what Der Spiegel has to say about the left. Using French President Hollande and German social-democrat leader Steinbruck as examples, the magazine makes the case that Europe’s left is having a hard time making itself relevant on the European political stage:

One year ago, the mood among Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) was one of elated optimism. In May 2012, Socialist Party candidate François Hollande won the country’s presidential elections, opening up the possibility that a right-to-left changing of the guard might be possible in Germany too. Just weeks after his victory, Hollande invited the SPD leadership to Paris to allow them to bask in his popularity.

That popularity was short-lived…

On Friday, SPD chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück is once again in Paris. But even as the general election campaign in Germany ahead of the vote this fall has begun to heat up, the mood on the Franco-German left has cooled. With Hollande’s public opinion poll scores plummeting, his country’s economy in trouble and his government mired in scandal, he looks to have very little sparkle left to lend to his cross-border political ally.

Here is one lesson to be learned: don’t promise to confiscate high-earning people’s money. But the other lesson runs much deeper and has much farther-reaching implications. When center-right governments in EU member states try to comply with the austerity measures imposed on them by the EU, they have to take the blame for the inevitably destructive results. Voters then turn to the left to find someone who will repair what austerity has broken. But due to the nature of the underlying problem – the inevitably unsustainable welfare state – the left cannot offer what voters expect. All they can do is put a different kind of band aid on big government’s bleeding wounds.

In terms of fiscal policy, this means that voters have the choice between the center-right approach to austerity, meaning government spending cuts combined with higher taxes, and the leftist approach, meaning government spending increases and much higher taxes.

Neither approach is good for the economy, which voters in, e.g., France are beginning to realize. Inevitably, this leaves voters disillusioned, which is what the European left is slowly beginning to feel.

Der Spiegel again:

Steinbrück’s campaign too seems to have reached an impasse. A new poll in Germany indicates that, were Germans able to vote directly for candidates (rather than for political parties), only one in four would cast their ballot for Steinbrück, against 60 percent for Chancellor Angela Merkel. Furthermore, only 32 percent approve of the job he is doing, his lowest such score since he entered federal politics in 2005, according to a survey released on Thursday evening by German public broadcaster ARD. Taken together, the travails facing the two politicians [Hollande and Steinbruck] amounts to a fading of hopes, particularly among euro-zone member states struggling under the ongoing euro crisis, that Hollande’s election would mark a resurgence of the European left — and an end to Merkel’s austerity-first approach to the common currency’s woes.

Right on the nail. The left has nothing to offer as an alternative. They want to preserve the welfare state even more than their center-right competitors, which means that they have to be even more destructive in their policies to defend it. In the end, voters see no difference between the two alternatives.

Case in point: it was the social democrat party in Sweden that in the ’90s implemented the most destructive austerity plan since the Weimar Republic. They cut away nine percent of GDP over three years, effectively injecting annual doses of a fiscal venom that until the current Greek crisis started was unsurpassed in terms of macroeconomic lethality.

Since then it is virtually impossible to distinguish between the center-right coalition currently governing Sweden and the social-democrat led leftist coalition. Voters looking for a break from austerity turn their backs on whoever is “the alternative”. For the most part that has been a center-right government in Europe over the past few years; when voters look at “the alternative” and see nothing but a bleak copy of what they are already stuck with, they see no reason to change team.

Der Spiegel elaborates on this point:

Steinbrück … said that a successful Hollande is in Germany’s interest so that the Franco-German partnership can once again take up its traditional role as the motor of Europe. But even the SPD has become concerned about identifying itself too closely with Hollande. … Steinbrück and his party are beginning to see Hollande more as a risk than a potential boon in the run up to the German vote. … Hollande himself appears to have had little luck in proving himself as an effective crisis manager. His administration has been unable to meet deficit reduction targets, many analysts believe that France could become the next euro-crisis hotspot and unemployment in the country has risen close to record levels in recent months.

The root cause of the left’s problem is actually not in their own domain. It has to do with the fact that Europe’s conservatives have abandoned the principles of limited government and individual and economic freedom. Instead they have adopted the welfare state and decided to save it at any cost.

It is worth noting that Germany’s conservative chancellor Angela Merkel is one of the leaders of the pan-European austerity crusade. Her goal is to save the welfare state. Her policy strategy is different in form from what the left wants, but at the end of the day the result is the same. It really would not have been better or worse for Greece to have raised taxes enough to both close the budget deficit and increase government spending.

The left created the welfare state. Despite such political giants as Margaret Thatcher, they won the ideological battle over it. The welfare state is still standing, and Europe’s conservatives have embraced it. Whether they did it for tactical purposes – in some welfare states half of the population can’t make it through the month without tax-paid entitlements – or because they have given up on conservatism is really not that relevant. What matters is that parliamentary democracy has gone through a process of degeneration. Thanks to the conservative capitulation at the altar of the welfare state, the choices in European elections have been decimated to selecting those for power whose policies to defend the welfare state will be least painful for the public.

Since the center-right seems to be better at that, the left is the victim of its own political victory.