How Social Democratic Parties can find the Electoral ‘Sweet Spot’

By Steven Hill, Social Europe Journal, June 7, 2011

The role of political parties in a representative democracy is a complicated subject that has been analyzed for years by legions of scholars who usually have the benefit of hindsight. Yet that body of research is not always helpful to real-time political practitioners, because each election cycle is faced with new circumstances, so looking in the rearview mirror often doesn’t reveal much about what lies ahead. The challenge is to renew and reinvent political organizations for the current moment.

One significant sociological change that must be accounted for by party strategists is that people are not “joiners” as much as they used to be. Virtually all mediating institutions have seen a drop in membership and participation, whether in labor unions, political parties, sewing circles, even churches. This is a consequence of complex sociological, demographic and technological changes, of individuals having an overwhelming number of choices today for occupying their time, contributing to a more general decline in what is known as “social capital,” as documented by researchers like Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone. Any political party dependent on mobilizing labor union members, or the grassroots in general, faces a steeper climb. No party can reverse these trends, instead a party is left with learning to figure out how to surf the crest of these broader forces.

For a political party, that requires finding a delicate balance of policy nimbleness, narrative allure (i.e. how you explain the world to the public), charismatic leadership, compelling use of mass communication, grassroots organizing, and successful policies that improve or at least maintain the quality and security of people’s lives. It’s a political free market out there (at least it is in Europe’s multiparty democracies, not so much in America’s brain-dead, two party duopoly), and your “brand” has to offer something tangible to people. Finding the right mix of ingredients – finding the “sweet spot” – will be different in each country, even in regions within countries. The recent rise of nuclear power as an electoral issue in the aftermath of the Fukushima meltdown shows how quickly these political memes can pivot and gain momentum. There is no simple magical formula that applies everywhere.

Since there is no formula, there are simply too many strategic, narrative and policy options for how to win elections that can be discussed intelligently in a short article (we would have to sit down and look at each election individually and map a specific campaign strategy, which I have done in my professional life but which is beyond the scope of this article). But allow me to offer some brief thoughts about two general areas of potential opportunity for Social Democrats.

Reconnecting with citizens – but which citizens?

As Social Democrats contemplate your electoral future, it’s a good time to think about which constituencies you are trying to reach. Social Democratic parties traditionally have been allied with labor unions, but the days when significant numbers of individual’s identify primarily as “a worker” are largely gone. Most people have multiple loyalties today, some of them conflicting. For any party dependent on mobilizing labor union members this presents a real challenge. Links with trade unions certainly should be reinvigorated to whatever degree possible, but Social democratic parties need to look elsewhere for reliable constituencies.

One potential voting bloc is ethnic minorities. Social Democratic parties could benefit from working closely with ethnic minority and immigration rights advocates and organisations in Europe to mobilize those voters for elections. Like the Democratic Party did in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, Social Democratic parties could endeavor to become the “civil rights party,” the electoral advocates of equality and fairness for all. That includes introducing civil rights legislation, as well as advancing more ethnic minorities as political candidates. Doing this not only is the right thing to do for humanitarian and economic reasons, and because it will maintain and extend ‘solidarity’ as the crucial basis on which social democracy rests – but it also offers a potential pay off at the ballot box.

That’s because not only are all those minority individuals potential voters, they also are part of a growing segment of the population, whereas the white population is declining. Embrace this strategy, and these communities will vote for you for years to come. While this strategy could alienate some white voters, I have a hunch that greater swathes of the European electorate are slowly becoming more accepting of a credible integration agenda, especially as the older generation passes from the scene. And since vote margins between the center-right and center-left parties often are fairly small, mobilizing ethnic minorities as dependable voters could play a decisive role in election outcomes.

Weltanschauung and telling the “Social Democratic story”

In addition to targeting your politicking and policy agenda to certain communities, Social Democrats should pay closer attention to “big picture” narrative formation. One of the unique and important roles that political parties play is projecting an overarching Weltanschauung, or world view, that provides a description of the world to prospective voters. Competing narratives from competing parties are just as important in this regard as specific policy proposals. The world is a confusing place, and voters pay attention to cues that help them understand it and their place in it, and how to interpret new information and events. U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was much more than simply a set of policies; it was a description of the world that identified heroes (everyday people), villains (the “economic royalists” and “privileged princes”), values, an epistemology defining “what is true and false?” and finally a futurology that answered the question “where are we heading?” One of the criticisms of Chancellor Angela Merkel is that she has retrenched on Germany’s commitment to the European Union: but what is the Social Democrats’ response to that, in terms of the big picture of Europe, Germany’s future, heroes/villains, futurology/epistemology/cosmology, and the specific policy proposals that hang off that overarching vision like ornaments on a Christmas tree.

In conveying a big picture narrative, Social Democratic parties should of course deploy all the various social media and Web 2.0 tools available today, such as Facebook, Twitter, You Tube videos, wikis and blogs. You should try and involve citizens in as many levels as possible, from engaging them in constructing the party manifesto to the actual campaigns. But beyond that, one important area that has been neglected is in publicizing Social Democratic accomplishments, not only during campaigns but between elections. Allow me to explain.

For the most part Europe inhabits a social democratic world that was constructed mostly by Social Democratic parties over a period of decades. For all intents and purposes, the Christian Democrats are now social democrats, even if not Social Democrats. As proof of this, consider the fact that the European political parties of the centre right, and in many ways even the far right, are much to the left of the Democratic Party in the United States. Despite some recent reversals, the European political center is still a social democratic one.

No political party grouping on this earth has more to brag about than Social Democrats – what other party has done more to increase the quality of life of everyday people? Yet how many Europeans associate the good life they have with Social Democratic parties? Not many, I would wager. Social Democratic parties need to lay claim to your impressive legacy.

Or look at it this way. You have a product here, let’s call it Brand Social Democracy. Do you advertise your product? If not, if you don’t tell the public about your brand, then why should you expect that people in Europe will attach the achievements of social democracy to the parties of that name? Lacking clarity among the public, other parties to your left and right are claiming your legacy.

Unfortunately Social Democrats can’t rely on the media to tell your story, so you will have to do that for yourselves. One overlooked way of doing that might be to use conventional means of ‘brand communication,’ including advertising on TV and radio. Why not run TV and radio advertisements, telling Europeans about Social Democratic accomplishments? Most people today watch a lot of TV, and if you want face time with them you need to get on their TVs and into their living rooms. You also could mount letters to the editor and op-ed campaigns, schedule radio and TV interviews with Social Democrat leaders on popular media shows, and more. You should do this between elections, with the goal of this brand advertising being to show that Social Democrats have been and continue to be leaders with a demonstrated record of success. If advertising works for Volkswagen and BMW, why not for Social Democrats? We live in mass societies that have developed certain “languages” for effective communication; if you aren’t speaking those languages, you won’t be understood.

Of course, such brand marketing is not meant to replace grassroots organizing, reconnecting with labor unions or mobilizing potentially new constituencies such as ethnic minority voters. A political party today must do all of these. It must be a sophisticated organizing and communications operation capable of multitasking and promoting a big picture narrative that engages significant chunks of the public. And it also needs to be able to translate that narrative into specific policy proposals. Not an easy task, to be sure.

Social democracy is the very cornerstone of Europe, and no political party can take more credit for this legacy and achievement than the eponymous parties bearing that name. You should be boasting about it as part of your preparation for when the political pendulum swings back in your direction. Now is the time to step up proudly, into the limelight, because social democracy represents the best hope for bringing the world together around the biggest challenges we collectively face in the 21st century.