Following the recent electoral victories of Joe Biden, Olaf Scholz, Anthony Albanese and Jacinda Ardern, with further victories on the cards in Brazil and the UK, it looks like, after a period in the wilderness, social democrats are back.
This is a welcome development, but all of the incumbents (perhaps bar Albanese) are under threat. If social democracy is to become a sustainable force for good in the world again, it has to be much more focused on values than it was in the past. It needs to understand itself not just as set of pragmatic policy positions and slick communications soundbites, but as an expression of something fundamental and universal. This is vital to providing a consistent vision of social democracy beyond addressing fires left by populists and the international context.
The German SPD in particular has showed signs of embracing a values-based social democracy by framing policies such as support for a minimum wage increase in the language of respect. This is a step in the right direction, however social democratic parties must be bolder.
It’s not enough to just couch policy in the language of values, values must be central to the entire activity of the party, from its administration to the way it governs. This is vital to enable social democratic parties to face down populist sentiment authentically, and meet the challenges that are driving it be they climate change, realigning global order or rising inequality.
It is easy to say that values must be made central without going into specifics. The flexibility this affords can be politically useful, but we must recognise social democracy arises out of a specific configuration of ethical values and to these it is inextricably bound. Tentatively I suggest the following non-exhaustive list which could form the basis of social democracy: justice, equality of persons, and respect for human dignity.
There is of course a wide range of ways these values could cash out in a political programme. For example, some on the right would argue that a strong commitment to dignity implies self-reliant Robinson Crusoes individualistically running their own lives. However, it’s the combination and the way these values interact which leads to a distinctively social democratic programme with a fundamental commitment to social justice.
Politics like any act, must be done for the right reasons, and I cannot think of a better reason for promoting a policy than the justice it secures, the fundamental equality of persons it appreciates, or the respect for human dignity it promotes.
The embrace of a values-based social democracy would represent a shift from the previous incarnation of western social democracy, the third way. In particular, values-based social democracy is a move away from a more technocratic form of government which some found alienating. Whilst the same values are the starting point of values-based social democracy and third way social democracy, in the latter the emphasis was often on delivery and consensus which tended to lose sight of what gives social democracy its appeal and direction.
John Rawls argued that within the domain of political theory, abstract, idealised concepts must first be settled before turning to non-ideal theory to understand how to achieve these concepts. For example, in order to move towards a more just society, a secure concept of justice must be ascertained. By neglecting these foundational values, third way social democracy attempted to climb a mountain whilst simultaneously losing sight of why the climb was undertaken and how to reach the summit.
It should be noted that the parallel here is not perfect as the concepts Rawls has in mind are a priori ones whereas the values I am discussing may also be formed partly through experience (e.g. a concept of justice can be formed by experiences of oppression.) However, this line of thinking may nonetheless go some way to explain the rudderless state social democratic parties found themselves in post-2008 and show why a return to values is needed.
Finally, in politics how you are perceived is just as if not more important than what you actually stand for. By incorporating these values into messaging social democrats will make some headway to restoring connections with voters who felt alienated and ignored by the previously mentioned technocratic third way thinking and were swayed by populists who filled the void.
By talking in the language of values that have universal appeal as opposed to abstract measures such as GDP per capita growth, social democrats will regain the ability to speak to people’s everyday concerns by addressing what lies behind them. For example, in a conversation with a voter about my support for worker’s rights to strike for better pay and conditions I made little headway attempting to rebut arguments by appealing to economic analysis until I changed the framing of the conversation by talking in the language of human dignity, fairness, and respect.
Of course, this is not an either/or scenario. The hard graft of theoretical economic rigour cannot be ignored. My point is that exclusively talking in rather esoteric terms can strike voters as detached from the realities they face. Appealing to values evokes a stronger response from voters and can go some way to combat the perverted emotional appeals of populism.
Winning elections can only be done by rebuilding those electoral coalitions which have been chipped away at over the last decade. It is vital to make values fundamental to sustain the social democratic revival by providing the intellectual foundations to dynamically combat the challenges we face and improve lives through the vehicle of government.
For more on recent progressive electoral victories, see ‘Learning from Progressive Winners Across the Globe‘