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As Populism Strengthens In Europe, A Future For Social Democrats Fades


The candidate of the Socialist Party, the party of French President Francois Hollande, is polling in single digits for Sunday's election far behind the top four. And the French Socialists are hardly the only center-left European party looking to lose. Most notably, Britain's Labour Party which now faces June Parliamentary elections is polling 20 points behind the conservatives. Beyond the general demise of established political parties are the ills of European social democrats unique to them. Is the future of Europe's center-left in doubt?

Well, joining us from New York is Ian Buruma, professor of human rights and journalism at Bard College who writes widely about politics and society both here and abroad. Welcome back to the program.

IAN BURUMA: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Considering the state of the British Labourites and the French Socialists, is the center-left fading in Europe?

BURUMA: Well, the problem with the British Labour Party is a little bit different from that in other countries. One of the reasons why they'll probably do very badly in the coming election is because they're actually led by a man of the old far-left. And it's not in the hands now of the sort of more moderate center-left. Hollande of course is typical of the center-left and therefore also more typical of the general decline of the social democrats on the continent of Europe.

SIEGEL: How do you describe that general decline?

BURUMA: Well, in the last election in the Netherlands, the equivalent of the Labour Party did extremely badly, were almost wiped out. Germany we don't know yet. But in general what's happening in Europe is not so different from what's happened in this country where the Democrats, even though we've had a democratic government for the last eight years - but are now doing rather badly.

SIEGEL: Those are parties where you would say people of the center-left move toward the center and conceded what was distinctive about being a party of the left.

BURUMA: In the last few decades, social democrats or parties of the center-left have moved further and further to the center and are not always easy to distinguish anymore from moderate conservatives - and this happened under Bill Clinton in the United States and Tony Blair in Britain - partly to make their parties electable partly because they'd lost a lot of their old constituency, class-based constituency in the trade unions and the old working class. That's no longer the same force that it once was on left-wing politics, and what's left of the old working class has moved to the right.

SIEGEL: Populist movements and nationalist movements typically have very easily expressed aims. Throw the establishment out, or restore the nation's lost glory. Do social democrats have similarly succinct messages of what they stand for?

BURUMA: Well, not right now. I think that is their big problem. And having lost the old class-based support, the center-left parties began to move more and more into rainbow coalitions and stressed identity and gay rights and that kind of thing. And when many people started yearning again for some sense of belonging, nationhood, national pride and that kind of thing sometimes to make up for a sense of loss, the center-left spent a lot of time denouncing racism, quite properly, but perhaps less time taking into account such feelings of nationhood and pride.

SIEGEL: Are there a - counter-trends that you see that might at least hold out ideas for social democratic parties? I mean, though, there was a victory against a far-right extremist in Austria, for example, and the German Social Democrats are polling better than they were a couple of years ago.

BURUMA: Well, we shall see in France. One thing that's been widely discussed is the potential Trump effect outside the United States. And some have argued that Trump's success here will have boosted the fortunes and the morale of the populist right in Europe. But the opposite may also be true and that people look at America and say, well, that's not what we want. And they look at the disorder, the tweets and so on in Washington and think, well, perhaps we should think again before we elect a similar type. But again, we'll see what happens in France.

SIEGEL: Ian Buruma, thank you very much for talking with us today.

BURUMA: Thank you. It's always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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