What’s Wrong With the SPD?

This is a theme I’ve visited before, but for all the complaining you hear from American liberals about the alleged political ineptitude of the Democratic Party, the evidence actually suggests to me that it’s one of the most electorally successful left-of-center political parties in the democratic world. Sweden’s Social Democrats have them clearly beat, and perhaps the Canadian Liberal Party, but beyond that the center-left’s electoral record is pretty poor.

Consider, for example, Germany. From 1949 to 1969 they had a solid 20 years of Christian Democrat Chancellors. Then there was a 13-year run of Social Democrat chancellors, followed by 16 (!) years of Helmut Kohl leading rightwing coalitions, 7 more years of SPD under Gerhard Schroder, and we’re now on year five of the Angela Merkel Era. That’s a terrible record. Is it all messaging problems? Do they have a lot to learn from America’s Democrats?

Arguably yes. But of course another way of looking at it is that despite the Social Democrats’ relative lack of electoral wins, they’ve been pretty successful at pushing Germany in the direction of leftwing economic policy ideas. Certainly they had a universal health care system before we did. And I think you see a similar story in France, the Netherlands, etc. Generous welfare states paired with electorally triumphant center-right parties. Could it be that the Democrats’ relative ideological plasticity is good for winning elections, but ultimately counterproductive for winning policy battles? Or maybe that’s the wrong issue. Maybe the real point is that continental parties of the center-right have been much more compromising than the GOP in a way that’s made them electorally dominant but pushed the status quo to the left. Or maybe the whole premise that the German policy status quo is “to the left” of America’s is a mistake—we’re more welcoming to immigrants, more multicultural, more feminist, etc.

I don’t have a strong thesis to push here beyond the idea that frustrated progressives, both in the US and Europe, should perhaps spend more time looking at our counterparts in other countries to try to better identify what it is exactly that’s frustrating us.